Kenny Chesney has been out of the public eye for the past month, hanging out on his boat in the Caribbean — barefooted, sans cell phone, a guitar and cooler by his side. Basically, he’s been living his “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems” music video 24/7. After wrapping up his Margaritas ‘n’ Senoritas tour in August, country’s newest superstar needed a break. Now he’s back to work, and CMT News caught up with him at Nashville’s Starstruck Studios. Chesney was tan, rested and eager to talk about his big year, an upcoming Christmas album, his collaboration with John Mellencamp on CMT Crossroads (premiering Oct. 3) and plans for his 2004 tour.
CMT News: I understand this is the first time you’ve taken any real time off in three years? Why now?
Chesney: I was tired.(laughs) Very tired! Our tour ended at the end of August, and the way our tour is laid out now I get a little more time off than I used to. The past month I’ve been floating around in the ocean in my boat just hanging out, writing a few songs. I had like a three-inch beard before I came in here this morning. I had to shave it because I was doing this [TV interview]. I didn’t want America to see me like Tom Hanks on that island.
CMT: Is it hard for you to switch gears after you’ve been out on tour?
Chesney: Yeah it is. It’s a natural progression. Being on a boat in the middle of the Caribbean kind of lets you do that very quickly. I’m glad I have that love affair with the water and the ocean because if I didn’t, I don’t know what I’d be doing. You know, maybe doing something self-destructive, who knows? But I love it. This was the most hectic year of my life on top of touring, just other things. There’s always something, and I’m the kind of person that I don’t do anything half-assed. I’ve got to do it all the way. I can’t just mail it in and go through the motions. So, I had so many things to do this year, and when you’re as hands-on as I am, it’s just so exhausting.
CMT: With so much down time to think, I’m sure you had a little bit of time to reflect on this crazy year. What were the high points for you?
Chesney: Well, I won two major awards this year. I won [the ACM] single of the year for “Good Stuff” and I won male vocalist of the year for the ACMs, and that was a big highlight. Just being able to do what we love to do at the level we’re doing it was the biggest highlight, though. To walk out on stage every night, to walk through the hallway, even before we’d get to the stage at the arenas or the sheds that we’re playing and hear 15,000 to 20,000 people just go nuts even before we’re going on stage … that’s the highlight. I still hear that when I lay down at night.
CMT: Two big things that happened to you were your Neyland Stadium show in Knoxville and also playing with John Mellencamp [on CMT Crossroads]. What are your thoughts on those experiences?
Chesney: The Knoxville show still seems a little surreal to me, like it just never happened — like it was just all one big dream. To be able to fill a football stadium with people who love music is just an awesome experience. I was not myself for I’d say, [for the first] 15 minutes of the show. It finally kicked in a little later. And, playing with John Mellencamp … I’d been listening to John’s music for a long time. John’s just an awesome guy for me to be around. We found out in a couple of days how much — it was scary how much — we had in common. To share the stage with a guy that you really look up to and you sing a lot of his songs in the clubs coming up. We still do [Mellencamp’s hit] “Jack and Diane” now.
CMT: Was it a trip to hear him sing “Young”?
Chesney: Oh, God. To hear Mellencamp sing my songs was — I mean, it was a trip to be able to be on stage with him, but to hear Mellencamp sing “Young” and “Back Where I Come From” and whatever else he did, it was awesome. It was really, really cool. It was something that I was very glad that I did, very glad that I had that experience and got to meet him and his wife and become friends with him. Every night onstage I wear an old beat up concert shirt. I told John that, and he told his wife that. And I got in the mail probably 20 old John Mellencamp real concert shirts from when he first started. It was a pretty cool gift to have. It came out of his warehouse in Indiana.
CMT: Before you mentioned the ACM awards. You didn’t come back to the press room that night because you were so overwhelmed. I’m just curious, what was going through your mind at that moment when you won male vocalist?
Chesney: A lot of my friends have won that. A lot of my heroes have won that. I remember sitting at college up at East Tennessee State University and watching those awards shows and watching Garth [Brooks] and George Strait and Clint Black and Randy Travis win those awards. Alan Jackson. Really, I had a pretty good speech, to be honest with you. I didn’t get to use it, but I’ve got it saved. If I ever win another one, I’ve got it saved. But I was onstage and I looked out in front of everybody, and I saw George Strait down there, and he and I have become pretty good friends over the years. Looked at him, and I saw Vince Gill and I saw Alan. I saw all these guys, just great country singers that I’ve looked up to for so long and have admired and that have stood in that spot and I was standing there in that spot and they were up there looking at me standing there in that spot. It was a pretty emotional thing. You know, because odds were against me standing in that spot. Odds are against anybody standing in that spot — and I was. It was a pretty tough thing to handle.
