Country singer Kenny Chesney grew up in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, but he’s a beach bum at heart.
He spends more time at his home in the Caribbean than he does at his home in Nashville. His album covers show him in the surf, toes in the sand, shoulders bronze. Even Chesney can’t explain it.
“Somewhere in my family tree, I don’t know maybe five, 10 generations back, who knows, there is somebody that loved the islands. And I got it,” he said. “I got his genes or her genes, and I’ve had a love affair with the tropics.”
That was obvious on his last album, the multiplatinum “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems,” and the same breezy feel is on his latest, “When the Sun Goes Down.” Calypso rhythms ripple as he sings about “suntan toes tickling the sand, cold drink chillin’ in my right hand.”
Not typical country fare. But Chesney’s never claimed to be a traditional country singer. His albums have old-school country ballads on them, but they also have plenty of rock-edged, fist-pumping songs. The new album’s title track is a duet with rap-rocker Uncle Kracker.
Chesney, 35, makes no apologies to country purists.
“I come by it honestly,” he said. “When I was growing up, I loved Conway and Hank Jr., George Jones, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash, Strait, it goes on and on and on. But I also got turned on by ‘Jack and Diane,’ ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’ by Tom Petty, Jackson Brown’s ‘Running on Empty,’ Springsteen, Buffett, all that stuff you listen to as a kid and take into your heart and soul.”
Besides, he says, today’s young country fans, the teen and college-age listeners who make up much of his audience, have diverse musical tastes. Not only do they listen to his stuff, but also to Dave Matthews, Kid Rock and Britney Spears.
“I think the day is gone when people just listen to one type of music,” he said. “Now more than ever, people are pressing the buttons on their car radio and listening to what sounds good, no matter where it’s at on the dial.”
Chesney is settling in at RCA’s Nashville office for a long day of interviews to promote “When the Sun Goes Down.” He pulls off his cap every so often, revealing the thin spot he usually keeps covered on stage with a black cowboy hat.
“The last album was very relationship-based,” Chesney says. “This one is more a sigh of relief, to be honest with you.”
“When the Sun Goes Down” is more up-tempo, with biting electric guitar solos punching up several tracks. Yet there’s also the waltz “Being Drunk’s a Lot Like Loving You,” a classic country weeper with steel guitar and lines such as, “Well I’ve felt the hangover of loving all night, I’ve sat at the bar all alone in a fight, I’ve bottled up feelings and poured ’em out too, Being drunk’s a lot like loving you.”
Life in the old blue chairChesney takes a larger role as a songwriter here. He came to Nashville as a writer for the Acuff-Rose publishing house in the early 1990s and has co-written songs for his albums before, but this is the first time he’s included two self-penned tunes.
In “I Go Back,” he sings of how a favorite song can resurrect old memories, like “the smell of an old gym floor, and the taste of salt on a Carolina shore.” In most of his songs — either his own compositions or someone else’s — Chesney looks for simple lyrics that parallel everyday experiences.
“I listen a lot to people’s conversations about what’s going on in their life, and I take what’s going on in my life, and I got a family that I talk to a lot and I take what’s going on in their life,” he said. “It’s pretty cool to take an emotion and make somebody feel something in a short period of time.”
Chesney quotes lyrics from his songs to emphasize a point. Speaking of a painful period he was going through when he wrote “Old Blue Chair,” he says, “I lived a lot in that chair. Like the song says, ‘I read a lot of books, wrote a few songs, looked at my life, where it’s going and where it’s gone.”’
He’s gone far in a brief time. Chesney grew up in the east Tennessee town of Luttrell and didn’t start performing until he was in college at East Tennessee State University.
After moving to Nashville, he steadily built his career with hits such as “Me and You,” “She’s Got it All” and “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” That last one, a silly, sexy and popular concert staple, helped set his image as a country pinup.
But “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems” introduced a fresh and more mature sound. It also made Chesney one of country’s big guns. The album has gone triple platinum — 3 million units sold.
Chesney feels like he’s turned a corner.
“Before I was just in a big bowl of guys,” he said. “You’ve got to find your avenue, your way out to separate you. I think for the first time in my career I was able to pull myself out of that ditch and be known as more than just a country hat act who was singing the same old songs everybody else was singing.”