The first time Grace Potter saw Kenny Chesney in person, backstage at the 2008 Farm Aid concert, she was unfamiliar with his achievements. “Dave [Matthews] and Kenny were clowning around for like hours and hours and hours and I was witness to it, but I didn’t know who Kenny was,” she noted during a recent visit to CMT. “I just thought he was some crazy dude in a cowboy hat. I had no idea the levity of what he does and his approach to life.”
Likewise, Chesney had never met the dynamic leader of Grace Potter & the Nocturnals in person, even though he was a fan of her music. He invited her to sing a few sultry lyrics on “You and Tequila,” a song co-written by Matraca Berg and Deana Carter. After recording his part, he sent Potter the track. She called him back the next day to eagerly accept the overture — and she nailed her lines in the studio in less than 15 minutes. Chesney ultimately put the track on his new album, Hemingway’s Whiskey.
“Kenny’s really generous to other people in his duets. He seems to really give all of himself without ever making it about him. He’s very generous with the spotlight,” she says. And if the soft-spoken track catches on with Chesney’s fans, Potter just might end up being a country star.
“I haven’t delved into too much more country music, but I’m ready to,” admits Potter, whose sensual singing voice can stretch from a growl to a scream in mere seconds. “I’m a conqueror, man. I’m like Napoleon, but a little Vermont girl.”
During an easygoing chat, the ambitious singer-songwriter discussed her instant reaction to “You and Tequila,” her lively stage presence and finally feeling comfortable in her own skin.
CMT: What was it about this offer to record “You and Tequila” that made you accept it?
Potter: I was always sort of mystified and excited about the world of country music. Something about it struck me as enchanted. It’s something that’s so beyond what I do and what I grew up doing, it was like the unknown — kind of how I felt about gospel music when I first started listening to and studying gospel music. The song itself is just unbelievable. It is one of the most well-written songs. I knew it was just a demo. I knew it was kind of a one-tape wonder approach. And the second I heard that chorus, I was like “Oh, I’m in. I’m in.’”
Why did the chorus click with you so quickly?
It’s so understated. It’s not a big country chorus. What it is, it’s like a lullaby to alcohol. (laughs) I thought it had all the right tension. That third line (sung) — “one more night could kill me baby …” That’s really special. It’s got a lot of heart to it.
Kenny has described your time in the studio together as “magical.” Do you agree?
It was, I think. Sometimes it clicks and sometimes it doesn’t. You can’t force something. If it’s meant to be, it happens exactly as it’s supposed to. In this case, he knew the kind of song he was dealing with. He knew that it needed to be something different. I think he understood that this wasn’t your traditional collaboration. I’m a complete unknown. In that way, I think he knew exactly what he was doing. He was like, “Let’s get this girl from Vermont who’s got nothing to do with country music, nothing to do with me, nothing to do with anything that I’ve sort of built my career around and let’s just see what happens with this really beautiful song.” And it worked.
Have you heard the rest of his album?
Yeah, it’s awesome! What I love about the record is how humble it is. It’s really not a departure because he’s always been that way. His voice is his voice and that doesn’t change, but I really love the creative and dynamic way that he uses instrumentation. It’s not what I generally expect from a country record. It’s more acoustic and subtle, and it’s interesting to see a little bit of a shift happening.
What’s it like to tour with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings?
That history with James Brown allowed her to really explore the power of being the front person. She’s given me a lot of advice over the years. The first thing she noticed, she said, “Girl, why are you always sittin’ behind that organ? Get out front! Involve people!” She’s always picking people out of the audience and pointing at people and singing to people, which makes me really nervous. I don’t like that at all because I forget the lyrics. I’m thinking about the face that the guy in the front row is making instead of thinking about what the song means to me. I get a little bit of tunnel vision when I’m onstage, but she has helped shake me out of that a little bit.
You have a huge stage presence, though.
Thank you. It took awhile to get there. I was actually very shy at first. I was weird. I was like a kooky kid, so people thought I was loud, but I really wasn’t. I was kind of loud in outbursts. I was like a silent volcano. When I did have something to share, it was very over-the-top. But I’ve learned to balance that. Yeah, you hit your stride onstage and I think you have to be comfortable in your own skin.
If you feel comfortable with yourself, that’s half the battle in country music.
Yeah, I know you’re right, you’re absolutely right. It’s important and it’s not easy. So many musicians sort of get lost in their own skin and sort of stare at their shoes for their whole career. It’s good to change it up, though. I think that our greatest gift as a band is that we’ve never allowed people to nail us down to one genre or one style or one type of record, whether it’s the Grace Potter show or whether it’s more about the band. The identity has always been really elastic in a way. I’ve gone from wearing jeans and cowboy boots to wearing miniskirts and gold tassels and high heels. I’m sure I’m not going to dress that way forever. It’s going to change again and again. I think that identity and sort of the brand — I hate that word — the brand of the musician should be malleable. It should change and it should grow. But yeah, I do feel bad for artists that kind of get rammed into a corner before they even have a chance to stick out.
Kenny’s career took awhile to get going. He’s been around about 15 years now.
I know, he was talking about his tour bus and having 12 or 13 people all sleeping on the bus at the same time. For eight years he did that. We’re in the middle of that right now. I’m not presuming that it’s ever going to grow to the point that Kenny’s gotten to, but I do hope it will. I think it’s a goal for any musician, but you have to enjoy those moments in the bus with 13 people and everybody’s living on top of each other and Cat’s [bass player Catherine Popper] and my suitcases are exploding with ladies underwear. It’s really great to be in that summer camp mode of your career.
That’s success, too. You’re making a living as a musician and that’s success right there.
I know! I don’t have to go home and work at the deli when I come home. It’s amazing. I still marvel at that when I come home from a tour. I can actually sit and relax and play with my dog and go to the river and not have to grind it out the way I always thought I would. I thought I would do music, but I didn’t think I was going to be able to just do music.