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Kenny Chesney escapes to the islands

‘Be As You Are’ album is sparse, simple
/ Source: The Associated Press

Need to talk to Kenny Chesney? Well, he’s out today, and he’s booked solid Thursday and Friday. Saturday’s definitely a no, and Sunday — well, forget about it.

Trying to find 20 minutes to talk to one of country music’s biggest stars about his latest album, “Be As You Are,” is like trying to find a palm tree in Nashville.

No wonder he cut a record about kicking back in the Caribbean. The poor guy needs a vacation.

“I’ve got an intense life,” Chesney says by telephone during a break from a Nashville rehearsal. “I have to make a lot of decisions, and I have my hands in everything that’s going on.”

Chesney still finds time to escape to his hideaway in the British Virgin Islands, and that’s where this quiet, introspective album was born. Every song save one was written on his boat, where he says he finds the freedom and creativity his busy schedule won’t allow.

Even his label acknowledges that this is a different kind of album. BNA Records isn’t releasing any singles and is taking a low-key marketing approach.

“This isn’t necessarily a Kenny Chesney country album,” said Butch Waugh, executive vice president of RCA Label Group Nashville. “This is a look at Kenny Chesney’s life in the islands.”

And a simpler life it is:

“Island Boy” is about a guy from Maine who sold all of his stuff and moved to the islands, where he’s “living his life where stress is the enemy.” In “Boston,” a woman who wears a Red Sox cap to hide her baby dreadlocks puts her career on hold to work at a jewelry store by the harbor. “Key Lime Pie” has a reggae rhythm and lines like, “Big straw hat, banana drink, can’t remember what it is I think.”

Chesney, 36, considers the songs “postcards” of the people he’s met and the places he’s been. He wrote them over the past four or five years. Most of the stories are true.

“I know girls who went down there for their college spring break and never went back,” he said. “They’re very easygoing, free-spirited, fun-loving people. They’re thinking in the moment, and I love that.”

Taking risksJimmy Buffett has covered this ground before, but Chesney’s attempt is more risky.

He’s sold millions of albums as a hard-rocking country singer with lots of electric guitars and big, energetic stage shows. On “Be As You Are,” he pulls a stunt like the characters in his songs — he simplifies, stripping out the heavy production and making a sparse, mostly acoustic album.

He also wrote or co-wrote the 13 tracks, another departure for him. Chesney came to Nashville as a writer for the Acuff-Rose publishing house in the early 1990s and has written songs for his albums before, but nothing on this scale.

Waugh compares the boldness of the move to “Nebraska,” Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album of bleak, demo-quality songs released during one of singer’s commercial peaks. At the time, the album puzzled some fans, but today it’s regarded as one of Springsteen’s finest. In more recent years, Dave Matthews has taken a similar turn.

“You can only do this when you have a fan base that wants to know more about you,” Waugh says.

Chesney has built up the clout to take a chance. He’s been performing for 10 years now, and last year was his most successful. His “When The Sun Goes Down” sold 3 million copies; only Usher, Norah Jones and Eminem sold more albums on a single title last year. And he drew 1.2 million fans to his concerts, placing him second in tour attendance to Prince.

“I’m proud of the fact that I’m at a point in my career that if I want to take a little bit of a left turn and make an album that is more hushed, more acoustic and more personal, that I can do it,” Chesney said.

Chesney, who grew up in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in east Tennessee, says he doesn’t really know how or when he developed a love of the Caribbean. But it’s always been there. Some of the themes he explores so heavily on “Be As You Are” ripple through his past work.

Now, Chesney says, he’s trying to live a little more like the laid-back locals he sings about instead of the driven entertainer he is.

“A lot of the people in those places have really touched me,’ he said, “and showed me I don’t have to push so hard all of the time.”