For his 14th album, the top touring artist in country music history bucked the system and assembled something closer to diary entries than stadium singalongs
Kenny Chesney has just landed his seventh No. 1 album on the Billboard 200. But before "Life on a Rock" topped the charts, the country superstar sat down with Billboard's Ray Waddell for a chat.
On this sunny day in Sony Music's Nashville offices, Kenny Chesney is handed a printout of his chart history on Billboard's Hot Country Songs tally, which boasts 45 top 10s and 1,169 chart weeks-and counting. "I've never seen this," he says, shaking his head. "Man, I had a mullet when 'Whatever It Takes' came out [in 1994]. Are you kidding me? This shows a journey. It shows a dream. It shows a lot of changes, emotionally, personally. All the people I sang with-Dave Matthews, Grace Potter, the Wailers, George Jones, Jimmy Buffett, Kid Rock, Willie Nelson, Joe Walsh. I've been very blessed."
Who knows how many songs from Chesney's new album, Life on a Rock, will join the 70 charted titles he has already amassed? Leadoff single "Pirate Flag" is already among them. That's one of the album's stadium-ready party songs, but it's the more subtle, reflective tracks like "Marley," "Must Be Something I Missed" and "Happy on the Hey Now (A Song for Kristi)" that wield the most power on the new release.
The album's title references Chesney's off-the-grid retreat in the Virgin Islands, where the top touring artist in country music history -- and a creative entrepreneur known for planning projects years in advance -- leads what amounts to an alternative existence amid the sun and sand. He's frequently evoked island themes in his work, but never as often as on his 14th album, surely the most personal work he's ever done.
Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO Gary Overton believes the intimate nature of the record -- released less than a year after "Welcome to the Fishbowl" -- will appeal to fans. "This is a collection of songs that was never intended to be an album," Overton says. "They were diary entries during a very special time and place in Kenny's life. This one's not just about the party, but who he likes to spend his time with, and where, and what in life he likes to celebrate."
If these songs, which date back to 2006, were never written with an album in mind, they still become a cohesive body of work. "This record is about how life just moves you along, whether you realize it or not," Chesney says.
"I wrote a lot of these songs without music. Just wrote the lyrics down and tried to take moments from my life and my friends' lives and tried to give them a pulse."
Billboard talked about all of this and more in one of Chesney's most candid interviews.
Why do a new record so closely on the heels of Welcome to the Fishbowl?
We get caught up in the way we do business: "It's been 18 months since the last one. It's time to get all the players together and go make another record that's supposed to be better than the last one." It's the cycle we all live in. It doesn't leave a lot of room for authentic, "over time" creativity. That's what I love about this record. I wrote the first song in 2006 and I wrote the last song last year. That's the reason a lot of the songs are so different, because almost all of them are from moments that would have been easy to let evaporate.
What was the reaction from those you work with to the style of Life on a Rock?
The nature of our business is to keep feeding the monster. But that doesn't necessarily mean every song has to have a lot of electric guitars layered in the solos. To me, I feel like I'm feeding the monster on this record, but I'm feeding it nutrition.
I went and saw Bruce Springsteen in Pittsburgh with just him and a guitar, singing songs he would never have sang with the E Street Band, and it was great. That's feeding your fans, too. It would have been really easy to find some songs and just duplicate what we've done, duplicate Hemingway's Whiskey and Welcome to the Fishbowl. Or try. But for me to go out and do what I do onstage, for me to inspire anybody, I've got to be inspired. So this record came at a good time for me.
You've progressed artistically on the last several records, and I don't know that everyone in this business realizes it.
For the most part people are taking the time to really listen, but look, I've told you this before: We're a town of followers, and I'm a part of the town. The thing I'm proud of is that this album ain't following nobody. I mean nobody.
There's not a pickup truck to be found.
Not one. And not that I'm not country. This album talks about very relatable things, but it's not singing about what the town thinks everybody should sing about. I need to sing about what's real to me, and I'm at the point in my life and career where I think I deserve to do that.
Several of these songs clock in at more than four minutes. It's clear you weren't watching the clock, literally or figuratively.
Not at all. We all have to do radio and single edits on everything, even songs you do watch the clock on, but that's why this felt really good. I didn't edit myself as a writer, I didn't edit myself as a storyteller, and when Buddy Cannon and I put our production hats on, I wanted it to sound as natural as the stories I was telling. And I'm really looking forward to being able to sing some of these songs. It would be a lot of fun to go into a market and do two shows-a Thursday night show where we sing "Spread the Love" with the Wailers or "Coconut Tree" with Willie Nelson, or "Happy on the Hey Now," a very personal song to me, those type of songs, then go slam a stadium in the same market on a Saturday night.
That's where I'd like to see this go, and those Thursday shows would be as authentic as the Saturday show. I'm glad I'm at that point in my life, where I can release "Pirate Flag" and I know what it's for, that it's to feed the arena and stadium environment, and then on the same record have some poetry to it.
"Happy on the Hey Now" is a very sad song, and clearly very personal.
Some people are good at math, or good at school, some are great at sports. Kristi was good at life, and that's what this song is all about. The Hey Now was a boat we all hung out on, but there was a lot of life on the boat, and she was the centerpiece of it. This song is a simple tribute.
It was a hard song for me to sing in the studio. She defined that circle of friends in the Islands. She defined a time in my life when it was a lot simpler for me, and she was the epitome of living life in the moment. I'm telling you, she took life like it was a big lemon and squeezed it really hard.
We all have somebody in our life that dies young, and it's hard to figure out why. And no matter how busy you are and what you're doing in life, it can stop you in your life and change you. You have to let go of someone you really care about, and it makes you re-evaluate everything: the connection with the person you're in a relationship with, what you're giving to it, your relationships with your family, your friends. That's what Kristi's passing did to me. It changed me as a person, as an artist and songwriter, the way I walk through the world.
For the people down there in the Islands who know exactly where you're coming from, how do you think this album will land?
Well, it's going to hit a lot of them right in the heart. This album was written about my friends there, how they walk through the world, what's important to them, a lot of wonderful days we all shared together, and nights. Some of the nights were very laid-back, some nights that were raging.
A lot of it is incredibly personal, to me and to them. But, then again, it has a chance to have a broader appeal, that people can listen to these stories and somehow relate to them. The idea of "life on a rock"-we all live life on a rock. Even though a lot of the stories took place in an island environment, there's still commonalities with life in a small town: Everybody knows everybody, there's a huge sense of community, they lean on certain things.
How is the tour going?
The connection is just awesome out there. I feel great onstage, the band is awesome, we're having more fun that we've had in several years. What we've seen happen before our eyes, we've had a front-row seat to watch the No Shoes Nation being built. I always felt it was a little cliche to name your audience, a little self-serving, but this felt natural. I'm proud we have a group of people that are that passionate. No matter what they've got on their feet, they walk through the world as if their toes are in the sand. That's the mentality: Love music, love life, love combining the two and love celebrating that fact. That is the common denominator of all of them. You can tell they haven't just heard these songs on the radio. They lived them.