Having worked his way up as an opener for George Strait and Tim McGraw to become an amphitheater headliner on his own, Kenny Chesney made a bold move in the summer of 2005.
He declared himself a stadium headliner for the Somewhere in the Sun Tour, starting modestly with three football fields, including our own Heinz Field.
There was nothing modest about the turnout. He blew away the record for biggest country concert ever in New England and then did the same in Pittsburgh, topping Mr. Strait's 1999 record of 47,000 at Three Rivers Stadium to play to more than 50,000 in the Steelers' new home.
In recent years, it has become a summer tradition, and now the 45-year-old country star from Knoxville, Tenn., rolls his caravan into Heinz Field Saturday for the seventh time in nine years with the No Shoes Nation Tour.
More than Springsteen, more than U2, more than any other stadium act, including perhaps the old Grateful Dead shows, Mr. Chesney and his fans have turned into it a weekend event with tailgate parties and a boat fest on the three rivers. People even come down to hang out with no intention of going into the show.
The scene is so festive, he used Heinz Field in the opening of the concert film "Kenny Chesney: Summer in 3D," documenting the Sun City Carnival Tour.
"It's always been a very special night," he told us when it came out. "It was important for me to capture the energy of that stadium and energy of the people, of the boats on the river."
Although he played high school football in Tennessee and his loyalties would be with those state teams, he has been willing to embrace other logos on his stadium campaigns. In 2007, Tennessee Volunteers fans were upset when he wore a rival Florida Gators helmet briefly during a show. On this tour, he was seen at a Seattle Seahawks practice with a green-and-blue helmet. Understandable.
There's also some Steelers love. The Rooney family showed their gratitude last year for him playing their house with a special gift that he displayed to fans.
"The Rooney family gave me this big cast-iron sign to commemorate my six sold-out shows [in Pittsburgh] and their six Super Bowl trophies ... that was one of the nicest things anybody has ever done for me," he said in a statement, adding, "Pittsburgh always has had a special place in my heart."
This will be the second straight year that Mr. Chesney turns up with a new album. In May, he topped the Billboard Top 200 for the seventh time with his 16th record, "Life on a Rock," led by a single, "Pirate Flag," that should fly well with Pittsburgh rowdies this weekend. Once again, he strays from the strict country format for a calypso tune, "Coconut Tree," with Willie Nelson, and a reggae song, "Spread the Love," with the Wailers. He keeps the reggae vibe going with the island folk tribute "Marley."
Much of it is more reflective, less anthemic and unlikely to crack the stadium set list alongside "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy," "Beer in Mexico," "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem" and other hits.
"It's a little surreal," he said in a statement. "I did this almost as an act of faith, a belief in songwriting and capturing real life. Many of these songs I carried around in a notebook in my backpack -- and wrote the music later. Some of them are 6, 7 years old. And when they started to come together as a song cycle, I didn't know if I was crazy, or if this was the right thing to do."
He at least acted surprised that it topped the charts.
"The idea that it debuted at No. 1?" he said. "Well, that tells me people, music fans care about songwriting and what you share ... about looking back and moving on, something more than just partying and having a good time. So, in some ways, this [Top 200 debut] means as much to me or more."
Once again, Mr, Chesney doesn't have to carry the full load on this tour. In fact, he'll get a run for his money from Eric Church, a gritty country-rocker from North Carolina who can pour on the drinkin' songs and top it off with his smart, breakout hit "Springsteen." From Texas comes the Eli Young Band, led not by Eli Young but Mark Eli and James Young, who have scored hits with "Crazy Girl" and "Even If It Breaks Your Heart." And in the opening slot is Kacey Musgraves, one of the shooting stars on the Nashville scene.
"I think this is one of the best packages we've had," Mr. Chesney said. "It's very progressive, very music and very much about connecting with the fans."
Like Jacci McElheny, a registered nurse from Mars.
She first saw him in 2003 when she was 14 and has seen every show since then. She even went to see him in Hershey for Farm Aid in September and in Las Vegas at the Hard Rock in April for one of his first concerts of this tour. She'll be in the sandbar seats for the Heinz Field show.
"Kenny never disappoints and always puts on one hell of a show," she says. "One of my favorite memories has to be from the show in Las Vegas. There was a lady who was FaceTiming on her iPhone, and Kenny saw what she was doing and actually took her phone and talked to the girl on the phone! I was so jealous!"
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg. First Published June 20, 2013 4:00 AM