When Kenny Chesney decided to take 2014 off from touring, it wasn’t because he was tired, but because he instinctively knew there was more to his music. The only country performer in Billboard’s Top 10 Touring Acts of the past 25 years – staggering considering he didn’t truly headline until 2002 – the man The Wall Street Journal deemed “The King of the Road” was unplugging from what he often called “the best two hours of my life every day.”
But there’s more to life than staying where you are. Chesney, who rewrote the playbook of post-modern country with No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems and the CMA Album of the Year When The Sun Goes Down, realizes that. He’s evolved. His audience has evolved. Loss. Love. Life. Reality. Pressure. Obligation. It all adds up, sometimes obscuring the beliefs that keep us all moving forward.
“When I took a year off to make this record, I knew there was something special out there, but it was going to take time to find it… to write it… to bring it to life in the studio,” Chesney explains. “And I was the only one who could do that, who could make that commitment.
“I went to dirt floor church revivals with my grandma when I was a little kid; that power is electric. So hot, and the preacher punctuating every sentence with a ‘heh’ at the end. Scared me to death, but it showed me what it means to be alive! I think that sort of passion is how we shouldall live our lives, and it’s easy to lose touch with that. I went out to find it.”
Find it he did. The Big Revival is eleven songs that weigh the state of the human condition between the coasts without bogging down or losing hope. Whether it’s the stark philosophical Appalachia of “Don’t It,” featuring GRAMMY winners Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski, the rousing invitation to live every last moment of “Til It’s Gone,” the picture postcards of a free spirit in “Wild Child,” with a yearning return from Grace Potter, or the percolating shower of words “American Kids,” the project’s lead track, this is an album about engaging, seeking something more, feeling more alive – wherever you may be in your life – than you ever have.
“With two hooks, three rhythm scans and some of the most ingenious word play I’ve ever heard, ‘American Kids’ is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. It’s exactly what it is to grow up in the little dot-on-the-map towns… every last little detail
American kids are so much more complicated, more joyous, more real – and this doesn’t reduce the experience, so much as distill it. In places like where I grew up, you make your own fun, you create your world… and they still do. Capture that, and you’ve captured something that matters.”
At a time when America is struggling, when two incomes aren’t always enough for many families, when getting by is harder than we admit, the notion of renewal, the torque of swinging for the fence, the idea where we are is plenty is an exhilarating truth. Chesney knows that, and celebrates his fans – the ones who come out in excess of a million strong every time he tours – right where they are, just how they live and exactly in the overlooked moments that matter.
Not the escape, but the being. Not how hard, but the resilience of being engaged where you are. Not the once-in-lifetime, but the reality that every second is precious if you’re paying attention. It’s easy to forget, but it’s always been the bedrock of the connection between the fans and the man The Los Angeles Times called “The People’s Superstar.”
“Rick Rubin told me years ago, there’s nothing like a great song to revive you. I laughed, and said, ‘Yeah, there’s nothing like a certain piece of music to inspire you. It can change everything.’ For me, for this, that was what I went looking for.”
Along the way, he cut songs he knows will be hits. “But it was all stuff we’d done before, and there were some great songs.” He kept looking, listening and writing. And as is often the case, there was a moment that unlocked everything else.
“I was writing ‘Wild Child’ with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, and it just clicked. Certain songs start a creative landslide, and that was it. The idea of writing about a girl who is so hungry to see the world, she’s scared she won’t taste it all before she’s done. who loves so hard, but can’t be tied down.
That led me down a bunch of roads. I heard ‘American Kids,’ then David Lee Murphy sent me a few songs. We wrote ‘Flora-Bama.’ I had ‘If This Bus Could Talk’ and ‘Don’t It’ already. And then there was ‘The Big Revival,’ that hit so hard and kinda knocked the wind out of you in a good way.”
For a man who didn’t want to lose the essence of who he was, but was determined not to repeat himself, the creative gates opened. Looking back at how he was raised inspired “Beer Can Chicken.” The notion that sometimes “music can get you through the night and you can figure it out tomorrow” gave “Rock Bottom” its charge, while offering “Save It For A Rainy Day” its inspiration.
For the man who’s won four Country Music Association and four consecutive Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year Awards, it starts with the songs. Arriving in town with not much more than a notion, he parked cars, played the Turf on Lower Broad when “seedy” was a generous assessment of it and tried to write with anyone who would co-write with the East Tennessee kid.
