Kenny Chesney: The Billboard Cover Story
WELCOME TO THE MACHINE
Chesney came to Nashville in the early '90s at the height of the Garth era, finding limited success on Capricorn Records but separating himself from the hat pack at BNA a few albums in by touring relentlessly and adding a flip-flops-and-blender-drinks vibe to contemporary country. Major hits like "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy" and "How Forever Feels" wrapped the '90s, but Chesney's appeal had as much to do with his "everyman" persona as radio hits. He struck a nerve with country fans, coming off as a guy who was just as at home at the Florabama Bar in Perdido Key, Fla., as at any landlocked honky-tonk.
While country is known to be a genre where hits, record sales and radio play all run parallel, Chesney proved the perfect artist for the modern music business economy, where touring drives the train and maximizes other revenue streams like merchandising, branding and, yes, record sales. Chesney toured smart, sacrificing better paydays for bookings that fit his long-term plan, parlaying key support slots and under-plays into his own arena-headlining status. Once he conquered the arenas and amphitheaters, he took on stadiums and never looked back.
During the past decade, Chesney has become the biggest ticket seller in country music and among the elite touring artists in the world. He grossed about $500 million and sold nearly 10 million tickets, according to Billboard Boxscore. He owns a wealth of Billboard Touring Awards to go with his platinum albums and industry accolades, and when he wrapped the Sun City Carnival tour last year, Chesney's drawing power showed no sign of waning.
From the legion of fans, to promoter TMG/AEG Live, to the arenas, sheds and stadiums that host his concerts, to the hundreds who make all or part of their living from the Chesney touring machine, hearing talk of a break couldn't have been welcome news.
"Some of them took it better than others," Chesney admits. "It's funny you used the word 'machine,' because that's kind of what it started to feel like, just this machine that I was feeding, and kept feeding. You give your blood, sweat and tears, you give your heart and your soul-I did, anyway-to this machine. All of a sudden nothing was feeding it back to the soul, and that had to change. So for the most part, everybody in the machine understood. And those that didn't ain't around anymore."
Clint Higham, Chesney's manager with Morris Artists Management, says taking a break wasn't that difficult a decision, given long-term considerations. "It was the right thing to do and we didn't look back," Higham says. "We're in a creative business, and to stay creative sometimes you have to let your mind and body rejuvenate. All these projects take months and months in advance to do, so you're always like a gerbil on a wheel-you never get off, you never have time to recharge your batteries, and that's exactly where he was at. And now he's in the most creative place I've seen him since a decade ago."
Of course, "taking the year off" in Chesney's world is a relative term. Without a full route book of concert dates in front of him for the first time in more than a decade (he did play a dozen one-offs and festivals), Chesney immersed himself in two film projects. In addition to the football documentary, there was the "Kenny Chesney: Summer in 3D" concert film, which premiered in April and grossed more than $1 million in four days. Directed by Joe Thomas, who co-produced with Chesney, the DVD of the film was released in July exclusively through K-Mart.
Working on "3D" kept Chesney from missing (and obsessing on) touring. "It would have felt pretty empty if I hadn't been consumed with the '3D' project," Chesney says. "I spent two solid months mixing this 3-D film at Sony Pictures out there in Los Angeles, so I was onstage every day, sitting there looking at all this. The band and everybody probably missed rehearsals. If I was just sitting at home every day, I would have probably missed it."
The few shows Chesney did play in 2010 served more to keep the fire burning than to burn him out. That's decidedly different from the mega-shows that have peppered the route for the last several years, "when the weight of a football stadium and everybody in it is on your shoulders,' he says. "I've learned to have pretty tough skin and shield a lot of that off, because I just kind of zone myself in. But there is a moment where you realize there's only one spotlight, and I know where it's at."
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ERNEST
As bright as that spotlight is, Chesney also enjoys robust sales as a recording act. The BNA artist has moved almost 25 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, with six albums topping 1 million in sales. His most recent release, "Greatest Hits II" in 2009, scanned 690,000 units, and his most recent studio album, 2008's "Lucky Old Sun," scanned 800,000. In 2006, "Poets & Pirates" moved 1.6 million, according to SoundScan. He's charted 17 No. 1s on Hot Country Songs and ruled Top Country Albums nine times.
Chesney says that for the first time in years, he had the time he wanted to devote to an album project. "That's another reason I wanted to take the year off, to creatively give to something when I wasn't giving to anything else," he says. "Balancing touring and recording is hard, and I've done that the last seven or eight years, the last three or four records. I didn't want to do that with this record."
Unlike some studio efforts, "Hemingway's Whiskey" wasn't made "on a treadmill," Chesney says. "I didn't make this record in the middle of being home on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and I wasn't in the studio thinking about where I had to fly to Thursday, Friday and Saturday night," he says. "I had time to focus more on music as a whole, the songs, the production. Me and [producer] Buddy [Cannon] had more time to talk, about what this song means and why, and where it would fit in the record. We didn't just go in there and have a chart and do the intro/verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus/out. You hear those records every day. I didn't want to make that record."
Chesney admits he has made "that record" in the past. "It's tough when you're tired and busy,' he says. "I wanted to make this record with a clear head, where I wasn't being pulled in other directions."
"Hemingway's Whiskey," co-produced by Chesney and longtime studio collaborator Cannon, does go in many directions. The album boasts songs sure to please longtime fans in "Live a Little (Love a Lot)," "Coastal' and the sentimental ballads "The Boys of Fall" and "Where I Grew Up." But it also challenges fans and Chesney alike with cuts like the regretful, mostly acoustic "You and Tequila" (with
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
Chesney will go out "wide open" next year when he returns to the road, with about "60-ish" dates, including a return to stadiums. As usual, Chesney is fully engaged in plotting every aspect of the tour, which will once again be with TMG/AEG Live through a long-term deal with the promoter.
"I've already got a 3-D rendering of what our stage show will look like on my computer right now," Chesney says, lighting up when he discusses things like working out sightlines. "I can look at it from all angles. I don't want to piece this thing together. If you go out like we do it, if we start in April or March, you can't wait until January to piece this together."
Chesney admits there are aspects of touring he didn't miss. "I didn't miss going to catering every day at 5 o'clock. I didn't miss hanging out on the bus all day wasting time, doing certain things. I don't miss [promoter] Louis Messina one bit," he says, chuckling. "But, boy, I tell you, I missed that first note every night. I missed the energy of the crowd. That's what you hope you miss, and boy, I missed it."
Given the challenges of the touring business this summer, Team Chesney may have picked the right year to give the road a rest.
"You need to be missed," Higham says. "If you're around every year, you get taken for granted."
With all of Chesney's success, having far exceeded his boyhood dreams in Luttrell, Tenn., when asked what still motivates him, he answers without hesitation. "Fear of failure,' he says. "That's another reason I pulled back. I didn't want to be the tired guy up there. I didn't want to be the guy that went through the motions. People deserve better, and I knew I was on the edge of doing that. To me, that would be failing. It would drive me crazy later on in life to know that I mailed something in."