CMT: Of course, we’ve got the CMAs coming up, so maybe that speech will come in handy there.
Chesney: I hope so. I’ve never won a CMA award. So, I’d like to win one sooner or later. I love what I do on the road and what’s happening with us out on the road, and that’s my award really. But, you know, I’m not going to lie. I’d love to win one.
CMT: What does that mean to you to be in the entertainer category?
Chesney: Everything. That’s what I think we do best. That’s why we’re out there. It’s the entertainment business. I feel like that when we get out there in front of all those people. I feed off their energy, and I think they feed off ours. To be in the vicinity of entertainer of the year, even to be thought of in the same sentence is a dream come true. I know that sounds like a cliché, but it really, really is. I mean, I’ve been doing this a long time. There was actually one point when I thought, “You know what? I don’t know if I’ll ever win entertainer of the year.” Not everybody gets to that point to be in a position to win. And we’re in a position to win it now.
CMT: We’ve been talking about the ACMs and CMAs, which are both country awards shows. Your name has been a regular in that for the last few years, but what about the American Music Awards? How is that show maybe different from the ones that are strictly country?
Chesney: Well, the American Music Awards are exactly kind of what it says; it’s American music, and that just doesn’t mean country. It’s rap. It’s hip-hop. It’s rock ‘n’ roll. It’s everything. We performed out there a couple of times. I’ve never won an American Music Award either, and so it’d be a big thrill to win that. No doubt about it. But it’s never been my goal to win awards. I’ve never thought, “I’ve just got to win a CMA Award. I’ve just got to do it.” I’ve never really sat and said that to myself. Many times I’ve said, “I’ve got to find a better song. I’ve got to make my show better. I’ve got to find a way to turn these people in the 50th row on. I’ve got to figure out a way to do that.” That’s what I think about all the time. But it would be good to win, too.
CMT: You’re talking about finding better songs, and you mentioned just a second ago you were writing on the island. Is that something that you’re trying to do more of?
Chesney: Well, I’ve written a couple of songs here that I’m very proud of. I’ve never been the kind of artist that says, “I’ve got to write all the songs that I put on my record.” You know, I could write 10 songs a year to put on my record, but I’d have a pretty average record.
CMT: I have to ask you about your Christmas album. Why did you want to do one?
Chesney: I love Christmas! I do. I didn’t want to do a Christmas album that was just like everybody else’s. You know, everybody does the same songs every year, and they put their own little touch on it, sure. But, you know, I grew up in the Smoky Mountains, and I still spend Christmas in east Tennessee, but for the last four or five years, I’ve spent it down in the islands. Hanging out down there and it’s such an odd existence. At first it was odd to hear Bing Crosby in 80-degree weather and to see Santa Claus on the beach and to see Christmas lights in palm trees, but it’s a pretty cool thing, too. You don’t have to go any further than the title [All I Want for Christmas Is a Real Good Tan] to know that you’re going to hear an island influence on this Christmas record.
CMT: You have some special guests on the album?
Chesney: Yeah. Growing up in the South, during Christmas time you heard “Christmas in Dixie” so many times. Everybody loves that song. Randy Owen of Alabama came up and sang “Christmas in Dixie” with me, and Willie Nelson sang “Pretty Paper” with me. I’ve always loved “Pretty Paper.” It’s really neat to have those guys on my record, but the thing that I’m most proud of is on “Silent Night.” My mom and my Aunt Sharon, who are twins, they all used to sing together as kids and still do every now and then. They came in and sang harmony with me on “Silent Night.” Mom actually has her own step out part on the record. It’s something that all of us are going to have for the rest of our lives.
CMT: What are you doing for the rest of the year? Are you going to go back down to the islands and hang out some more?
Chesney: I am. I’m going to go down there and do some fishing. I caught a 200-pound blue marlin last week, so that kind of got me wanting to fish a little more and catch another one. It took me 30 minutes to get it even close to the boat. So, I want to go down, get on the boat and do some fishing and write some songs and sit on the beach and think about how wonderful this year has been. Finally, my ears have quit ringing. I can lay down at night and not hear my ears ringing from the music. I sleep a lot better now. (laughs)
CMT: You’ve had two incredibly successful tours in a row. Have you had time to consider what you’re going to do to keep that momentum going or maybe even top it next year?
Chesney: Yeah, we’re going to go out there, and we’re going to throw it at them as hard as we can throw it at them again. Hopefully, the momentum will be there. To be honest with you, this past couple of days, I was with my production manager and my set designer going over what my set’s going to look like when we go out next March. I know it’s a long way away, but you know, if you think about it, it’s not really. So much preparation goes into putting on a tour as big as what we’re doing right now. It’s not a thing you can just kind of make up. You’ve got to plan. Even though I’m off the road, mentally I feel really good right now. My batteries are pretty charged.