Editor’s Note: Kenny Chesney’s new concert film, Kenny Chesney: Summer in 3D, opens at theaters nationally on Wednesday (April 21). The project contains footage shot in six stadium shows in 2009, plus old film clips and photographs from throughout his 17-year career, plus some of Chesney’s own memories of the highlights. He recently sat down with CMT.com to talk about the movie, his life and his career.
CMT.com: The film has several clips dating back to your early tours. Did you start touring when you were on Capricorn Records in the early ’90s?
Kenny Chesney: Yeah. 1993. It was November ’93 when I started touring, and I’ve been going down the road ever since. What’s been great about making this film is that it’s forced me to go back and reflect, and I haven’t taken the opportunity to do that before. I mean, there’s video footage that I saw that I forgot that I had. And I had put it up, put it in a box, and forgot it was there, you know. So one day, you’ll see the director’s cut of this. It’s some really funny stuff. Stuff that didn’t make the movie.
When did you decide to make this in 3D?
We were in rehearsals last year, and the company that did the U2 3-D film is the company that shot this one. And when we decided to do it, Sony Pictures got on board and said they’d like to distribute this film. And the next thing you know, we’re in the film business. I wanted [it] for the fans that have been out there and invested in what I’ve been doing from the very beginning. I felt that they’d really enjoy seeing what that journey was like. It’s not just about us waking up one day and playing the Philadelphia Eagles’ football stadium. It’s the journey it took to get there. One of the things I wanted to make clear with this film is that this just didn’t happen. It’s been a 17-year process for me to be able to stand behind the microphone in that specific spot. And I’m proud of it, you know. And I think that I have a very unique love affair in the connection with people that come see us play every year. And for me, I wanted to relive it, and I wanted to document it, and more importantly, I wanted to document it for them.
I remember talking to [Capricorn records founder] Phil Walden back then — when all of the Nashville country record labels rejected you. He signed you to his rock label because he felt that you had what it took to be a great artist. Phil said, “I’m very passionate about Kenny. I know he’ll be special.”
Phil Walden was a big believer. [Producer] Barry Beckett was a big believer. I remember it like it was yesterday. I got in Barry’s car over at his office on 18th Avenue [on Nashville’s Music Row]. We went over to Phil Walden’s office and sat down. I pulled the guitar out of the case, sat and sang a couple songs for him. And he said, “Man, I want to make a record with you.” That’s where this all started. I didn’t really know at the time that I was in a room with two guys who really had a lot of history, who were famous in the record business. If I had known, I’d probably been really nervous. But I had just gotten off the golf course, and I had no idea. Barry just told me he wanted me to play a couple songs for this guy. And it wasn’t until after I’d already signed with Phil that I learned a lot of history and what he meant. And believe me, I really respected Barry. We’d been working together for a little bit, you know, just messing’ around a little. If I had known what I was walking into, I’d probably have been a lot more nervous at the time. And, thank God, I didn’t!
Barry’s in the film, isn’t he?
Barry Beckett meant a lot to me, and he’s in this film. There’s a portion of the film where I try to talk about a lot of people that have been there along the way and helped me. At the end of the film … where we did “Better as a Memory” in the crowd, I mean, there’s a moment there where I just couldn’t sing.
That’s a very strong moment. You were really overcome with emotion.
So much was rolled into one in my heart at one time. It was Barry Beckett. It was my relationship with the fans. It was everyone that’s been a part of my life, that’s been a part of this journey that enabled me to stand in that spot. And it was all the emotions. It was everything that I’d been through as a person. And there I was, trying to sing that song for those people, and I knew I had to back away from this for a minute. I realized how relevant that song was at that time ’cause it goes, “I move on like a sinner’s prayer/I let ’em go like a levee breaks/Walk away as if I don’t care/Learn to shoulder my mistakes.” I’m like, wow, I sang two lines, and I knew I was gonna back away from those people for a little bit and from my life just a little bit. I had to. And, man, it just got the best of me. And they had to talk me into putting this part into the film.
It works, absolutely. That’s very strong.
I don’t really let a lot of people see me like that. Never, you know. But I’m glad I did it. Because it was important. The fans are gonna see just how deep this runs for me and how much I appreciate them.
And the fans were happy to carry you at that moment.
Yeah. They could tell. And you could just see it in the crew guys and the band guys. That moment was very special for all of us because it just had been my dream. I’ve got crew guys that have been with me since I was doing free 4-H fairs and there were more crew guys than there were people in the audience. And that’s true, That’s not an exaggeration.
It’s a long way from a 4-H show to a stadium.
That’s right! I drove one time with almost the same band that I’ve got now and a lot of the same crew guys. I drove from Nashville, Tenn., to a 4-H fair in Montana and back. Because we had no other work, you know. Shit, I lost $7,500 instead of making it, you know. Like Roger Miller said, “I lack $14 havin’ 27 cents.” So that’s how I lived for a long time. That’s a part of our journey, though, and that’s why it was important for me to document that journey and bring the fans along with me. And I think we’ve done that pretty good.
Did you find it difficult to watch yourself onscreen?
Oh, I still hate it. I still hate seeing myself onscreen. I think videos are a necessarily evil. … I’ve been really used to hearing myself on tape but still not completely used to seeing myself on tape. And it was no different with this movie. It was a little easier to watch myself in the last three or four years than it was the first three or four years that I started. I mean, I had a mullet, dude! I was trying to be George Strait. I had the starched shirts and the belt buckles. I was ready to roll, you know. So it’s a little easier to watch now than it was then. I saw video footage of me doing stuff that I can’t believe that I did. Because my life has changed so much since then, my music has changed since then.
