Kenny Chesney's new album "Hemingway's Whiskey" isn't out until Sept. 28, but the Country chart-topper gave Billboard an in-depth preview, discussing the record's 11 songs track by track, and in the process revealing how he sees himself in his fans, his thoughts on being like a "modern day pirate," finding inspiration in the dentist's chair, and why duet partner Grace Potter is "a hell of a singer."
1. "Boys Of Fall"
(Casey Beathard/Dave Turnbull)
Kenny Chesney: "Boys Of Fall" is a perfect description of how I grew up and where I grew up. That song meant so much to me and I thought, 'Wow, there's a lot of kids out there and a lot of people that have that feeling in their lives.' There's a line in the song that says, "In little towns like mine, that's all we got." And that's the way it was in East Tennessee, and still is. I've got a lot of guys from East Tennessee out on the road [with me] that grew up the same way, and I played them that song when [writer] Casey Beathard gave me the CD of just him on a guitar playing it. I made everybody come on the bus and said "listen to this." I knew we had something that was very common. A lot of people that listen to my music and that are passionate about what we do out on the road... I've been pretty perceptive over the years, and I think that we kind of grew up the same way. I see myself a lot in my fans, and I think vice versa. I hope so anyway."
2. "Live A Little (Love A Lot)"
(Shane Minor/David Lee Murphy)
Chesney: "That song is what I try to live by. When I heard 'Live A Little (Love A Lot),' that's pretty much the definitive sound we create out on the road. If there's a predictable song on the record, for me, this might be it. And I don't think that's a negative, either. I think this song is going to be awesome in concert. I think it defines me -- anybody out there that gives to anything -- a lot. I work really hard, I give everything to this, I've given my life to this. But so does the guy that's a CEO for some company. I'm addicted to 'Deadliest Catch.' Those guys, they don't have a life; that's what they do. They can relate to that, 'I've got to get off this boat and live a little.' That's why I think that song matters."
(Michael Mobley/Wendell Mobley/Neil Thrasher)
Chesney: "When I was a kid we were very lower-middle class. We weren't poor, but we didn't have a lot of extra money to go places. So when we went on vacation, we packed the car up and we drove to Myrtle Beach. Or we drove to Daytona. Or we went to the Redneck Riviera: Panama City, Gulf Shores or Destin. And I still love that. That song is for everybody that grew up like I did. It's a beach song, but it's a Redneck Kenny song. These people work for a living. Like he says in the song, 'No more building transmissions, he's going deep sea fishin'.' I love that line. That's my family, that's my friends. That's my cousins. That's my audience."
4. "You And Tequila" (featuring Grace Potter)
(Matraca Berg/Deana Carter)
Chesney: "This song makes me believe in music even more. I'd never met Grace Potter until she came into the studio. She grew up in the woods in Vermont. I grew up in the woods in East Tennessee. We come from completely worlds, different backgrounds, probably religious beliefs, we haven't talked about it. I don't know what her political beliefs are, I don't know nothing about any of that. I know she's a great person and I know that she is a hell of a singer. I heard her voice and I knew I would love to sing with her one day. I didn't know it would be on this, or this soon.
"At the end of 2007, I rented a house North of Malibu, Calif., for about two months. I was exhausted, I didn't want to talk to anybody, I didn't want to listen to music, I just wanted to be still for a minute. Every day I would drive close in to Santa Monica, meet some friends, eat dinner, and I'd drive back up the PCH with the windows down. That time of year is really chilly, I'd watch the sun set. It's beautiful, I loved it. I would turn on the radio every now and then and I would hear these songs. I heard an Eagles song, I don't even remember what the song was. But I remember thinking, 'Wow, I think I like music again.'
"When I heard 'You and Tequila,' it put me in that spot. That's when I thought of Grace, because I listened to her music a lot on the boat, a lot on the bus, her live record especially. She has a song called 'Apology' that still kills me. I got in touch with her and sent her the song, I had already recorded it. She called back the next day and said "I want to make this happen." When she came in and we put our voices together, wow. I love the song, Matraca and Deana wrote it, but, boy, it's relatable, so universal. To have Grace on it, that will be with me forever."
5. "Seven Days A Thousand Times"
(Lee Brice/Billy Montana/Jon Stone)
Chesney: "To me, when I heard that song it was like 'Anything But Mine,' chapter two. It was like the next phase of that guy's life. I know I have that person in my life, and I think everybody's got that person in their life, that they were with a short time and had no idea the impact that short time would have on them. No matter how you live, no matter where you go in your life, no matter who you're with later on, those seven days or that little time frame that you're with them made more of an impact than you even knew at the time. I think that's very powerful and that's what this song's about."
6. "Small Ya'll" (duet with George Jones)
Chesney: "Here's what happened on 'Small Ya'll': George Jones cut that song a long time ago. I had his version in my truck for about three years and it never came out of my six-CD changer. I got into a little routine where I'd fly home after shows and fly back out the next day because I thought it was giving me more rest, until I realized it was only exhausting me more. But, I would land about 1:30-2 o'clock in the morning, depending on where I was playing, and I had about a 30-minute drive home. It would be the middle of summer and I'd roll down the windows to keep me awake and I'd crank up 'Small Ya'll' as loud as I could. No matter how tired I was or if I was in a bad mood or whatever, that song always brought me to center, mentally. It made me smile.
