Kenny Chesney isn’t one to play it safe. On his 13th and latest studio album, Welcome to the Fishbowl (BNA Records, $12), the multiplatinum country star is singing a different tune. “When you become successful, there’s this mentality that says, ‘This is how we built this and we can’t change it.’ But with this record, I actually felt an incredible freedom creatively,” he says. “There are four or five songs on here that I probably wouldn’t have cut five years ago. At this point, I feel like I’m pushing myself as an artist, and pushing my audience, too, without alienating them.”
Currently in the midst of a massive summer stadium tour — which he’s co-headlining with pal Tim McGraw — Chesney talks to American Way about life on the road, the changing nature of celebrity and where he likes to go to unwind.
American Way: You’ve been a headlining act for more than a decade. How much do you still enjoy touring?
Kenny Chesney: It’s become a part of my life that I really love. What I love most about playing live is that even though we’re probably going to come back to that town again, the people that are there that night, for them it could be a one-time experience. So it’s a unique thing, this shared moment. Some nights it’s like a revival; it’s like a great big church. When the energy is great, it’s like this amazing avalanche; it’s an unbelievable feeling.
AW: Do you have any preshow rituals?
KC: Backstage at every venue we play, we build something called the “Vibe Room.” It’s a room that we decorate, put a great sound system in there and use it as a place for everyone — band, guests, famous friends, whatever — to go hang out and enjoy the show before the show. Me and the band will roll in there, crank up the music as loud as we can get it and just get in the spirit of things and remember why we’re there.
AW: You’re a stadium-level star now. How does that kind of fame affect your daily life?
KC: I’ve learned to walk between the raindrops pretty good, when it comes to balancing normalcy and celebrity. Sure, there are some drawbacks. But I love what I do so much — for two and a half hours every night I get to go in front of all these people and connect with them. Getting to enjoy that experience isn’t free, and I realize that.
AW: Interestingly, the title track to Welcome to the Fishbowl talks about how notoriety isn’t just for celebrities anymore.
KC: What I wanted to do with that song is talk about how our culture is changing all the time and how the world is getting smaller every single day. I grew up in an area in East Tennessee where everybody knew everybody’s business. But you had to hear it in church, or at school, or on someone’s front porch. Well, nowadays, everyone knows everyone’s business on a global scale, and it’s instant. You don’t have to be in the public eye, like I am, to feel that push and pull of the fishbowl. Modern technology, the Internet, Facebook, all these phones … it’s, like, how does everyone navigate through that? Like the song says: “You don’t have to be famous to be a star/Just get caught on video and there ya are.” That’s the way it is now.
AW: When a long tour is over, what are your favorite places to decompress?
KC: My ideal environment is a place where things don’t revolve around time. Because when I’m in the zone, or busy, or on tour, my whole life is built around time. So for me, anywhere that I can spend the day on a boat, watching the sun move across the sky and write a song, or listen to music and get inspired, maybe read The Old Man and the Sea for the 100th time — that’s my favorite place to be.