Kenny Chesney played probably the smallest "show" he's done in almost a couple of decades Friday night, appearing at the Clive Davis Theater inside downtown L.A.'s Grammy Museum. Capacity: 220. No wonder this was the first four-minute sellout in the venue's history, given the fact that Chesney's the last guy alive who can sell out a stadium tour every year.
It wasn't a concert, per se—although Chesney was convinced to do a couple of acoustic songs ("Blue Chair" and his new single, "You and Tequila")—but rather an hour-plus Q&A, followed by group shots with the entire audience. If the appearance was nine parts talk to one part music... and if this might've been the first Chesney gig in history with no alcohol sales... you can still be sure there were no refund requests.
Host Robert Santelli did a nice job, as ever, of drawing both creative insights and vintage anecdotes out of his guest in the interview, which was preserved on tape for future generations of museum-goers to check out. Chesney is the highest-profile interviewee the museum has had (with the possible exception of Dave Matthews), and certainly the tiny theater has never seen quite so many security guards rimming the edges before. The only break with the usual format was that Santelli took written questions from the audience beforehand, rather than leaving it to chance by having them raise hands. But that didn't mean the evening was free of amusing performer/crowd interactivity.
"Here's the deal," said Santelli, reading off one card. "Anita is getting married in nine days, and she wants to know if she should change her mind."
"I don't want to be responsible for anything here!" laughed a flabbergasted Chesney.
Anita, who'd gotten in line early enough to get a front row spot, couldn't help but explain herself. "When my fiancee proposed to me a year ago," she said, "I said yes, on one condition: If Kenny Chesney ever comes through the door, you have to pretend to be the housekeeper."
That got a roar that should've been hard to top, but Chesney's response managed to get an even bigger reaction. "I'm not sure that you're choosing the right individual to get married to," he said—whether he was addressing Anita or her fiancee wasn't clear—before adding, "But, go get married! You know, nobody deserves to be happy their whole life."
The rest of the discussion took on a more sober tone, as Chesney talked about everything from his earliest career days "playing for enchiladas and tips" to how he started and abandoned one version of his latest album before ending up with Hemingway's Whiskey.
When he got his first recording contract, Chesney was on Phil Waldren's otherwise non-country-oriented Capricorn Records, where he met with little success. The singer recalled that he was out on the road at the same time as Mark Chestnutt, who was doing better. "We'd roll up to the club, and on the marquee it would say either 'Mark Chesney' or 'Kenny Chestnutt.' Now I realize the club owners were probably doing that on purpose, to get five more people through the door."
Even when he got a better shot on the RCA label and started racking up hits, he was considered part of an anonymous pack of young male singers. "I've been out on the road every year nonstop since '93," he said. "Some people think that all this happened when we released No Shirt No Shoes No Problem, but that's not what happened to me. My career was really odd. Is really odd. I had a greatest hits album out, and nobody knew who I was!" The audience laughed. "Seriously. I had a lot of records on the radio at one point, thank God, but we would do shows and people would look at us and go, 'Oh, he's the guy that sings that,' and 'Oh, he sings that.'
"At the time in my career, there were a lot of people (coming out simultaneously), and it was just like a big ditch and everybody was in it. I had to find a way to make a connection. And the moment I got confident enough to write about what was really going on in my life and let a lot of my life into the music and into the studio, things got a little different. I love George Strait with all my heart, but the moment I quit trying to be him was the moment that I became me."
He remembered the precise time and place when he realized a shift had occurred and he had acquired an identity.
"The moment it was evident to me and the guys, we were playing the XL Center in St. Paul," he said. "'Young' had been out for a little while, and 'The Good Stuff' and a couple of other songs, and all of a sudden my record had gone platinum just like that. I'd never had a platinum album or anything close to that. The energy of the crowd was like a jet engine, and we'd never experienced anything like that. I turned around and looked at the band, and they turned around and looked at me." He modeled the mutual look of disbelief. "And we had all those years and that greatest hits album to back it up. All of a sudden, we had a show. We had a solid hour and a half, and there was a connecting of a dots all of a sudden: 'Oh, we didn't know that you sang those songs.'" They didn't forget it again, needless to say.
Bringing things to the present, Chesney discussed his latest recording. "I thought I had Hemingway's Whiskey done, and I listened to it... First of all, it wasn't called Hemingway's Whiskey at the time. But I only had four songs (from that version of the album) that made the Hemingway's Whiskey record. The rest of that album went away. That's another reason I wanted to take time off: Because I realized I was in the process of making a record tired. And that's not the creative process. That's a rut."
"Then I found this next song and a couple others," he said, by way of introducing his acoustic rendition of "You and Tequila." "After 2007, I was pretty tired. I was in a funk. I didn't want to be around the band, the crew, or my friends I wanted to be by myself for a while and reflect and see what happened." He rented a house in Malibu, hung out with pal Rick Rubin, ate a lot of seafood, and drove up and down Pacific Coast Highway every day, he recalled, listening to a lot of his favorite SoCal influences like the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt. "And I heard this song by Matraca Berg and Deana Carter"—originally cut by Carter for her third album—"and it reminded me of that drive I took every day. As soon as I heard it, I knew I wanted to record it. I'm glad I came to Malibu!"
Last year was the first year since '93 he actually took the summer off, much to the chagrin of desperate concert promoters everywhere. He had mixed feelings about the layoff.
"Once we got off tour (in 2009), it didn't seem like that big a deal. Because my tour is basically like a baseball season: We start in April and end in September. So the first couple of months off, all the way to Christmas, it wasn't any different, because we're always off. When it really became evident that I was going to not tour was in March, because we're always knee-deep then in production rehearsals and I'm doing 10 things at once—and there was silence.
"But it was silence that I needed. Because my ears rang for a long time after I got off the road. All of a sudden I was back home in east Tennessee and I was driving from my grandmother's house to my mom's house, and I didn't hear that ringing anymore. I went, 'Oh! That's what silence sounds like.' That was the scary part, too, that silence. I kind of went, 'Hmmm. I kind of want that ring back.'"
Chesney revealed that he may do an acoustic tour before long. "The rush I get from stadiums is unlike anything else. But I miss the intimacy sometimes. There may be a moment fairly soon that I go around and play, just me and my guitar and a couple of guys. Thank God I have the liberty to go do that if I want to. And I definitely want to."
But he's clearly as much of an addict for playing football fields as he is a football addict.
"My favorite part of the day is the first note every night. Because that is the thing that everybody anticipates the most. You know you're going to go to that show for months. But me and the band, we're no different, backstage, doing whatever it is we do to pass the day. It's the thing I missed the most about not touring last year and the thing that I'm most excited about this year.
"At 7:30 every night, I've got to go meet radio station winners, but then I've got about 45 minutes to myself, to try to channel the energy to remember why we're there. Because you can get lost in the day-to-day stuff and everybody wanting to say hello. I've got to have a little time to get ready to do what I need to do. Because I do believe that no matter where we play now, there's probably a couple thousand people who are there and have never been to a concert, or at least not to one of mine. Their girlfriend or boyfriend or husband drug them, or people at the office. I think about that when I'm on stage: What am I gonna do to make them want to come back? I think about somebody that doesn't really have music in their life. There are a lot of kids out there that have never been to a concert before. And I feel like I have a very small window to make that kid feel something, and if I do, he may have music in his life forever. And if I don't, then my window has passed. So if I catch myself going through the motions, I think about those kinds of things—even when I'm on stage in the middle of a song."