"And as fun-sounding as that song is, it's got an incredible message to it. What Bobby wrote about makes you think, it really does. It's a very well-written, deep lyric. I love that song, and the fact George is on it with me. I really do believe that there's a generation out there now that doesn't realize the genius of George Jones. And I felt like I had the opportunity to educate them just a little bit. It's as country of a song as I've cut in a while, too. It felt good, to be honest with you. It felt natural."
7. "Where I Grew Up"
(Ashley Gorley/Kelley Lovelace/Neil Thrasher)
Chesney: "I haven't had one of these songs in a while. 'Where I Grew Up' is a song that you really look for, you hope you get three or four of them in a career. And I've been lucky to have three or four of them. This is me. I've been in every scenario in this song. I remember as a kid writing in one of my buddy's yearbook, "I hope we never grow up." And I try in lots of ways to make that philosophy come true, but then again you realize in some ways I already had. My grandfather died when I was a kid, and I grew up a little bit. I think this song teaches us that there are things in our lives that force us to grow up.
(Kenny Chesney/Brett James)
Chesney: "I got the idea to write 'Reality' in the dentist's chair. I'm sitting there with a gas mask on. There were a couple of years that I was so busy on the road I was kinda numb. I wasn't really tired, I wasn't really not tired, I wasn't really happy, I was just kind of numb. So I'd go to the dentist to have something done and they'd put that gas mask on me and I'd be like, 'Wow, that's as relaxed as I've been in years!' I thought to myself, 'This is why people smoke pot right here! This is it!' I don't smoke pot, but this is why people do it, I guarantee you. Because it gets them away from reality. I even asked my dentist, 'I just want to come over here and sit some time, can you guys do that?' He said, 'We can't do that, we'd get in trouble.' I swear, I started writing that song on the way home. But then I related it to everybody that comes to see us. That's what live music is. It's an escape from reality. That's why as a kid I loved it. I still love going to shows, I love live music. That's where I got the idea to write the song, it's my message to the fans that it's OK to break free and escape reality, with us."
9. "Round And Round"
(Scotty Emerick/Paul Overstreet/Even Stevens)
Chesney: "'Round and Round' is very different for me, melodically and production-wise. I think everybody, whether it's your job or your love life, whatever it is, there's a certain complacency that we get, the internal voice saying it might be better somewhere else, or I'm kinda sick of what I'm doing now I might want to try this or that. This song is telling us we should enjoy the right now, enjoy the moment. I think everybody searches for that certain balance and tries to quiet those thoughts in their head that they've got to be constantly moving, need to go somewhere, do this, be with somebody else. It's like all those characters in the song. The guy that lives in the mountains wants to go to the beach and the guy on the beach wants to live in the mountains. The message of the song is you've got to enjoy the moment as much as you possible can."
10. "Somewhere With You"
(J.T. Harding/Shane McAnally)
Chesney: "This song killed me when I heard it. This is a tortured soul song. If you get going with somebody, you've been in a relationship and for whatever reason she's gone or you're gone. And you're not necessarily in another relationship, but you're with somebody else, just starting something with somebody else. Trying to balance both those worlds is tough. I've done it a lot, where you're with somebody and you're thinking this isn't necessarily bad, but wow, man it would be really great to be with you. That can be a lot of mental baggage."
11. "Hemingway's Whiskey"
(Guy Clark/Ray Stephenson/Joe Leathers)
Chesney: "My favorite book ever is "The Old Man and the Sea." Those two characters in that book remind me of the relationship I had with my grandfather. It was an important one. I've been asked many times, on many different occasions, if there was one person you'd want to sit and have a beer with, living or dead, who would it be? And it would probably be Ernest Hemingway. He's traveled, he's met all these wonderful characters, he's written about them, he's loved, he's lost love, he's lived with regret, he's lived with depression, he's lived with so much stuff. Why wouldn't you want to have a beer and pick his brain... on a good day? And he loved life.
"When I saw the title on a Guy Clark record, I was curious. I wonder what that means, wonder what he's talking about? And I listened to it, and it's a celebration of how he kind of walked between the raindrops. I do that a lot. I've spent a lot of time on my boat down in the Keys and over in Bimini and the Bahamas, and those are all places where he hung out. I haven't been to Cuba yet. But when I heard this song, it just took me to those places. It took me to a state of mind. I love that part of the song where it says, "Sail away, sail away, three sheets to the wind/live hard, die hard, this one's for him." Because I do, I live a pretty fast life. Even though I'm very healthy and regimented in my diet and everything, we live hard. We don't live as hard as the guys on "Deadliest Catch," now they live hard. But we're in a different place every day, we're a lot like modern day pirates. So I get what that line is. It's not about being drunk at all. It's about being pedal to the metal. When I heard that line, it about killed me. I felt this odd kinship to that song.
"I don't know what I'd ask Hemingway if I had a beer with him. We'd have to have whiskey, I guess."