NASHVILLE (Billboard) - Most of Nashville is dragging under the weight of an unrelenting heat wave, but Kenny Chesney, relaxed in an overstuffed chair at his management company offices, looks rested and laid-back.
Laid-back is appropriate, because it’s his no-worries, life’s-a-beach vibe, affixed to Garth Brooks-inspired, stadium-sturdy suburban country, that’s Chesney’s stock in trade. On this day, Chesney is indeed dressed more for Key West than Music Row: shorts, T-shirt, open-toed shoes, no hat.
But it’s a bottle of water in his hand, not a Corona, as he talks about putting the finishing touches on a football documentary inspired by his current hit, “The Boys of Fall,” the lead single from his new album, “Hemingway’s Whiskey,” which will hit stores September 28.
“I was in Brett Favre’s kitchen, John Madden’s house, Bobby Bowden’s house, Nick Saban’s house, I interviewed Bill Parcells, I’ve been in Joe Namath’s house,” Chesney says with the zeal of an every-weekend tailgater.
Chesney admires the discipline and work ethic needed to make it in pro sports, and he shares that nose-to-the-grindstone mentality. He may be rested right now, but that’s a highly unusual state for Chesney this time of year and was hardly the case a year ago when he was deep in the throes of yet another mega-tour. The pressures of being hands-on at every level in a run of seven consecutive tours — each of which moved more than 1 million tickets — were taking their toll on country music’s top touring artist. By September, he surprised fans and the industry alike by announcing he’d give touring a break in 2010.
Chesney says it wasn’t a single moment but, rather, a series of eye-opening realizations that led to the hiatus. For the most part, he was happy on the road in 2009, doing what he does best. But there were moments of uncertainty. “I caught myself for the first time in 17 years thinking about connecting with the fans instead of just doing it,” he recalls.
“All of a sudden I felt like it was mechanical — the show, the music, everything — and it’s never been that way,” he says. “It’s not supposed to be that way. That’s not how I built it. That’s when I knew it was time for me to back away.”
Chesney, 42, says he knew that day would come at some point, given his heavy road schedule and the effort expended onstage. “We had just given to it for so long and so hard,” he says, shaking his head. “It would have been really easy to go back out again this year, and I didn’t want to press that. I wanted to give people the thing that they deserved the most, and that’s all of me. That’s why I backed away.”
Chesney came to Nashville in the early ‘90s at the height of the Garth Brooks era, finding limited success but separating himself from the hat pack a few albums in by touring relentlessly and adding a flip-flops-and-blender-drinks vibe to contemporary country. Major hits like “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” and “How Forever Feels” wrapped the ‘90s, but Chesney’s appeal had as much to do with his “everyman” persona as radio hits. He struck a nerve with country fans, coming off as a guy who was just as at home at the Florabama Bar in Perdido Key, Fla., as at any landlocked honky-tonk.
While country is known to be a genre where hits, record sales and radio play all run parallel, Chesney proved the perfect artist for the modern music business economy, where touring drives the train and maximizes other revenue streams like merchandising, branding and, yes, record sales. Chesney toured smart, sacrificing better paydays for bookings that fit his long-term plan, parlaying key support slots into his own arena-headlining status. Once he conquered the arenas and amphitheaters, he took on stadiums and never looked back.
During the past decade, Chesney has become the biggest ticket seller in country music and among the elite touring artists in the world. He grossed about $500 million and sold nearly 10 million tickets, according to Billboard Boxscore. When he wrapped the Sun City Carnival tour last year, Chesney’s drawing power showed no sign of waning.
From the legion of fans, to promoter TMG/AEG Live, to the venues that host his concerts, to the hundreds who make all or part of their living from the Chesney touring machine, hearing talk of a break couldn’t have been welcome news.
