Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Two Texas congressmen, one Democrat and one Republican, are sequestered inside a Chevy Impala on a 24-hour, 1,600-mile trip from San Antonio to Washington, D.C. (where a blizzard last month closed the airport), and decide to live-stream the journey.
While monitoring their dashboard debate over health care, immigration, Medicaid and veterans’ services, a National Public Radio host calls U.S. Reps. Beto O'Rourke and Will Hurd to interview them on the air, curious if they have reached consensus on any issue. There is one, they report: a mutual appreciation for Kenny Chesney.
“Ah, the unifying powers of Kenny Chesney,” NPR’s Steve Inskeep says as the broadcast fills with the singer’s new song, “Winnebago,” an ode to the carefree joys of the open road.
Chesney laughs at this story. He laughs often during a recent phone conversation, though this particular chuckle comes with a quiver of embarrassment. The role of bipartisan hero takes some getting used to.
“That’s funny. But I guess it’s a good reputation to have,” he says. “I’ve always said that music brings people together more than anything that I know of. Music and sports. As a songwriter, and as a creative person, you search for commonality where you can find it.”
A most uncommon common man, Chesney is country music’s reigning superstar — yes, a performer worthy of that overused term — who fills football stadiums, challenges listeners to his popular No Shoes Radio channel with ahead-of-the-curve picks from Michael Kiwanuka and Rag 'n' Bone Man, while also running the premium Blue Chair Bay Rum distillery.
But Chesney is also a songwriter of deep sensitivity, a son of small-town East Tennessee and the eastern Caribbean, a humble poet of simple virtues that come with no political litmus test. In an era when authenticity seems hard to come by, the heart-on-sleeve honesty heard on poignant Chesney ballads such as “There Goes My Life,” “Don’t Blink” and his new one, “Coach,” seems even more rare and valuable.
“What you see from Kenny is what you get from Kenny,” says Sammy Cruise, program director at West Palm Beach-based country radio station WIRK, 103.1-FM. “Whatever he’s performing, he’s doing it as Kenny Chesney the person, not someone different. He’s just so down to earth. He can relate to just about anybody. The dude does not forget where he came from.”
A RESTLESS SOUL
As comforting as his familiar hits may be, Chesney again arrives at this weekend’s annual Tortuga Music Festival in Fort Lauderdale as an artist in transition. One calendar year from 50, like his peers Tim McGraw and Keith Urban, Chesney is a restless soul with something new to say, looking for different ways to say it.
As on his previous two albums, 2013’s "Life on a Rock" and 2014’s “The Big Revival,” Chesney’s fall 2016 release, “Cosmic Hallelujah,” is also interested in big, existential ideas, the flighty fun of “Winnebago” notwithstanding. “Cosmic Hallelujah” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s all-genre Top Album Sales chart and was Chesney’s 14th album to open at No. 1 on the country albums chart.
Symbolic of the evolution of his songwriting is the single “Noise,” a forceful country-rock indictment of the coarse, technology-aided clamor that passes for communication these days.
“Twenty-four-hour television, gets so loud that no one listens / Sex and money and politicians talk, talk, talk / But there really ain't no conversation / Ain't nothing left to the imagination,” Chesney sings in lyrics written way back in 2015.
Chesney says he was responding to the damaging effect of being pummeled by all kinds of stimuli in our lives.
“I felt myself staring at my phone all the time, and I didn’t used to do that. It was having a negative effect on my relationships, and a negative effect on my creativity. I hadn’t read a book in forever,” he says. “You take that and everything that happened leading up to the election, and how much all these talking heads were all over the television screaming over one another to be heard, and when they couldn’t be heard they’d just yell even louder. It was my way of saying, you know, ‘Enough’s enough’ [laughs].”
Poking around that cultural petri dish in a politically agnostic way was a challenge, Chesney says, and he is proud of the results.
“ ‘Noise’ is a very different song for me, sonically and melodically, and everything. But I needed that as a songwriter and as a person,” he says. “There are some songs on ‘Cosmic Hallelujah’ that people are used to hearing, and there’s some songs on there that may make them listen a little harder.”
Other songs on “Cosmic Hallelujah” that take a step back to look at the big picture include “Trip Around the Sun,” “Rich and Miserable” (“the back porch ain’t what it used to be,” Chesney sings), “Bucket” and the album’s biggest hit, his duet with pop-rock chameleon Pink titled “Setting the World on Fire.”
The collaboration about a couple driving around Los Angeles in a giddy haze of beer and young romance (“do you think we’ll live forever?” they sing) was a late addition to the album, its effect on Chesney surprisingly profound.
“She grew up in Philadelphia, and I grew up in East Tennessee. You’d think on paper, her style and my style, it may not mesh. But it was just magic, you know?” Chesney says of the recording session. “It made me believe in the process, why we all love music, how universal it is, all over again.”
Chesney’s performance on Fort Lauderdale beach Sunday, April 9, will be his third headlining appearance at Tortuga, the most of any act in the five years of the event, and his popularity in South Florida is as strong as ever. This year’s festival includes a new premium viewing area in front of the main stage where the headliners perform, and so far only Sunday’s allotment of passes for this space, called the Reef, have sold out.
WIRK’s Cruise would be fine if Chesney made the festival an annual stop: “Tortuga is definitely a perfect fit for Kenny Chesney. He’s totally beachy and fun.”
The feeling, apparently, is mutual. In performing on Sunday, Chesney will be taking a break from taking a break: The show will be the first time his band has performed onstage together since August, when he decided a sabbatical was in order after 150 concerts in the previous 18 months.
“There’s a lot of commonality between me and my camp and the people that come out there, a lot of free spirits that work really hard and play really hard and like to sit in the sun and listen to music. That’s kind of what feeds our road family, that environment,” he says. “We know those faces that are going to be in front of us, and we look forward to seeing them.”
One new song that Chesney is anxious to share at Tortuga is “Bucket,” a twangy, Johnny Paycheck-style digital salute to the stresses of modern life. The refrain: “I made a bucket list, changed the B to an F / I gave my give-a-damn the finger, so it got up and left / I quit worrying about people’s expectations / And ordered up a six pack of chillaxification.”
“I’d be lying to you if said I do not feel that emotion sometimes,” Chesney says with a hearty laugh. “It’s such a liberating song about getting out of the funk of your own life. We all go through those funks. Thank God we’ve got music, and thank God we’ve got the ocean. Every time I get in a funk, I go jump in the ocean. Every time. The energy and the power of the ocean, somehow it hits the reset button for me.”