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From George To 'Jesse'

Kevin Denney had given up on his dreams of being a singer - but then he saw George Strait. After playing in a bluegrass group for several years, 17-year-old Kevin was beginning to think he ought to consider a profession more stable than music. Then he and his girlfriend traveled more than 100 miles from his hometown of Monticello, Ky., to Lexington to see George's show.

"I was thinking maybe I needed to go to college or something," recalls Kevin. "But I went to that concert and fell back in love with music. I got serious about it then."

Kevin scrapped any notions about college and threw himself into country music - and now he can see his hit, "That's Just Jesse," on the charts alongside George's latest.

That's something Kevin could only dream of back in Monticello, where he grew up in a musical family. He learned to play guitar and banjo very early, and by 13 had joined his cousin's bluegrass band. "They were twice my age," he notes with a chuckle.

But after the George experience, it was straight-ahead country for Kevin. After a couple of years playing clubs, he made the move to Nashville in March 1998, when he was 20. At first he worked as a maintenance man at his apartment complex, then moved on to his first big-time professional music gig: selling T-shirts and other merchandise on Lorrie Morgan's tour. "That was a learning experience," he chuckles.

Kevin soon began writing songs full-time, but it was only when he met songwriter Leigh Reynolds - known for his work with Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire - that his career really got rolling. Leigh produced Kevin's demo tape, which caught the ear of Lyric Street Records, which eventually signed him.

Now Kevin, who made his Grand Ole Opry debut in December, is awaiting the planned March release of his self-titled debut album. He's also looking for spare moments to spend with wife Amber, whom he married in August. The two met after one of Kevin's shows.

"I saw her in the crowd, and fell in love with her," he confesses. "It was kind of weird - she was asking about me and I was asking about her, and that's how we got to know each other."

Kevin reports that Amber is very patient about putting up with the demands placed on a rising star. "I haven't been home much lately, but she understands everything," he says. "I married over my head. I'm a pretty lucky guy."

- Chris Neal