When Kenny Chesney sings, he makes his audience believe the songs are straight out of his own experience and emotions, straight from his heart. And even Chesney admits that’s funny, because he doesn’t actually write the music that so reflects his life.
Chesney made that admission to TODAY’s Matt Lauer during a break in a Friday installment of the show’s summer concert series on the Plaza at Rockefeller Center. It was a tune-up for the big concert he will participate in on July 4 along with Natasha Bedingfield, Katharine McPhee and Jordin Sparks as part of NBC’s broadcast of the Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks Spectacular.
When Chesney sang songs from his latest platinum album, “Just Who I Am: Poets & Pirates,” Lauer introduced him by reading something Chesney had written about the CD’s songs: “I’ve been through a lot, I’ve lived a lot, tasted a lot. I’ve laughed a lot, heard a lot, looked for answers, found more questions, had some moments to remember, and I think that all that comes through when I open my mouth and sing. This is that album.”
The reigning four-time Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year grinned at his own words as thousands of fans who had begun packing the Plaza at 4 a.m. roared their approval.
Soundtracks of life
“No doubt about it: There is a lot of me in this record,” Chesney said. “I feel songs are the soundtracks of people’s lives, and especially mine. This album is really no different. I’ve got so much of myself in this record, these songs, and it’s ironic that I didn’t write any of them, to be honest with you. But I just found some songs that really touched me in ways that other songs didn’t.”
His favorite on “Just Who I Am” is “Better as a Memory,” a ballad about a painfully honest guy who’s great for a fling but not for a lifetime. The song’s refrain is, “I’m better as a memory than as your man.”
“It’s turned into one of my favorite songs I’ve ever recorded,” Chesney admitted.
Another lyric from the tune, “All my friends are pirates, it’s just who I am,” decorates his tour bus. The rest of who Chesney is — and the reason he’s so adored by his legions of fans — is summarized in the bridge: “I’m just a dreamer, nothing more.”
Chesney’s sometimes stormy life supports that characterization. In 2005, he married actress Renee Zellweger, only to see the union annulled four months later. And little more than a week ago, he issued a denial to reports that he is engaged again.
Millions of tickets
The 40-year-old is in the midst of his annual summer tour of stadium venues across the United States. No one sells more tickets or plays to bigger audiences — not Madonna, not Springsteen, not the Stones. Over the past six summers, Chesney has sold more than a million tickets a year, making him the biggest-selling act of the 21st century.
“It feels great. How can it not feel good?” he told Lauer of the fans who have made him so successful. He looked out at the sea of faces, many of them topped by cowboy hats, and said, “These guys have been with me for a long time. It feels great to go out and do what we’re doing and see everything from our perspective. It just makes you feel great.”
A native of Knoxville, Tenn., Chesney started his singing career in bars and bistros in Johnson City, Tenn., when he was getting a degree in advertising at East Tennessee State University. He’s put the degree to use promoting his own career, which he began after he graduated and moved to Nashville.
He had produced an album when he was still in college, selling the 1,000 copies he had made at his gigs. His first big break came in 1992 when he signed with BMI and Opryland Music. He then moved to RCA’s BNA Records label and recorded his first hit album, “All I Need To Know,” in 1995.
Almost everything he’s done is solid gold — and platinum. “Just Who I Am,” released last September, produced his 12th No. 1 hit on the Billboard country charts, “Never Wanted Nothing More.”
Chesney’s current tour began on April 26. It concludes in September in Indianapolis.