Kenny Chesney Reclaims His Soul

By Alan Light

“There’s this perception that I only sing about partying and getting drunk,” says Kenny Chesney with a big laugh. “If people saw how hard I work, and how much thought went into every move we make, they would be astounded.”

In defense of those not fully paying attention, it’s true that Chesney’s long list of hits includes titles like “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem,” “Beer in Mexico,” and “Keg in the Closet.” And on the strength of that image, he has built one of the most successful careers in country music history, with over 30 million albums sold and more than 30 Top Ten country singles. With the support of his dedicated fans, known as the “No Shoes Nation,” he was named Entertainer of the Year four times by both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music. His tours fill stadiums from coast to coast.

Yet for his forthcoming album The Big Revival, Chesney made a tough decision. He chose not to go out on the road this year, but instead to allow himself more time in the studio to craft an ambitious set of songs, with the power and emotion that he feels is lacking in too much of today’s country music — a condition the great Merle Haggard recently referred to as “too much boogie-boogie wham-bam and not enough substance.”

“This album ain’t about a party,” Chesney says. “It’s about living with passion, about confidence, about walking into a room full of people and smiling and meaning it. Having the courage to hear this voice in your head and follow it, maybe for the first time in your life. It’s about taking your life and living it to the fullest.”

Related: Watch the Full Video Interview with Kenny Chesney

Dressed in a V-neck t-shirt, chinos, and a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, Chesney, age 46, sat down at Nashville’s Acme Feed & Seed — a new restaurant and music venue in a renovated former feed supply warehouse at the end of downtown’s Lower Broadway strip — to talk about his vision for the album and his goals at this stage of a two-decade-long ride at the top.

Kenny Chesney american kids(photo by Allister Ann)

“It would have been very easy for us to make this record on a conveyor belt, because I’ve been guilty of that before,” he says, using the first-person plural construction often heard from Nashville stars. “But I felt like I was at a place in my life, along with the deep relationship we have with the fans, where I deserve more and they deserve more. It was worth really digging into what I wanted the record to be and to see how I was going to take my audience to a place that maybe collectively we haven’t been before. And that’s hard to do — it’s hard to take time off the road because it’s a business, and for us it’s really big business.”

That’s a bit of an understatement. Ticket sales to Chesney’s 2013 tour topped $90 million for 44 shows, his tenth consecutive tour with over a million tickets sold. But after the final concert at Boston’s Gillette Stadium on August 24, he made it clear to his band and his crew — the “us” that keeps his engine running — that he would be staying home for a while.

“It was the best decision I’ve ever made — for myself as an individual, my relationships, my friendships,” he said. “I’m a lot easier to be around now. There was also a little bit of exhaustion in there, honestly, but I knew that this record had to be different, and I knew it was going to take some time.”

Chesney chuckles, amused by the idea that after fifteen albums, he isn’t content to keep a well-oiled machine running. “Being a creative person is a constant annoyance,” he says. “It just is! Because you’re never happy and you’re always thinking — just when you think you have nothing to do, you think ‘I’m not going to write a song today,’ there’s this thing…and I shouldn’t say annoyance, but it is. Sometimes you want to go ‘Shut up, leave me alone.’

“But this time, I really wanted to push myself as a writer, an entertainer, an artist, a musician and not just rest on what we’ve accomplished and the success that we’ve had. That was the target.”

Which is, in some ways, a relatively easy thing to say. After all, Chesney’s last album was the introspective, singer-songwriter-oriented Life on a Rock, on which he broke Nashville convention and wrote most of the material himself, exploring his experiences on the island of St. John, his regular Caribbean retreat. Since attaining A-List stardom, he has often switched up his style between such blockbusters as When the Sun Goes Down and Hemingways Whiskey and more left-field albums like Be Who You Are (Songs from an Old Blue Chair) or Just Who I Am: Poets and Pirates, and collaborations with such unexpected artists as Dave Matthews, the Wailers, and Grace Potter.

“A lot of things come with success — jealousy, negativity, stuff,” concedes Chesney, “but with success also comes the ability to make a record every now and then like those.” But now he was looking for something that could serve both purposes, something that would be personal and meaningful, yet also hit his fans hard and serve as a real anchor for the next tour.

During the writing process, he cut a lot of songs and kept looking for more. Eventually, he says, something started stirring, a sensation he had almost forgotten. “I felt hungry, and that’s a great feeling, especially when you’ve been making records and been on the road as long as we have.”

Chesney wrote some songs — including a wistful look back at his touring experiences called “If This Bus Could Talk,” which he calls an attempt to “take twenty years of my life and condense it into three minutes” — and found  turned up a few by other songwriters like The Big Revival’s first single, the knockabout sing-a-long “American Kids,” which recently made it to No. 1 on the charts. (“We’re an industry of chasers and copycats, and that’s just how it is,” he says, explaining the allure of the less-conventional compositions.) When he had this batch of songs, he could start to sense where the project might be headed.

