CBN.com When Kenny Chesney released Young at the end of 2001, he never intended it to become the soundtrack for coming of age at the dawn of a new century. Having had double platinum success as a country singer, the young man from Luttrell, Tennessee just wanted to sing songs that weren’t so much hits, but rather reflected who he – and the people he knew growing up – was and where he came from.
“I’d had a song a lotta people made fun of, but I saw what it did, the way people responded when we played it live,” Chesney said. “And it told me if I sang songs about who I was, the places I had grown up and the things we’d all done… there’d be a lot of other people no one was singing for who wanted to hear lives in the music.”
What followed was the quadruple platinum all-genre Billboard Top 200 No. 1 debut No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem, an album that merged Chesney’s inimitable sense of small towns and growing up with his country roots, his love of the ocean, and his affinity for the arena rock he was raised on. With “Big Star” empowering the unknown to believe in their dreams, Academy of Country Music Single of the Year “The Good Stuff” making the case for small things with lasting value and “Live Those Songs Again” ratifying the power of music to balm even a Vietnam vet with the power of meaning, Kenny Chesney hit bedrock of a nation united in song.
And it wasn’t just the hit singles. Whether a stark and haunted take of Bruce Springsteen’s “One Step Up” or the yearning “I Can’t Go There,” this was a fistful of Polaroid’s from a life lived as the rest of us do. This became the signature of the next eight years – which saw Chesney sell over a million tickets each of the past seven summers and become the leading ticket-seller of the 21st century – putting people’s lives in songs and giving them the kind of live shows that made them, if only for the night, forget whatever it was that might bother them.
“Music was always such a part of my life… and my friends’ lives,” laughs the four-time consecutive Academy of Country Music and four-time and current Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year. “Sports and friends and school and music: those were the things that mattered growing up – and me and my friends marked so many of the things that happened by what song was playing when it did.”
That notion held for “I Go Back” from Chesney’s 2nd all-genre Top 200 No. 1 debut When The Sun Goes Down. Name-checking songs by Steve Miller, John Mellencamp, Billy Joel and the gospel of his grandma’s dirt floor church, Chesney anchored moments that defined who he was and who he became against a backbeat that stuck with you.
Starting with the wistful “There Goes My Life,” a 6 week No. 1 hit and the percolating title track duet with Uncle Kracker that was nominated for every Vocal Event category imaginable, the CMA Album of the year further established the soft-spoken acoustic guitarist as a man with his finger on the pulse of his constituency. Drawing on lean country for his own “Being Drunk’s A Lot Like Loving You,” the ferocious slice of unhinged college life “Keg In The Closet” or the two week No. 1 “Anything But Mine,” dedicated each night to “anyone who’s ever had a summer love,” When The Sun Goes Down distilled the feel-good, live-fully ethos that made CMA Male Vocalist of the Year’s songs connect with so many people.
“There was never a master plan,” he explains. “I was trying to make a record that was even more who I was, who the guys around me were. No Shoes showed me I was right about what I thought; When The Sun Goes Down was trying to see how far we could take these songs about things that I knew by heart.”
Closing with the hushed “Old Blue Chair,” Chesney’s found a new path to explore, anchored in his growing faith in his audience seeing their own dreams in the things he valued. With the response to “Old Blue Chair,” the high energy performer decided to do the unthinkable: a spare singer/songwriter record revolving around his life away from the spotlights. With no single, no marketing push and a few interviews, Chesney saw Be As You Are: Songs From An Old Blue Chair also debut at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200.
“Some people didn’t understand why I wanted to do that,” Chesney allows. “But what’s the point of having the success if you can’t make music that goes in other places? Old Blue Chair is kinda the map of where I go… and then later Lucky Old Sun was more the state of who I am down there. And it’s funny: I get lots of people who tell me those are their favorite records, that they don’t like country, but they like ‘the boat records’ or ‘the water records.’ Again, it’s about my life… but it’s about their lives, too.”
Certified platinum, Old Blue Chair demonstrated that the world of Kenny Chesney wasn’t just boat buoys, cold drinks and tan lines. There was thought going on beneath the surface, and if the folks clamoring to the NFL stadiums he began playing – Boston, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. – in 2004 were any indication, they liked their fun, but they also were invested in their lives.
The Road & The Radio came that fall – leading with “Who You’d Be Today,” a brooding ballad for those cut down too young. About lives lost in their prime, it was another moment of consideration for how lucky we are to be here… and it set the stage for the jubiliant trifecta of the six-week No. 1 “Summertime,” two week chart-topper that was the state of Chesney’s personal trajectory “Living In Fast Forward” and the three week No. 1 “Beer In Mexico,” which Chesney wrote in Cabo San Lucas, alone at Sammy Hagar’s pool while everyone else had gone deep sea fishing.
And so it continued. More football stadiums. The first of the many Entertainer of the Year Awards. Stages shared with Dave Matthews, Eddie and Alex Van Halen, Joe Walsh and a rosterful of athletes. It was a slow growth, a rise that only began after the first Greatest Hits. But once it hit, it just kept going. Even Willie Nelson – who dueted on the Tin Pan Ally standard “Lucky Old Sun” – signed up, asking Chesney and co-producer Buddy Cannon to helm his critically-lauded Moment of Forever.
“I just tried to do what I do… to sing what made sense, what I believed,” says the man who’s sold in excess of 28 million records. “If I’m honest, if I make records that feel right, there’s nothing else. I think that’s what people have come to expect – and it’s what I’m determined to give them.”
Starting with the breezy homage to back home “Never Wanted Nothin’ More” and the plain-spoken life philosophy of “Don’t Blink,” Chesney’s Just Who I Am: Poets & Pirates debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country chart. Accentuated by the churning “Wild Ride,” the calypso “Shiftwork” featuring George Strait and the quiet “Better As A Memory,” it was another overview of how vast the tides of life can be. Though party songs like “Got A Little Crazy” played to the obvious, “Demons” offered a reckoning.
“Life isn’t always easy,” begins the man who got his start as a staff songwriter at Acuff Rose Publishing. “That part you can’t change… and you need to recognize it. But you know, how you live is your decision, and I think my fans are the kind of people who want to enjoy every possible moment. They wanna laugh and rock and be loud – and we don’t act like things don’t get rough from time to time, but rather that we’re gonna deal with it and get on to feeling good.”
Feeling good is everything Kenny Chesney believes in. It’s why his current “Out Last Night,” inspired from a real lost evening on his Christmas vacation, feels so right. With its tropical beat, its good time vibe and the details that capture any bar where the party’s happening, it’s a slice of life the way Chesney and his vast audience choose to embrace it.
But true to form, Chesney also enlists good friend for Dave Matthews for “I’m Alive,” a Chesney original first recorded by Willie Nelson. Slower and more serious, the duet considers how much there is to be grateful for, how many memories are left to make and how intense everything is in the balance. Lulling, yet inspiring, it’s everything Kenny Chesney hopes his music can be.
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