With Tuesday’s (Nov. 8) release of his new album, The Road and the Radio, Kenny Chesney is finishing up the busiest year of his life. He found success with his most introspective album to date, Be As You Are: Songs From an Old Blue Chair, and followed it up with another sold-out concert tour that included a series of stadium concerts.
At one point, though, it appeared as though Chesney’s career accomplishments for the year might be overshadowed by the international media attention surrounding his brief marriage to actress Renee Zellweger. However, in keeping the matter private, he seems to have weathered the unsolicited publicity by demonstrating an admirable level of class and dignity. He found support and friendship in Nashville when he was awarded ASCAP’s prestigious Voice of Music Award for his career accomplishments.
On Nov. 15, Chesney will open the CMA Awards show with “Living in Fast Forward,” a new song from The Road and the Radio, during the CBS telecast from New York’s Madison Square Garden. And on Nov. 23, Somewhere in the Sun, Chesney’s first primetime broadcast special, airs on ABC.
Chesney recently talked to CMT’s Katie Cook about his new album, his reflections on the past year and his plans for the future. Listen to all the tracks from The Road and the Radio.
Cook: Recently, when you received ASCAP’s Voice of Music award, you said you consider yourself a songwriter first and foremost — even above being an entertainer.
Chesney: I said that just because that’s how I got into the business first. Right now, being an entertainer is consuming my life. I love that. I love being a songwriter. I love being able to take an emotion and write about it … make people feel something. So, yeah, I was a songwriter first, then I was an entertainer. But what consumes my life is being an entertainer and doing that the best I can every year out on the road. And, you know, write a few songs here and there. With the new record that’s coming out, I only wrote two songs on it because I was so busy last year. But that’s OK.
You are at the top of your game right now. But do you ever feel like it’s almost so fast paced, like are you able to enjoy it as it’s unfolding?
That’s a great question. I am. There’s a song on my new record called “Living in Fast Forward,” and it defines how I’ve lived my life in the last several years. Because it has happened so quick. And I say it’s happened so quick. I mean, I’ve been doing it for 12 years. But the last four to five years, it’s been an amazing thing to live through and to see happen to you and to see your fan base grow to a point where it’s unbelievable to stand in front of that microphone every night and see how passionate they are about your music. … More importantly, how much fun they’re having with it … out in the parking lots before the show and during the show. It’s everything I ever dreamed of and more.
I didn’t know. I couldn’t dream this good. So being entertainer of the year is a great honor because it lets me know that the industry recognizes that we are connecting with a lot of people and changing a few lives and, more importantly, I think maybe bringing some people in to listen to country music that normally wouldn’t have. And I think that’s the most important thing, really.
And you seemed genuinely surprised. You’ve got the CMA Awards coming up. You don’t sit and work on your acceptance speeches?
Not really. I mean, if I win, I’ve got to be sure and thank this one person, but I don’t sit and write a speech for it. I just don’t.
Does that ever backfire? Do you find yourself afterwards thinking, “I wanted to thank this person”?
I won male vocalist of the year a couple years ago. And I was so emotional, I couldn’t even speak without crying almost. So I just turned my back and walked offstage … hoping I win it again. I’ll say the speech that I was going to say that year — next year. But I just try to get up there and, if I win, have it come from the heart. And most importantly, I’ve had a lot of fans out there that have really been with me for a long time and kind of grew up in this business with me and dreamed this dream with me. I’ve got a lot of new fans, too, which is great. But those people need to be thanked the most, really.
The entertainer of the year award is so hard to get your hands on. You seemed genuinely surprised, but wasn’t there a part of you that was like, “Finally! I have worked my butt off for this”?
Sure. I mean, yeah, I have worked hard, and we’ve had some great years and didn’t win it. But that’s just part of it, you know. And luckily, we’ve had some better years since those years that allowed us to win it. But that’s a good point that you made. They just don’t give the entertainer of the year award away. They might give some things away, but they don’t give that thing away. You’ve got to go take it. You’ve got to go get it. And I’m proud of everything we’ve accomplished. I say “we” — my band and my crew — because it’s all one big thing that has to happen together, and a lot of things have to happen for you to be able to stand in that spot.
