Kenny Chesney has built a highly successful career recording songs that mirror his life. Whether on a Caribbean island or a bus rolling to his next tour stop, he has taken his audience along for the ride, and they have enthusiastically responded. Chesney continues that journey on “The Road and the Radio.”
The title track, “Living in Fast Forward” and “In a Small Town” are among the autobiographical songs on the new album, due Nov. 8 via BNA Records. “That’s what this record is. It has to be to connect with people,” he says. “People want to see you in a song.”
Chesney feels that transparency has been crucial to his success.
“I used to just record songs that would sound good on the radio, but didn’t really mean anything to me or anybody else,” he says. “When I quit doing that is when my life changed. A song today has to mean something to me. It has to have a slice of my life in it. If it doesn’t, then it’s not doing anybody any good.”
That philosophy has propelled Chesney from obscurity to the top of the country format. It has been 10 years since he debuted on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart with “All I Need to Know.” Since then he has placed eight more titles on that list, with four out of the last five albums debuting at No. 1. (The only one to miss the summit was his Christmas collection, “All I Want for Christmas Is a Real Good Tan,” which peaked at No. 4.)
Named entertainer of the year by the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music, Chesney is known for his high-energy tours: He sold 1.1 million concert tickets last year—more than any other artist except Prince, according to Billboard Boxscore.
So how does he top all that this time out?
“I didn’t feel pressure to keep the status that I have. I just felt pressure to cut a great record,” the Luttrell, Tenn., native says of making the new album with producer Buddy Cannon. “There’s always pressure to find great songs. For some reason or other, it was a lot tougher to find those great songs” this time.
By mid-August, Chesney was a little concerned. “I felt like I had a good album, but not a great album,” he says.
Chesney continued to look for that song that he says could “wrap the rest of the album around, a song so universally identifiable that it would make the album have more of a foundation.”
The turning point came when he found current single “Who You’d Be Today.”
“Everybody knows someone who died too young and never got to fulfill their potential as a person,” he says of the song, which is in the top 5 on the Hot Country Songs chart.
Chesney found himself the target of a media firestorm this year in the wake of his brief marriage to actress Renee Zellweger and its ensuing annulment. Though some fans might hear songs on the new album like “Beer in Mexico” and think they were written about the breakup with Zellweger, Chesney says that was not the case.
“They’ll read stuff into anything,” he says with a laugh. “Believe me, I’m no stranger to speculation these days. Only me and the guys that wrote them with me know when we wrote them and why we wrote them. ‘Beer in Mexico’ was actually about a relationship, but not about the most recent one.”
Chesney says songs about his relationship with Zellweger “might be on the next record. Nothing [on “The Road and the Radio”] is a snapshot of current events. This album was done before a lot of stuff happened.”
Asked whether he is concerned about the publicity surrounding his personal life eclipsing his music, Chesney says, “I think it is important for this record to finally get out to remind people I’m not in tabloids for a living. It comes with the territory right now and I understand it, but I’m looking forward to getting back to the music, because that’s what is most important and what got me here in the first place.”
Chesney’s has an ABC special, “Somewhere in the Sun,” slated for Nov. 23, a prime spot the night before the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. He will also be performing everywhere from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade to “Good Morning America,” with stops along the way at “The View,” the CMA Awards, the American Music Awards, AOL Sessions and other high-profile gigs.
Chesney is excited about offering something a little different with his ABC special. He taped part of it at Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and part in the Caribbean.
“I wanted to show people both sides of me. Most people only get to see me onstage with big lights,” he says. “They’ll see that on the special too, but they also get to see me hanging with friends and fishing.”