Kenny Chesney has a secret weapon -- he can write and interpret songs that speak to a woman's perspective. He can sing eloquently of the complexities of a relationship in "I Lost It," extol the simple beauties of a country wedding in "Fall In Love," bask in the soothing stolidity of a loving partner in "All I Need To Know," celebrate virginal love in "For the First Time" and place his lover on a pedestal in "She's Got It All."
His voice is pitched a little higher and delivered a little smoother than the rough-hewn standard of traditional country vocals, evidencing the impact of singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne, James Taylor and Don McLean.
He can go deeply romantic in a pop sense, like his gorgeous reading of "When I Close My Eyes."
For all his appreciation of romantic love, however, Chesney's love songs trace a tragic trajectory of failure, an ongoing soap opera that proves even more irresistible than the purely devotional romantic material provides on its own. "The last time was the last time I let me let someone in," he sang in "You Had Me From Hello."
Chesney's fragile heartstrings are plucked to the heights of pathos on his new album "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem," with its heartbreaking torch song "I Remember," the languorous lost love lament "On the Coast of Somewhere Beautiful" and especially on his reading of Bruce Springsteen's "One Step Up." This great song, from the brooding, troubled "Tunnel Of Love" album written about the breakup of Springsteen's first marriage, is a spider web of emotional complexity, a lament about the treacherous pathways of married love that is a whole different chapter from the sun-drenched romance of Chesney's earlier material.
Chesney's devotional love material reflects the earnest yearnings of youth, but Springsteen's song is touched with the despair of an adult realization of life's limitations, and Chesney gives it the nuance that only comes with maturity.
Chesney speculated that his sensitivity toward women may have something to do with his extremely close relationship with his mother.
"My mom was a single parent," he explains. "My mom divorced and I lived with her, I think that's one of the reasons I have that element in my songs. I think that she's been through so much in her life but still she has a great attitude. She's been through it with so much grace and style. There's something to be learned from that."
Chesney wrote one of the songs on "No Shoes ..." "Dreams," about his mother.
"That's totally about her," he says. "She's in her 50s. One night she called me and she was all upset and she said 'Kenny, all men my age want younger women.' I thought about that all night. That was the first line of the song. Everybody wants somebody to lean on, to love, to believe in and to know that they're gonna be there and vice versa. If their self esteem isn't as high as it needs to be sometimes that's a really hard thing to do. I'm sure she was feeling like she was when she said that. I just tried to capture that emotion in a song."
Chesney didn't start playing music until he joined a bluegrass band while attending East Tennessee State University. When he made the decision to move to Nashville and try his luck as a country singer in 1990, he got some sage advice from his dying grandfather, J.B. Gribsby, advice that has kept him going when things seemed the bleakest.
"I remember settin' on his front porch," Chesney recalls. "It was toward the end of his life. He knew he had lung cancer. He had these chemotherapy marks on his head. I told him I was gonna move to Nashville. I don't know if he didn't want me to, but I think he was very scared, and he said: 'Do two things for me. Try to surround yourself with great people, and stay away from the bottle.' I've done that. That was kind of what I was living on the whole time I was coming up. In some weird way I think that's what kind of kept me in this."
Like so many before him, Chesney struggled to establish himself in Music City.
"I wanted to be an artist, but I broke into the business as a songwriter with the Acuff- Rose publishing company. I was able to go down to Music Row and set every day and write songs along with great songwriters. At night I was playing the Turf. I was doin' it, writin' songs during the day and playin' at night. I loved it. All of a sudden I was in the business, I wasn't outside the window. One thing kinda led to the next, I started singin' on demos, I started writin' songs and that's what led to my Capricorn deal with Phil Walden."
Capricorn was trying to establish a foothold in country radio with Chesney as its breakthrough artist, a dream that never came to fruition.
After Capricorn, Chesney had to start again from scratch. It was a difficult time, but his grandfather's dying words provided the inspiration to keep going.
"I remember that day on his porch like it was yesterday," he says, "and in a weird kind of way that's what made me not quit. It wasn't anything he said about not quitting, it was just remembering that made me realize that I can do this. I had to surround myself with good people to do it, I needed a lot of help and I got it.
"I know what it's like not to happen. When I first got started I put a couple of albums out there that nobody went and bought -- my first two and there's about four or five songs there at the beginning of my career that nobody played. That was very frustrating, because I sat and watched a whole lot of people just blow right past me in album sales and songs on the charts. That didn't feel good and it made me kind of look at myself and say: 'Maybe it's you.'
" ... sure I've thought about giving up.
"But not recently."