HONKY-TONK HOMECOMING

After two years without a record deal, Mark Chesnutt has a new hit single, the honky-tonk album he's waited 14 years to make and the blessing of one of his musical heroes.

It's 2:15 in the morning and Mark Chestnutt is slumped on a seat in the lounge of his bus, his cowboy hat pulled low over his face as he and his band travel through the night to a show in Alabama. Mark's just finished a standing-room-only performance at Nashville's Wildhorse Saloon and is listening to his new Savin' the Honky Tonk CD.

"I'm so tired," Mark admits quietly, to no one in particular. "I need to go back there and just crash. But I love this new album so much, I just can't make myself leave."

The new album is vintage Mark Chesnutt, in the tradition of the 8 No. 1s and 12 additional Top 10 hits he started accumulating in the early '90s with his debut hit, "Too Cold at Home," and his first charttopper, "Brother Jukebox." Other Chesnutt classics that spiced up the country airwaves over the past decade include "Old Flames Have New Names," "I'll Think of Something" and "It's a Little Too Late." At a listening party for Savin' earlier in the week, Mark made it known that this album's been a long time coming - 14 years to be exact. It's the first time since 1990 that he's had creative control over the entire project, including the selection of its 15 hard-core cheatin' and drinkin' tunes in the vein his recent hit, "The Lord Loves the Drinkin' Man."

Mark had been without a label since corporate changes at Sony - a label Mark says he was on "for about five minutes" - left him high and dry in 2002. And, having recently hit the big 4-0, Mark knew this was a critical time in his career.

"I always knew I wasn't finished," he declares. "And turnin' 40, I always had in the back of my mind, well Willie Nelson was 40 before his career kicked into gear.

"But I had a little bit of doubt. Maybe radio ain't gonna want to play my music anymore. Maybe I'm too old for the fans."

Mark needn't have worried. Radio and the fans have embraced "Drinkin' Man" in a big way. But he had to go to Vivaton, a young independent label, to find executives who'd step up to the plate and let him make the record he wanted to make. "Vivaton loved it," he exclaims. "After they listened to it, one of the promotion people stood up and said, 'I can sell that!' And, by God, they have. They've gotten it played."

If the reaction of the stadium crowd in Hamilton, Ala., is any indication, the label knew what it was doing. The show is a welcome-home party for the Alabama National Guard's 877th Engineering Battalion, which left for Iraq in March of 2003 and served a little over a year. Mark rocks the place into the night, and "Drinkin'," along with the politically incorrect "Beer, Bait and Ammo" - both songs from the album were written by one of Mark's favorite artists, Texan Kevin Fowler - is one of the show's highlights.

Even after the stadium lights come on, Mark signs autographs 'til the last person gets one. He's gratified by the fans' response to his new music, but he's especially happy with the feedback he's gotten from one of his heroes - and the kudos he knows he'd get from another, if he could.

"Aw, he'd love it," smiles Mark when asked what his late father, Bob, also a singer, would think of his new album. "This is the kinda stuff that he loved - real country music."

The same could be said of hero George Jones, although there was a time when Mark heard that George was disappointed in him. "When I recorded 'I Don't Want to Miss a Thing,' "Mark says with a grin, "I heard it aggravated George a little because it wasn't as country as I had been doing. So when I recorded the first four songs for this album, I had a copy sent over to him. I wanted him to hear 'Since You Ain't Home' in particular.

"The next time I saw him was on Music Row. I saw his wife, Nancy, in the parking lot and she said, 'George is in there recording.'

"I said, 'Well, did he hear that song I sent over?'

"She said, 'Yeah he did. And he said, "My boy's back!"'

"It made my hair stand up to hear that."

That was enough good news to make Mark's day, but he wouldn't mind something a little more tangible. "If I get a gold album before the end of the year," he proclaims with a grin, "that would make my year. That would be quick, but it's possible."

And somewhat necessary, considering the timing of his sons' birthdays. "Cameron turns 6 in November, and Waylon and Casey's birthdays are in December. So November and December, money's a little tight around the Chesnutt house! "So I need a gold record!" laughs Mark. CW

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