Would you ever consider doing a dramatic role in a movie?
I don’t think so, man. I’d seriously doubt it. I mean, I love making music too much. And to do that it would just take away from what I think I do best. I’ve got some friends that do it very well. But I see what it’s taken of their time. That’s the most important thing, you know. It’s taken a whole lot of their time. And I don’t wanna give that much time to do a dramatic role in some film. I’m not saying I’ll never do a film. If I can go and do something for a couple days and be in a movie for a second and get in there, who knows? I might do that. But I’m not actively pursuing it. I don’t aspire to be in films. You know, I just don’t like what comes with it. I like being a musician, and I like being a songwriter, and that’s what I do best, and that’s what I’m always gonna do as long as the good Lord lets me.
One of the things that struck me about this film is that you can really single out individual members of the crowd and see the emotions and see what’s going on. Another thing that I noticed right away is the scale of it. It really shows the enormity of what you’re doing and the sort of vulnerability of one person being up there and doing this. It’s like being in a hurricane.
That’s a great way to put it. It feels like a hurricane, it’s so loud sometimes.
And it’s all on your shoulders. You’re vulnerable.
All of it is on your shoulders, man. I remember one night — the very first time we ever played Foxboro stadium, where the Patriots play. I tripped and fell, and the first thing to hit on stage was my face. And I mean it was in front of 50,000 people. And next thing you know — boom! — there I lay. You know, I tripped and fell, and when I hit the stage — boom! There was no hiding it. And I just laid there until the fans got louder and louder. They liked it! And that show ended up being one of the best shows we’ve ever had. Because they knew I was vulnerable, and they knew I took it with a grain of salt. And ever since then, I’ve just kinda gone up there in those stadiums that we do — the enormity of it. And you’re right. I’ve got the whole stadium on my shoulders. I approach it with a little bit of — how do I say this? I’m very vulnerable. I try to approach it with as much humility as I can. And whatever happens, happens. Just go out there and do what you do. Don’t think about how many people are there. Don’t think about what’s gonna happen if you forget the words, because you will forget the words. Don’t think about what’s gonna happen if you fall on your face — because you know you’ve done that. I mean, how wild can it get? One night in South Carolina, I broke my foot during the first song. I mean, what worse could happen?
What goals do you have left?
I just want to get better. And I think we can get better. I swear, I don’t feel like I’ve written my best song yet. I don’t feel like I’ve recorded my best song yet. I feel like that me and the guys can get better as a band. I mean, we’re in a pretty good spot right now, but I feel like we can get better. I’ve still got fire in my gut that makes me want to be better. And I’m better right now than when I started. And I think that in 10 years from now, I’ll be better than I am right now. And that’s my goal anyway. I just want to be better. … To be honest with you, there’s been so much business involved in my life lately that I’m looking forward to sitting down and being really creative again. I haven’t been that creative, as far as a songwriter, because I’ve been creative in other ways. But here lately, that’s just what I miss in my life — being able to connect with myself as a songwriter. That’s my goal.
Would you ever teach music, teach songwriting?
I’ve never thought about that. You know, I could just teach the way I did it. I don’t know if it’s the right way. I can teach how it worked for me, possibly. Tell you what I can do — and this is probably what good teachers do — like the first kid coming up, I can teach him what not to do. Because I’ve done so much in 17 years through trial and error that I know what not to do. I know what not to do because it works for me.
There’s a theory, which I kind of agree with, that you don’t really get good at what you do till you put in at least 10,000 hours. And it makes sense.
Makes sense, yeah! I look back on earlier shows and wish I could slap myself sometimes, you know. Because there’s a lot of trial and error for me, makin’ records, and my stage show got where it is because we put in over 10,000 miles and hours. I mean, thousands and thousands of miles, you know, and a lot of shows. We just kind of built our fan base one show at a time. … I thank God and Phil Walden and Barry Beckett every day because I remember them sittin’ down and telling me — while everybody else was doing great and I wasn’t doing anything — “Be patient. Just get better. Just keep doin’ what you’re doin.” [Former Sony Music Nashville chairman] Joe Galante told me the same thing. God, as a kid in this town, I wanted everything to happen right then. And you know, looking back, to be honest with you, I wasn’t good enough for everything to happen then. I had the luxury of not happening when I wanted to. You know what I mean?
Happening too quickly in a career can ruin people.
It could ruin your life. You can be gone. You can be done before you get started. And we see it everyday. People ask me for advice, I say, “Man, just do it! Just do it! Just do it!” Everyone wants it right now, wants instant gratification. Boy, I’m glad that didn’t happen for me. Because I wouldn’t have been able to make this film, and I never would’ve had the relationship that I have with my fans that I do right now. And wouldn’t have had the laughs that I got, wouldn’t have written the songs I had written and wouldn’t have been able to afford the luxury to do it.
Your work ethic parallels that of, say, professional athletes.
I kinda treat what I do like an athlete. I work like an athlete. And not everybody has that computer chip in their head. Some people think they’re working really hard. But they’re not. But anytime I’ve gotten complacent or anytime that I caught myself draggin’ a little bit, I’ll just lay in bed and go, “God, somebody somewhere is gonna kick my ass if I don’t do this the right way.”