Life On A Rock
Kenny Chesney never intended to make this record. There was never a point when any of these songs were in danger of becoming an album. Until life shifted and some songs he put on tape rose, Life On A Rock was just the moments in his life the songwriter/singer from Luttrell, Tennessee had wanted to capture for himself.
"It's easy to let those moments go," says the man who's sold over a million tickets to each of his past 10 tours, won the Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music's Entertainer of the Year Award a combined 8 times, had 24 #1 hits and sold over 30 million albums. "You get busy and let moments go. Other things come up, the moments pass...
"I probably let a 1000 of those go without capturing them. You just don't realize how precious they are. What made me sit down and write ‘Lindy' that day, I do not know. But when I did... Well, that's when I saw how much of a moment a song can hold. Not necessarily for the radio, or the show, but my soul."
Written over time, written for no one but himself, Life On A Rock is a handful of postcards from the life Kenny Chesney has led when he's not being the biggest ticket-seller of the 21st century. Culled from people, places, moments and feelings of a driven man at rest, it celebrates what life gives when you yield to its inherent rhythms and the joy of friendship, the world around you and slowing down.
For Chesney, who found a circle of friends in the Caribbean just before his star began to rise, there was an equilibrium in those relationships and that life where time was almost irrelevant that spoke to the kid from a small East Tennessee town. The notion of life unfurling permeates Life On A Rock's pensively evocative "It's That Time Of Day," the warm, gut-string guitar meditation "Marley" or the hushed reflection on how precious life is "Happy On The Hey Now (A Song For Kristi)."
"Most of these songs were written, but I didn't have an emotional center or something that held them together," Chesney allows of the most revealing project of his career. "Then, well, things happen... and you start to look at life differently, and you realize how precious what you have, what you had is.
"Suddenly, I found myself really digging into what my life has been. I really looked at myself and my friends' lives, to think about all that had happened, that we'd learned and loved and lost...
"When I started writing ‘When I See This Bar' thinking about all that had happened there, it hit me: we were all living in the moment, living our day-to-day life just the way it was. And it was perfect! Then you move away, and you get on with your life, and you look back... and it hits you.
"And it doesn't matter where you're living, what you're doing, everyone has that place, that time, those friends in their life... whether it's high school or getting out of college or that first job, the starting of your family... and it leaves a mark on your soul you don't even realize until you look back."
Certainly "When I See This Bar" measures the time and distance never considered when the passage was happening. With a verse that confesses,
"I see a kid coming into his own/
A man learning to move on
Somehow trying to find his way/
A dreamer bettin' on blind faith
Chasing the sun and following his heart..."
Chesney weighs the reality of the man he's become, the people he's loved, the places he's gone and the reasons he's still sane.
"I was betting on blind faith," explains the man who first signed to upstart Southern rock, then jam band mecca Capricorn Records. "I had no idea how my career was gonna come out. I'd had a few radio hits. I'd done a few tours. But down there, none of that mattered. They didn't know, didn't care – and it gave me a place where I could forget all those things for a bit and remember who I really was, stay in touch with people who weren't so caught up in fame and awards, tickets sold."
There's no getting around Chesney being the biggest ticket-seller of the 21st century, but part of what's made him connect like very few artists is his ability to know where the fans are: to capture their lives and the dignity of being where you are. Joy, yes, absolutely, but also the deeper truth to small towns, real moments, the honest connection between friends, lovers, those moved on.
It's what separates him from so many who've Xeroxed the tropical, the party, the anti-urban romance of life beyond the city limits. Never one to do anything for the sake of vanity or self-indulgence, Chesney realized a lot of the people who've lived their lives in his songs were probably having some of the same realizations.
"I kind of believe the fans and their friends are just like the rest of my friends... There's that certain place that's the thread of their lives, but no matter where you go, that place stays with you: who you were, what you went through, the friends you made, loves you lost.
"In college, it was Poor Richard's Deli. I had my first beer there – and my last beer with my friends, literally, right before we all went and graduated. Those places bring out the best in us, the worst in us, we learn lessons there and never ever know.
"You don't even think about it. For me, in my music, I was so focused on making my show great, writing songs and recording things with that in mind... It turns into a conventional wisdom. You develop a level of expectation: what kind of songs you should do, albums you should put out, what radio expects.
"And when something's successful, it's easy to repeat. Just the velocity of this life. And it's easy: there are a lot of great songs out there. So you just factory up, get the players and do it again. But I think there's a fine line between a groove and a rut, and you can be in a rut and think it's a groove."
So, Chesney who'd not planned to release a record until 2014 found himself considering these songs he'd written for himself, just to distill the memories. Whether it's calypso-undertowed title track, the reggae sunsplash of "Spread The Love," featuring the Wailers Band, the Van Morrison-evoking syncopation of "Must Be Something I Missed" that tackles the pace of living in fast forward or the melodically cascading tale of the wandering "Lindy," there are lessons in the songs about what matters.
"He picks up pennies, saves them for a rainy day
With calloused feet, he makes his way
To see the sun sink in the bay
Lindy strolls around, and around, and around..."
"Someone said to me: ‘heart, life, music. How you feel in your heart should be how you live... and that's what you should fill your music up with'," Chesney recalls. "When I looked at these songs, created with no boundaries, expectations or timelines... they were written to be written: pieces of my heart I'd found along the way, well, that seemed to be where the deeper truth was, it seemed like I'd come to a place where I owed my fans that part of who I am – and who they are.
"This kind of record feeds my soul. It pushes me as a person, to be so honest and put myself out there. I know the origins of these songs, where they come from, the faces and the places. It's a risk giving people this much of your life, letting the critics vote... but it felt like, at this point, anything less would be cheating myself, cheating the people who've been part of what we've all built over the last decade."
Like so much of Life On A Rock, the songs came together unconventionally. Having come of age as a young writer with the likes of Whitey Shafer and Dean Dillon, Chesney has a deep reverence for the creation of songs. He understands the process of writing for albums, but he also recognizes the power of capturing a small truth that holds a lot of lives.
"I travelled a lot over the last 6 or 7 years, just me and a pen, a backpack, but no guitar. So a lot of these songs started as lyrics that I let fall on paper the way they wanted to. When I went back to add the music, something I've never done really, the words kind of showed me what they wanted or needed.
"And for some of them, I just couldn't find the music for a while. So I just waited. I trusted the songs and the process. Over time, you learn what's right and I was patient enough as a songwriter to wait for the songs to be what they were meant to.
"In that, I was able to really soul search, to evaluate – and really ask, ‘What do I want? What kind of artist do I want to be?' You don't think about that when you're going 100 miles an hour, but when you do..."
When you do, you make Life On A Rock, an album of reflection, of fun, of laughter shared. You can embrace the euphoria of "Coconut Tree," a duet with the ever quixotic Willie Nelson, the Tom Petty-esque swagger of "Pirate Flag," the album's one true insurrection where you are anthem, or the contemplative "Happy On The Hey Now (A Song For Kristi)."
"It's everything," Chesney says with a laugh. "This record is about holding on and letting go, about growing up and being rebellions, about laughing a lot, crying when you need to and embracing the moments with everything you've got.
"There's a part of me that thinks when you release something like this, not everyone's gonna get it. There's a bit of the ‘you had to be there' maybe, but I believe everybody lives in their own circles of friends, places, memories – and they're gonna find their own truths in these songs.
"That's what I want: people to find their lives and their friends, their challenges, letting go's and good-byes. In the end, I think we're all so much the same different as we are, and that's what this is about. If I can touch your heart or your life or your soul, then that's what music is all about."