“That was when the record took a turn that was needed, an aggressive turn,” he says. “When I say ‘aggressive,’ I don’t mean that as a party atmosphere. I found some songs that were rocking, that had great lyrics and melodies, and that weren’t pandering to anything. They weren’t stupid, they talked about people’s lives, about their strengths, their weaknesses, their insecurities.

“I’m not saying there isn’t any fun on here, because there’s a lot of fun, but it touched on a lot of my audience’s emotions, without going backwards and without going too forward — because I don’t want to alienate them, either. When I got these songs, I knew that I had not just a collection of songs that were going to work, but I had also found this thread.”

Chesney is careful not to criticize the younger Nashville acts that have taken the beer-beach-babe territory he helped define and turned it into the current style that some are calling “bro-country.” He asserts that the rock edge of today’s hits is nothing new, and diplomatically offers that the genre “is very interesting now — but whether you like it or hate it, I think it still speaks to the fans and caters to the people that love music.”

He speaks a little more freely, though, when describing The Big Revival track “Wild Child,” and the representation of women in country music now. “In the last several years, a lot of the songs about women have been written in kind of an objectifying way,” he says. “If you didn’t wear cut-off jeans or a bikini top, or sit on a tailgate and drink, then you really weren’t worthy, you didn’t really add up. But ‘Wild Child’ is telling some girl out there that’s got dreams, that’s a free spirit, who’s smart and interesting, that she has a chance, that she is worthy.”

Chesney grew up in Luttrell, Tenn., and says that he was surrounded by a family with “a lot of women” during his years as a high school athlete and marketing major at East Tennessee State. “All the women that have been in my life — in my family or that I chased, fell in love with and out of love with, my island friends, my hippie New England friends — they all had this idea of the ‘wild child’ in them, and I thought about all of them when I was writing the song. I think it’s an important song, because it’s saying that they don’t have to be this one thing that’s been sung about over and over again recently. And I’m proud of that, that we wrote a song that lifts up a woman in that way.”

Especially in light of this kind of progressive thinking, the track that opens The Big Revival and gives the album its title comes as a bit of a surprise; it’s a vivid account of an old-time church service, complete with speaking in tongues and snake handling. “The philosophy behind putting ‘The Big Revival’ first was to set a tone,” says Chesney. “There’s things about religion that I don’t necessarily agree with or understand, but I’m a big believer in spirituality — I’ve seen songs change people, and that’s spiritual. But ‘The Big Revival’ is really about picking yourself up off the bottom, reclaiming your soul, restarting. That was everything I wanted to say to my audience — and you have to think about that, you have to think ‘Okay, we took a year off, now what am I going to say to these people, who have been there for me for a long time?’ And the idea of ‘The Big Revival’ was it.”

(Photo by Jill Trunnell)(photo by Jill Trunnel)

As he talks about the album, Chesney returns again and again to his own sense of connection to the material, and the belief that his experiences speak for a lot of his fans. “Songs like ‘American Kids’ and ‘Don’t It,’ those are just like my life laid out,” he says. “I feel like, especially if you come from a small town, there are certain values that are inherent, fears and insecurities that we all have, and that was me. I was that kid — I’d go out in the middle of the backyard at my Grandma’s house and stare up at the sky and wonder if there was anything out there beyond my county line. I was this kid that had a lot of dreams, had a guitar and a truck and packed up everything I had and left East Tennessee and came to town as a songwriter and set out for my dream. A lot of these songs are about taking your life and moving it where you want it to go, finding that strength to get up and move forward.”

Kenny Chesney’s fan base remains a force to be reckoned with; when he announced his only public appearance of the year, the “Flora-Bama-Jama” beach concert in August, submissions for the 40,000 free tickets came so fast and furious that they crashed the website. But now he and the country stars of his generation — Tim McGraw, Keith Urban —a re fighting for space on the charts alongside new jacks like Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Florida Georgia Line. Together with Taylor Swift’s global takeover, the rise of these new stars has led to widespread speculation that country’s audience is changing, in both demographic and attitude. But Chesney maintains that so far, he hasn’t felt a significant change in the crowd at his shows.

“I think our audience is very unique, very eclectic and diverse,” he says. “I see people of all ages out there, all colors, I see everybody and it’s beautiful to see that. And I don’t make music for one segment — I used to, when I cut ‘Keg in the Closet’ that went straight to the college crowd. But recently I’ve just been trying to find great songs.”

Which brings him back to the notion that his music is a simple party soundtrack, and why he insists this reputation is misguided. “I’m not saying we don’t sell escapism, because we have,” says Chesney. “That’s why people love music is to escape, that’s why they go to the movies. But I think that, especially with this record, we’ve kind of evolved from this escapism thing.

“These songs aren’t about escape, they’re about real life, in the right now. Real emotions, real feelings, hopefully in a way where people realize they’re not alone. That’s what I hope this record does — and in the process maybe let them escape a little bit, too.”

 

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