Let the younger bros sing about muddy pickups and babes in cutoffs. Country's legendary party starter returns to stadiums with a wised-up, grown-up new album and outlook. "It's about reclaiming your place in the world."
Hatless, shoeless and dressed in loose-fitting shorts and a faded Florida State University T-shirt, Kenny Chesney hardly looks like a poster boy for the reformation of so-called bro country. But on this sweltering Tennessee afternoon, Chesney, 46, has decided to take aim at his fellow men in country music.
"Over the last several years, it seems like anytime anybody sings about a woman, she's in cutoff jeans, drinking and on a tailgate -- they objectify the hell out of them," he says. "Twenty years ago, I might have written a song like that -- I probably did. But I'm at a point where I want to say something different about women."
Chesney is describing a track from his latest album, The Big Revival. "Wild Child," he explains, depicts a woman who's stronger and more independent than those Daisy Dukes cliches now ubiquitous on country radio. As he's quick to acknowledge, a testosterone-heavy attitude helped get him where he is today -- specifically, sitting next to the pool at his expansive Mediterranean-style hilltop home south of Nashville. Chesney has sold 28.8 million albums in the United States, placing him seventh among country artists since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking sales in 1991; 13 million concert tickets since he began headlining in 1995, according to Billboard Boxscore; and racked up $750 million in concert revenue, making him the top country-music touring artist and the eighth-biggest in any genre.
Although he has been amassing country hits since the 1990s, Chesney found his mojo when he released the 2002 easy-in-the-islands album No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problems and became the genre's next-generation Jimmy Buffett. "For a while there, everybody thought that in country music you had to be stiff," says Jason Aldean, who will share a stage with Chesney for 10 dates in 2015. "It was all about starched shirts and starched jeans. Kenny made it cool not to do all that, especially at his shows."
Chesney built an avid fan base through his high-energy live performances. Dubbed the No Shoes Nation, his fans packed stadiums and smoothed his entry into the lifestyle business. In 2013, for instance, Chesney started his own brand of rum, Blue Chair Bay, into which he has sunk $20 million of his own money, says his manager Clint Higham, president of Morris Higham Management.
The hits and the crowds kept coming, but Chesney came to a realization during the recording of his 2010 album Hemingway's Whiskey: It wasn't, he decided, "OK just to be the guy on the beach." He admires the career arcs of Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, and says he recognized it was time to follow their leads. Around the time that he came to that decision, artists like Aldean, Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line began climbing the charts and filling arenas and stadiums with variations on the party-hearty music that made Chesney a superstar.
As these artists invaded his turf, Chesney expanded his world view. Contemporaries Keith Urban and Blake Shelton were focusing on their brands and joining competition shows American Idol and The Voice, but Chesney rejected that path. "I'm not knocking anybody that does it, but I just don't ever see myself doing it," he says, then adds: "Can you imagine Tom Petty being a judge on American Idol?" Instead, he began working with new writers and artists. His 2013 album Life on a Rock ushered in an introspective quality with songs like "Must Be Something I Missed": "I wake up in the morning just making a fist," he sang. "I don't call it living, I just exist."
Chesney could have been referring to the grind of his record-tour-repeat schedule, which left him "feeling like I had been making music on a conveyor belt." After his last live date in August 2013, he decided to spend a year off the road and take his time recording The Big Revival. For an artist who had mounted 11 tours since 1990, "it was like falling off a mountain," he says, but also "the smartest thing for me to do. I'm at a point in my career where I can't just put together a collection of songs that may sound great but don't mean anything to anybody." Nor did he want to keep brooding: "I don't want to make that [kind of] record again," he says.
Eric Church, a country iconoclast who has toured with Chesney, says the evolution of Chesney's career is "more artistic than [critics will] ever give him credit for." The Big Revival, which arrived in late September, found Chesney all but abandoning tropical imagery for grittier subjects and bigger ideas. The album's title track tells the story of a snake-handling religious sect, but Chesney says there's a larger, less literal message to be taken from the song. "It's about hitting the reset button," he says. "It's about reclaiming your place in the world." (One thing the album did unequivocally reclaim: No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart. It was the 13th straight time Chesney nabbed the top spot.)
When it comes to touring, Chesney may have had the reset button punched for him. When he launches his 55-date tour in Nashville on March 26, 2015 (his 47th birthday), there will be a record number of contemporary country headliners out there with him -- more than 20, including Bryan, Florida Georgia Line and Aldean. "I'm proud of those guys," he says. "The biggest tours this year are rolling out of [Nashville], and they have been for a little while now."
His true rival transcends recent trends in country music: Garth Brooks, who hit the road for his Man Against Machine album in September. Brooks recently topped his own North American sales record for a single city after moving more than 188,000 tickets for 11 shows at the Target Center in Minneapolis. Insiders say he wants to break the all-time tour attendance record (7.3 million) held by U2. Coincidentally or not, Chesney ascended to the top of the country touring ranks after Brooks retired in 1998.
John Hamlin, senior VP music events and talent for CMT, says having both artists on the road will make for an interesting dynamic. "Garth got a lot of credit for applying rock-concert production to country music, and that changed the game," he says. "Kenny, who was a child of classic rock and country music, benefited from that. Garth went away as Kenny was emerging, and [Chesney] was able to take that baton and run with it. He created a gold standard for country music acts touring the country playing stadiums. Now everybody knows that's the benchmark, and Kenny set it."
Chesney, who has sustained an 11-year streak of drawing 1 million concertgoers per tour, brushes off the idea that country fans might choose Brooks over him: "There has always been somebody out there."
