NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Kenny Chesney said he was taking a break. He didn’t say he was taking it easy.
Just about everybody assumed country music’s top-drawing act would really slow down after he made the surprising announcement he was taking the year off from touring. After all, who should know more about relaxing than country’s Caribbean cowboy, the man who rivals Jimmy Buffett when it comes to songs about sandy beaches and frosty beverages?
Buddy Cannon knew better, though.
“Knowing him the way I do, I didn’t really see him taking a yearlong rest,” Chesney’s longtime producer said. “He ended up working more than he would’ve worked had he been out on tour.”
The problem? After more than 15 years of constant motion, Chesney is proving he really doesn’t know how to relax.
Sure, he visited a few exotic locales and logged some time on his boat. But his “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” essay includes precious little actual vacation. He compulsively filled his time by making two movies — a 3D concert film, which came out last spring, and the “Boys Of Fall” football documentary, which recently aired on ESPN (a longer version will be released at a later date).
He also made one labour-intensive album, “Hemingway’s Whiskey,” which comes out Tuesday. It was a rewarding experience, but Chesney admits he still needs a lot of saltwater therapy. Yet, Chesney did not appear at low ebb during a pair of recent interviews. He was excited about his new projects.
Chesney didn’t have that same excitement for touring toward the end of his last run, feeling a disconnect after all those years on the road. He sold more than a million tickets a year for eight consecutive years and probably could have kept right on doing it. But once he realized he had moved from chasing the dream to feeding the machine, he hit the brakes.
The last thing Chesney wanted was to lose the tight bond he has with his fans. He felt the pace he was on was damaging the music he was making in small ways and knew sooner or later his fans might start to notice.
“My head needed it, my heart needed it, my soul needed it, the music needed it, my career needed it,” Chesney said of his time off the road. “It would be really easy to keep doing it because it was working and it was the thing to do. … That’s a hard decision to make when everybody’s making money. I felt like to protect that investment, it’s the most important thing to do, especially if I want to be doing this like my heroes still do.”
A touring artist leads a pretty grueling life and Chesney is among the hardest charging acts on the road. While on a 65-date tour, Chesney said he would spend Thursday through Sunday on the road. He’d fly home to Nashville late Sunday night and hit the studio the next morning and work on songs. By Wednesday he was already consumed with the next weekend’s plans, even as he laid down tracks.
“I didn’t want to do that again,” Chesney said. “Hopefully when people listen to ‘Hemingway’s Whiskey,’ they can feel it’s pretty fresh sounding. It’s not tired sounding. It’s pretty energetic. It’s a little edgy.”
Chesney and Cannon began working on songs for the album in January 2009. Chesney came off the road later that year in October and really started tinkering, taking the album in unexpected directions. At one point, Cannon thought they were done. But Chesney decided he wasn’t happy with the songs and they pitched about half the album. Soon after the call went out for songs on Music Row.
“Having more time and having the whole town pitch us every new song they got for eight or nine months couldn’t do anything but help raise the bar,” Cannon said. “It’s a much more varied album, I guess, from the last few studio records we’ve had. The songs are a little different.”
Chesney offers plenty of textures on “Hemingway’s Whiskey,” from “The Boys Of Fall,” his tender ode to America’s favourite sport, to “Somewhere With You,” the tale of lost love that immediately jockeys for position among his best songs.
He covers a lot of ground between those two very different songs. There’s the Pete Townshend-esque electric guitar intro on the rocking “Live A Little,” a war cry against the rat race — and a personal reminder to Chesney to slow down.
There’s the melancholy love-hate song, “You And Tequila,” a duet with Grace Potter. And George Jones guests on the comic “Small Y’all.”
Chesney figures he’s got 20 minutes of top-notch material from the album to add to next year’s tour. His vow to relax the rest of the year is just a few minutes old when Chesney admits he’s already working on 2011’s show. The lighting and staging’s done and the details are coming together quickly.
Turns out you can take the singer off the road, but you can’t keep him from thinking about it.
“I can already tell next year’s going to be a lot of fun,” Chesney said.
AP writer Caitlin R. King contributed to this report.