Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Horseplay

Chesney and McGraw: What really happened

By Beverly Keel

JUNE 19, 2000:  A couple of weeks ago, Nashville and the rest of the country awoke to sensational headlines detailing the arrests of Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw after Chesney's horse-riding brought on a bizarre scuffle with Erie County, N.Y., sheriff's officers.

On June 3, between sets at the George Strait Country Music Festival, Chesney was arrested for the misdemeanor offense of disorderly conduct, while McGraw was arrested for three misdemeanors and the far more serious felony offense of assault in the second degree--which could bring a maximum of seven years in prison. The New York Post blared on its Monday cover, "Singers' tale of whoa. Pair nabbed in upstate melee with cops." Later in the week, People and Us ran full-page stories, while Access Hollywood included the incident in one of its shows.

Now that more than a week has lapsed since the incident occurred, many questions are still lingering, chief among them, "What actually happened?"

Erie County Sheriff Patrick Gallivan has been quite vocal about the incident. He says Chesney was given permission to sit on a horse belonging to Capt. James Coyle, but was told not to ride it. When Chesney took off on the horse, Gallivan says, Coyle shouted at him to stop, but the singer ignored him. So Sgt. Mark Rokitka and detective Art Litzinger got in their car and drove about 100 yards to catch up to Chesney, who still refused to dismount.

The pair tried to physically remove Chesney from the horse, and that's when McGraw stepped in. Both McGraw and his road manager Mark Russo allegedly assaulted the uniformed policemen. Gallivan says McGraw put one of the officers in a "choke-hold headlock," and both officers later reported minor injuries. "There's nothing in the law that allows a citizen, no matter how famous, to jump and assault a police officer," Gallivan says.

But those at the site quickly gave versions that differed from the police accounts. "Kenny's version was that he was given permission to ride the horse and that he was riding through the backstage artists' compound when a police officer came up and grabbed him by the neck and threw him to the ground," says a friend of Chesney's, who talked to him immediately after the arrest. "Then, the next thing he knew, his good friend Tim McGraw was over there helping protect him.

"From what I understand, there wasn't any yelling or demands to get down and stop. The officer basically came out of nowhere and ripped him off the horse."

According to this version of events, Coyle was perhaps unaware Chesney had been given permission to be on the horse and overreacted when he saw the country singer taking a trip around backstage. Later in the week, eyewitnesses told investigators that Chesney had in fact been given permission to ride the horse.

Whatever actually happened, it seems evident that everyone overreacted. Since Chesney was in a fenced-in backstage area, officers should have had very little concern that he'd get far. Some reports say that Chesney was merely walking around, not galloping, on the horse, so officers could have easily grabbed the reins. But McGraw obviously acted without thinking: You should never put a policeman in a headlock, ever.

Regardless of how everyone else acted, the artists' publicists have handled this situation smartly and professionally. RCA's Marion Williams and independent L.A. publicist Angie Gore, who represent Chesney, and McGraw's publicist Jessie Schmidt did everything right. They were immediately accessible to the press and gave straightforward answers, even if they didn't have anything yet to say.

Chesney released his statement that Monday: "Unfortunately, what was meant to be a totally innocent and fun gesture was blown way out of proportion. Tim McGraw and I have been friends for a very long time. When he saw me in danger of being harmed, he simply came over to help out his friend."
The next day, McGraw's attorney, Tom Eoannou, released a statement that said both sides had agreed to a lengthy adjournment of that day's court appearance so they could investigate the matter further. "Tim McGraw is confident that by cooperating with law enforcement, the facts will prevail and the charges will be dropped without hard feelings on either side."

By Wednesday, some Nashvillians were wondering why McGraw hadn't publicly defended himself. By not doing so, they reasoned, his image--and therefore his career--could be harmed. But everything he said could be used against him in court: Any apology could be viewed as an admission of guilt.
McGraw's main focus now is staying out of prison; there is little concern about record sales or chart singles at the moment. Which raises the question many people have been asking of late: What affect will all this have on the two singers' careers?

Radio & Records' Lon Helton sums it up best: "I don't think it will affect them. Whether it was a misunderstanding or whatever, it seems to come under the heading of minor altercation, and a lot more have done a lot worse."

Ironically--or not--the incident seems to have boosted Chesney's career. It's highly unlikely that he'll ever be on the cover of the New York Post again. What's more, the fracas helped him get his first-ever booking on The Tonight Show. (Angie Gore pitched the show's bookers last Wednesday, and they accepted the following day.) Appearing on the NBC talk show this past Monday night, Chesney spoke publicly for the first time about what really happened during his arrest.

"I didn't know it was a police horse," he told host Jay Leno. "A policeman wasn't riding the horse. I was with my road manager, and we were going into the bus compound where all the buses are, and I said, 'Man, wouldn't it be funny if I got on this horse and rode into the bus compound,' because Tim McGraw and Faith were up there with their kids and Martina McBride was up there with her kids."

After Chesney got on the horse, he says, "[the sheriff's deputies] were in this car...and they drove up, kind of like Starsky and Hutch. The guy in the driver's seat slid over the hood and they pulled me off the horse. It was pretty silly what happened."

In general, media coverage of the event has been mainly positive, taking a more tongue-in-cheek approach rather than damning the two singers as cop-beaters. Compared to what rap stars have been charged with in the last few years, these crimes do seem almost laughable (except for that headlock thing, of course). Never mind the fact that Tracy Lawrence has been labeled a wife-beater, and only a few years ago, Ty Herndon was arrested for allegedly exposing himself to an undercover male police officer.

As the ordeal continues to unfold, expect Chesney to take advantage of the increased media attention. The incident wouldn't have been covered near as much had McGraw, currently the best-selling male on the female-dominated country charts, not been involved. It's likely that the media interest will pick back up when Chesney releases his next album. Unfortunately for him, he'll be asked about the incident in every single interview for the next few years.

McGraw, on the other hand, will gain nothing from the coverage; he's so big already that the publicity won't help him. So far, though, there doesn't seem to be a negative impact on his career either. McGraw's only concern right now is avoiding jail time. He'll do best by following his current course of action: saying little and letting the entire matter die down.

So far, country music's image appears to have suffered the worst. National journalists have taken great delight in pulling out old clichés about country music--gosh, you had cowboy-hat-wearin', horse-stealin' good ol' boys wrasslin' with police deputies. The only thing missing was a hay bale or two.

The coverage reinforced many stereotypes that those outside the South still hold about country music. At a time when Music Row executives are trying to convince the rest of the world that country music is hip, this just gives them another hurdle to jump.

But here's what everyone is dying to know most of all: What did Faith Hill, who was there on the tour bus with her children, say to her husband afterward?


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