Kenny Chesney: Everyday Superstar
By Holly Gleason
© 2007 CMA Close Up News Service / Country Music Association, Inc.
In a knit cap, a pair of baggy khakis and a gray sweatshirt, the young man looks like any 20-something frat boy who’s making his way in the world, but isn’t quite ready to cave into the uniform of respectability. That’s the beauty of Kenny Chesney: the two-time CMA Entertainer of the Year (2004, 2006) and 2004 CMA Album of the Year (When the Sun Goes Down) winner looks just like everyone else.
It’s not a practiced camouflage. Even with 25 million albums sold, Chesney really is an artist who is his audience. That identification with the people who bought nearly 6 million concert tickets over the past five years goes both ways: when Chesney looks out in the audience, he sees himself.
“I absolutely was one of those kids on the grass, and I think I still am,” Chesney said. “When I get onstage or I’m making a record, I try to think about what turns me on, because I want to give those people the time of their life.”
Since blowing wide open in 2002 with No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems — on the heels of the double-Platinum Everywhere We Go and Greatest Hits — Chesney has struck a chord in the lives of people beyond the media centers. Celebrating accessible moments has given the singer a common touch that offers a dignity to the things everybody goes through.
“We all go through the same things, and that’s what a lot of these songs are about,” said the Luttrell, Tenn., native. “It’s why I wrote ‘I Go Back,’ because I think no matter who you are, there are songs that mark those moments. When you hear them, you’re right back there. I’ve been blessed with a lot of songs that do that.”
Indeed, “Summertime,” Chesney’s five-week No. 1, captures what it means to be young and alive in the carefree days out of school; while “The Good Stuff,” a six-week No. 1, defines the things that truly matter in life; and “There Goes My Life,” the eight-week chart-topper, offers a sense of how powerful lives can be when fully lived.
“That’s the thing,” said SONY BMG Nashville Chairman Joe Galante. “He’s never forgotten what it was like to be the kid in the crowd, looking up at the star onstage. He continues to be a fan. Look at his ticket price. He could charge more, but he wants his fans to be able to feel like they got the value, unlike some other stars.”
In some ways, Chesney is an unlikely superstar. Last year, he played nine football and soccer stadiums — selling out such nontraditional places for Country Music as Seattle, Boston and Detroit, as well as New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
“You don’t think about that stuff, because you’re trying to make the moments mean something,” said the soft-spoken singer/songwriter. “People tell me the stats and it makes me pause and think about it. Sometimes I’ll try to take it in, but those are just numbers. To me, it’s about the people who are turning up their car radios or singing along with us when we play their town. Those are the moments that matter.”
Equal parts hard work and good song sense, Chesney, who sang in Nashville’s Lower Broadway dive bars before the legendary honky tonk row found its renaissance, also applied a somewhat magical intangible: dreams in the truest sense of the word. For a kid who didn’t get serious about playing guitar until freshman year in college, it was a big dream to take a bite out of. Yet he did, moving to Music City after graduation.
A little success would lead to slightly bigger dreams, but there are things even a jumbo-sized dreamer like Chesney wouldn’t dare — being interviewed by Rodney Crowell about songwriting, getting to sing “You Don’t Know Me” at the all-genre Ray Charles tribute celebrating the opening of the movie “Ray” and now producing Willie Nelson’s upcoming album.
“When he opens his mouth, there’s just so much there, beyond the notes, even,” Chesney said. “He’s Willie Nelson. He’s one of the great American voices of all time, and he’s someone I’ve listened to my whole life. So the idea that he’d call me about making a record with him, well, you just don’t dream stuff like that.”
Having honed his craft at Acuff Rose as a staff writer, Chesney learned songwriting in the old school sense. What makes a song work was ingrained in him, and it was something he took very seriously when looking for material for Nelson. Drawing on Guy Clark, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Dave Matthews and Randy Newman, Chesney sought out songs as strong as Nelson’s singing.
“We had all the guys in the studio in a circle, and they were just so there,” Chesney said. “This was Willie Nelson, singing some of the best American songwriters, and you could tell everyone was completely into it. Even Willie said it was the most fun he’d had in the studio. That made me proud.”
Between the Nelson album and a bluegrass project for his own bandmate Tim Hensley, both co-produced with longtime creative cohort Buddy Cannon, it would seem Chesney’s focus has shifted. After all, with Chesney’s drive and commitment to what he does, how much could be left over? The answer is exactly what you’d expect from a man committed to keeping ticket prices reasonable, his shows exciting and his music connected to his audience. He began looking at set designs for his “Flip Flop Summer Tour” almost before his 1.3 million tickets sold “The Road and the Radio Tour” was finished — and he and the band have already begun thinking through the new set list. The new tour, sponsored by Cruzan Rum, kicks off April 12 and rolls through early fall with an all-star line up including Brooks & Dunn, Sara Evans, Pat Green and Sugarland. Chesney recently appeared on CBS’ “60 Minutes” and in the “Sports Illustrated” Swim Suit issue.
Galante recognizes the drive within the artist he helped mold.
“Kenny will continue to grow as an entertainer, writer and singer,” Galante said.
“He learns from experience and is a student who knows when someone does it better than him. It raises his game. Having played sports, you’re taught to always think things are possible even when it seems they aren’t. The end result: you put more of yourself into it, and keep striving.”
Five singles deep on the triple Platinum The Road and the Radio — with its multiple week No. 1s, “Living in Fast Forward” and “Summertime,’ as well as a pair of No. 2s, “Who You’d Be Today” and “You Save Me” plus his current release, “Beer in Mexico,” his fastest moving single to date at No. 2 and rising, Chesney has been spending time listening to songs and thinking about what he wants to say next.
“The thing that keeps you at this is that desire to dig a little deeper into a song’s core,” Chesney said. “Being blessed with such great songs really sets the bar pretty high. If there’s one thing I’ve learned on the road — whether driving in my car, listening to the radio, or playing shows — the songs really set the tone. If you’ve got the songs, everything else is possible; if you don’t, then even the best stuff just kind of falls apart around you.”
On the Web: www.kennychesney.com
Holly Gleason is a former publicist for Kenny Chesney.