Kenny Chesney is one of the world’s most successful country music artists. He grew up in Knoxville, TN, and his musical journey began in Nashville’s grass roots music clubs. Today, his Big Revival tour is the biggest grossing in the US, and sold a staggering one million tickets before he’d even strummed a chord! Chesney, who boasts no fewer than 30 Top 10 singles on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs (25 of which reached the top spot), has always remained grounded and humble about his success, and insists that it’s all down to a big team effort, from the fans who supported him during those early Nashville shows, to his meticulous touring and management teams, who help put on the stadium shows he packs out night after night across North America. We chat to Kenny post-show in Pittsburgh, at the fantastic Heinz Field, to find out a little more about his fascinating career.
Kenny, after spending time chatting to your touring team and crew, it genuinely seems like you’re all one big, happy family. Is that how you see it, also; and if so, what makes it that comfortable for you from an artist’s perspective?
We’re a team. It’s that simple. Every one of us is there for the other, and we come together to create this experience every night. It’s about the music, the fans, and what we create. Everybody out here believes in that. And we’ve got a collection of the best people in the world, so everybody out here also inspires everybody else.
Good to hear! In the UK, country music has never carried the weight it does in the US, but we are finally seeing a swing, first with Taylor Swift, perhaps more of a pop-country crossover, and then true country artists such as Kacey Musgraves and Lady Antebellum have left a real mark on Britain and Europe. Are you encouraged by this, and what do you think it is that people love about country?
I think any time country music can go to new places, it’s great. To a lot of people, it’s America’s music. But I think people everywhere have feelings, have circumstances that happen, whether falling in love, getting their heart broke, needing to go out and have fun. The beauty of country music, or at least the good stuff, is it’s very real and true to how life is. I’ve got a song called You and Tequila, and every night when I play it, I say, ‘This is for everyone who’s addicted to someone who’s not good for you.’ I don’t think that’s a strictly American reality. If you want your music to reflect life, country is a great place to be.
How has the Nashville scene evolved since you started out playing the little bars, and how much do you owe to those days?
I owe everything I am now to those days. When I was just starting out, playing for tips on Lower Broadway, getting my first publishing deal at Acuff-Rose. I learned what made songs great from some of the best writers and creative people who have ever lived. I got to work with and talk songs with Whitey Shafer, Buddy Cannon, Dean Dillon among so many. They set the bar pretty high, and once you realise the difference, it makes it hard to settle for less than that. And again, when you were down on Lower Broadway in the ‘90s, it didn’t get much realer. There, you better bring the music, because those songs were all that mattered. It’s hardcore, and that’s a good baptism by fire for the Nashville music business.
You sold over one million tickets before you even set foot on a stage on this tour – an amazing achievement. What are your rules of thumb for delivering the perfect show, every night?
Be present in the moment, and pay attention. Really invest in the people before you, and not just the ones in the front, but the people sitting all the way up at the farthest part of the stadium. I go sit at the very top of every stadium I play the night before; just sit there and take in the distance between that last seat and where I’m going to be standing. I play for everyone, obviously, but the people I’m trying to reach are those kids up there – and to mentally get ready, there’s nothing like knowing how far that is. Beyond that, there are no rules. Have fun, enjoy the music, love the fans, and hopefully, connect like you’ve never connected before.
Considering you often sing in front of the PA system at shows, you must be one of those few artists that actually hears what the audience hears from time to time!
[smiles] Every year we go out, I try to make the sound as crisp and as loud as possible, which is seemingly impossible. I’m very lucky in that my team combs the globe looking for the best possible options to make that happen, and they’re as relentless about what they do as I am. When they said they found this NEXO PA system in France that could be twice as loud and was smaller, I wasn’t sure I believed them, but respected them enough to listen. Sure enough, they were right! The amount of sound these speakers put out is amazing, but it’s also super-clear, which is always the challenge. You want people to make out the lyrics, for them to be able to pick out the instruments. No matter how loud we are, those things can happen.
People say Nashville is one of the only ‘recession proof ’ cities when it comes to recording facilities... Has the way you record your music changed much since you started out, and if so, how?
Not really, though I know for some people, home recording is a big piece of what they do. We are finishing a David Lee Murphy record, and it’s being mixed on a state-of-the-art board in a home. But I still go into the studio like I’ve always done. I like doing it that way – it feels good to have all the players in a room, making music, playing the songs together. For me, there’s nothing like that energy you create.
Finally, what’s your most memorable musical moment, and why?
[smiles] There are so many amazing memories [pauses]... Any time you stand on stage and hear people singing your songs back to you, that’s incredible. There’s no feeling like it! And it rocks me every time it happens. Obviously being onstage at Neyland Stadium, where I grew up going to Tennessee Vols’ games, and having the entire place sing Back Where I Come From, right back to me... that was heavy. A song like that, sung in your hometown, at my very first stadium show ever? 2004 seems like such a long time ago, but it’s one of those things I’ll never forget for so many reasons.
I’ve been blessed to do this as a headliner since 2002. I’ve had the best fans in the world; they love life and music with everything they’ve got. It’s funny how that makes each summer, each show stand out. When we pull into a venue, everyone on my crew starts telling the stories, whether it’s Dallas, where the rain was so intense, and we had to call the show, but I went out and played There’s Something Sexy About the Rain before we called it; those two amazing nights at Red Rocks in Denver; or even playing Tootsies Orchid Lounge on Lower Broadway with the Wailers Band the night before the CMAs... And we’re right back in those moments. When you love life, you love music, and you love people, that connection is the most powerful thing in the world. If you care, you remember it all. You take nothing for granted. And if you work really hard, you are able to touch those people at the back of the stadium. That’s what makes you remember.