Kenny Chesney concert about much more than music

Chris Togneri
| Saturday, June 22, 2013, 11:46 a.m.

This is bigger than Kenny Chesney.

The annual North Shore gathering of tens of thousands of revelers is more than a celebration of a country music artist who refuses to buy shirts with sleeves and who sings about small towns, beachscapes and moonshine.

No, this is a rally. It's a convention of likeminded individuals who – as humans have done for generations – seek out others like them.

“Music is essentially a social phenomenon. It's not something we listen to, per se, it's something we do,” said Rich Randall, an assistant professor of music and director of The Music Cognition Lab at Carnegie Mellon University.

“When people go to shows, they're not necessarily going to see a specific artist; it's more that they'll be in an environment where their values are going to be reinforced,” he said. “Music creates a sense of community. It allows us to express emotions in a direct way without using words. It also allows us to express values as a group.”

Chesney rolled into town on Saturday for what has become an annual appearance since 2005, attracting thousands of fans who partied in parking lots and on boats nestled against the Allegheny River's north shore and who endured traffic jams and heat that neared 90.

What values did the Chesney crowd express? A stroll through the pre-concert festivities provides an array of answers.

Some might see a lesson in overindulgence, evidenced by the scores of passed-out co-eds and that man in the lawn chair who threw up on himself hours before showtime. Others will find an innocent celebration of the start of summer, embodied by the small children leaping barefoot from the river walk into the Ohio River.

But ask concertgoers their opinion and a theme emerges: Patriotism.

“It's about America, dude,” said Jeff Butterworth, 29, of Dormont. “Drink your beers, shoot your guns – I don't care. Just be patriotic.”

Witness Troy Sustich, 26, of Bethel Park, who didn't even go to the show, but said he wouldn't miss being a part of the bigger scene outside Heinz Field. For the occasion, Sustich dressed himself in a T-shirt, bandana and sunglasses, all bearing the American flag.

“You can't do this in any other country,” Sustich said. “In no other country would you have all these people uniting like this. We're celebrating America.”

Celebrants come from all walks of life.

“I know accountants and attorneys who go, and I know regular workers, guys that work on roads, who go,” said Rich Engler, a Pittsburgh concert promoter for more than 40 years. “Chesney has the demographics that everybody kind of wants – he pulls them all in.”

Despite their differences, fans share many traits.

Everyone seemed to know the dress code. Women wore jean shorts and tight, revealing T-shirts or bikini tops, as if they were a uniform. Most men went shirtless, and those who didn't were mindful to tear off their sleeves. Cowboy hats were ubiquitous. Footwear appeared limited to two options: flip-flops or cowboy boots.

It's all evidence that Chesney has fallen into that select group of acts that transcend their music and create a subculture, said Deane Root, professor of music and director of the Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh. The Grateful Dead got there, as did Jimmy Buffet and even Frank Sinatra, he said.

“For whatever reason, it's not only the music, but the lifestyle,” Root said. “In some ways, the music making becomes an excuse to live this lifestyle.”

And it's a social phenomenon that's been around for decades. In the late 1800s, Root said, orchestral conductor Theodore Thomas led weekend concerts in New York's Central Park. Scores of people attended. They brought food, sat in the park all day, drank wine and beer – only after several hours had passed would they listen to the concert.

“People made a whole lifestyle out of it,” Root said.

He speculated that the Chesney crowd would be primarily white American (he was right), middle class (inconclusive) and sharing a desire to “celebrate their roots in America, their ties to the land, a place where you can take charge of life and values and not be pushed around.” (Spot on.)

But Joanne Carstetter, 70, of Lower Burrell took a different view. Shortly before the concert, she sat with her husband, Richard, 67, near the Fred Rogers statue and gazed down at the mass of boats and swimmers. Music blared from speakers and geese flocked to children tossing bread into the waves. People sang, took photos and tossed beers to friends and strangers.

“It's just people having fun, taking the time to be together,” she said. “Most times, we don't do that, we don't have the time to be together. Today we do.”

Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or

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