It is likely that right now, somewhere off the coast of the Virgin Islands, Kenny Chesney is bobbing on the ocean and reflecting on his remarkable year.
“The last 15 years of my life, the very next day after the last show, I fly south and wake up and get on my boat, and I can hear the ringing in my ears from all summer,” he tells Rolling Stone Country.
The ringing may be especially loud this year. Chesney played more than 60 shows, kicking off with two nights at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena on his birthday and ending last weekend with his two customary blow-outs at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
After taking a much-needed year off to recharge his batteries, the East Tennessee native admits that he had been anxious about how his latest album, The Big Revival, would be received by fans and whether they would kick off their flip-flops to rejoin No Shoes Nation this summer.
Clearly, he needn’t have worried. Not only did Revival spawn three Number One hits for the superstar—”American Kids,” “Til It’s Gone,” and “Wild Child,” bringing his total to 27— the fans came out in droves, with Chesney smashing attendance records at some of the biggest venues in the country: MetLife Stadium, Lambeau Field, Heinz Field, Target Field, Lincoln Financial Field and more. In Foxborough alone, he played to over 120,000 people.
“What I hoped would happen with my audience and this record and this tour and where I am in my life and my career. . . I felt like it couldn’t have gone any better, as far as people connecting with it,” says Chesney, sounding legitimately relieved.
In many of those places, the country icon was joined by openers Old Dominion, Cole Swindell and Brantley Gilbert. Eric Church hopped on several dates, and Chesney teamed with Jason Aldean for 12 co-headlining stadium dates. He knew they wouldn’t be easy acts to follow.
“My mentality is to give the fans the best possible day we can give them,” he says. “And to have Eric Church and Jason Aldean going before you? You sit on your bus and say, ‘Well, you’re going to have to step it up a little.’ I think that’s made me better, no doubt about it.” (Of Church in particular, Chesney says, “Eric is so authentically great. I can sit and talk and do a whole article on Eric Church about how much I care about him as a person and what I think he means to music.”)
“It would’ve been really easy to be at this spot in my career and go, ‘I’m just going to do what’s worked and not push myself,'” says Chesney of the sonically adventurous Revival and his mammoth tour. “But I’m really glad that we did and I’m even more thrilled that the anxiety that I had was validated — seeing all these people out here this summer — because if you don’t care, they won’t care. I really think about that with our audience. No matter what it is you’re doing, especially with music and songs, if your audience feels for a moment that you don’t care, why would you ask them to care?”
And if there is one thing that everyone who knows Chesney knows — whether it is new friends or people he’s had relationships with for decades — it is that he cares.
“The guy’s really thoughtful and he’s really polite and he takes care of everybody,” says singer-songwriter David Lee Murphy, who had the distinction of playing the first two shows in Nashville and the last two in Foxborough, joining Chesney both times for raucous renditions of his hits, “Dust on the Bottle” and “Party Crowd.” (Murphy has also written a passel of hits for others including Chesney’s “Pirate Flag” and “Living in Fast Forward” and Aldean’s “Big Green Tractor.”)
“He wants everybody to feel special and all you’ve got to do is go to his show to see how hard he works,” says Murphy, who jokes Chesney should don a Fitbit during his live shows to track his mileage. “He probably ran five miles last night!”
That work ethic, routinely playing two and a half high-energy hours, is nothing new, says Murphy, who has known Chesney for more than 20 years and recalls playing a show with him to roughly 400 people at a “Rattlesnake Round-up” in Alabama in the Nineties. “He’s pretty constant. When he gets up there, that’s not an act that you see. That’s a guy that just loves to make music and write songs and play them,” he says, adding with a laugh, “Just now he plays Gillette Stadium two nights.”
Matthew Ramsey of Old Dominion had not known Chesney prior to his group hitting the road as the opener for the ‘Big Revival’ tour and was surprised by the friendliness of the headliner in their initial conversations. “He talked to me like he’d known me forever,” says Ramsey. “The way he runs his operation from top to bottom, you never meet anybody in a bad mood, everyone is treated with such care.” On the second to last night of the tour, Chesney invited Ramsey and Old Dominion bandmate Brad Tursi out for the live debut of his current hit, “Save It for a Rainy Day,” which was written by the pair.
Sure, he’s the boss, but the praise for Chesney’s equanimity is universal. Spend enough time around him and you’ll see why; he’s a person who is unfailingly gracious given the level of stardom he has attained. Whether it is the sponsors with whom he snaps pics backstage at Gillette or the fans to whom he offers a special moment at the meet and greet, Chesney wears his fame very lightly, if at all.
It is not that his presence is unassuming, exactly, it is that he is eminently open. He can address crowds upwards of 60,000 — making Gillette Stadium feel like a back porch hootenanny as he leads a deafening singalong of “Boston”— and make you feel like you are the only person in the world that he wants to be talking to in a particular moment.