And I try to represent country music in a good way and accept it with a lot of humility. I’m very proud of it, you know. But I think what I do best is get up on stage and connect with a lot of people … through music and through our show. We try to make it as fun as we can, and I stay up at night thinking of ways to make it better. I really do. And we’ve kind of stepped it up every year, and I want to try to do it again next year. Hopefully, we do, anyway. I guarantee we’re going to have a good time, either way.
I’ve heard you say, “I don’t do anything halfway.” It’s true, isn’t it?
I can’t. I don’t do anything halfway. If I catch myself doing it, I just won’t do it. So that’s where my focus has been: being an entertainer and working to make our show out on the road better than anybody’s, as powerful as anybody’s.
Speaking of the road, let’s talk about the new album, The Road and the Radio. There’s a great balance. Definitely a party vibe, but a very serious side of Kenny Chesney, too. Were you very conscious of that when you were picking the songs?
I was. When we first started making this record, I wanted to bring people back to the stage. Because the last record that I had, the Be As You Are album, took people away from the stage and how I lived my life in the islands. … But with this record, it was a conscious effort, production-wise, to bring people back to the stage. There’s a lot of guitar on this record that’s pretty edgy, and it’s the way I like it. I can’t help it. It’s the way I grew up. So there are a lot of pretty rockin’ party songs on this record. Four or five of them, anyway. But, on the other hand, there is a lot of looking back. There’s a lot of soul searching on this record, and there’s a lot of me. And that’s the way it has to be now.
It didn’t used to be that way. Used to, I would make a record full of songs that I felt like would sound good on the radio because, to be honest with you, at that point in my career, I was just trying to get on the radio. But now, it’s got to be better than that. And it started with the No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems album, and it has continued since then. I’ve been able to give the fans an inside look at me, and every song has a slice of me. And the new record, The Road and the Radio, is no different. It has to say something about me, because people can listen to a song on the radio — and it would be OK — but they’ve been able in the past four or five years to invest in more than that with me.
And picking a first single, is so tough. I know a lot goes into that. You went with “Who You’d Be Today.” Why was that the first single?
“Who You’d Be Today” is the first single off this record. I remember at the first of August, I was not worried, but I was a touch worried, because I hadn’t found that song yet. And I felt like I had a good album, but I didn’t feel like that I had one song that could be a base of the record and wrap the whole other songs around it and have one song that was so unbelievably universally identifiable. And when I heard that song, I realized that I had that piece of the puzzle for this record. Because everybody has somebody in their life that lost their life way too soon and didn’t really get to realize their potential as a person. I never sang a song about the subject before. … It’s a very touchy but powerful subject.
And I think I learned something with “There Goes My Life” and some other songs like “A Lot of Things Different.” You can’t really be too real. People want to feel it, and they might need to hear it. So that’s why I felt like that this was the perfect song to come with first. … I felt like this song was perfect way to kick off the record.
“You Save Me” is my favorite song on this record. I love this song. It’s so vulnerable, and it’s so honest, and it’s a great vocal performance.
“You Save Me” was almost the first single off the record, but we went the other way. But “You Save Me” will be a single for us sometime down the line. And I haven’t had a song like “You Save Me” in a long time. I haven’t really sang a one-on-one love ballad. But I think it’s more than that. I think it could be about friendship. It could be about religion or whatever, because everybody needs that person or that thing to maybe keep them on the right path — whether they want them to be there or not. And I think that’s why that song was so good. And it pushed me. This song was melodically very challenging. There’s always one song on every album that makes me a better singer. And pushes me to be better, and “You Save Me” was definitely it.
You mentioned earlier the last album, Be As You Are, was a little bit of departure for you artistically. But the fans loved it. How did the success of that album affect maybe how you approach this one?
