Kenny Chesney’s new album “Life On A Rock” is surely the most personal work he’s ever done, and time will likely prove it to be among his best-loved by fans. While it does have its stadium-ready party songs in the title cut, “Pirate Flag” and “When I See This Bar” that will be sure to please the throngs on the road, “Life On A Rock” often wields the most power in its quieter moments, personal reflections and observation primarily drawn from Chesney’s “other life” in the Virgin Islands, away from the pressures of maintaining his status as a chart-topper, radio stalwart, and the top touring artist in country music history. On “Life On A Rock,” Kenny Chesney the songwriter, the storyteller, is front and center.
“I’ll look back on [“Pirate Flag”] as one of my favorite records for a lot of reasons, but one of the main reasons is the way the record was made,” Chesney tells Billboard. “I wrote a lot of these songs without music. I just wrote the lyrics down and tried to take moments from my life and my friends lives, and some of their stories, and the crazy characters I’ve met, and tried to give them a pulse, tried to paint a picture, and honestly tell a story that I haven’t been able to tell up to know because of the nature of our business and the way we make music. And not only did I write without music initially, I wrote them without expectations, without a timeline. I wrote them without editing myself.”
The result is an intimate, powerful album populated by some of the most memorable songs of Chesney’s lengthy career.
Chesney talked about these songs with Billboard’s Ray Waddell on a sunny April day at the offices of Sony Music in Nashville.
1. Pirate Flag
Kenny Chesney: I think there’s a side to all of us that gets caught up in our day-to-day life, drive down the same road to work, hit the same bumps, no matter how old they are or whatever, and you can have this anxiety or mundane existence or boredom. I have those emotions, too. “Pirate Flag” is about it’s OK to check out from all of that. People have different ways of raising the pirate flag and checking out. Some people come to our shows, some people use music, some people go to the lake, some people do whatever, exercise, but it’s that idea of rebelling against whatever it is that’s weighing you down.
2. When I See This Bar – This song defines a time when I first started going to the Virgin Islands, and I had a group of people I became great friends with. It was completely different from the life I had built on the road, and here [in Nashville]. They didn’t know what I did, or they knew and didn’t care. And I think that all of us, no matter where you live or what your reality is in life, all of us have that circle of friends that have that place they hang out. For me it was a beach bar. I think a bar has a way of connecting all those friends, you have an emotional attachment to that place, even if you don’t know it at the time. That’s the place you guys meet, people fall in love at that bar, they fall out of love at that bar, I think it’s possible for them to fall back into life at that bar. You go through so many things. There’s a bar Johnson City where I went to college, and I had my first beer in college there and my last beer in college there, and it was with the same people. And when I go past that place, I see the bar, but I remember. I see the faces. And that’s the root of the idea of this song, and for me it was the bar there in the Virgin Islands. And when I go past it, I hear the jokes, I see the faces that may or may not still be there. I don’t see walls. I hear the music that’s played, the stuff in your head that takes you to a place where there was a true, honest, emotional connection. It’s a unique song melody-wise for me, and it has a little bit of all my influences in there. And when it kicks in, it’s everything that I love to do live, too. It just builds, like it’s got its own different chapters. Even though it was written very specifically about my friends and my experiences, I think it has something that everybody can sink their teeth into and think, “you know what, I have that bar. I have that place and I have those friends.” You see all those faces, and sometimes you look back and think, “I didn’t realize it, but I was really living in the moment then.” The idea that we were just too busy living to think about not always being there and now it’s funny. A lot of this record is about how life just moves you along whether you realize it or not. This album is about wow, how much fun we had, how much fun we’re still having, but that was a really special moment. And that bar defines all of it, and, in a way, that time in your life that, when you look back, shaped you in a lot of ways. When you go back, the people that are with you may see four walls and bottles on the wall, they don’t see the heart, the poetry, hear the laughter, remember the stories and faces.
