Kenny Chesney has a fear of overexposure.
The music megastar — the only country act on Billboard’s list of the Top 10 touring acts of the last quarter century — is parking his tour bus in 2017 to spend more time incognito, honing his songwriting craft and just “being still.” But the industry that respects him as much as his massive sea of fans isn’t let him shun the spotlight entirely.
As the East Tennessee native prepares to celebrate this Friday’s release of his 17th studio album, Cosmic Hallelujah, he has found himself two more reasons to party — two more of what is already several mentions in country music’s history books. On November 1st, he will accept the prestigious BMI President’s Award at the 64th BMI Country Awards. It is the highest honor bestowed by the organization and goes to “songwriters who have distinctly and profoundly influenced the entertainment industry.” Handed out judiciously, past winners include Willie Nelson and, coincidentally, Pink, who duets with Chesney on the sultry “Setting the World on Fire.”
The following night at the 50th CMA Awards, Chesney will be only the third recipient of the CMA Pinnacle Award. Previously given to Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift, the award recognizes “an artist who has achieved global prominence through concert performances and record sales at levels unique in country music.”
The four-time CMA Entertainer of the Year’s Cosmic Hallelujah album arrives already boasting two hits: the buoyant, tech-decrying first single “Noise” released this spring, and the Pink collaboration, which nets Chesney his 29th Number One song.
The 11-track collection is an eclectic mix of party jams — the hilarious “Bucket,” infectious rocker “All the Pretty Girls” — and introspective ballads, including the stone country “Jesus and Elvis.” The LP opens with the rolling, tumbling “Trip Around the Sun,” perhaps the most chipper ditty about the apocalypse ever and from whence the album’s title comes.
Rolling Stone Country chatted with a chill and cheerful Chesney over breakfast at a charming seaside spot in Southern California. Clad in a knit cap and sweatshirt, the singer-songwriter went undetected and held forth on why he pushed back the release of Cosmic Hallelujah and why, even though he’s setting the charts on fire, he’s staying off the road in 2017 (mostly).
Whose idea was it to enlist Pink for “Setting the World on Fire”?
When I first heard that song I knew that the melody was just different. There was a certain thread of angst and energy that runs through the undertow of that song. It wasn’t enough for me to sing it myself. It needed the female perspective to make the song emotionally authentic. And I thought who has a voice that can make all these emotions authentic? Who has the voice to draw people in? And there’s a lot of great singers out there but, to me, Pink’s voice can hold all those emotions and more. She’s the best.
So good that you basically just hand the chorus over to her.
[Laughs] No doubt about it. But that’s what makes the song great, I’m this narrator in the verses. I’m drawing people in and getting them close — “Shh, come here I gotta tell you something”—and then boom here she comes! And she just rinses them!
Originally the album was due for release in July and was set to be titled Some Town Somewhere. When did the change happen?
This record took a lot of twists and turns and variations and it’s unlike any that I’ve ever done because I thought I had it done. When we got the OK from Pink’s camp to release “Setting the World On Fire,” it made me stop and reevaluate. Initially, I really wanted that song to be the first single. But we couldn’t get my world and her world to parallel at that moment.
And then I did a lot of soul searching. Once we had “Noise” out there we knew that we had to wait until it ran its course. Being able to move the record from July to October allowed me to really go, “OK, do we have this?”
I hate trying to be creative in the middle of a tour. I hate it. And I did that some on this record. But I was able to really channel that exhaustion and really take a look and try to back away from what I worked on for so long. You get so close to these songs and you think, “Oh my God, this is it, this is great” and then. . . because I was afforded that time, there’s a cosmic hallelujah in that too, because I was able to really connect and find some songs that made the connection a lot stronger.
I’m very proud of “Noise” and I think it was a very important song — it’s even more relevant now. But I wanted my album to be released on a human emotion rather than a social statement. It was a gut feeling that the fans would respond better to that human element, of being in that moment when like turns into love.
Everyone has a memory of that giddy all-nighter feeling.
Yeah and we got one of the most badass singers on the planet to sing with me. I just felt like that was a better situation. That’s why we moved the album. And when we did, it allowed me to go back into the studio and find another three songs: “Trip Around the Sun,” “All the Pretty Girls” and “Bucket.”
There’s a thread in those songs and throughout the album about living in the moment.
There’s not a lot of songs about tomorrow. There’s not a lot of songs about looking back.
Was that intentional?
Not really, it’s just where I was. It’s hard for me to live in the moment because I’m constantly planning for something else.
So does this mean you’re taking your own advice now?
No, I didn’t say that I’d do it! I just said I’m singing about it. [Laughs]
When I heard “Trip Around the Sun” I thought, this is the DNA of my audience, this is the DNA of me — and us sharing what we have. Just that we’re all in this together.
What’s ironic about that song title is every year before we start rehearsals at the beginning of February, at the first meeting I say “Isn’t it great that we all get to take another trip around the sun together.” And here’s the song and I thought, “Oh my God, that’s us!” It’s knowing how blessed we are to have music in our lives and to be able to make so many people smile because we have music in our lives.
And that music is bringing you the BMI President’s Award, that’s pretty rarefied air.
Being recognized for my creativity and how much songwriting means to me and what I’ve been fortunate enough to give to the world as a songwriter means everything to me. I’m getting an award as a songwriter that they gave to Willie Nelson and to me. Nobody has given more to the world than Willie.
They don’t give this every year and that makes me feel great because I do believe that my whole life started as a songwriter and what people see of me up there onstage is one thing, but all of that started with my creative spirit and wanting to find commonality with people through a song and that’s hard for me to do. I’ve gotta scratch and claw for everything I get. But being recognized for finding that commonality in a certain way is something that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
And the very next night you’re getting the CMA Pinnacle award.
Imagine the responsibility of getting an award that only two other people have gotten? What am I gonna say? [Laughs] It’s very special because if the BMI award is about being creative, the CMA award is about my investment in the fans and their investment back in me and how beautiful that’s been. I really love what I do when I’m up there. There’s this love exchange that’s hard to define.
You are taking 2017 off from the road. What will you do with all that time?
Maybe on my year off I’ll actually have a year off? [Laughs] I know I’m doing seven shows. I’ve got Tortuga and a couple of other festivals. They’re trying to have me do a few more. But I’m looking forward to just doing those seven and just doing what I want. I’m not sure what that is. When I’m really busy I crave being still, and when I’m still I start to freak the hell out. [Laughs]
Well you’ll have to plan for those seven shows but that’s still a lot of still time.
I’m pretty sure we’re going to do a big tour in 2018 and you just can’t wait until February of 2018 to set that up. The second half of the year I’ll be mentally busy prepping for ’18, but the first half I’m going to be doing some shows and I’m hoping to be creative in some way. Hopefully, I’ll get to spend some more time with my family and reconnect with the people you’re not supposed to have to get reconnected to, but that is my life and that is my truth.
So you have no concrete plans to do anything? Write a book, make a movie, another album?
It’s going to allow me to take a really authentic deep breath. Because, if you think about it, in 2015 and 2016 we did 150-something shows in an 18-month period, big stadium shows. And that’s a lot of shows at that level. Like my grandmother said, “Chocolate cake is great, but enough will make you sick.” [Laughs] So we’re putting the cake away for just a little bit and then we’ll put it back out on the table.
Plus, we can’t miss you if you don’t go away.
[Laughs] And who wants to be there? “Hey look at me, I’m still here!” That’s where you don’t want to be. Over the years I feel like I’ve had a pretty good finger on the pulse of when to hit it hard and when to back away a little bit. Sooner or later, I figure I’ll want to pull the guitar out of the case.