Kenny Chesney has come a long way since his days at East Tennessee State University.
"When I was in college, I played for tips at a Mexican restaurant," he recalled this week at a listening party for his forthcoming album "Life On A Rock" (due April 30). "Garth had just came out with 'Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old).’ I remember playing that song over and over again. I never dreamed then that one day I would be doing what I am at the level that I’m doing it – and still have the same friends that I did then."
Chesney played many of the cuts from his new album at The High Watt in Nashville. The set’s first single, "Pirate Flag," is currently No. 9 on the Hot Country Songs chart.
The four-time CMA Entertainer of the Year said the album reflects a change of pace artistically, with him writing eight of the ten cuts.
"It felt like I had no boundaries at all," he said. "I didn’t have to fit any formula, or worry about if a song was three minutes," he said. Chesney added he wrote the songs over the past decade – having no idea that he would ever record them together at once – if at all. One cut from the disc, "Lindy," was penned back in 2006.
"That was written over time without music," he said. "There was no timetable any expectations." The song was written about a man that the singer met while at his home in St. John.
The album also features a couple of collaborators he is very familiar with. The Wailers (as well as Elan) appear on the reggae track "Spread The Love." Having collaborated with the Wailers in 2008 on "Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven," which topped the chart, he said they approached him this time around.
"They called and asked if I would write the lyrics to a track they did a few years ago," he said, adding that he did feel a great amount of responsibility to pull the composition off. Though Chesney has recorded several songs with an island feel before, this one might be the biggest leap into the style that he has ever taken before, with its’ authentic melodious sound – as well as incredible horn work. Willie Nelson – whom Chesney has recorded with before (even co-producing the Hall of Famer’s Moment Of Forever disc in 2008), appears on the rhythmic "Coconut Tree."
In writing the songs for the album, Chesney said it was the perfect situation. "I wrote at home or in a boat," he says, adding that in some cases he didn’t even have a guitar. "I was able to be still, which is tough for me as a creative person. It’s tough for me to enjoy the moment sometimes," he reflected.
Quite possibly, the emotional highlight of "Life On A Rock" is the powerful "Happy On The Hey Now (A Song For Kristi)." He says the inspiration for the song was another friend he made while at his home in the islands, who has since passed away.
"This record was tough for me in the studio, especially that one. To sing a song that personal – about someone who really touched your life was hard for me. It really was. There’s a difference in singing something like 'Pirate Flag,’ 'When The Sun Goes Down,’ or 'Summertime’ in the studio, and getting in there and singing a song like that. This record was so emotional and so close to me."
Though the sound of the album might differ at points from his normal work, Chesney says the album is one that he takes a lot of pride in. "That’s what our format was built on, in a way. I’ve spent a lot of time pushing the envelope, myself, and my fan base to see where this dream would take me. I love the fact that it has brought me to this place where I can write these songs. Whether it’s viewed as taking a chance or not, I’m at a place in my life where I can play these songs for people. I can cut a record that is not this way, but this one sure feels good to me. It’s so honest and authentic, and I’m proud of it."