This year, when he wasn't working on The Big Revival, Chesney took some time off to visit his grandmother, who still lives in his East Tennessee hometown of Luttrell (also home to the late country star Chet Atkins). Born to an elementary school teacher father and hairdresser mother, Chesney was an average student and an enthusiastic high school athlete, especially when it came to football. Music became a big part of his life after he received a cheap guitar for Christmas in the late 1980s. "My mom sings, so does my Aunt Sharon," he says. "So I thought, 'Maybe I should accompany myself and see what happens.' All of a sudden, I was playing weekends at a fraternity house in Johnson City [Tenn.] and at a lot of bars."
After graduating from East Tennessee State University in 1990 (with a marketing and advertising degree, because he "had to get it in something"), he headed to Nashville and begin the requisite gigging at the Lower Broadway clubs, mostly at a now-closed honky-tonk known as The Turf. He first gained traction in Nashville as a songwriter, then released an album in 1994 on Capricorn's short-lived country label before settling in at BNA in 1995. (He's now on Sony's Columbia/Blue Chair imprint.)
Like so many emerging male country artists of the era, Chesney fit squarely in the modern honky-tonk mold established by one of his idols, George Strait, and in 1997, he landed his first of 22 No. 1 singles on the Hot Country Songs chart. Several more hits followed during the course of four studio albums, but Chesney lacked an identity beyond his cowboy hat. "I had a greatest-hits album with 17 songs on it, and nobody knew who I was," he recalls.
That all changed when he began spicing his music with island-inspired themes. Chesney had become enamored with the Virgin Islands after shooting a video there, and says the subsequent shift in his image wasn't a marketing scheme, but rather an example of "letting how I lived into my music." It worked. "Once I decided to quit trying to be George Strait, my life changed," he says. When No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems came out, "Everybody knew who sang those songs" -- many of them country music fans too young to be caught up in the original "gulf and western" Jimmy Buffett explosion 20 years prior.
By the time Just As I Am: Poets & Pirates rolled around in 2007, Chesney was playing stadiums, dominating radio and selling platinum. Tabloids took interest when his four-month marriage to Renee Zellweger ended in an annulment in 2005, and the actress cited "fraud" as the reason. ("In order for us to get an annulment, the legal papers could claim either physical abuse, which wasn't true, or three or four other things that also weren't true," he told Playboy in 2009. "The best thing we could put in there was 'fraud.' ")
The experience left him protective of his personal life. Though he mentions that he and his current girlfriend visited Italy earlier this year, he declines to divulge anything about his travel itinerary or his companion except to say that she's not in the music business and that "we hung out and drank a little too much red wine." (Chesney's publicist made it clear that Zellweger, whose dramatically transformed appearance recently roiled the Internet, is completely off-limits for discussion.)
"It's harder now, because everybody is paparazzi," he says, citing "iPhones" as a reason that the Virgin Islands are no longer "the place of peace they used to be for me." Once the owner of several homes there, the artist has sold most of them, including an 11,000-square-footer called Stoneridge on St. John that listed for $14 million. He's down to one Virgin Islands beachfront complex, the location of which he will not disclose. He also owns the 86-foot metallic-ice-hued Riva Domino speedboat -- price tag: $7 million -- featured in his "Come Over" video. "It's still rejuvenating -- I just have to walk a little more carefully," he says of his time on the islands. "That's why God made boats."
In 2013, Chesney went into the studio intending to make an album unlike any he had made before. However, he says, "I would listen to the songs I'd recorded, and they were good, but I felt like we were repeating ourselves." It wasn't until he found the first single, "American Kids," and co-wrote "Wild Child" that, he says, "I felt the excitement I needed to feel when I decided to take a year off." (Rocker Grace Potter, with whom Chesney recorded the hit duet "You and Tequila," rejoined him on "Wild Child.")
Chesney has given that new sound a big push. He unveiled The Big Revival with an appearance on NBC's Today, blasts to his 2 million Twitter followers and a free concert at the Flora-Bama bar in Gulf Shores, Ala., in August that drew 40,000 fans (it was taped by CMT and premieres on the cable network on Nov. 14). He announced his tour at an Oct. 24 appearance on Good Morning America. Tickets went on sale in November, and on Nov. 7, 110,000 tickets to two shows at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., sold out in 12 minutes.
The tour won't only serve as a proving ground for Chesney's relevance amid peers old (Brooks) and new (the bros). It also will reflect just how much (or how little) space he wants to put between himself and the party scene. A Chesney stadium show is a full day's experience for fans, who show up hours early to tailgate, and the singer himself has been known to visit fans in a golf cart, portable blender in tow. For VIPs, there's a tiki bar set up onstage.
"There's this sense of escapism that Kenny's fans get," Church says. "People say all the time that they want their concerts to be a party or a vacation, and Kenny is the best at that. The fans that come to these shows -- this is their family vacation. They plan their whole year around it. Everybody has the same spirit [at the shows], and they leave their lives outside."
As in years past, he'll have some high-wattage help onstage. Church, who graduated to headlining arenas this year, will join the lineup for select nights, and Chesney will merge tours with Aldean for a run of 10 stadium dates in May. "We want to kill next year," says Higham.
"Everybody that's a part of No Shoes Nation, we're going to go rattle their cage," says Chesney of the tour and the new songs that will be added to the set list. The title track of The Big Revivalwill probably be on it, as will "American Kids" and the two other singles he expects to have out by then. He'll up his production game, as he does with each tour, but a man who knows how to move 60,000 people knows he can stray from his roots only so much. The No Shoes Nation will want to bliss out on the hits, and Chesney will not disappoint them. The tiki bar will be back, too.