Kenny Chesney is hanging up his road flip-flops — temporarily. The country superstar told EW in an exclusive interview this weekend that his final stadium show of the 2009 season, on Sept. 19 in Indianapolis, will be his last big blowout before he takes some time off from touring. “I’m not quitting!” Chesney laughs. “It’s just a short pause. The last couple of years I’ve been on an empty tank. And that’s gotta change.”
Chesney is the biggest North American ticket seller this decade — he’s played for a million fans every year since 2004, and a day spent tailgating at one of his stadium shows is an annual escapist tradition for his devoted followers. But this summer, the pace of constant touring — as well as the responsibilities that come along with being a very hands-on captain of an increasingly massive ship, soon to include a clothing line — seemed to be wearing the Tennessee native down. “I can say that I don’t see myself with the foot on the gas pedal as hard as it’s been down for 16 years,” Chesney told EW in June. “I think there is a part of life that I’m missing.”
After the jump, our full Q&A with Chesney on when and why he made the decision to sit out the summer of 2010, the words of advice he got from Bruce Springsteen, and what he hopes to do with his newfound spare time.
Entertainment Weekly: So you’re quitting, eh?
Kenny Chesney: I’m not quitting! I’m not quitting. It’s just a short pause. It would be easy to keep doing it, because it’s fun, and the fans are unbelievable. But I don’t know — then you realize that at some point you’re missing a part of your life. My life has been a lot about parking lots. I need to recharge creatively, and get off the clock of having to be somewhere just because, and having to keep juggling all these things. And people needing answers. I just felt like this year it finally hit me that I need to get reconnected with my family. I wanna do some things that I’ve never gotten to do, like see other parts of the world, write some more songs. Do some shows that are completely different for me. I might wanna go do an acoustic show at Red Rocks or something. Something to feed my soul. I’ve given a big part of my soul for this for so long, and nothing has really been filling that up. It seems like in the last couple of years, I’ve been on an empty tank. And that’s gotta change.
Was there a precipitating incident this summer that really put it over the top for you?
Not really. It’s just something that’s been building. I think I’m really blessed to have a run like we’ve had. I don’t take it for granted. You realize what it means for the fans to be there, too. I don’t take that lightly. As a performer you don’t want to let go of that connection, but you also know as an artist you want to give them even more. And I realized this year that means just taking a deep breath, cause I want to give them more later on, too. I’ve thought about this a lot. To me, Bruce Springsteen has pretty much defined the live communion with the audience. He has defined the passion and the connection to the fans. And one night when we were playing in New Jersey, Bruce sat on my bus with me and we talked for a couple hours, and he told me something that hit me really hard, and it’s stuck with me ever since. He said, “Kenny, you can write half a song on a piece of paper, and you can put that piece of paper away in a drawer for five years, and you can go back to it, and that song will still be there. But life isn’t like that. And whatever you’re doing, don’t miss your life, too.” And I thought about that all year. I’ve been giving to one thing for so long that I just realized that had to change.
Were you able to give the kinds of shows you needed to this summer with this decision weighing on you?
Oh, no doubt about it. This summer was incredible. It was an amazing experience. So many great moments. And to be honest, my energy level right now is as good as it’s been at the end of a tour in years. But I know deep down in my heart of hearts that for me to keep giving like I have to what this has grown into, and more importantly, to give the fans what they deserve every night, I’ve got to step away from it for a second. And I don’t know how long that is. I’m not saying that next year I won’t do any shows. I might. But as far as doing a full-blown tour where my foot is on the gas pedal, that’s not gonna happen for a little while.
What was your reaction to all the underage drinking arrests outside your show at Foxborough?
I think that that happens a lot of places, especially at football games. And it was interesting to me that after all that came out, everybody was saying it was my fault. Because the New England Patriots play there every Sunday and people get arrested, but I don’t think Tom Brady has to carry that burden.
You’ve always maintained that you’re not their mother.
I’m not. I’m really not.
Is that something that you take into account when you consider whether it’s worth doing this next summer?
Not at all. No. Uh-uh. Look. People are there to listen to music. How they act is up to them. [laughs] I can’t be sitting on the bus worried about that. In a football stadium, there’s possibly 60,000 people there. The more people that you have, the more chances there are for people to get in trouble. But hopefully they’re there for the right reasons, to listen to music. That’s why we’re on stage. It’s a rowdy bunch. But for the most part it’s a fairly well-behaved bunch. You know, when you get 60,000 people in one spot — I think I read that there were like 100 arrests. There were 60,000 people there! [laughs] If you really think about it, that’s pretty good numbers.