Even when he has a major commercial shoot unexpectedly appear on his schedule during the final two shows — admittedly tired and with the finish line in sight, it is not ideal timing — Chesney rolls with the punches as cameras follow him through the bowels of the stadium chronicling his day-of-show routine. But ever the cut-up, he manages to give a sly wink to folks standing outside the shot. (The company for which Chesney is shooting the spot is on the DL, but, suffice to say, the man who has generally eschewed reality television, perfumes, and other tenuous brand extensions has chosen a major player for his rare advertising moment and will likely be inescapable on TV this fall.)
And when the perpetually sleeveless singer-songwriter, who would appear to do nothing in half-measures, cares about something, he is all in.
He speaks with Rolling Stone Country in the back seat of an SUV en route to Boston Medical Center for a luncheon with survivors of the Boston marathon bombings.
Sporting a Red Sox cap and drinking a sugar-free Red Bull — “my only bad habit on tour,” says the singer who abstains from alcohol save a customary mid-show gulp of a margarita — Chesney has come in a day ahead of the final two shows to break bread with some of the people who have benefitted from the Spread the Love fund the singer founded shortly after the attacks in 2013. The fund, whose moniker comes from a buoyant track featuring the Wailers on his 2013 album, Life on a Rock, has raised $400,000 through Chesney’s own donation, those of others, and the revenue from T-shirts sold at his shows.
He interacts with the people in the room, including doctors, hospital staff, and several survivors who lost one or both legs, as if they are family. And for him, they are. “I was so pissed when I saw the news,” Chesney tells the group, recalling his reaction to the bombings. He goofs around with the service dogs that survivors Celeste and Sydney Corcoran have brought to the event and, in a quiet moment as the group mingles, he remarks in an aside, visibly moved, at how poignant it is that this group, brought together by tragedy, has forged a bond that goes beyond it.
“This room was used as a family reunification center the night of the marathon bombings,” explains Sheryl Katzanek, director of Boston Medical Center Patient Advocacy, following a group photo (dogs and all). “It was filled with such sorrow and pain, the emotion is indescribable. And to see this picture with joy in it is nothing short of a miracle.” After declaring his ongoing concern, Chesney announces that he is donating another $100,000 to the fund, which aids those who lost limbs in procuring and upgrading prosthetics and other medical needs. (It’s worth noting that when this meeting was set up, Chesney did not know a reporter would be attending and had to be cajoled to allow the monetary figure to be published.)
“The end of the tour is a lot like the last day of school,” he says, just prior to the luncheon. “There’s this double-edged sword. You’re tired and ready for a break but you don’t want it to end because you wake up the next day and there’s nowhere to go,” he says with a laugh.
But of course, for Chesney there is his traditional end of tour trip to the islands with his band and crew, numbering 110 people this year.
“We’re just celebrating the fact that, first of all, we have music in our lives and we get to share it with each other and all the faces we got to share it with. And the flip side of that coin is to blow off a whole lot of steam,” he says, clearly relishing the idea of that relief valve.
Eventually, after the last sunburned reveler departs, Chesney says he will get to a quieter place where he can once again start writing songs.
“I haven’t written a song in a while and I’m looking forward to getting to that place where I can shut my mind down enough to even begin that process,” he says. “I wrote several songs for The Big Revival but since then we’ve either been preparing to tour, touring, or promoting that record and I haven’t been in a creative place to be still enough to get into that spot. I’m looking forward to that.”
At the moment, Chesney reports that he has cut two songs but they are only on the “maybe” list for the next record, and he’s not as concerned as he once was with having an album out before his next tour.
“The business of doing business always has you thinking about it,” he says. “But the one thing I loved about The Big Revival was that we didn’t make that record in a cycle. I would love to have new music next year for the tour but I will tell you I’m not going to let next year’s tour dictate new music.”
The entertainer envisions taking another break at some point and switching up the way he tours. “I’ve never gone overseas,” he muses. “I think it would be fun to take a couple of acoustic guitars and go to Ireland and Australia and just play and film it. And then come back the next half of the year.”
Chesney is also attracted to the idea of a small venue tour where he can sing some of his more contemplative material, maybe hitting a theatre on the Wednesday night before his stadium show on a Saturday. “I think it would be fun for me and the fans that really love those songs and never get to hear them. That’s something we may do. I can see myself really loving that. Feeding my soul and theirs, but still keeping the business model that we have out here.”
There is no room in that model for Chesney to start aping any current trends from the fading bro-country movement to the hip-hop or EDM bandwagons.
“God, no,” he says with a shudder before adding with a laugh, “I wouldn’t know how.”
“It would be disingenuous and it would come across that way,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for a while now and I think one of the reasons is because no matter what phases or trends are out there, I still believe that people want to be spoken to with really great songs that make people think or laugh or cry or give them the courage to get the hell out, whatever it is. I think that’s what lasts forever over trends. I still believe people want to have fun and music is medicine to them, and they still want to hear songs that speak to them.”