3. Spread The Love (featuring the Wailers) – This is a perfect example of how universal music really is. The fact that I grew in East Tennessee, and Family Man and Bob Marley and all those guys, and the people that made this track, grew up in Jamaica, that we can do this together, and it works, goes against everything you would think is real, but it ends up pretty authentic sounding because music’s music. As different backgrounds as we have, and journeys we take, there’s a lot of commonality, man, when you start mixing stuff together, there’s something you can find in all of it that is very universal. “Spread The Love” is that example on this record. If you watch enough TV, you know that our whole world has a blanket of negativity over it, just the nature of how we live right now. A lot of the Wailers’ music, if you really listen to it, is very spiritual in nature, and all about love. And that’s where we took the lyric. It’s all about that emotion and how we want to try to find a little light somewhere. As much negativity as there is in the world, to write a simple lyric about how we can spread the love a little more and see what happens. As cliché as it sounds, that’s where this song started and how it ended up on my record, and the fact that it did fit in the middle of all these songs that I was writing at the time, didn’t even know it was gonna be a record, it’s funny how it all comes about. The track was recorded in Jamaica, my vocal was recorded in Tennessee, the background vocals were recorded in London, and we mixed the record at Buffett’s studio in Key West.
4. Lindy – The first I wrote in this collection was “Lindy” in 2006, and I still can’t believe the lyric that I wrote for “Lindy” is going to be on a record, that I wrote a song about him and people are going to hear it, because that was never the intent. It was just an expression of this person that I never really had a conversation with, and I don’t know that many people that did have a conversation with him. He was always just a staple of the island, just a brush stroke that can give an island a heart, charm and soul, down in the Virgin Islands where I spend a lot of time. It’s funny how you think you can know somebody, but you really don’t, they’re just always around. One night I was on my way home, and I walked past this church, really close to the road and the front doors where open, and I heard somebody playing piano. I just walked up to the steps, and it was Lindy playing piano by himself. I stood there a couple of minutes and just observed that. We live very different lives, but I thought if you look past somebody’s dirty shirt, a lot of times you’ll see a pretty good person. I don’t know his story, but you could tell that there was a person up there alone with his thoughts and his music, and I thought as different as we are, we have more in common than I would have ever realized. I went home and couldn’t sleep thinking about that experience, and I sat out on the deck of my house and started thinking about all they years I’d seen him around, and that is how that song was born. That’s the reason a lot of the songs on this record are so different, because almost all of them are from moments like that that would have been easy to let evaporate, just let ‘em go past you and forget about it. Life moves really fast, and we have a way, oddly enough, of moving even faster. If you don’t take that moment to write about something, any creative person, if you don’t’ take that moment it, goes away.
5. Coconut Tree (with Willie Nelson) – “Coconut Tree” is an example of the simplicity of how I try and live my life away from how complicated my life can be on a day in/day out basis, whether I’m on the road or off the road. I’ve got a lot of frequencies going on. I think Willie inspires the world in a lot of ways, not just musically but the way he walks through the world. I love the guy. I spent time with him in December in Hawaii, sittin’ around the poker table, and all we did was sit around and share music. I listened to “Coconut Tree” and I thought, hell that’s me and Willie two weeks ago. Just the simplicity of it and how much I crave having my window of the world be that simple. Watching the sun move across the sky, climbing up your favorite coconut tree and hanging out, and who better to do that with than Willie Nelson.
6. It’s That Time of Day – This is one of those songs and moments that would have been really easy to let go. I’ve had countless boat trips with friends down in the Islands, and when it’s really flat and really good, it’s a magical time of day when it’s time to head back over to the main island. You’re just on a boat, listening to music with friends, you may or may not have been technically over-served, but just the feeling of living in the moment and enjoying what God has given you. I’m tellin’ you, there’s a time of day when you have to say goodbye to everybody, say goodbye to that day, and everybody collects there things, gets off the boat, and me and the boat captain would have to take the boat back over and tie it up. We have a routine, we’d give everybody a big hug, tell ‘em you love them, it’s just the idea of taking that emotion, taking that day, and like the song says, “this ain’t a goodbye, it’s ‘til I see you again.” When you look at that in the broader sense of life, it starts to mean a lot more than just people getting off the boat, watching a great sunset, and I’m really glad I was able to capture that feeling. A lot of things go through your mind that time of day. The fact that we get to share that with people, all these wonderful, creative, mentally insane, crazy souls I call my circle of friends that have really inspired my life, to be able to write a song about what that feels like.
