With snowy skies, the temperature in downtown Nashville was only 20 degrees Saturday night (Jan. 22) when Kenny Chesney brought a bit of island warmth to the CMT studios for a concert special highlighting songs from his new album, Be As You Are: Songs From an Old Blue Chair.
Backed by a handful of musicians, the acoustic performance was in sharp contrast to the full-blown arena concerts that have made Chesney one of America's most successful touring acts. Chesney wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on Be As You Are, which arrives in stores Tuesday (Jan. 25). In choosing his co-writers for the project, Chesney collaborated with several Nashville legends, including Dean Dillon, Skip Ewing and Bill Anderson. All of the songs were inspired by Chesney's favorite island getaway in the Caribbean.
"I didn't write these songs, really, to be heard," Chesney told CMT's Katie Cook, who hosted the special. "They were just songs I wrote on my boat over the past five and a-half years. I really meant for these songs just to be Polaroids or snapshots of moments and people I've met and places I've been to. In that respect, this is an unbelievable departure for me, and it's one that I'm excited for the fans to hear."
The overall musical vibe of Be As You Are is intentionally low key and laid back. At the moment, there are no plans to actively seek radio airplay for any of the tracks, although it's impossible to fathom that country program directors won't be singling out select cuts to spin on the air.
Chesney isn't worried about his fans not understanding his reasons for taking a different approach in recording the new album.
"I've got a really wonderful audience," he said. "I really do believe that my fans are very different than a lot of people's. I may be biased, but I do. I see it every night. I do believe that I have a very smart fan base. I think I have a very rabid fan base. This was just definitely something that I wanted to share with them."
When Cook asked Chesney about the attraction of the Caribbean, he replied, "It's more of the people and the pace, more than anything, that attracts me. I've always been attracted to the ocean. When I look at the ocean, it reminds me of how many possibilities there really are in life. It's an infinite thing. I think that's why I'm drawn to it so much."
For years, Chesney has kept a personal journal to chronicle his days in the islands.
"I spend a lot of days on my boat, and I've met a lot of wonderful characters down there," he said. "Some unbelievable people who have inspired a lot of these songs. I wanted to write about them -- not necessarily in a song, but just personal thoughts, and describe some of the places I've been to that you can only get to by boat. I've got probably four or five journals filled with thoughts and song ideas and descriptions of some really crazy people I've met. Wonderful people."
In describing how the island has changed the way he looks at life, Chesney said, "It's more about taking a deep breath every now and then. When I'm on the road, I'm a very focused, very driven person. Some would say I'm a workaholic, but I love what I do. I think I do it with a lot of heart. ... But when I'm down there, it allows me to feel more settled. ... People are so used to seeing me onstage in a certain way. When I'm down there, I'm so far removed from that, it's a welcome change of pace."
Much of the change of pace is enjoyed on his boat.
"I love my boat," he said. "I feel really at peace on my boat. A lot of times when I go down there at the end of every tour, I'm as burnt out as anybody could possibly be, and I want to get far away from the music business. But it never fails, that seems like it becomes the most creative place for me. I've got a guitar in a closet. I'll walk past that closet [and say] 'I don't want to play guitar yet.' Sooner or alter, I always pull it out and get on the bow of my boat and write what I see and what I feel. That's basically what this album is --- five and half years of doing this."
Chesney's CMT concert included performances of "Be As You Are," "Somewhere in the Sun," "Old Blue Chair," "Island Boy" and "Sherry's Living in Paradise." He closed the concert with a song that's not featured on the album, yet one that seemed especially appropriate: "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems."