You could say that Kenny Chesney, with a top tour, hit after hit and another multiplatinum album, enjoyed an amazing last couple of years — but you’d be wrong. Yes, he accomplished all that. But, enjoy it? That’s another matter.
2006 was another pinnacle in the seemingly unstoppable career of the country superstar, but it also may have been his most frustrating time as an artist — and a person.
Chesney was still reeling from his very public breakup of his brief marriage to Academy Award-winner Renee Zellweger (and the tabloid frenzy that followed), and felt particularly uninspired, even when it came to what he loved most — touring.
“I wasn’t mentally ready to go on the road, after all the media stuff that happened with the breakup with Renee, I just mentally wasn’t ready to go, so all last year, even though I had fun and the whole tour was amazing ... mentally I just wasn’t 100 percent there,” he admits.
He was even reluctant to work on a follow-up to his multiplatinum 2005 album, “The Road and the Radio,” which featured such hits as “Beer in Mexico.”
“Last year at the CMA Awards ... he said to me, ‘I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to get this record done; I don’t know what I want to say,’ ” Joe Galante, head of Sony Nashville, recalls Chesney saying.
Galante didn’t want to push his superstar to make a record he wasn’t ready to make. But he told him to take a crack at it, and see if something might give him inspiration.
Just as Galante suspected, the inspiration did come — though not from the usual sources. Chesney, who has written or co-written tunes for all of his previous albums, found the most personal and profound songs for his new disc, “Just Who I Am: Poets and Pirates,” from the pens of others. The album, on sale Tuesday, doesn’t contain one song written by Chesney. Even so, he considers it perhaps the one that reveals his true emotions more than any other, especially with songs like “Wife and Kids,” where he wistfully yearns for the perfect family life that now eludes him, and “Better as a Memory,” in which he lists his own shortcomings as a mate.
“This record opens me up a little bit more, and I’m letting that happen more and more, and that’s tough for a guy like me, who’s constantly got a wall up,” says the congenial Chesney, relaxing at a Manhattan studio a few hours before a concert at Madison Square Garden.
“There’s a piece of me in all of these songs, there’s a whole lot of me in the majority of them,” he continues. “‘Better as a Memory,’ that’s probably one of the most brutally honest songs that I’ve ever recorded about me, and it’s a letter that I’ve probably written to a lot of girls before.”
As Galante puts it: “I think he let people into the issues that are facing him.”
Working with WilliePart of this newfound introspection, and willingness to put more of his emotions out for public dissection, came after Chesney began working with a country great who has endured plenty of triumphs and setbacks in the public eye — legend Willie Nelson. Chesney is the producer on Nelson’s next record, due out next year.
“Every artist feeds off inspiration, and when I needed it the most, God gave me Willie Nelson,” Chesney says.
When Chesney began working on the album in late 2006, he hadn’t started working on his own record, and admits to feeling “pretty stressed out.”
Though his marriage to Zellweger began and ended quickly in 2005, the aftereffects of the split lasted much longer. There was the gossip and innuendo that surfaced when it was revealed that Zellweger cited “fraud” as a reason for the annulment of their four-month union (though she took pains to later say it had nothing to do with Chesney’s character and was just legal jargon).
Galante says that Chesney was also disappointed when in 2005 he lost the CMA Award for entertainer of the year, especially after the huge success of the album “When the Sun Goes Down.”
“That was a really really tough time,” says Galante. “It’s kind of like, what happened here, I have nothing to show for this. ... No doubt about it, he was hurt.”
Still, Chesney is quick to point out he has no regrets — “I wouldn’t change anything that’s happened in my life, not one single thing, even in the last three or four years”
But, he concedes, he was definitely feeling somewhat adrift both professionally and personally, until he started working with Nelson in the studio.
“It was the inspiration that I needed as a songwriter,” he says. “With all that Willie’s gone through in his life, he’s got the best attitude. ... I left that whole project feeling as if I had just taken a deep breath, artistically, spiritually, everything, and I think it had a deep effect on how I recorded my record.”
Listening to the 39-year-old Chesney’s “Just Who I Am” should give his fans a better picture of who he is than previous efforts, some of which are famously lighthearted, like “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” While there are songs that hint toward his carefree bachelor ways (“Got a Little Crazy Last Night” details a one-night stand), others paint a picture of a man reflecting on more serious issues in life, be they concerns about settling down or frustrations that eat away at the soul.
Even the title, “Just Who I Am: Poets & Pirates,” is autobiographical, touching on the poetry of music and the kind of pirate lifestyle touring brings.
“I think it’s just a natural progression,” he says of his growing openness. “I think I’m more comfortable with it, more comfortable as a person, more comfortable as a songwriter, more comfortable in my skin than I’ve been in the last several years. And I think that songs on this record show that.”
Still, he’s not quite ready to reveal just everything. While he may have been frustrated during and after the breakup of his marriage, that doesn’t mean he had writer’s block: the difficulties actually made him pretty prolific.
“I’ve got a lot of great songs!” he says, laughing. “You won’t hear any on this record — maybe in ten years from now.”