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.
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'n'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.
"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."
TIME WELL WASTED
Chesney surprised the country music business when he announced in September 2009 that he was taking a year off to recharge, a move off the grid that informed the music on "Hemingway's Whiskey," the subsequent mega-tour and, perhaps most of all, the new record. "I'm still feeling the positive effects of that year off," Chesney says. "I needed it, the band needed it, the crew needed it, the audience needed it."
Chesney recharged physically after 20 years of relentless touring and replenished his creative juices. "I was able to actually pick up my guitar and play it for no reason at all," he says. "There were three or four years there where I just played guitar when it was my job, not because I loved it. I didn't just walk through the house and see it there and pick it up and play for an hour trying to come up with something, and I caught myself doing that in 2010. I fell in love with music and what I do all over again."
With songs like the syncopated "Somewhere With You" and compelling ballads like the title cut and "You and Tequila" (with Grace Potter), "Whiskey" began a creative arc that continues with vigor on the new album. "There was something inside me I felt was a shift artistically," Chesney says. "I wanted to cut songs that not only gave us a lot of energy onstage, but also that I can sit on a stool and play with a guitar and Grace Potter."
It's one thing for Chesney to move in a new direction, but quite another for the fans to follow, but follow they did. "Somewhere With You" and "You and Tequila" were both chart-toppers, and a crowd-pleasing live version of the latter is included on "Fishbowl." "It's about me pushing myself as a person, as a songwriter, as an entertainer and also trying to push my audience, but not push them too far," he says. "As you evolve in a career, you try to get better at finding melodies and songs that are not only different from what you're doing, but also from what everybody else is doing. That's hard to find."
It's somewhat surprising that for the first time in his career, Chesney is launching an album and a mega-tour in the same time frame. The strategy isn't uncommon, and Sony Music Nashville's Overton says the decision for Chesney came early in the recording process. "This way we could combine the growing excitement for the new tour with the anticipation for his new album," Overton says. "We will cross-market these two events through all our media efforts and across all the social networking properties at our disposal."
That might just seem like synergistic marketing, but for an artist who diligently - some would say obsessively - micromanages all aspects of his career, it's also a heavy load to bear.
"If you're as driven as I am, doing just one of those things consumes your life," Chesney says. "Now I'm doing both of those things at once. On paper, it sounds like a great idea: Start the tour and then three weeks later the album comes out. Perfect timing, great marketing, and I signed off on it. It's the right thing to do, but for me, who tries not to leave any stone unturned, it's consuming every day."
Overton calls Chesney's work ethic "the best I've ever seen" and reels off examples. "In less than three months, Kenny will finish the record; design and create an exciting new production for the tour; participate in pre-media to support the album release; shoot a music video; conduct band, crew and production rehearsals in Nashville; shoot prerecorded interviews for the album; lead on-site band rehearsals until the first show; shoot another music video; perform in several weeks of sold-out stadium and amphitheatre shows; fly all across the country from New York to L.A. and everywhere in between for television, radio and live appearances during street week of the album," he says.
In the period leading up to this interview, Chesney says he begins each day at 5 a.m., works out "really hard" for 90 minutes, cleans up and then heads to rehearsals until at least 8 p.m. Once home, he digs into details, whether it's by email, phone or tweaking set designs on his computer. "That's been my last month, every single day," he says, though on this day he knocked off early to do this interview. "Today we went first song to last song, getting the timing down. The key is to get where everybody knows what everybody else is doing, but still keep it fresh."
NOT SUCH A BAD FISHBOWL
Chesney has long espoused the laid-back, party "bars and beaches" lifestyle in his music, and while he admits to playing as hard as he works, he has in no small part gotten to his place atop the country music mountain by simply outworking most everyone else. In a rare social commentary, Chesney takes an insightful look at celebrity and the current 24/7 news cycle on the record's title cut, but he's by no means complaining, and manages to avoid most of the trappings of superstardom. His home is secluded, but even his dog Pancho is friendly and quick to engage.
"I do my own laundry," Chesney says. "I live a pretty normal life, and I can walk between the raindrops pretty good. Unless I'm onstage in front of thousands of people, I don't even feel famous. Sometimes people remind me that I am, but I don't have an entourage with me. I don't act famous - I don't want that kind of life. I just want to write songs. I love interpreting them, and I love the energy in front of a crowd. And whatever cockiness and edge that I have to be able to do that, I try to leave onstage, because it doesn't have a place in my life anywhere else."
His work ethic and commitment to career being so all-consuming, one wonders what he's given up to get to this place. "I've never felt like I sacrificed a whole lot to be able to do this, because I've loved every moment of this," he says. "But I'm 44 years old. There are friends of mine that have grown kids, and I think, 'Wow, that's interesting.' I've spent nearly every year on the road. It's like that Jackson Browne song: 'Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels, looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields.' That's me."
So how long can he keep up this pace? "I do see a future where the next 10 years of my life isn't going to look like the last 10, where my whole life is all about this, period," he says. "Whatever that means down the road, if it's in the cards for me to have a family and something else in my life other than this, great. That doesn't mean I'll take my foot off the gas pedal - it just means I'm not going to have it all the way down as many times. When I do it, I'm really going to do it hard."
It's clear Chesney feels he's been amply rewarded, and a look at that picture with Joe Walsh symbolizes the rewards in many ways.
"My first record I ever bought in East Tennessee was the Eagles' Live album," Chesney says in relaying the story behind that picture on the wall. "On that record, Glenn Frey introduced Joe Walsh: 'Ladies and gentlemen, the next president of the United States, Joe Walsh.' And Joe says, 'Hey, man, I'm freakin' out!' before he sings 'Life's Been Good.' I loved that - I listened to that just to hear Joe Walsh say, 'Hey, man, I'm freakin' out!' Well, the year that he went out on the road with us, every time he came onstage I made him say, 'Hey, man, I'm freakin' out.'
"That picture right there," Chesney adds, pointing to the photo, "that's what he's doing. That blows me away - if you look at the kid in high school that bought the Eagles album, then you fast forward all these years, he becomes an adult and he makes music, and the guy that is on the first record he ever bought is in that picture saying, 'Hey, man, I'm freakin' out.' That's the magic of music. I've got friends I would never have because of it. I've been down roads I'd have never been down because of it. That's the thing that keeps me inspired, that keeps me motivated, that makes me love what I do."