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Coming off a blockbuster tour KENNY CHESNEY shares a work ethic - and a stage - with one of his musical heroes

Most singers dream of one day sharing the stage with their musical idols. For Kenny Chesney, that dream recently came true.

He and singer/songwriter John Mellencamp traded their hits on an episode of the upcoming CMT Crossroads series, debuting Oct. 3.

"This is one of those pinch-yourself moments," reveals Kenny during a break in rehearsing the show at a theater next to Nashville's Grand Ole Opry House. "When I first started playing music I sang a lot of Mellencamp songs. I was in college in a fraternity house singing 'Jack and Diane' and 'Pink Houses' and 'Hurts So Good.' When I started playing the bars, I'd do his songs then, too. Now singing those songs with him and his band is a really neat experience."

Rehearsing with Mellencamp, Kenny's face reveals a mixture of pure joy and disbelief at his good fortune. "There have been a couple of these 'I can't believe I'm here' moments this year," he notes. "Like when I sang with Jimmy Buffett onstage, and with Willie Nelson. There are moments when you have to just kind of step back, take a deep breath and realize what's happening to you and how cool it is."

Lately Kenny's life has been full of cool moments. The small-town boy from the tiny Tennessee town of Luttrell was this year's top-grossing touring country artist, bringing home $24 million. He won the ACM's Top Male Vocalist award. And most recently he was nominated for two CMAs, for Male Vocalist and Entertainer of the Year. He's also awaiting the Oct. 7 release of his Christmas album, All I Want for Christmas Is a Real Good Tan.

So how does Kenny plan on finishing out 2003?

"I'm going to retire for two months," he jokes, "and then make a comeback next year!"

He grins. "I'm going to take a much-needed break. I'm going to hang out in the Caribbean a little bit, go over to East Tennessee and get reacquainted with my family. I'm going to go see [former University of Tennessee and current Indiana Colts quarterback] Peyton [Manning] play in Indianapolis, and try to go to a couple of University of Tennessee games and Titans games. I'm just going to try to be normal."

But it's hard to be normal when one of your heroes is jamming with you backstage at your own CMT special. "We just started writing a song!" beams Kenny at one point, emerging excitedly from John's dressing room. The backstage area is teeming with production folks, managers, publicists and various media. Kenny and John head back to the rehearsal stage.

As John's band slams through his 1985 pop hit, "Small Town," he and Kenny stand side-by-side at their mics, trading off the song's lyrics about the joys of living in a less-hurried, less-stressful place outside the bustle of a big city. It's a theme that resonates equally with both singers.

"I was talking with one of John's band members earlier," notes Kenny, "and he goes, 'You know what? We're all country. We all grew up in Indiana.' And I grew up in Tennessee. We have very similar backgrounds. We grew up in the country, in a place that wasn't that big. A place where you knew everybody. A place where music was a very important thing in our lives. Sometimes that's all we had to do - listen to music, or learn how to play it.

"I think there's some commonality there with me and John. We grew up very similarly. We write and sing about some of the same things."

Indeed, if John was a country artist, there's a very good chance you might have heard his voice instead of Kenny's on "Back Where I Come From." "He told me, 'I could've recorded this,' says Kenny proudly. "And 'Young' is very much a Mellencamp-feel song, too.

I think when you're in high school really getting into music, if you grow up to be a music star, what comes out of you as an artist is what came into you as a kid. So if 'Young' sounds like a Mellencamp song, then I come by it honest. Along with George Jones and Hank Jr. and George Strait and Randy Travis, I also listened to Tom Petty and John Mellencamp. A lot of that stuff comes out in my music."

As Kenny comes offstage and waits for the actual show's filming to begin, he reflects on the lyrics of John's "Small Town" and realizes just how much his own small hometown prepared him for the life he now enjoys.

"The way I was brought up," confesses Kenny, "nothing was ever given to me. We worked for everything we got. I think I took some of that mentality into my career. Because nothing is ever given to you in the music business - you've gotta take it."

As Kenny readies himself for a much-deserved break this fall, he knows that the high-decibel memories of his past big year won't stop rattling around his head anytime soon.

"I'm going to wait for the ringing to get out of my ears at night. It's amazing - I usually go to sleep with ringing in my ears," he says.

"But it's a good ring - it's the ring of my ear monitors, the music, the fans. It's awesome."

Story by Wendy Newcomer