He's one of the biggest stars on earth, and quite possibly the hardest-working man in country music (which is saying something). But with another hit record out and a massive tour under way, the troubadour finds himself pondering the unthinkable: life off the road.
Author DAVID CARR Illustration JOHANNA GOODMAN
TURN ON YOUR LOCAL country radio station, and the stars tend to sound stamped with sameness, like so many branded cattle. Kenny Chesney, 44, is not like that. In spite of the fact that he is his own darn thing— or maybe precisely because of it—he has been very, very big for a very long time. Soon after he graduated from East Tennessee State in 1990, he made his way to Nashville and eventually found himself as player in residence at Music City honky-tonk The Turf. After that, it was the stuff country legends are made of, with 14 of his albums certified gold or higher and some two dozen of his singles making it to the top of the charts.
While other country singers found a groove that eventually deepened into a rut, Chesney branched out, incorporating island motifs and penning travelogues that reflect how much his life has changed since he was a kid with a guitar and a truckload of ambition back in Tennessee (he was, after all, briefly married to Renée Zellweger). He name-checks L.A. and New York just as often as the Deep South, which may explain why he draws large crowds everywhere he goes. After 20 years in the business, he still writes songs that manage to smack of sincerity even though he has seen it all and done most of it, too.
Chesney’s broad interests and uncommon range are showcased on his new record, Welcome to the Fishbowl, which veers from a brawny duet with Tim McGraw on “Feel Like a Rock Star” (which had the second highest chart debut of any country single) to the tender mercies of “Always Gonna Be You.” There’s a longing and vulnerability to the album that’s a long way from macho cowboy posturing. We talked to Chesney some about the record and his current tour, but mostly about what it’s like after the stage lights go down and that thing called life happens.
HEMISPHERES: Welcome to the Fishbowl talks about life in the limelight, but there’s also a lot about the thoughts that fill your head when you aren’t working.
CHESNEY: This is a very emotional record. With my previous record, Hemingway’s Whiskey, I started working on being very honest with my feelings. The more I live, the more I feel comfortable putting my true feelings out there. No matter who you are or what you do, everybody suffers for the truth. I think this record reflects that.
HEMISPHERES: On the title song, you’re very direct about what it’s like to have eyes on you all the time, but it’s not exactly a full-on screed like, say, “Hotel California.”
CHESNEY: Yeah. I had to treat [the song] “Welcome to the Fishbowl” with delicate hands because it would have been really easy to come off as a victim. I tried to capture how the world that we live in is getting smaller by the minute, not just for me, but for everybody. I grew up in a small town and everybody knew everybody’s business. Now everybody knows everybody’s business, on a much larger scale.
HEMISPHERES: You say as much on “I’m a Small Town.” Did you put those two songs next to each other on purpose?
CHESNEY: They’re very different, but I made a conscious choice to sequence them. I grew up where everybody knew what you were up to at school, at church, and like I said, it’s the same way now, but on global scale. I try to have a light touch about it, because you don’t have to be in the public eye like I am to be affected by it or to benefit from it. Trust me, there are times that I feel like I’m a giraffe in the zoo, with people just staring through the fence. But when my career started to take off and life first started to change, I was complaining about the negative part to a good friend and he told me, “Look, nobody drug you to Nashville, nobody made you write these songs, nobody put that dream in your head.” And he’s right.
HEMISPHERES: You’re a big enough deal to fill not just arenas, but stadiums too. What’s it like to walk out there, stare at all those people and know you have to deliver?
CHESNEY: You’ve got a group of people in a football stadium who didn’t just hear your song on the radio—they lived with it. It’s become a part of their lives. They spent a whole day and a lot of money to go to an event like that. You really want to come through. It’s a kind of ceremony, and when those two energies meet, when me and the band get up there and do what we do and then hear the roar coming back, it’s like an avalanche. It is unbelievable.
HEMISPHERES: That’s a pretty hard experience to replicate night after night.
CHESNEY: You really have no choice. I won’t say their name on the record, but there was a band last year that left the stage because it was too hot. I don’t get it. I imagine whether we’re playing an arena, a stadium or what- ever it is, there’s a section of the crowd that’s only there because their friends or their boyfriend or girlfriend or somebody drug them there. They don’t listen to the music, they’re not invested in your career, they’re just there to have a good time. By the end of the show, in my mind, I want them to be saying, “Wow, what just happened?” I take that as a challenge.
HEMISPHERES: You tour with 130 people and you run the show yourself. That’s a big operation.
CHESNEY: Yeah, I run a pretty big company. There are a lot of moving parts to that and, trust me, I’ve got people who manage those moving parts, but ultimately it’s on my watch and I love that. When I was a kid playing music on a stool at East Tennessee State University, I never dreamed I would have this kind of an organization. I take it seriously.
HEMISPHERES: I’ll say. Didn’t you play a whole show with a broken foot in 2008?
CHESNEY: I was playing the University of South Carolina’s football stadium. That was the toughest night I’ve ever had onstage. I came up on an elevator and my foot got caught in there on the first song. The people that came had been there all day tailgating and couldn’t wait for the songs they’d come to hear. I sang a verse and the chorus of the first song and I broke my foot. I did most of the show on one leg. I don’t ever drink onstage, but that night I had a little help.
HEMISPHERES: You were on your high school football team, so maybe that helped you play through the pain.
CHESNEY: I was 5 foot 6 and 145 pounds, so I had adversity every day I got on the field. I had to work extra hard. I was a really good athlete but I was vertically challenged. I think that has carried over into the way I approach my career, how much work I put into it.
HEMISPHERES: But it’s clear on the new record that playing a good show or making a good album doesn’t fix everything.
CHESNEY: Our life out there on the road is great, but I was talking to someone who had heard the record who said, “It sounds like you’re ready to take a turn in your life, and not have your whole life revolve around sound check and catering at 5 p.m. every day.” That life has consumed me since I was 19 years old. It’s been great, but I realize that there is this other part that could be a lot of fun too. I felt like a shark; I was just moving all the time. There is this thing inside of me that wants to be a little more settled.
CHESNEY: I just decided that I wanted to reconnect with people that I’ve become disconnected with. I’m always gone and I miss the people I should be closest to. It’s a very spiritual experience to be up there onstage and to sing in front of 60,000 people at the Meadowlands. But there needs to be something more intimate than that. I can tell you that the next 10 years of my life isn’t going to be like the last 10 years. There were a lot of years there when I would literally pack to come home. I was constantly moving and I really didn’t feel like there was a place where I belonged. When you choose a career like I’ve chosen and you have this wandering spirit and soul, balance is always hard to find, for anybody. But I’m really trying to find that. I’m looking forward to finding it.
DAVID CARR, who covers culture and media for the New York Times, is only occasionally accused of macho cowboy posturing.
Albums sold in the U.S.*
Digital tracks sold*
Copies sold of his first greatest-hits collection (his bestselling release to date)
Copies sold of his first album, 1994′s In My Wildest Dreams (his weakest seller)
Serious injuries suffered during a live performance
*Not including his latest release
Data courtesy of Nielsen SoundScan