Kenny Chesney, the king of country concerts, took a rare year off from touring in 2014, and look what happened in the Twin Cities:
Paul McCartney packed Target Field, a venue Chesney once had to himself.
Luke Bryan partied at the Gophers’ TCF Bank, proving that Chesney isn’t the only country superstar who can fill a Minneapolis stadium.
And Garth Brooks, who had been absent during Chesney’s reign, returned from a 16-year hiatus and sold a whopping 203,000 tickets at Target Center.
Chesney, who is as competitive as any star in popular music, is impressed but not fazed by those goings-on. He’s more concerned with focusing his energy on his own agenda.
“The year off meant everything,” said the 47-year-old, who has sold more than 1 million tickets on each of his headlining tours.
“The year off got the ringing out of my ears. The year off made me hungry. I didn’t want to make another record just because it was time, and I didn’t want to make another record just because I had another tour coming up. My brain needed a pause.”
The break from the road gave the singer time to search for songs, write some himself and “to process emotions.” Being on the road, doing the same thing night after night, left Chesney “numb,” he said.
“I had to get off the bus,” he said in an hourlong phone conversation last week. “I needed a better connection in every area — as a human being, as a son, as a friend.”
He sounds recharged, speaking like a fired-up jock — one looking to capture his ninth entertainer of the year trophy. “I’m glad I did it,” he said. “It’s made this year’s tour awesome. We’ve got some new band members. I feel that excitement out there on the stage now.”
Apparently, the one-year absence amped up the demand to see Chesney because he’s booked an unprecedented two nights this weekend at Target Field, where he played single shows in 2012 and ’13. The only other market to warrant two Chesney stadium concerts this year is Boston, which is considerably larger.
“This is the first time I’ve done a double stadium in Minneapolis,” he said. “It’s very special. Several years ago we did a double arena in St. Paul. It’s always been an amazing place for us to come play music.”
Reconnecting with family
On his break, Chesney got in touch with his family. He went to sporting events with his dad and hung out with his mother, aunt Sharon and 92-year-old grandmother in Tennessee.
The time with his inner circle reminded him of what’s happening in the real world, not in the world of a guitar-strumming, boat-loving Caribbean beach bum.
“I got my high school friends that were my college roommates. One is my road manager; two of them run my merchandise business. With a push of the button, they can bring me back to Earth really quickly. They know everything there is to know about me.”
As much as he’s on tour or living in the Caribbean, he’s still “very close” to his family in tiny Luttrell, Tenn.
“I’m proud of where I grew up. Lower middle-class family that loved music. It was a conservative environment where we leaned on certain things: sports, school, music and church. That’s all we had in our life. It allowed me to absorb what’s happened to me.”
Even though he lived in a small town, Chesney went to concerts in nearby Knoxville. Those events changed his life.
“I remember on Thanksgiving night, I saw George Jones, Merle Haggard and Conway Twitty all on one night with my mother and my Aunt Sharon. And I left going: ‘That’s what I wanna do.’ I left a Jackson Browne show in Knoxville going, ‘That’s what I wanna do.’ I left Springsteen going, ‘Omigod, what just happened to me?’ It was a revival on a Wednesday night. You felt the holy spirit move through the whole room. That’s what I love about live music — it’s a shared experience.”
Back to No. 1
It’s no small coincidence that the recharged Chesney named his post-hiatus album “The Big Revival.” It certainly has boosted a career that was showing no signs of needing a boost. The album, released last September, has yielded three No. 1 country singles so far.
One of them is “Wild Child,” which isn’t exactly the profile of a woman usually painted in country radio songs.
“That’s part of living in the islands for the last 15 years and meeting a lot of different, unique people,” said the part-time resident of the Virgin Islands. “I feel fortunate to have them in my life. They walk through the world differently; they color outside the lines with their life. Just because they’re wild, it doesn’t mean they’re irresponsible. They’re just hard to pin down. In some ways, that’s attractive, too.”
Another No. 1 is “American Kids,” delivered to a hip-hop vocal cadence without sounding like it’s panderingly hip-hop.
“I thought that was a melody I hadn’t sung before and I hadn’t heard anybody sing before,” Chesney said. “When I heard ‘American Kids,’ I said, ‘That’s me as a kid.’ It is about a certain demographic. But I think kids can still feel the same things we felt; they just listen to different music. They have the same insecurities; they still wonder if there’s someone out there beyond their town. The same values and story lines are inherent in that song. This record wraps its arms around my town; it wraps its arms around so many flyover states; it wraps its arms around everybody.
“I really was the kid that made out with this girl on the weekend and went to football practice on Monday and exaggerated the truth a little bit. What guy didn’t do that?”
For his Big Revival Tour, Chesney has enlisted two big-time headliners to play alongside him — Jason Aldean (who’s set for the Minneapolis shows) and Eric Church.
“Those guys don’t have to be there,” said the only country act to land among the Top 25 touring acts of this century. “They’ve got to have a lot going on. Jason’s got his own audience and his own tour. Eric cares about the audience and the music. I couldn’t believe he wanted to come back out with us.”
Although Chesney is not one to call out other acts, he sees a vacuum in country music right now.
“I think there could be a little more diversity, at least in the subject matter,” he opined. “Someone said putting out ‘Wild Child’ was a huge risk. Since when is putting out a song that rhymes and touches people in different ways a risk? Five years ago that wouldn’t have been a huge risk. I do think it’s interesting that more females haven’t broken through [in country music]. I wish overall the songs were better and had more diversity. I don’t think I’m alone with that thought.”
Chesney has accumulated 25 No. 1 country songs, but he doesn’t point to his tunes as the primary reason he has been able to sustain a long run as a stadium attraction.
“God blessed me in a lot of ways — with the writers I have in my life, the smart people around me and just the connection with the fans. I can tell you that I’m an OK guitar player. Not one single person has come to the show to watch me play guitar. That’s OK. I have really great guitar players onstage with me. My job is connecting with an audience.
“When I’m onstage, there is a percentage of the crowd who came because their friend dragged them there. Or it’s the kid who’s at his first concert. If I do my job, he’ll have music in his life for the rest of his life. I think about that when I’m up there. I’m going to make that person who wasn’t a fan, I’m going to make that person love it. That happened to me as a kid.”
Some of Chesney’s best known songs — “Young,” “I Go Back,” “Boys of Fall” — are nostalgic reflections on the good ol’ days of childhood, teendom and small-towndom. Maybe it’s time to sing a memorable song about where he’s at now.
For a guy who openly admires Jimmy Buffett (who famously penned “A Pirate Looks at 40”), what is Chesney thinking about as he sees 50 on the horizon?
“I haven’t thought about it,” he admitted. “I’m sure there will be a song that comes from it. I feel better now than I ever have in my skin. I feel really creative; I feel really energized up there onstage. I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been.
“It comes from my grandmother and my family; they’re such a youthful bunch. The idea seems odd, but it makes me feel young; it makes me hungry for life, lust for making music. I never think about age. In three years, I’ll get back to you.”