By PETER COOPER
This week, hundreds of thousands of people will plunk down money for new music from Kenny Chesney. Less than a decade ago, you couldn't give the guy away.
Chesney was on the road, in a Brownsville, Texas, club, when he turned 30. "There was, literally, nobody there," said Chesney, now the only artist in country history to sell a million tickets in five consecutive years. "I had my girlfriend, and my band, and then there were two bartenders and a couple of waitresses, and nobody showed up to hear us. For me to fast-forward 9½ years and know that I'm selling out NFL stadiums, that wasn't even in my dreams."
Much has been made of the sales competition this week, as Chesney goes up against urban innovator Kanye West and rapper 50 Cent to see who can move the most albums in the first seven days of issue. Chesney's new Just Who I Am: Poets & Pirates hits stores today, and while West and 50 Cent have wrangled over who's on top (50 Cent threatened to retire if West sells more), Chesney is a much more popular artist when touring is figured into the equation.
"He's in his own league with selling albums and tickets," said Billboard Senior Editor Ray Waddell, who covers touring for that magazine. "Very few artists in any kind of music can do what he's done."
Lyrics may be revealing
From the lyrics of some of the songs on the new album, some fans might figure that Chesney is wondering about the personal costs inherent in doing what he's done. "Never Wanted Nothing More," "Wife and Kids" and "Just Not Today" all find him ruminating about the possibility of settling down; the bracing "Demons" is a classic-sounding country song about the pull of life's darker attractions, and "Don't Blink" finds the East Tennessee native singing about "trying to slow it down" and "trying to take it in."
"I didn't write any of these songs, but they speak a lot of truth about where I am in my head and in my heart," Chesney said, sitting in a room at his record label's offices. "Those are two pretty complicated places right now.
"To do what I do in the way I do it, I've sacrificed not just a lot, but everything. It's been worth every second, but the tone of some of these songs is that I do see a day when my life is not going to totally revolve around singing in front of thousands of people, going to catering at 5 o'clock and doing a meet-and-greet at 7:30.
"I guess there's an underlying search for balance in these songs, and that's got to happen at some point."
Chesney is a five-time winner of country awards' top entertainer prizes, and a favorite in that category at November's CMA Awards.
His studio albums sell more in their first on-sale week than most country artists' albums sell at all, and he is a sellout attraction at arenas and stadiums. (At Chesney's last Nashville show, he sold out the Titans' LP Field. When West comes in October, he'll play Vanderbilt.)
The balance part is still tricky, though. Chesney is tired of having to get reacquainted each year with family and friends.
"It's bad when you've spent more time with people out on the road or with radio stations than you have with your mom, your friends or your grandmother," he said.
"That's why 'Don't Blink' means a lot to me. I stay pretty closed up, and I don't tell people around me what I'm feeling, and it's hard for me to stop and smell the roses, 'cause there's always somewhere else for me to be. This song told me, 'You might want to stop for a moment.' "
He can be competitive
That said, Chesney is still competitive enough to chafe when folks talk about the 50 Cent vs. Kanye West rivalry without mentioning him. "In November of 2005, I had an album called The Road and the Radio come out on the same day 50 Cent released an album (Get Rich or Die Tryin'), and we beat him pretty soundly. It's a slam against the country genre as a whole to pretend it doesn't exist."
The competition extends to country awards shows, though Chesney is disappointed that Tim McGraw — who with wife Faith Hill headlined the highest-grossing country music tour in North America — is not nominated along with him in the CMA's entertainer category.
"Tim has a lot of passionate fans out there, and I'm one of them," Chesney said. "And what he and Faith have done in the last two years is as historic as anybody's touring, and, to be honest, more historic than some people that are nominated. He can't come to The Tennessean and say that, but I can. If I had the career he had and wasn't nominated, it would bother me."
Losing that category has bothered Chesney before, and he worries enough about his legacy to hope to win a few more entertainer crowns in order to be name-checked along with Alabama and Garth Brooks as a dominant performer in his era.
"I'd love to win it three more times, but the odds of me keeping the pedal down that long aren't good," he said.
"The search for balance is going to come with a price. This year, we had a hell of a year and I think we deserve it and I want to win it, but if I don't it's not going to change my enthusiasm, or my fans' enthusiasm. The awards don't fuel me."
What fuels him are the miles he's traveled to find his own historically significant place in music. Kenny Chesney turns 40 next March, and there's not a club in Brownsville big enough to hold the party.