7. Life On A Rock – Honestly, I could have probably written three of these songs to get in all of the adjectives and everything I wanted to describe. I probably should’ve, that may be a project later on, take the track and tell a different story that relates to people who live life on a rock. I love being able to do what I do, get off a plane, let the wind and sun hit you, and just let your skin breathe, man. I’ve kept a guitar in a closet on my boat forever, and a lot of times when I’m there, and I get away from what I do, the last thing I want to do is pick up that guitar. But other times, it’s less than 36 hours, next thing you know I’ve somehow got that guitar out of the case, and it’s just a creative, inspiring set of circumstances for me. That’s what life on a rock has done for me. It takes a unique individual to live there. The beauty of it is it’s a choice for a lot of people. People stress, whether it’s down there or up here, but I guess one of the reasons I have the friends that I have down there and the reason that place means so much to me, it’s really about friendship in a lot of ways – it’s just the idea of taking their life, watching them color outside the lines of it, on purpose, is just inspiring.
8. Marley – I wrote that song in my kitchen here in town with Tom Douglas. But it’s so true and authentic to my life, because I thank God every day that I’m as blessed as I am, that I have the friends that I have, that I get to make music for a living, that I get to go out and play for a pretty big mass of people. But, with that comes the knife of responsibility, like it says in the song. I feel the most solid in my skin when I can pull that knife out and just try to be still. It’s very hard for me to be still, especially when you’re planning, some things two years ahead. It’s really hard when you’re doing that to sometimes live in the moment. My favorite way to try to do that is I have a copy of Hemingway’s ‘Old Man in the Sea” I bought in the Keys a long time ago, and that same copy is on my boat right now. I’ve dropped it in the ocean, it’s been rained on, I’ve spilled rum on it, it’s weathered by the sun, it looks horrible. But I love it because, in a lot of ways, it describes my journey, the struggles of the character in the book. I bet I’ve read it 25 times, it reminds me of the relationship I had with my grandfather. That’s part of it, along with friends, family, whoever, and nine times out of 10 a Bob Marley record, that helps me live in the moment. Bob Marley, I believe, other than Willie Nelson, is the most universal artist ever. But it’s less about Marley and more about me describing how different my life can be, and what I do to find balance on the balance beam, what it takes to do that.
9. Must Be Something I Missed – That’s probably one of the most self-reflective songs I’ve written in a while. I was on the phone with Mac MacAnally, who I wrote the song with, and it was just one of those days. We were talking about something we were planning, and I just had too much on my mind that day, and I was telling him about what I was going through that morning. I said there are days where I don’t feel like I’m living my life, I’m just existing in it, moving from project to project to project and I’m not taking time to pay attention to things that need attention. And I don’t know that that’s good. And he told me that the fact that you acknowledge it is a start. I don’t think you have to do what I do to feel overwhelmed in your life, I know you don’t. There are a lot of people out there that feel they’re not living their life, merely existing in it. My mom was a single mom, had me and my sister, I’m sure she felt overwhelmed, that she wasn’t living her life. That’s where the idea started, and I wish I could take credit for that melody but it’s 100% Mac MacAnally. There’s something to be learned in looking in the mirror. and like Mac said, acknowledging that fact, but where can you correct some of it and hold on to things that need to be held on to, applying that to your life.
10. Happy On The Hey Now (A Song For Kristi) – This was a hard song for me to sing in the studio. This person defined that circle of friends, she defined a time in my life when it was a lot simpler for me. I think that she was the kind of person that lived the kind of life I really craved. She was the epitome of living life in the moment. She took life like it was a big lemon and squeezed it really hard. I think we all have somebody in our life that dies young, and it’s hard to figure out why, and that can make such an impact that no matter how busy you are and what you’re doing in life, it can stop you in your life and change you. That’s what it did to me, even before I wrote this song. When that happens to you and you have to let go of someone you really care about, it makes you re-evaluate everything. It makes you re-evaluate the connection with the person you’re in a relationship with, what you’re giving to it, are you giving to it. It makes you re-evaluate your relationships with your family, your friends, and that’s what Kristi’s passing did to me. It changed me as a person, as an artist and songwriter, the way I like to walk through the word. She was a special person. The Hey Now was just a boat we all hung out on, but there was a lot of life on the boat, and she was in a lot of ways the centerpiece of all of it. This song is just as simple tribute. I’ve never written a song directly to a person like that. “Happy On The Hey Now” is a love song from all of our circle of friends and a tribute to someone who really touched our lives, someone that really squeezed that lemon hard. Some people are really good at math, good at school, some have a great business mind, some are great at sports. Kristi was good at life and that’s what this song is all about.