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Kenny Chesney Remembers Eddie Van Halen: Raw Talent, Hard Work + Friendship

Country star reflects on his friendship with the late guitar legend

The first time I heard Van Halen was in my friend David Farmer’s garage. We’d had football practice, and I went over to his house after. His uncle was playing this music I’d never heard before, and I remember thinking, ‘What IS this?’

It made me want to move. It made me curious. It made the blood go through my veins a little quicker — and want to know more about where it came from.

At my house, we’d heard a lot of country music, and whatever my mom and Aunt Sharon were listening to. But this was something very different. The tone of Eddie’s guitar, the way he played… the way the whole band played. It hit a sweet spot in me that never left.

I didn’t know that I’d grow up and make music for a living, but I knew whatever I did, this would be part of it. Raw talent and hard work built it. They’d played backyards and parking lot parties, local bars. There was no social media, just word of mouth and because it was such a gift he’d been given, anyone who heard it couldn’t believe the way he played.

As a kid in East Tennessee, I got so fired up and hungry for more of the way he played, knowing music could sound like that, could make you feel like that. It’s always been something that’s driven me as I’ve been on stages, trying to connect.

And it’s funny. I first met Eddie and Alex when they showed up at 6 pm on my bus at the L.A. soccer stadium. We’d been talking for three years, but had never met.

Irving Azoff asked me, “Is it alright for Eddie Van Halen to give you a call?…” I said, “Of course.”A little while later, I looked at my phone, saw the 818 area code, and thought, ‘THAT’s Eddie Van Halen.’ I picked it up, and we just started laughing and cutting up like we’d known each other forever. We talked about touring life and music and living in L.A. – and we talked a couple of times every year since.

So when he asked if it was okay to come to a show, I told him, “You can’t come unless you’re willing to work…” He said, “It’ll be an honor to get up and play with you and your guys.”

I told him, “Don’t worry, my band and crew know every lick.” Honestly, I don’t think we even had a soundcheck. They just walked out with us, Alex got on Shaun Paddock’s drum kit, Eddie plugged in – and we did “Jump” and the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” from their first album.

Zeke in my crew was one of Eddie’s guitar techs. Ed Wannebo, my production manager, was their guy for years. Clayton, my guitarist… Eddie is his guy. He spent years in his apartment learning every single note. But that’s how much the music meant.

When we introduced them, they brought so much love and so much passion out on that stage, that carries over to everything we do. I mean, to look over – and there’s Eddie Van Halen, just playing like crazy, giving it up like it’s their show and Alex hitting so hard. That East Tennessee kid… it was just surreal and awesome.

And Eddie and Alex came so early and were so generous with their time. They hung out with all my guys backstage. We were a safe place, and they were in their element. Eddie knew he was among friends, people he knew – and they just hung out like they were part of us. You know, that’s when you know people are special: when they just wanna hang with the band and the crew.

Today, I got in my truck and I drove all over, listening to Diver Down. It’s been a long time since I just listened to top-to-bottom, and it still gives me that same rush. The intro of “Cathedral,” it just… and “Happy Trails,” we used to play that for people to walk out to. You know, the show is over, but you don’t want to leave people in just silence. So, that was the perfect ending. Who knows? It just might happen again…