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GRAMMY TALK:
KENNY CHESNEY
Searching for Joy Among the Ruins

When Kenny Chesney wrote “Song for the Saints,” he didn’t know he was embarking on the most personal album of his career. As Hurricane Irma was closing in on the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, the eight-time CMA and ACM Entertainer of the Year thought about all the people with whom he’d shared 20 years of his life, all his friends and memories, and poured it into a song.

What felt like creative catharsis turned into Songs for the Saints, a song cycle featuring Ziggy Marley, Jimmy Buffett and Mindy Smith. With 100% of the proceeds going to the Love for Love City Fund, the “captured in the moment” recording is organic, close to the bone and committed to resilience in the face of devastation. With the peaceful- coexistence anthem “Get Along” becoming his 30th #1, the Travis Meadows/Liz Rose ballad “Better Boat” offers a sense of letting go and letting fate drive. Emphasizing the line, “I ride the waves I can’t control,” Chesney found an emotional 
center for acceptance of the outsized destruction in the spirit of the people who are committed 
to rebuilding.


What’s the significance of this album in your body of work?
It’s the most “in the moment record” I’ve ever made. I was watching CNN, like everyone in the islands or everyone who’d ever loved those islands, and I could feel the anxiety building in me. I wrote “Song for the Saints” as Hurricane Irma was hitting. “Love for Love City” came right after it. We were in the studio recording as the first people we could get off the island who’d ridden the storm out in my house—which was destroyed—were arriving at my house in Nashville.

All those emotions went onto the tracks. The musicians could feel this was something different, and they brought their best selves too. Mac McAnally came for one song and stayed for everything. People wanted to help, to give... and with these musicians, they gave their art. To have Ziggy Marley on “Love for Love City” meant so much to all the people down there, who felt like he was standing with them. To have Jimmy [Buffett] on “Trying to Reason (With Hurricane Season)” brought that song full circle, because it’s just as timely now as when he wrote it in the ’70s. And Mindy Smith is an angel. When you hear her sing on “Better Boat,” you have the sense that everything will eventually be all right. That’s all we can hope for: learn to cope, find patience, remember there is joy among the ruins.

How did this experience shape Songs for the Saints?
We didn’t know what this was going to be; we were just trying to harness the moment. Songs for the Saints isn’t about the wreckage as much as it is the spirit of the people who live in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. As soon as the storms passed, they were starting to clear the wreckage.

I wanted to create something that showed the world that soul, and that let the islanders know we weren’t going to forget them. But as we were writing and tracking, an album started to emerge. It was immediate, and we trusted it. Buddy Cannon knows to follow the heart and the creativity, so all of a sudden we realized we were making an album—and all the proceeds were going to go to the Love for Love City fund.

What makes the Grammys matter?
It’s where all the people who create every kind of music come together. I’ve always hoped that our music could reach across lines, the same way I believed if we sang for the kids coming of age in the flyover states, we’d bring people together.

Although so many of your songs celebrate good times, you’ve always embedded messages in your music. In these divisive and distracted times, is that something you feel compelled to do?
I’m not a preacher. I try to help people forget the things that bother them, give them a little bit of a break for a few hours. But I believe that music can touch people and make them think in ways other things can’t. That’s why we recorded “Get Along,” which felt more like what people expect from us. It didn’t really “fit” the record, except the sentiment was everything the record’s about. Down in the islands, people were pulling together, working to rebuild and forgetting their differences. It was such an incredible thing to see; it seemed like a message we all need right now. It’s the same reason I made a video for “Rich and Miserable.” I recorded “American Kids” and “Wild Child.” I changed the lead single for an album at the last minute when we wrote “Noise.”

What’s interesting is how those songs hit people. When we do “Noise,” the song is a total release. Everyone feels so overwhelmed and overloaded, they’ve lost control of their lives and don’t even realize. To hear No Shoes Nation sing it in a stadium tells you people want places to turn for this stuff.

 

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