Mark Chesnutt talks Hag, Waylon and Jones before Crawfish Fest show

Mark Chesnutt returns to Biloxi with a Friday show at the Crawfish Music Festival.
Mark Chesnutt returns to Biloxi with a Friday show at the Crawfish Music Festival. Courtesy

Mark Chesnutt has never stopped playing country music. He’s on the road for more than 100 days a year, performing the style of country he grew up listening to, many times with his longtime friend Joe Diffe by his side.

Diffie and Chesnutt will be at the Crawfish Music Festival on Friday at the Coast Coliseum. Gates for the show will open at 5 p.m. Tickets start at $12 and are available at Ticketmaster.com.

Chesnutt grew up the son of a music fan/musician in Beaumont, Texas, where he still calls home. He rose to the top of the country music scene in 1990 with his hit “Too Cold at Home.” He racked up 14 No. 1 hits, including a cover the Dianne Warren–penned Aerosmith hit, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” And although “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” was at the top of the charts for four weeks, it would be Chesnutt’s last No. 1 song.

In an interview with the Sun Herald, he discusses why he loves being an independent country artist and how one of his mentors, the late great Waylon Jennings, talked him into covering the Aerosmith song.

Q: You’ve obviously played in Biloxi several times over the years. Do you enjoy playing on the Coast?

A: I love it down there. I still live in Beaumont, so it’s not all that far from me. Any time I can get near the water, we love it. I’ve been to Biloxi since my career started. We’ve even played the Crawfish Music Festival before.

Q: Do you remember the first thing you saw or heard that made you want to play music?

A: Yeah, my daddy was the one that started all of it. He was really into music. When he wasn’t working, he was home writing music and singing songs upstairs in his music room. He tried to make a career out of it. If he wasn’t singing, the radio was playing or records were playing. He would be playing country records and my brother would be playing rock ’n’ roll records. I had it all.

Q: Did you grow up listening to Merle Haggard?

A: Mommy and Daddy loved “Hee Haw” and all of the singers would be on there — we watched it every Saturday. We never missed it. Mommy and Daddy were always playing records by Merle Haggard and George Jones and Conway Twitty — you name them, they were playing them. I was exposed to all of that stuff since I was just a baby.

Q: Did you ever do any shows with Merle?

A: Yeah, I did several. I started touring in 1990 — I left the honky tonks of Beaumont and started traveling. Along the way I did shows with George Jones and Merle Haggard and Conway and all of my heroes. I did several with George Jones and Merle Haggard.

I got to talk (to Haggard) and meet him and since I sang his kind of music, he was very easy to approach. In the early 2000s, we were doing a tour through California, and we had a night off and my publicist called and she asked me if we would like to go up to Merle Haggard’s house because we were near it. He invited us all up to his ranch. He was up there with his band, practicing.

We got directions, and I drove a van up there. We went out to his studio and we got a free concert. We got to watch him play. He played for a couple of hours, playing his old songs and telling us how he wrote them. It was the ultimate dream come true. I was watching my hero I grew up worshipping play right in front of me. It was amazing.

Q: I’ve always been a fan of “It’s Not Over (If I’m Not Over You)” which you did with Vince Gill. Can you tell me about recording it?

A: My producer at the time, Mark Wright, brought it to me. I remember hearing Verne Gosdin singing the demo. I loved the song. Mark Wright kept saying, “Don’t sing it like Verne Gosdin.” Finally, they let me go and I did it how I wanted to sing it. After we put the vocals down, Mark asked me what I thought about getting Vince to sing on it. I said, “Hell, yeah, if he’ll do it.” Man, I love it. To this day, I listen to it and hearing Vince sing on the chorus like that, it’s real cool.

Q: You had a huge hit with “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” How did you come across that song?

A: We were cutting a record and Mark Wright said that we needed a power ballad. Mark called me and asked if I had heard the Aerosmith song and I told him of course I had. Everybody in the world has heard that song. It was a big hit record. First of all, I’m a huge Aersomith fan; I always have been. When they came out with “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” I thought it sounded different, even for them. I thought it was a weird song for Aerosmith, but Mark said we should do a country version of it. I was totally against it. I did not want to do it. I thought people didn’t want to hear me covering pop hits.

I called my old buddy Waylon Jennings about it because we were talking on the phone pretty regularly back then. I knew Waylon would give me an honest opinion. I wasn’t going to call George Jones because I knew he would have said, “Don’t cut that s---.” Waylon was a little more open-minded about music. He said, “You want to keep your record deal, don’t you? I tell you what, go in and track it and when you get ready to do the vocals, I’ll come down to the studio. I think you can sing that song.”

Sure enough, he came to the studio. I had a tough time singing the vocals because all I heard was Steven Tyler, and I knew there was no way in hell I could sing like him. Waylon kept telling me to quit listening to Steven Tyler. So, we did it about three or four times and we finally hooked it.

It came out as a single and it immediately went to No. 1. But they didn’t put the album out until the song had fallen off the charts. I kept telling them to put the album out while the single was hot but they wouldn’t listen to me. I was in the music industry and I knew that timing was everything. They were really surprised when the album didn’t sell well. It was a good radio song, but my core audience didn’t like it all. They thought I was selling out. Of course, George Jones hated it. The single sold well, but there’s not a lot of money in that. That’s one of the reasons I left MCA Records — because they wanted me to cover another pop song. I knew it was time to get off that thing before it derailed. It’s not what I wanted to do. Can you believe they wanted me to cut another pop single?

I love being an independent artist because I don’t have executives at record labels telling me what to sing and if I don’t sing what they want me to, they are going to boot me to the back. If I had kept on covering pop songs, my career would have been over because the record label would get rid of you if you weren’t selling. But thank God digital came around. I’m still selling my music digitally and I’m still getting royalties from my music.

If you go

What: Mark Chesnutt and Joe Diffie

Where: Crawfish Music Festival at Coast Coliseum at 2350 Beach Blvd. in Biloxi

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Tickets: Start at $4 and are available at Tickemaster.com.