Well, it was a very successful record, and it was a very personal record. Maybe it showed me that I could be more personal in the future. But still, I mean, production-wise, I just wanted to go and get away from it. I wanted to slap them in the face again, be more of an album that really reflects our show. But I might do another one of those records sometime down the line. But you got to realize that I wrote that album. I wrote every song on it, but I wrote it over a period of five and a-half years. I get asked that question a lot: “When are you going to come up with another album like Be As You Are?” Yeah, well someday. It may take me three years to write it, but it’s got to be real and it’s got to be honest and it’s got to paint a lot of pictures, and they have to come with time. That’s probably my most satisfying moment, as a songwriter, as an artist, in watching the success of that Be As You Are album.
Speaking of painting a great picture, the song “Summertime” really captures that summer feeling. When we’re kids, summertime just equals freedom, doesn’t it? But what does summertime mean to you now?
Summertime means a lot of things. For the past 12 years, summertime has meant listening to road cases roll out of semi trucks and listening to fans in the lawn. It’s meant suntan oil, it’s meant playing basketball out in the parking lot with the band and the crew, and it’s meant being able to reconnect with a lot of people out there that live with our music. That’s what I thought about when I heard this song, “Summertime.” … I think when people hear this song, they’re going to have their own pictures and their own paintings coming into their mind about what this song means to them.
“Living in Fast Forward” is definitely something you can relate to at this time in your life. After the year you’ve had, it’s been go, go, go. I’m thinking you probably need to rewind.
Yeah, if there’s one guy anywhere that needs to rewind, it’s me. Because this has been an amazing year. I’ve felt every emotion. I have seen every color of the rainbow this year, and it’s been awesome. But if [anyone] is living his life in fast forward right now, it’s me and my band and everybody involved. But I do have to rewind. I do have to recharge, and I’m going to be doing that before March … before we go out and start touring again.
But you don’t have to live the kind of life I live to live your life in fast forward. There’s a lot of people out there living their life in fast forward. It’s just kind of the way we live today. You know, it’s pretty fast paced, and no matter what you do for a living, I think that you can get a little caught up in it and push a little too hard. You need that outlet. Mine’s a boat. Whatever it is to rewind, you’ve got to do it.
Keeping with this theme, do you almost feel that, this year, there have been times when the celebrity side of Kenny Chesney has almost been in danger of overshadowing the music?
Oh, there’s definitely some times, especially here lately. But that’s what’s great about new music, and that’s what’s great about releasing a new record. It gets away from all the stuff. And, yeah, it got to a point where, you know, the music was not first. And the music has always been first. And that’s why I’m excited about this album coming out, because it’s going to get back to the music. And remind people that I’m not in tabloids for a living. That’s not what I do.
You’ve been able to really take your career up a notch every single year. You are at the top of your game now — top awards, a household name, playing for stadiums filled with thousands of people. What in your mind is the next level?
Wow, that’s a good question. I have achieved a lot. I still have goals, though. The next level to me would be keep growing my fan base like I’ve been doing. Believe me, we’re experiencing things now that we didn’t even know was possible. But we’re still having fun, and I want to still have fun doing this. There’s still a lot of great songs to write, and there’s still a lot to record and a lot of people’s lives to touch, and that’s the most important thing. That’s the most fun thing for me is to see how a great song can change a life and touch a life and see it in their faces at the concerts. … Whether we’re playing a stadium or whatever we’re doing, I just want to enjoy it.
You talk about how you want your songs to affect people. I want to ask how your songs affect you. Lyrically, even if it’s something you’ve sung thousands of times, surely as your life changes, those lyrics must take on new meanings sometime.
They do. And especially with this new record, these are songs that I know that I’m going to be singing for the rest of my life. A lot of songs on this current record that I know are going to be a part of our show for a while. … But even before I record it, I have to feel it. I have to know it. I have to know that somebody knows it, or I can’t sell it at all.
But there are several songs out there that touch me still and that mean a lot to me still. Especially songs that I wrote myself that I’m singing live onstage, because it takes me to why I wrote it and where I wrote it and the person that I wrote it about and the emotion that I was feeling when I wrote it. It can get fairly emotional sometimes.