The other factor is all the bands you take out with you — this summer alone, your concert also included Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, Montgomery Gentry, and Sugarland. You generate a great deal of commerce and opportunity for up-and-coming acts. Had you already picked your tourmates for next summer?
We didn’t. We were getting close to making that decision. And you may be right — at a time when ticket sales across the board are slack, ours have held strong this year. As far as an industry impact, I see that it will have an effect, but — I don’t know. You just can’t worry about the business. I’m worried about burning myself out. Me not running this into the ground is taking care of business. That’s not a reason to not take a year off.
How do you think this will change people’s perceptions of you in the industry? Will you lose some power or control in Nashville if you let your foot off the gas?
I don’t know. Hey, I’ve been doing this at this level for the last nine years, and I think we’ve proven ourselves. I don’t know the kind of impact it’s going to have in town. But I think I’ve proven myself as someone who works very hard, and has given a lot to the music, and a lot to the town. If I lose any power for taking a year off and taking care of myself, then so be it. Because I just got to a point where I’ve got to take care of myself as a person, as an artist, as a friend to people. [laughs] You know? I got a lot of wonderful people around me. I’ve been lucky enough to win Entertainer of the Year eight times between the two organizations, but the accolades don’t make people come and enjoy your music, I don’t believe. I believe that if I get away from this, and I’m able to go out there on the next big tour that we do and connect with people even more because I took that year off, then whatever kind of perceptual thing in Nashville goes on, then it’s irrelevant. For me.
Is the plan to go right back out to stadiums again in 2011?
I’m not sure. We just decided that this was what I wanted to do.
When did you decide?
I’ve been going back and forth since July. And this past week I decided that it was really time. Last night in Charleston, South Carolina, my mom came, and a lot of my family came to the show. And after the show I realized it’s been a long time since I’ve actually had a real conversation with any of those people. [laughs] I am so zoned in and so gone all the time. That’s tough, when you’ve gotta get reconnected with the people that you’re not supposed to have to get reconnected to. And it kind of made me realize that this decision that I made — I made it last week, I think, in my own heart and head, that this is what I really want to do.
So it sounds like you’re not making any concrete plans.
I’m not making any concrete plans. I’m probably going to have a record out in the spring, maybe. And I’m gonna be working on my record — it’s not like I’m going completely away, you know? I will be out there. I may do some sporadic shows, just to go out and feel it, you know? Just to go out there and just play for the love of it. And then we’ll go from there.
Do you see a band or an artist that could pick up your torch next summer? Who can step up?
I do think that anybody who hasn’t gone to see Keith Urban is missing it. That’s my opinion.
Are you gonna do something special for your last stadium show? Will you do “Keg Show,” where you play for hours after the regular set ends?
We might do Keg Show. [laughs] It all depends. It’s always a sad, bittersweet night, and even more so this year. Because we’re not gonna be doing this at the same pace for a little while. I’m looking forward to the day that we do go at the same pace again. Everything that we’ve built is so wonderful. It just has to take a deep breath, and then reconvene. Have a big revival somewhere.
What can you tell me about the record that you’re working on?
It’s in the beginning stages. I’ve got four or five songs for it. I’m gonna take this time away from the road, like I said earlier, to try and reconnect with myself as a songwriter and try to get better creatively. It’s hard to be really creative and on top of your game when you’re tired. So I’m gonna work on that, too.
Are there people you’re looking to collaborate with on this one?
Not anybody in particular. Just wherever my heart takes me. It’s interesting, In my head, I won’t be editing myself to make this record for the road because we’re not gonna be on the road for the first time. We’ll see what comes out of it.
What do you picture yourself doing on summer weekends next year?
That’s a good question. I have absolutely no plans. I know after the tour is over I’m going to take my band down to the Caribbean like we always do. Like I said, there’ll be a record next year, and a couple other projects, but I’ll be drifting around the islands. I’m open to all possibilities. A couple of years ago I worked with Willie Nelson in the studio, and he had more energy than I had. I wanna get to that point where I’ve got an equal balance in my music and my life.
I’m picturing all these sad empty parking lots. Where will people tailgate now that you’re gone?
[laughs] I don’t know. We’ll be back. We’re not going away forever. But to make it what I think it can be for the next chapter of my life, those parking lots have got to be empty, at least for my show, for one year. I just think I owe it to myself, I owe it to the fans, for our show to be the best it can possibly be. And sometimes that means getting away from it.
Photo Credit: Alex Tehrani