JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — When a crowd packed the Martin Center for the Arts in Johnson City last week for the 40th-anniversary concert celebrating ETSU’s Bluegrass, Old-Time and Roots Music program, everyone was expecting great music.

But they weren’t expecting the surprise introduction by ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Mr. Kenny Chesney to the stage,” Noland said dressed in his academic robes typically reserved for graduation day at the state university.

Seconds later, Kenny Chesney casually stepped from behind a curtain on the stage.

For the country music superstar, it wasn’t his standard stage entrance. No rumbling drums and bass guitars. No flashing lights and pyrotechnics, his usual heralds when walking onto massive stages while touring around the world.

Instead, Chesney walked to the microphone, waited for surprised fans to quiet down, and then spoke about being awarded an honorary doctorate degree from his alma mater.

“It’s going to be really interesting when we start work next year and I demand the band and crew address me as Dr. Chesney,” he said, bringing more cheers and plenty of laughs.

Chesney watches as Dr. Jack Tottle, ETSU Bluegrass program founder, also receives an honorary doctorate degree from ETSU. (Photo: ETSU)

“It doesn’t feel like that long ago that I was in the ETSU bluegrass band,” he said. It was one of many references to what he now calls critical years of living and learning in Johnson City. “I didn’t know to dream this big honestly. I just wanted a song on the radio so my friends would think I’m cool.”

But at ETSU, Chesney said teachers taught him about music and the value of an education.

“The impact the ETSU Bluegrass program had on my life is so profound it’s so unbelievable,” he said.

Before Kenny Chesney became a global music superstar, he was a student at ETSU and a graduate of the class of 1990. (Photo: ETSU)

For many years, whether he knew it or not, some have quietly questioned whether Chesney felt as proud of his ETSU roots as ETSU was proud of its connection to him.

His visit to Johnson City on Oct. 21 seemed to put that question to rest.

“When I came to ETSU, I had no idea how much that decision would impact the rest of my life,” he said.