Kenny Chesney is not who you think — especially if you think he digs swappin' pina colada recipes and weekend-pirate tales.
Don't get me wrong: The only artist in popular music to sell more than 1 million concert tickets for eight straight summers is chummy and funny, humble and cool. So if you've always thought he was those things — bingo.
The Tennessee bachelor talks with an earnest bar stool velocity, not as if he has somewhere to go, but as if his sole intent is to give everyone, fans and journalists alike, as much as possible. So if you think Chesney enjoys pleasing the world — right again.
But as for all of those tropical album covers, the sky-blue ones where his cowboy hat is tugged low over laid-back eyes and his toes are buried in the sand? All those seemingly autobiographical escapist hits like No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem, Summertime and When the Sun Goes Down?
Um, yeah, we should talk about the beach-bum shtick.
"It's very hard for me to relax," reveals Chesney, calling me to hype his show at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa this Saturday. "My mind is constantly going. For me to completely relax, I gotta get rid of my cell phone."
Yes, the four-time CMA Entertainer of the Year has a home in the U.S. Virgin Islands. But his life is as far from a permanent vacation as you can get (and no, we're not talking about the strains of being hitched to Renée Zellweger for a few months).
There is the steady stream of No. 1 albums, including his latest, 2010's Hemingway's Whiskey. There's the charity work for the V Foundation. He just produced and narrated an ESPN movie about the University of Tennessee's Condredge Holloway, the first African-American to start at quarterback for an SEC school.
And then there are the massive tours, the ambition of which are surpassed only by U2's looming Spielbergian spaceships.
"I work hard but I play hard," Chesney says. "My fans reflect who I am. They work hard and play hard, too. They feed off how much fun I have onstage."
That might be the only time he has fun these days. When his crazy-hot road show is barreling across America, with the Zac Brown Band and Uncle Kracker joining him, the advertising major from East Tennessee State is in workaholic mode.
Case in point: On March 26, Chesney, will celebrate his 43rd birthday. And how will the Man Who Would Be Buffett do so? Perhaps with a luau-inspired bacchanal of beer and babes? "I play Omaha!" laughs Chesney. "My birthday plans are waking up in Omaha and going to work out."
And, of course, he'll be tinkering with his multibillion-dollar tour, which is now so big — packing stadiums in the middle of a recession isn't an easy task — it requires every ounce of Chesney's not inconsiderable drive.
"I make decisions on everything," he says. "Heck, I make decisions on the catering company. I make decisions on the colors of stuff, especially how the stage looks. There's a lot of trial and error. There are a lot of things I want to make sure are just right. I want it to reflect me."
Chesney says the basic credo behind his stage shows is a simple one: "What turns me on?"
"I say that to my band, too," he adds. "Remember what turned you on when you were going to rock shows as a kid."
Raised in tiny Luttrell, Tenn., the birthplace of legendary picker Chet Atkins (and definitely now THE HOME OF KENNY CHESNEY), the star had "eclectic musical tastes" as a young punk. "When I was in high school, it was the hair-band era, so I had all that stuff in my truck. Then again, I also loved singer-songwriters. I loved Johnny Cash, Jimmy Buffett. Music has always been medicine to me."
As a result, Chesney's two-hour show is a spectacle of volume and swagger, a randy, skin-friendly throwdown that also features moments of genuine acoustic heart, especially when he sings songs such as 2004's There Goes My Life. "I know," he says of the brutally bittersweet song about a father watching his little girl grow up, "I've been lucky enough to get my hands on a few of those songs."
For as much as Chesney is in tune with what his fans crave in concert, he doesn't pay much mind to fan-club chat on Facebook or Twitter: "I'm one of those people who think that the Internet is the devil. I don't have time to constantly tell people what I'm thinking and what I'm eating." Privacy is at a premium, Chesney says: "And mine's not for sale."
Which leads us back to those rare moments when Chesney does manage to relax, to turn off the machine and kick back a bit.
So, Kenny, what's your favorite beach drink?
"Aw man," he pauses, seriously stumped — or maybe annoyed at a cliche nod to his island persona. "I don't drink that much unless I'm on my boat." He hems and haws and finally allows: "I guess I should say Corona, right?"
Corona, of course, is the sponsor of his tour. Yes, it's an incredibly corporate answer but it's also an honest one, a mea culpa even. The hardest-working man in the summer-concert biz is again making sure everyone is pleased.
Chesney gives a soft laugh: "I think I just care too much."
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467.