Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Kenny Chesney’s reverence for Bruce Springsteen’s music is no secret. The Luttrell, Tennessean included “One Step Up” on his triple platinum 2001 breakthrough No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems. The pair became loose acquaintances after he sent the working class hero from Freehold, New Jersey a note with his rendition.

“I’d been singing that song since I was playing for tips and enchiladas at this little place by East Tennessee State,” he explains. “I had always loved it, and Bruce’s writing, but I knew I needed to wait until I’d lived enough to really sing the song. I felt like I owed it what it was: don’t just sing it ‘cause it’s Bruce; wait ‘til I really understand.”

Springsteen could hear Chesney’s heart in his rendition; returning a note that thanked the now 8-time Entertainer of the Year saying he knew his song was in good hands and thanking him for recognizing the song’s country soul. In 2005, Springsteen did Chesney one better: at a solo show at the University of Pittsburgh, he talked about the note and played “One Step Up” for the first time on that tour, saying, “This is for Ken.”

Friday night, Chesney got to repay the moment, honor his inspiration, performing “One Step Up” at the annual MusiCares Person of the Year dinner, alongside Jackson Browne, Elton John, Neil Young, Patti Smith, John Legend and Emmylou Harris. The stark acoustic guitar performance echoed the song’s inherent loneliness.

“Along the way, Bruce has been generous with advice, with truth – and with music,” Chesney explains. “I wanted to strip it down, and show people how good that writing really, how much emotion and truth is under that melody. That was important.”

People noticed. Rolling Stone wrote, “Kenny Chesney, meanwhile, provided one of the night’s best, most unexpected performances with his heartbreaking acoustic adaption of ‘One Step Up’,” while Billboard raved, “Kenny Chesney kept ‘One Step Up’ barren and exposed, a perfect treatment that illuminated the greatness of the song’s lyrics.”

Music industry insider/blogger Bob Lefsetz really stood strong in his praise. “Too many acts were reading off the Teleprompter. Going through the motions. I have to single out Kenny Chesney’s performance of ‘One Step Up.’ He could really play and sing. Those outside country consider him a sideshow hillbilly, but not only does Kenny have talent and skill, like Mumford, he connects with his audience, he touches them on a human level, something too many Top Forty acts do not.”

With “Pirate Flag” marking Chesney’s 8th Top 25 single debut, as well as being USA Today’s Song of the Week, it appears the man who kicks off his summer tour March 16 at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium is getting ready for a big summer of music and friends. Obviously something Bruce Springsteen understands.