Kenny Chesney details 'The Big Revival' before September debut
Kenny Chesney peforms live at the Flora-Bama-Jama, a free beach concert for 40,000 on the Florida/Alabama line, behind the historic Flora-Bama on August 16, 2014 in Orange Beach, Alabama. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Kenny Chesney)
After a year-long vacation from touring in preparation for his 15th studio album, “The Big Revival,” Nashville Edge recently sat down with Kenny Chesney alongside other Nashville media outlets to chat about his upcoming Sept. 23 release.
“Taking a year off from the road this summer was not just the smartest thing I’ve ever done creatively, but the most necessary thing,” Kenny explains. “It was just important for me and the connection that I feel like I have with the audience that we’ve built over the years that we protect the investment that both of us have made. That’s been a while ... building.
“There’s a big poster down the hall [at Sony Music Nashville's headquarters on Music Row] of Waylon Jennings with a quote talking about ‘music matters’ and ‘you should care,' 'cause if you don’t care [fans are] not gonna care,” Kenny further explains. “That’s true, and that was my thought process going into making this record, and why I think the creative process for this record was so important and enjoyable, frustrating … but, it was satisfying because I was able to do something that was very hard for me to do and that was to be still.” He adds, “I was able to create. I was able to really listen and not listen tired. I was able to listen with a clear head and that was good for me.”
With four consecutive Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year awards under his belt, as well as four Country Music Association awards, Kenny was just focused on cutting a “great record" this time around.
“If I was really worried about award shows season I wouldn’t have taken a year off,” he laughs. “Trust me … I’m just glad I’m the guy who gets to sing ‘American Kids’ for the rest of his life. And I get to do that with or without any award.”
Written by Nashville hitmakers Rodney Clawson, Shane McAnally and Luke Laird, the album's first single, "American Kids," launched at No. 27 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart. The certified-Gold debut has since peaked at No. 1 on Billboard's County Digital Songs chart.
“When I heard ‘American Kids’ I went, ‘There it is!’ That’s something that’s very unique for me, and when you’ve been making records for 20 years to say that, it’s a blessing,” Kenny says. “The way the melody wrapped around the lyrics, and the way the lyrics wrapped around the melody [were] unique.
“The brilliance of the song is that it makes everybody think that it’s their small town. Especially if you grew up in a small town, I think this song paints a lot of those pictures for people,” he continues. “I knew that it was different, unique and a perfect way to kick off ‘The Big Revival.’ But it also validated me taking a year off, 'cause that’s exactly the tone that I wanted to set with this record. ... To be doing this for a while – like I have – and to find a song that’s unique is really special.”
Despite not touring this year, Kenny did have to quench his insatiable need to do “American Kids” “at least once this year,” he shares. “I felt hunger when I recorded ‘American Kids,’” so, “that’s why we did the Flora-Bama," a beach performance last month on the Florida-Alabama line.
In promotion of his thirteenth album, 2012's “Welcome to the Fishbowl,” Kenny teamed up with American Express that year for a concert on the beach in Wildwood, New Jersey, as part of the "American Express Unstaged” concert series. The free ticketed concert was livecast online via Vevo and directed by Academy Award-winner Jonathan Demme (“Silence of The Lambs,” “Philadelphia.")
Two years later, Kenny returned to his sandy-toed element to host his own beach party, the Flora-Bama-Jama, in August, which was his first scheduled show of 2014 booked in promotion of the fall debut of “The Big Revival.”
Performing on the line between Peridido Key, Florida, and Orange Beach, Alabama, at the Flora-Bama Lounge, his two-and-a-half hour set extended to 27 songs. The free ticketed show sold out in less than five minutes.
“The Wildwood, New Jersey, show surprised me a lot, because the connection I had with that audience was unbelievable. Not that that surprised me. It was just that in that environment, that it would be so wonderful,” Kenny says with a smile. “It was a learning experience for me because I love that environment now. If I could do every show from now on and smell the ocean, that would be really great – smell fried food, smell spilled beer – and see people out there really loving that atmosphere.
“When I’m busy on the road, that [atmosphere] is what I think about,” he adds.
He had a similar experience with Flora-Bama, where he watched fans arrive all day. "I could literally look right down on top of the stage, which was great. But I was kind of trapped, because there was 40,000 people around there, so I couldn’t really leave. So I had the luxury of sitting out on that balcony all day watching all this develop,” Kenny explains. “There [were] two boats out there at 5:30 a.m., and by the time I went on there was 400. All the people there braving the 90 degree heat because they cared and wanted to hear their favorite song. To play in that environment, to watch that develop, was really beautiful. I loved it."
Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, Kenny's love affair with music began in his grandmother’s kitchen as a child.
Kenny’s mother had him at a young age, and he and his mother lived with her parents during his childhood. While his mother was carrying Kenny, her mother was pregnant too, so Kenny was raised with his Aunt Missy, who’s only six days older.
“My grandmother started to work in the kitchen [of school] … so she could be close to us,” he shares. “And so she would take us to school every day. But while she’d make breakfast, there’d be this bluegrass country show on TV.
“It was one of the first times that I’d heard melody, I heard harmony, and I remember as a kid, being like, ‘I don’t know what that is, but man I love that!' I looked forward to it every morning.
“When I heard ‘Don’t It,' [a track on the new album,] it took me to that kitchen. It took me to hearing that music for the first time,” Kenny recalls. “And it took me in my heart and head to a place where I really learned to love country music.”
Union Station's Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski join Kenny for “Don’t It” on “The Big Revival.”
“You’re not gonna hear that song on too many records coming out of this town anymore. It’s another reason I did it,” he laughs. “Simplicity is hard. That song may never see the light of day on country radio, but I’m really proud that it’s part of the fabric of ‘The Big Revival.’” He adds, “Its got a little history to it. Its got a story to it that’s real authentic about me and my journey as a human being.”
Another special guest on “The Big Revival” is tour-mate Grace Potter of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. Kenny and Grace first teamed up for his hit single, “You and Tequila,” off “Hemingway’s Whiskey” in 2010. Originally recorded by country artist Deana Carter, Kenny and Grace’s version peaked on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart at No. 3.
“When we first started singing together, creating and collaborating – a lot of my fans were going, ‘Who?’ and a lot of her fans were going, 'Why?' – but when we did it, it all made sense,” he explains.
Kenny recalls the time he first discovered Grace. “I was at my house in the Virgin Islands. I had just gotten off the road and it was one of those days where I was just listening to music. I heard a song of hers called 'Apologies' come on the speakers,” he says. “I didn’t know the name of the song. I didn’t know who she was. But I heard that voice, I heard that song and I just laid there and listened to it and I went, ‘That’s the voice I need for "You & Tequila.'” He adds, “I thank God every day that that song popped up on my iTunes because it changed the direction of me creatively, and her too.”
On “The Big Revival,” Grace teams up with Kenny again for “Wild Child.”
“I feel like the person that we wrote about in this song reflects a lot of people, and a lot of women that I’ve been attracted to in my life because they have that certain quality about them," he says. "I think the character in the song looks at the world through her heart and not her head … and I love that. Grace Potter has all of those qualities. I think that if you add her God-given instrument and [the lyrics] she was perfect for ‘Wild Child.’
“I didn’t necessarily want to go there again because 'You & Tequila' had so much natural-born chemistry with it, but the more I thought about it … I knew that was a voice I wanted on there,” he further shares. “I’m glad I did because when she did that vocal and sent it back – it was so natural – so authentic to her, the record and the song. Anytime you can get Grace Potter to sing on your record, I believe your record is a lot better for it.”
The only country artist to make Billboard’s list of Top 10 Biggest Touring Acts of the last 25 years, Kenny has sold more than a million tickets a year for 11 consecutive tours, and he's already thinking about his 2015 tour.
“I’d be lying to you if I said in the process of making this record, that I didn’t think about how the songs were gonna fit in our live show,” Kenny details. “This album was made with the intent of doing these songs live and I’m proud of that. I’m proud that was a calculated choice.
“I do have a 3D rendering of what my stage is going to look like next year, we just don’t know when we’re gonna set it up,” he laughs.
Kenny also shares another secret: He even knows what song he would like to start out with next tour.
“I thought about what I wanted to say to my audience when I come back after being gone for a year,” he says, “and the lyrics 'Til It’s Gone’ is it. It was written about two people, but if you back away from it and think about me talking to [the] 'No Shoes Nation' – the people who have really invested, care and that are gonna be there – the lyrics of that song [say] it all.”
After quoting the first stanza and chorus of “Til It’s Gone” from “The Big Revival,” Kenny continues into the bridge, “'You and me still holdin’ on / Right down to the last song' – 'Boom!,'” he claps his hands. “It’s just the energy, everything that I want to say to them … thank you. Here we are, let’s do it again. And you’re gonna get everything we got 'til it’s gone."
