Kenny Chesney Earns Honorary Doctorate Degree During Surprise Visit To His Alma Mater, East Tennessee State University 

Kenny Chesney; Photo Courtesy of ETSU
Kenny Chesney; Photo Courtesy of ETSU
Kenny Chesney; Photo Courtesy of ETSU

Country superstar Kenny Chesney recently paid a visit to East Tennessee State University (ETSU) during the homecoming celebration. He returned to his alma mater with the intention of helping honor the founder of the school’s Bluegrass, Old-Time and Roots Music Studies Program, Jack Tottle, and not only did he successfully surprise those in attendance, but he also left with the new title, Dr. Kenny Chesney. 

The singer/songwriter took to social media to share a series of photos from the celebratory night, showing his excitement to be reunited with the renowned program creator that served as a mentor throughout his time at the university.

“I am now a Doctor. Last night was so special. I would like to thank Dr. Brian Noland, the Board of Trustees, and the faculty and staff at East Tennessee State University for giving me an Honorary Doctorate,” he wrote in the caption. “I was also able to reconnect with the man who taught me how to play guitar when I was in college, Dr. Jack Tottle, and also spend some time with the current @ETSU bluegrass band. It felt so great to be back.”

Chesney graduated from ETSU in 1990 and during his time there, he studied under Tottle, who started the internationally-acclaimed music program as a way to inspire young musicians. This program celebrated its 40th Anniversary as part of Homecoming Weekend.

Kenny Chesney is presented with an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters by ETSU Provost Kimberly McCorkle and President Brian Noland ; Photo Courtesy of ETSU 3
Kenny Chesney is presented with an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters by ETSU Provost Kimberly McCorkle and President Brian Noland ; Photo Courtesy of ETSU 3

“Jack Tottle taught me how to dream, or inspired me to have the ability to dream enough to believe I could do this,” Chesney said of Tottle. “He showed me that music could make connections beyond what we see, that it could communicate beyond language or location. He took us – the ETSU Bluegrass Band – to Russia as part of a cultural exchange and made that idea real.” 

Chesney was welcomed to the stage by President Brian Noland midway through the evening. At that time, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters by President Noland and Provost Kimberly McCorkle.

Kenny Chesney joins ETSU President Brian Noland (R) to honor Dr. Jack Tottle (L); Photo Courtesy of ETSU
Kenny Chesney joins ETSU President Brian Noland (R) to honor Dr. Jack Tottle (L); Photo Courtesy of ETSU

The president gushed about Chesney’s accomplishments as an alumnus as he said, “He is a paradigm-shifting artist who helped define country music in the 21st Century, selling out stadiums across the world… He is an inspiration, reminding the world — through his art and the example he sets — to live life with joy, humor, passion, and soul.”

“Here at ETSU, we have issued a challenge to our faculty, staff and students to ‘go beyond.’ Mr. Chesney, soon to be Dr. Chesney, you exemplify that ideal. You have gone beyond genres, unifying people through your art and your work. You have gone beyond borders, sharing your amazing talent all over the world. And you have gone beyond yourself, using your voice to uplift others and give back to communities,” he added.

The “American Kids” signer was clearly moved by the honor he received and the encouraging words being shared of him. In return, he made it a point to express how much the program, region and especially the experiences in the choir, Bluegrass band and playing the local bars shaped his mindset on music. 

In his acceptance speech, Chesney joked that he was going to make his road family refer to him as “Dr. Chesney” from now on, and even surprised the crowd by reciting the Quadratic Formula as proof that he paid attention in class.

“To say I wouldn’t dream this is an understatement,” Chesney said. “I was spending most of my time at Chucky’s Trading Post, the Downhome, Quarterback’s BBQ, and in the rooms at the music building, practicing my guitar. All I wanted was to get a song on the radio, write some things I could be proud of, and get out on the road and have some fun.”

He added, “My tour manager and a couple of my friends from back here are still out there with me, but I don’t think any of us would’ve seen this coming. But that’s why no matter what you dream, you have to just keep dreaming and believing.”

Kenny Chesney; Photo Courtesy of ETSU
Kenny Chesney; Photo Courtesy of ETSU

Later on in the evening, the East Tennessee native was once again welcomed to the stage to take part in the presentation to Tottle, who is considered to not only be a global expert on bluegrass and roots music, but also a historian, a journalist and a musician. 

“When I was just beginning to really get serious, Jack Tottle was 10 years into this incredible program that focused on the region’s musical roots,” Chesney shared on the program founder’s impact. “He welcomed me, taught me a lot about songs, being in bands and what this music is made of. He took a bunch of us kids – several went on to play with Alison Krauss and Union Station – to Russia as part of a cultural exchange, teaching us how music builds a bridge places you can’t imagine.”

With that, Chesney joined President Boland in helping present Tottle’s own honorary doctorate degree.

“So, it was my honor to honor Jack this way. He showed an East Tennessee kid the power of what music can do; and for me, it sure did.”

After the presentation, President Noland told the assembled, “The stories and memories shared by Kenny Chesney represent the sort of impact a professor and mentor like Jack Tottle can have on a student. The mission of this university is to improve the quality of life for the people of our region and beyond. That happens in all sorts of ways. One of the ways ETSU goes beyond expectations is the way in which our faculty work with and support students. Jack Tottle epitomizes that important tradition.”

The four-time CMA and four-time consecutive ACM Entertainer of the Year credited the university for giving him the tools he needed to go on and develop a successful career in the music industry. 

Kenny Chesney; Photo by Catherine Powell
Kenny Chesney; Photo by Catherine Powell

“A doghouse bass you don’t see every day,” Chesney shared. “And some of the very best banjo and mandolin players are all here, all doing the same thing I am: honoring Jack – now Doctor Jack – Tottle. To show the current students and young people who’re coming up not just what can happen, or what excellence is, but how much joy music can give you? To me, that’s worth everything I learned here.”

Kenny Chesney recently wrapped up his 2022 headlining Here And Now Tour, which featured support from Carly Pearce, Dan + Shay and Old Dominion. His next set of shows has yet to be announced. 

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