Kenny Chesney interview: On new album 'Here and Now,' postponed concerts and reconnecting

Dave Paulson
Nashville Tennessean

Kenny Chesney hasn't surfed a 30-foot wave, but in a way, he knows how it feels. He's heard about the experience from friends in California, and it sounds all too familiar. 

"One of the things that they can never re-create is being in the middle of that wave, and the awesomeness of God's energy is right at their back," the country superstar says. 

Chesney's felt that same rush, and the clarity that comes when he's fully in the present. It happens when he's singing on stage — and for the last decade, that's almost always been in a sold-out football stadium.

It's what inspired the title of his new album, "Here and Now," which arrives Friday. 

"The one place I've found where I truly live in that moment is when I'm on stage. I don't know, it may be a little sad to say that (laughs), but I can tell you, that's where I truly feel like I'm living in the moment."

Kenny Chesney

He's hoping to get back to that feeling soon. His "2020 Chillaxification" tour was supposed to kick off April 18 in Arlington, Texas, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all dates through May 28 have been postponed.

Chesney was in the midst of rehearsals when they had to put everything on hold. As he puts it, "We were trying to build the circus and then had to shut it all down."

The tour is set to resume May 30 in Pittsburgh.

"I think we're cautiously optimistic — but like I said, cautiously — about playing music this year," Chesney says. "But honestly, we play a lot of the venues that the NFL play. We're just kind of watching what happens with that, and we'll see."

On Friday, Chesney will celebrate the release of "Here and Now" instead with a livestream from home in his native Tennessee. He's also calling on fans — known as the "No Shoes Nation" — to take part in a "Virtual Happy Hour," listening to the album with friends and family via Zoom.

"It's such a unique time, and strange, and one of the things it's forced everyone to do, in an odd way, is reconnect, and connect better."

'Here and Now' contains moments of gratitude, introspection 

Until Chesney did some reconnecting of his own, "Here and Now" was incomplete. He was about two-thirds through the making of it when he decided to fly a bunch of his songwriter friends to California for a week of "just making stuff up," he says with a laugh. 

By the end of that week, they'd come up with the title track, as well as "We Do," a guitar-driven love letter to the "No Shoes Nation" and everybody who travels with him on the road.

The hook — "Who gets to live like we do? We do" — is the same phrase used by his crew members before shows, as "a recognition of how blessed we are," Chesney says.

Sometimes, the gratitude comes with a hint of melancholy, like on "Knowing You," which might be his favorite track. It's a waltz — once commonplace in country music, now all too rare — with an inspired twist of the phrase. 

"Knowing you, you probably got your toes in the sand/ at a bar on a beach in the sun somewhere," he sings, kicking off a list of imagined scenarios.

By song's end, he decides, "Damn, it was good knowing you."

"It was a song that rang really true in my life," Chesney says.

Kenny Chesney's new album is "Here and Now."

"I think a lot of people have had someone in their lives that meant a lot to them, and for whatever reason, that person is no longer in their life, whether you decided to move on or that person passed. ... It's a recognition of how much gratitude you have that they were in your life at all in the first place. And you hope they're somewhere out there in the universe thinking the same thing about you."

Even the confrontational "You Don't Get To," with a bed of moody piano and drifting guitars, has a positive slant. 

"We all get caught up in these relationships and addicted to certain people," Chesney says. "And we all find a reason to let them back in. But this song was about that person finally standing up for themselves and saying, 'You don't get to act this way anymore, and I'm gonna respect myself and move on with my life.' "

'You can't help but be inspired' 

There's a wide cast of characters on "Here and Now," and as narrator, Chesney's often cheering them on, from the woman living life at her own speed on "Everyone She Knows," to the gas station cashier who knows how to "laugh and live with a half-full cup" on "Happy Does."

While his tour is sidelined and he's hunkered down in Tennessee, Chesney has a lot of new people to root for: those on the front lines of the pandemic.

"This is biblical in nature, what's happening, and those people, what they're doing, they're laying their life on the line for us to get past this. It's just unbelievable. You can't help but be inspired."

He's hoping to pay it forward to those who'll be listening to "Here and Now" at home — rather than at a stadium, a beach or a bar — for the time being.

"Anything that can occupy our brain and make us feel happy, I think that's what a lot of these songs do," he says. "A lot of them reminded me to try to live in the moment, live within these songs and be happy. That's what I think is the true thread of this record, and I feel like it's a good time for it to come out."