June 21, 2012 at 9:18 AM ET
Whimsical humor, literary ambitions, confessional albums. None of those are anything we associate with most country artists. But all those qualities can be found in the music of Kenny Chesney, whose fifteenth studio album, “Welcome to the Fishbowl,” dropped on Tuesday.
Chesney, who performs as part of the TODAY concert series Friday, June 22, can be pretty silly, with song titles like “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” and showed a leaning toward literature with his 2010 album, “Hemingway’s Whiskey.” For his newest album, which is the follow up to “Hemingway,” Chesney waxes introspective and gets self-analytical. And he’s getting critical praise for it.
“Sad songs set in El Cerrito and New York; a title track peevishly protesting lost privacy. Fairly depressive, in total – but these days, Chesney sounds more convincing when he's less upbeat,” wrote Rolling Stone reviewer Chuck Eddy, who also writes favorably about Chesney in his recent book, “Rock and Roll Always Forgets.”
Chesney pushing the boundaries of what constitutes country has kept his music interesting since he hit superstar status after years of struggle in the 1990s. These days, Chesney’s big struggle is how to maintain some semblance of a private life in the age of Facebook and YouTube, where very little of what anyone does is personal anymore.
The title track of Chesney’s latest album, which he co-wrote, addresses this issue. The idea for the song came about, he told USA Today, after some of his football buddies saw him mobbed by fans after he walked into a Florida bar: “After that died down, one of those guys said, ‘I didn't realize your life was like this.’ I said, ‘Hey, man, welcome to the fishbowl.’ ”
Chesney elaborated further on the theme of the song to Country Music Television: “More than anything, the way we live today is what inspired this song. You don’t have to be a celebrity to live like we’re living. Because now, more than ever, you don't have to be in the public eye like me to lose your privacy. So this song is not about any level of celebrity or the negativity that comes with that. It could very easily have gone that way. There’s a line in the song that says, ‘You don't have to be famous to be a star. Just get caught on video, and there you are.’ ”
He's also starting a summer tour on Saturday, June 23, with Tim McGraw, who guests on the first single, “Feel Like a Rock Star,” off Chesney’s new album. While the tour will probably prove to be one of the summer’s biggest concert draws for country fans, a host of other country acts will be touring in the coming months as well, and will be just as likely to fill arenas. These include Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley, Toby Keith, Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, Sugarland and Carrie Underwood.
But beyond the concert stage, there’s one more place that anyone who loves country should go starting Friday. That’s the movie theater.
June 22 is when “The Last Ride,” a biopic of the late Hank Williams, opens. The film tells of the troubled final days of the country music pioneer who influenced Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, among many, many others. Beyond looking closely at Williams, the film will also provide some historical perspective to country fans, in much the way the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line” did in 2005. And while “The Last Ride” might not be getting the pre-opening buzz of "Walk the Line" (beyond the fact that Henry Thomas from “E.T.” stars in the title role), you can bet it’ll feature some pretty great music.
Which country act are you most looking forward to catching this summer? Mosey on over to our Facebook page and let us know.
Tony Sclafani is an arts and culture writer whose first book is due out next year. His writing can be seen at www.tonysclafani.com.