“Some of them took it better than others,” Chesney admits. “It’s funny you used the word ‘machine,’ because that’s kind of what it started to feel like, just this machine that I was feeding, and kept feeding. You give your blood, sweat and tears, you give your heart and your soul — I did, anyway — to this machine. All of a sudden nothing was feeding it back to the soul, and that had to change. So for the most part, everybody in the machine understood. And those that didn’t ain’t around anymore.”
Of course, “taking the year off” in Chesney’s world is a relative term. Without a full route book of concert dates in front of him for the first time in more than a decade (he did play a dozen one-off shows and festivals), Chesney immersed himself in two film projects. In addition to the football documentary, there was the “Kenny Chesney: Summer in 3D” concert film, which premiered in April and grossed more than $1 million in four days.
The few shows Chesney did play in 2010 served more to keep the fire burning than to burn him out. That’s decidedly different from the mega-shows that have peppered the route for the last several years, “when the weight of a football stadium and everybody in it is on your shoulders,’ he says. “I’ve learned to have pretty tough skin and shield a lot of that off, because I just kind of zone myself in. But there is a moment where you realize there’s only one spotlight, and I know where it’s at.”
Chesney says that for the first time in years, he had the time he wanted to devote to an album project. “That’s another reason I wanted to take the year off, to creatively give to something when I wasn’t giving to anything else,” he says. “Balancing touring and recording is hard, and I’ve done that the last seven or eight years, the last three or four records. I didn’t want to do that with this record.”
Unlike some studio efforts, “Hemingway’s Whiskey” wasn’t made “on a treadmill,” Chesney says. “I didn’t make this record in the middle of being home on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and I wasn’t in the studio thinking about where I had to fly to Thursday, Friday and Saturday night,” he says. “I had time to focus more on music as a whole, the songs, the production. Me and (producer) Buddy (Cannon) had more time to talk, about what this song means and why, and where it would fit in the record. We didn’t just go in there and have a chart and do the intro/verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus/out. You hear those records every day. I didn’t want to make that record.”
Chesney admits he has made “that record” in the past. “It’s tough when you’re tired and busy,’ he says. “I wanted to make this record with a clear head, where I wasn’t being pulled in other directions.”
“Hemingway’s Whiskey,” co-produced by Chesney and longtime studio collaborator Cannon, does go in many directions. The album boasts songs sure to please longtime fans in “Live a Little (Love a Lot),” “Coastal’ and the sentimental ballads “The Boys of Fall” and “Where I Grew Up.” But it also challenges fans and Chesney alike with cuts like the regretful, mostly acoustic “You and Tequila” (with Grace Potter), the pining “Seven Days a Thousand Times,” the ambitiously produced “Somewhere With You” and the title cut.
Over the course of making 11 albums with Cannon, including live and greatest-hits sets, Chesney says he and the producer have learned to complement each other well. “My records would not be the same without Buddy Cannon,” he says. “The thing I’ve taken from Buddy over the years is a solid song sense. He’s got that. Shoot, hanging out with Hank Cochran, Dean Dillon and all those guys over the years, that’s what’s going to happen to you.”
As co-producer, Chesney brings his mixed bag of influences, which may or may not jibe with Cannon’s musical sensibilities. “I made a joke on one of my records-I thanked Buddy for turning the guitars down in the mix and then I thanked the engineer for turning them back up when Buddy left,” Chesney says with a laugh. “When we come together, I get this great song sense and a traditional feel from Buddy, and we kind of mix that together with the music I grew up with: Conway Twitty, George Strait, George Jones, Willie Nelson, but also Tom Petty, the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, all that stuff. I don’t think Buddy would make the same record with somebody else.”
With all of Chesney’s success, having far exceeded his boyhood dreams in Luttrell, Tenn., he says without hesitation that “fear of failure,” still motivates him. “That’s another reason I pulled back. I didn’t want to be the tired guy up there. I didn’t want to be the guy that went through the motions. People deserve better, and I knew I was on the edge of doing that. To me, that would be failing. It would drive me crazy later on in life to know that I mailed something in.”