Justin Bieber, Kenny Chesney, Fiona Apple Lead Billboard 200 Debuts
Justin Bieber, Kenny Chesney, Fiona Apple Lead Billboard 200 Debuts

Country's Biggest Star Keeps Searching With 'Welcome to the Fishbowl'

There are a lot of captivating photos on the walls of Kenny Chesney's home office, but one stands out both visually and symbolically.

Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh is center stage, signature guitar in place, arms spread wide, hands flashing the devil horns, his face contorted in Walsh-ian fashion, while in the background are Marshall amps and what looks like a collection of bikini tops. To Walsh's right stands Chesney, dressed in his traditional stage attire of T-shirt, jeans and expertly blocked cowboy hat.


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The audience -- a packed house at Denver's Red Rocks Amphitheatre, we discover-is surely focused on Walsh as the shutter clicks, and so is Chesney. It's a rock and roll moment for a country music singer, and the story behind this photo speaks volumes about Chesney and the journey he's taken to become the genre's biggest star, with million-ticket-selling tours, more than 30 million albums sold, 22 Billboard Hot Country Songs No. 1s and eight Country Music Assn. and Academy of Country Music entertainer of the year awards.

Chesney's 13th record, "Welcome to the Fishbowl," bows June 19 on Sony Music Nashville imprint BNA, and what could be his biggest tour ever begins June 2. Creatively, the artist has "never felt more comfortable in my own skin," he tells Billboard on this impossibly gorgeous spring afternoon in middle Tennessee.

The album finds Chesney both focused and vulnerable, venturing further down the ambitious path he began on 2009's "Hemingway's Whiskey," an album that found him seeking out rhythms and an emotional rawness seldom heard on country radio. Produced by Chesney and his longtime studio collaborator Buddy Cannon, Fishbowl alternates among party music, unadulterated romance and aching sentimentality. The formula has been used throughout Chesney's career (and country music in general), but Chesney ups the ante on Fishbowl with songs (written by both himself and top-shelf Nashville tunesmiths) that are by turn deeper, heavier and more insightful.

Fishbowl is the mark of a seasoned singer who has moved beyond the frenetic climb to the top and is focused on challenging both his legions of fans (the No Shoes Nation) and himself as an artist. "I'm more comfortable as a vocalist and as an interpreter of songs and a songwriter, more than I have been on the previous 12 records," Chesney says at his home located south of Nashville, taking a break from intense rehearsals for the upcoming Brothers of the Sun tour with Tim McGraw.

Kenny Chesney Talks Album, Tim McGraw in Billboard/AmEx Q&A

"We think a lot about how to balance that fine line of being artistic and creative, but also being mainstream," Chesney says. "It used to be I tried to be all mainstream, but now, especially with Hemingway's Whiskey and Fishbowl, I've felt this creative freedom. I'm at a point in my career and my life where I can balance both, and that feels really good."

FILLING THE FISHBOWL

Chesney and Cannon are one of the most successful artist/producer duos in the history of country music, churning out hits that have defined the genre for the past decade and provided the ammo to rock thousands of paying customers for Chesney's annual runs through stadiums, arenas and amphitheaters.

The melding of traditional country instrumentation with arena rock bombast and a dash of island spices has become the trademark Chesney sound, and he and Cannon have struck on a process that clearly works. "Buddy has always been my rock in the studio," Chesney says. "Sometimes I might get a little far out there-just because it hasn't been done before doesn't mean you can't do it. But Buddy is my equalizer. He hears things that I could never hear."

Cannon says Chesney knows what he wants and brings a diverse toy box of musical ideas to the studio. "I keep my antennae up, because I learn something every time I go in the studio with him," Cannon says. "He's younger than I am. He listens to more different types of music than I do. His iPod is as varied as anybody's, and when he comes into the studio he mixes all that stuff in with what we're doing."

The traditional recording process in Nashville focuses on crafting songs that sound great on the radio, but Cannon says Chesney's always thinking about what a song will sound like live, a tactic Chesney confirms. "Making a song is a wonderful, creative time, but for me it can be a very stressful time," Chesney says. "If you don't get it right in the studio, you're not going to get it right on the radio and out on the road. When I'm in the studio, I imagine myself being in the grass at an amphitheater. 'What's going to turn me on? What's going to make me care?'"

There are a wealth of songs on "Fishbowl" tailor-made to make people care, particularly haunting, vulnerable ballads like "El Cerrito Place," "Sing 'Em Good, My Friend," "Always Gonna Be You" and the gut-wrenching "While He Still Knows Who I Am." The collection would be unrelentingly sad if not juxtaposed against rollicking fare like the title cut, "Whatever Makes You Feel Like a Rock Star" (with McGraw) and "Time Flies" -- but it's those risk -- taking ballads that leave the biggest impression.

Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO Gary Overton calls Fishbowl "truly a special record," and was struck by its personal tone. "On many of the songs, Kenny pushed himself to dig deeper into the emotions of personal relationships-both successful and failed-more than he ever has before," Overton says. "You can feel it in his voice."

In lesser hands, these sorts of songs could fall flat if the interpreter doesn't rise to the occasion, and Chesney realizes the risk involved in cutting such songs. "'El Cerrito Place' was one of them, because it's been cut twice before and both were really good," he says, adding that songwriter Keith Gattis' version "is incredible, and I heard Charlie [Robison's] version of it 10 years ago when it came out, and it haunted me. Now all this time has passed, and I still think it's a little taboo to touch it-but I sure felt it. The time was right for me vocally and emotionally to sink my teeth into that song."

As the recording process moved on, a common theme of emotional longing and alienation began to take shape, consciously or not. "Every record you make has its twists and turns, and this one was no different," Chesney says. "The first one I recorded for it was 'While He Still Knows Who I Am,' and even that has an element of searching on it."

The character in the song is going back home to visit a father suffering from Alzheimer's disease. "But it's got so much more than that," Chesney says. "This guy's going back to reconnect with his father, but in a sense he's trying to connect with himself, too. He's busy and he's getting lost in the world, and that was me to a T, really. It's interesting that I have this knack for connecting with thousands of people in an audience and, in an ironic kind of way, in the middle of doing that I've felt this disconnect from the people that love and care about me the most and molded me as a person growing up in East Tennessee. In the time between releasing 'Hemingway's Whiskey' and now, that basically describes my personal life. That's why this was the first song I recorded, and how this whole thread started on this record."

The heavy lifting for Fishbowl was done primarily at Ocean Way Studios in Nashville, "then we kissed it with rays of sunshine," Chesney says, referring to the mastering done at Ocean Way/Eden Rock in St. Barts in the French West Indies. "Me and [first engineer] Justin Niebank, Buddy and [second engineer] Drew Bollman went down there and mixed my record for two weeks," Chesney recalls. "I didn't want to drive down the same road, I didn't want to go to the same studio... It was a lot of work, but in the middle of all that work we pumped in some sunshine and some fun, too, and you can hear that. It's amazing what you can do when you get out of your comfort zone."

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