On his 2015 tour, Kenny says, “I’ll probably do more songs off of this album in concert than any album I’ve done since ‘The Road and the Radio.’ And that’s saying a lot, 'cause I still do a lot of songs from ‘The Road and the Radio.’ Just because of the raw, natural energy that it’s gonna bring to our stage."
Get ready for THE BIG REVIVAL — 9/23 pic.twitter.com/4y42RkZlOK— Kenny Chesney (@kennychesney) July 14, 2014
Any with every new tour comes Moby.
Kenny took out a loan for Moby, his first white Silver Eagle bus, when he was still a fresh-faced novice. And Moby remains a part of Kenny’s entourage to this day.
“I was a kid from East Tennessee that was really curious if there was anything past my county line,” Kenny explains. “I was really curious as to what was out there and where this dream could take me. And this bus has been a part of this whole journey. It’s been a common denominator of all the years of touring.
“It’s seen me open for Alabama. It’s seen me do free radio shows,. It’s seen me do the fairs,” he laughs. “It’s seen me graduate from all of that and go into playing theaters. Its seen me do that and go into small arenas, small arenas to amphitheaters, amphitheaters to stadiums. It’s been there every single step of the way.” He continues, “in the middle of all of that, it’s all of the life that has been lived. It’s all the jokes that have been told and all the laughter. All the songs that have been listened to and all the songs that have been written. All the lovers found, all the lovers lost and all the intoxicated philosophy at night after shows with band members and crew.”
About three years ago, as Moby was parked outside of Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field, Kenny’s road manager said, “Boys, if that bus could talk… we’d all have something to answer to. We’d all be in trouble.”
Kenny wrote that title down, “If This Bus Could Talk,” and it eventually became the final track on “The Big Revival.”
With a career spanning more than 20 years and counting, Kenny is viewing his future in a new light.
“Another reason I took a year off was because personally I got to a point where I just felt numb. I feel like taking this time off has allowed me to feel things that I’ve been needing to feel awhile,” he shares. “To just take a deep breath and pause. Honestly I didn’t allow myself to [feel] because I was so busy, but you can get to a point in your life where you’re just numb to everything. And I don’t necessarily want to be that guy anymore.
“There’s a thread in a lot of these songs of taking your life and living it to the fullest – 'Drink It Up' and even the idea of 'The Big Revival.' [The title track] is written about a slice of religion and the lengths people will go to test their faith, but the title alone evokes living your life to the fullest," he says.
“A lot of these songs are talking about living in the ‘now.’ On some of my [other] songs, people think that all I sing about is escapism. It's really interesting because if you look at a lot of the songs that I’ve ... released – especially some of the songs on this record – are about living in the moment and getting the most out of it.”
In relearning how to celebrate life, Kenny was left rejuvenated after recording “The Big Revival.”
“I think somebody would think ‘American Kids’ is so different and given the landscape today, I think people would think that might be a risky move and a risky record to make. But I don’t think it’s as risky as following a trend, trying to be something you’re not and being disingenuous with your audience and with your format," he says. "I still think people are suckers for the truth.”
Indubitably the busiest man on a break, in addition to recording “The Big Revival,” and building a reef in St. John River in Jacksonville, Florida, – among other coastal conservation efforts – Kenny also co-produced his third ESPN sports-based film, “The Believer," this year, working with director Shaun Silva of TackleBox Films. “The Believer” is based on the life and career of South Carolina head football coach Steve Spurrier, and premiered on the SEC Network Aug. 27.
“I grew up loving Tennessee football and it seemed there for a while that Steve and Florida football was the antichrist. It’s ironic that my life is where it’s at and I was asked to make a film on him,” he laughs. “I couldn’t have made this film and been numb. I learned so much about him and about the difference between media persona and humanizing someone and getting the human nature of them.
“I got asked the other day, ‘What’s the most nervous you’ve ever been?,’ and they were expecting me to stay onstage in front of a stadium full of people. That makes you nervous, I promise you, but the most nervous I’ve been in a while was [when] me and Shaun went over to Columbia, South Carolina, to play the film for Steve and his family,” he shares. “They hadn’t seen it ‘til then. Imagine having these two guys be responsible for telling your life. So, you hope they like it. But it was fun.”