Amassing seven or eight songs he was proud of, he landed at Acuff-Rose, the legendary publishing house founded by Roy Acuff and Fred Rose where Hank Williams, Sr. was a writer. He didn’t know that then, only “I was lucky enough to get to go to lunch with people like Whitey Shaffer, Dean Dillon, Don Sampson, Skip Ewing, Donnie Keys…I was as green as anybody could be in every way, but I wanted to learn the craft so bad, to know how they put all that living into three minutes. I did a lot of holding the notebook, if you know what I mean, but I soaked it all in – and I never forgot. Because if you’ve got the songs, you have everything.”
Chesney didn’t sell out arenas on song quality alone. He brought a spark to the music, pushed boundaries through collaborations beyond the format with Uncle Kracker (“When The Sun Goes Down”), Dave Matthews (“I’m Alive”), the Wailers Band (“Spread the Love”) and Grace Potter (“You & Tequila”) – and created a real dialogue with the fans.
“This record humanizes my relationship with the fans,” he explains. “It’s always been a two-way relationship. They need me and inspire me, push me. But this time, I knew I needed to inspire them! I needed to find songs that shoved me into my life in new ways, to inspire the guys playing to create something more, because if we couldn’t inspire ourselves, how could we expect anyone else to care? How can we take people who have busy lives and say, ‘This matters… Your life matters…’when we don’t sound that way?”
“These songs almost mandated how hard we came at them. Even the quiet ones demanded real presence. The way Chad Cromwell hits the snare, there’s nowhere to hide; he’ll topple all your walls. The music and players led me to this place. That’s what you need. If you listen to the energy, the raw, honest energy, especially on the tempo tracks, you can hear the shift, actually feel the passion and the energy. It’s palpable – and I like that. It’s what’s needed to really drive it.
“There’ a lot of fast and loud songs, because I like those. But for me, I wanted more than fast and loud, I wanted passionate and truthful. Just because a song makes you feel good, that doesn’t mean it can’t say something. I think those are the ones that really get inside.”
It’s hard to deny the thrust of “Drink It Up,” the pump of “The Big Revival,” the impossible groove that lifts the paean to “Flora-Bama” or even the string of life that is “If This Bus Could Talk.” There is an investment here, a willingness not to just look, but to see the world his fans – and in many ways, he – lives in.
“I couldn’t believe a bank would lend me the money to buy a bus,” he concedes. “I didn’t own a thing in the world, but a little pick-up. It was an older Silver Eagle, but I knew if I had a bus, I could chase my dream until I made it come true. I had no idea what that really meant, but I kept going.
I think that’s how my fans live their lives, too. They keep going, they get through, they laugh a lot. Sometimes, though, you need to pause and reflect. A lot of life has happened to me since 2001 – and you move so fast, you don’t take it in. That’s part of what makes you rich, and that is why I wanted to spend the time on this record that I did. Bring it all, offer it up and once again, see how far, how different we could take it.”
He pauses when he says this. He may play 19 NFL Stadiums a summer, sell multiple millions of records, top the charts and win awards; but in the end, it comes down to the way he connects and what he believes about music.
“I grew up, like a lot of kids, laying out in the backyard, staring into the sky, wondering if there was more to life than that,” Chesney confesses. “I had no idea where this would take me. But I can tell you, when people sing those songs back the way they do, they push you. You want to give them something more, something better – and that’s hard.
We built this on authenticity. and energy. ‘Young’ spoke to people, ‘I Go Back,’ ‘There Goes My Life,’ ‘Keg In The Closet.’ That’s how the fans and I found each other, and it’s the most powerful way to connect. But you need to go forward, to grow; music may reflect your past, but it’s about your present: who you are, what you want out of life, how to inspire people to get there when they’re not sure how.”
After all of it, Chesney wasn’t sure how he was going to get here, either. So he slowed down, started listening, dug in and thought about where he’d come from. He also thought about what he liked, records that made him turn the volume up and play again.
“If you’re always on fire, where’s that energy gonna come from? You may be burning, but suddenly, you’re a puff of smoke, and gone. Easy to forget, especially with momentum. When you work hard, play harder, you have to also stop and consider. You know where you’ve been, so enjoy where the moment and then think about what you really want. That’s how you find the truth… how you write songs that hit people in the heart.
In the end, that’s how I got here. As a songwriter, an artist, a performer. It’s what fires me up, inspires me when there’s nothing else. And that’s the kinda revival we all need.”