Chesney Serves Up Hemingway’s Whiskey

Pollstar recently had the opportunity to speak with Kenny Chesney about touring and his latest album, “Hemingway’s Whiskey”. The interview is split into two parts, with touring to be discussed later. For now, Chesney talks about what it was like to record his latest album and to do it while taking a break from the road – his first substantial time off in a decade.

But “time off” is a misnomer. Not only did Chesney play 10 shows in the last year, he produced a documentary about high school football called “The Boys of Fall,” which started airing on ESPN in August. The documentary began as the music video for Chesney’s song of the same name, but because of all of his interviews – from high school through the NFL – it developed into a 60-minute standalone piece. That’s what a year off for Chesney means, plus releasing an album.

We thank the country music star for spending the time, and to discuss his album in detail. That includes one particular song that has an unusual sound for a country album ….

If you took away “Boys of Fall” and the title track, what would you say is the signature song on the album? We’ll give you a hint: it’s “Somewhere With You.”

(laughs). Well, there are two songs on this record. I always thought “Boys of Fall” was a moment to itself. Kind of part of the record but not really. I felt like it was a moment in itself and then we start our next record, you know? But “Somewhere With You” is going to be my next single. I think it’s the most different record I’ve ever had.

One of the reasons I’m excited about Hemingway’s Whiskey is because I think it pushes my audience but it doesn’t do it to the point where I’m not still myself. And I think that’s good. I think that’s why it took so long to record the album. And regarding “Somewhere With You,” I think we all have that one person in our life that is not with us, but they’re not really gone either. You could be with someone else, you could have moved on with your life, but that person is still there. Saying goodbye to someone isn’t necessarily letting go of them. And that’s the whole idea behind “Somewhere With You.” When I heard that song, it made me think of my person that’s left but is still in there.

So I knew I had something with this song. Aside from it being a very melodic song. I could see Dave Matthews doing this song. It’s so melodic; it’s like a lava lamp. It’s so different but I still felt that it was really me. I felt melodically it was completely different and sexy.

I think about weird things when it comes to songs. How does this groove? How is this tempo? How is this cadence going to fit with all of the songs in my set at my show? And I don’t have anything like this song, so I can put it anywhere in the set. So, yeah, that’s probably my favorite song on the record and then I’d probably go with “You and Tequila” with Grace Potter.

OK, since we’re going there – Grace Potter can sing like Janis Joplin, but she’s doing soft harmonies on “You and Tequila.” Was she originally slotted for that song?

There’s a song on her live record. I heard her live record before I heard any of her other ones. There’s a song on there called “Apologies,” and it is a very sexy ballad. Her voice sounded like it does on “Tequila.”

But you’re right. She’s such a diverse artist. When she gets up there on the Flying V or the B-3, she sounds like Janis Joplin. And then she can sing a country song and sound like Emmylou Harris, I swear to God. And then she’s got this Bonnie Raitt slice to her. I just felt she was so great and there’s so much to her voice, and so much about her heart and the passion she has for music, I just fell in love with it.

I never met her until we were in a studio together to sing this song. And it made me believe in music, and how universal great songs are all over again. Here I am, a kid who grew up in east Tennessee, and she grew up in the woods in Vermont. We have different backgrounds and maybe different political beliefs – whatever, I don’t know if we do or not – but we got in there with “You and Tequila” and it was as if we knew each other our whole lives.

And we’re going to know each other for the rest of our lives now because of music. And I love that. And she put her voice on this song and – pardon the pun – brought a lot of grace and style to it. Just me singing “You and Tequila” would have been a nice touch but with Grace on there – she almost sounds like the ghost of the girl I’m talking about. It’s so good man. She brought so much to it.

Photo: AP Photo
Farm Aid 2010, Miller Park, Milwaukee Wis.

Regarding the production of the album – there’s a lot of subtlety to it. Not all of the songs have that commercial flair of a top-selling artist.

Well, you know, I do believe I’m capable of being two different people. What I mean by that is, I’ve had certain records I’ve recorded that were completely subtle. Like the Be As You Are record and most of the Lucky Old Sun record were songs that I wrote sitting on my boat in the Virgin Islands. And I was trying to capture that moment.

Then again, there’s this other guy who completely has the hammer down onstage. So with this record I think we’ve combined both of those worlds and kept the integrity of both. There are moments on this record where I completely am that guy on stage but there are also moments – like “You and Tequila,” like “Hemingway’s Whiskey” – where I’m the guy on the stool, the kid playing for tips in Johnson City, Tenn.

I’m glad I did that. I’ve never before combined both those people. I’ve tried but it didn’t work. I think the music you record and the record you make reflect the growth as an artist. And I don’t know if I would have recorded a song like “Hemingway’s Whiskey” on a major label four years ago. I don’t know, but I didn’t. I was so zoned in on recording music that would just try to kill people on stage. And then I realized with this record I could do that still but I still want to make a record that makes people think, that makes them want to step back and go, “What does this mean to me?” And I’m proud of Hemingway’s Whiskey because of that.

Photo: Jason Moore
43rd Annual CMA Awards, Nashville, Tenn.

We heard you’ve been gaining new fans and gaining success in a “really cool way.” How would you define that?

I think it’s the idea of taking the year off, which I really didn’t do. I was more creative, more busy than when I’m on the road, actually. But I just feel it’s the idea of taking a year off, of growing as a person and as an artist more than you did when you’re on a treadmill. And I felt like I was almost able to take a small, artistic shift in a way with this record. And I feel like a part of me that’s been there, bubbling under as an artist, finally got to come to the surface because I’ve allowed it to happen.

This record is what it is because I allowed time for it. And the film that I made, I couldn’t have done that if I was on the road. And I do feel like I’ve grown my fan base. I feel more people are invested in us because of “The Boys of Fall” and because of this record. It’s almost like pulling back grew my fan base. I do feel like it allowed me the time and the opportunity to do that – to let that artist come to the surface.

And I think it’s an artistic shift that’s going to be there for a while, and I’m proud of that. And I’m looking forward to seeing where that shift takes me.