It’s vacation season, mid-August. A light breeze off Lake Chelan wafts over Manson, where Chance McKinney and his band Crosswire prepare to open for country music star Dierks Bentley at the Mill Bay Casino.
For McKinney ’94, ’96—an all-American javelin thrower at Washington State University, former high school math teacher, songwriter, and country music artist—it’s a working day. “We don’t have a full team like these artists that are coming out of Nashville. It’s running a small business,” he says.
McKinney wears a baseball cap, t-shirt and jeans, and his rich voice and country-boy good looks have an edge of exhaustion from days, weeks, and months on the road.
He’s been touring extensively since 2009, when he won Country Music Television’s “Music City Madness” contest. He barely made it into the contest, in which viewers pick their favorite original song in a tournament-style elimination, submitting his video for “Be Real” with minutes to spare before the deadline.
Since then, McKinney has opened for country stars Blake Shelton, Kenny Rogers, Dwight Yoakam, Taylor Swift, and others. Explaining his appeal, McKinney laughs, “When you’re trying to sell out venues, I can reach fans.” McKinney’s followers often buy up presale tickets through his website or Facebook. “My music touches the same people as these big acts that are way more popular than me.”
Backstage at the new Deep Water Amphitheater, McKinney and his band quickly set up, do a sound check, and prepare for the show. McKinney bounces from task to task. Connecting his own orange laptop to the stage’s big screens to show photos during their set, McKinney chats with the video tech. Then he’s off with Dena Jackson ’00, marketing manager for the casino, to scout for a place to set up and sell merchandise.
The Lolo, Montana, native has been working hard for a long time. After graduating summa cum laude in mathematics, he started on his master’s degree while assistant coaching on the Cougar track team. It was then he started singing.
“I went out with some of the other graduate assistants one night in Pullman to a place called the Rathaus that would host karaoke. That was my first singing experience in front of people,” he says. “I was hooked.”
After coaching at WSU, McKinney taught math at Colton High School before heading west to do administrative work for the Seattle Seahawks. In a couple of years, he was teaching at Skyline High School and coaching track at the University of Washington. He kept up his singing and branched into songwriting. It was on a trip with the track team that McKinney composed his breakthrough ballad “Be Real.”
“I was riding in a van back to the airport, and I had nothing to record it on and it kept running through my head,” he recalls. “I was such an amateur songwriter back then that if I didn’t write it down or record it immediately, I could lose it for good. I recorded it on my old Nokia phone under a blanket as we headed down the runway.”
Showtime arrives. McKinney and his band take the stage in the rapidly filling amphitheater. He has changed into a black cowboy hat and a black buttoned shirt with sleeves rolled up. They launch into a raucous version of “Beach Billies,” McKinney’s song about surfers and the beach life, to the appreciation of the roaring crowd.
McKinney points to a number of familiar concert-goers while he sings. Many of them sing along with “Dirty Rotten Pirate,” “Be Real,” and McKinney’s other songs. Between numbers, he banters easily with the crowd.
He calls them “frans,” a combination of friends and fans who follow him on Facebook and Twitter, and he acknowledges their role in his success. “After a show they ask, ‘How can I help?’”
The band mixes country with rock, pop, even metal in their performance. As McKinney says of his own music, “This is not the country music you and I grew up with.” They finish with the riotous “When Rednecks Get Together.”
Even as Dierks Bentley takes the stage for the main event, McKinney and the band don’t have time to rest. They head to tents near the entrance to sign autographs, take photos with fans, and sell CDs and t-shirts.
Then they’re backstage again, packing up guitars, amps, drums, and other equipment while Bentley plays “Feel That Fire” for the excited crowd. They load everything into a trailer and their cars.
As the sun sets, McKinney reflects on the real joys and trials of music. “When you finish writing a song, when you step on stage, when you finish recording something, it’s a pretty incomparable feeling ,” he says. “It’s hard work, maybe not by coal miners’ standards, but mentally exhausting.”
For his next move, McKinney says he’s considering several offers from labels and sponsors, even as he juggles a home life in Utah with his wife and 18-month-old daughter.
“I probably have 600 songs from Nashville that were pitched to me and I’ve written over 200 songs,” he says. “So far I’ve recorded 22 songs. I’ve only got 800-some left to go.”