Spiritual side of Kenny Chesney

Equal parts cowboy-hatted arena rocker, sensitive balladeer and twangy beach bum, Kenny Chesney is a king of the summer party concert. On his new release, the country superstar turns down the volume to offer a quieter and more contemplative meditation on sand and sea.

"Life on a Rock" (Blue Chair Records/Columbia Nashville) is more than just a balmy travel brochure for his home away from home, the Virgin Islands. The singer-songwriter turns a loving eye on the spiritual vibe of a life lived off the grid and a group of friends who taught him the cathartic value of living in the moment. Simpatico souls Willie Nelson and reggae stalwarts the Wailers Band turn up to collaborate on a couple of tunes.

Chesney called recently to talk about the power of simplicity, believing in love in negative times and his favorite book, "The Old Man and the Sea." This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Q: You've sold more than 30 million albums, and you're one of the biggest-selling touring artists. That doesn't leave a lot of free time. You also sing a number of songs about laid-back island life. How much time do you actually spend putting your feet in the sand and swilling beer in a cabana?

A: Not every song is about escapism, but some are. With that comes this idea that I do that all the time, that I don't work very hard. I think that's a really big misconception, especially with some of these songs from the last several years. People would be stunned at what goes into (my career), all the work. When I try to brush the road dust off of me and untangle all the wires in my head, I'm usually surrounded by music on a boat. But that's not how I wake up every day. (laughs)

Q: When you take a break between tours, you spend time in the Virgin Islands. That part of your life is at the heart of "Life on a Rock." Do you go there to fill up the songwriting well?

A: It's essential for me. 'Life on a Rock' is a compilation of moments of filling up that well. I didn't write this record in six months. I wrote it over six years. In the middle of those six years was a lot of stuff — a lot of living, a lot of touring, a lot of ups and downs. A lot of these songs I wrote first without music. I was in a campground in the Virgin Islands for a while. I didn't have anything but a backpack, a cooler, a bunch of protein bars and a legal pad. It's almost like a journal that rhymes. I was being a storyteller without editing myself, without expectations.

Q: Several songs are about people you knew on the island. "Happy on the Hey Now (A Song for Kristi)" is a lovely, wistful song about a woman who dies young.

A: That song is about a very special friend who, in a lot of ways, defined a certain circle of friends. That song was very therapeutic for me. I was very close to her. When you lose someone like that, it makes you reevaluate everything in your life, especially your relationships with your lovers, your friends, your family. That's what it did for me. She defined a time of my life that was very simple. She had enough of an island free spirit for everyone. It was part of the reason I was drawn to those friends. My life can be insanely complicated sometimes, and there's a certain simplicity that I crave. Kristi lived in the moment every day of her life.

Q: The song "Lindy" is about an aging character who never leaves the island life.

A: "Lindy" was the first song I wrote on this record. I didn't really know him; I didn't talk to him that much, just a passing hello. But it's interesting the way you feel you can know someone. He was a brushstroke that gave the island a lot of heart and charm. I wrote the song one night after I watched him playing piano in an empty church. I realized that even though we had very different lives, here was this person alone with his thoughts and his music. I realized right then that we had a lot more in common than I ever could have imagined. I was walking back home and pulled my legal pad out of my backpack and started writing about what that moment meant.

Q: In "When I See This Bar" you sing about a tavern that triggers memories of old friends and happy times. Along with the songs about Lindy and Kristi, it's a song that seems to be at the heart of the new record.

A: Those songs are so connected. They have the same emotion. All those people are real. There was a Rastafarian guy down there who was a one-man band; he played guitar and hit the kick drum with his foot. I see that (when I think about "When I See This Bar"). I see the ceiling fans and the dirty, sandy floors. I see all the people. I smell the spilled beer. I wrote that song right after the memorial service for my friend Kristi. I walked past the bar after the service. I thought about all the people that used to hang out in the bar who weren't on the island anymore, all the people that she brought together. She was a huge part of that place. These are snapshots of my life at the time. Writing these songs and sharing them with the world is very helpful for my soul. It was a big dose of nutrition for me.

Q: In 'Marley,' you name check the late reggae legend Bob Marley and his number 'Redemption Song.' It sounds like a page torn from your journal expressing gratitude for life but also realizing life can sometimes get overwhelming.

A: I think it can for everybody. There's this emotion we all feel of being overwhelmed at times, feeling that you can't get ahead. For me it's self-imposed because I'm so driven and I'm always going from project to project. I start to feel this knife of responsibility. My way of pulling that knife out is being on a boat and trying to be still and just listening to the waves hit up against the side of the boat. I've got Bob Marley playing. I've got this old copy of 'The Old Man and the Sea' by Hemingway that I bought in the Florida Keys years ago. I've read that book 25 times. Every time I get on the boat, I start reading it again. It's the idea of me being out there completely away from the sound of the generator, the catering truck, sound check, guitar amps, the ringing in my ears — all the things that twirl around in my head from years of being on the road. The idea of being completely alone out there on a boat with Bob Marley and a book is awesome.

Q: You recorded 'Coconut Tree' with Willie Nelson, a great artist who is still relevant at 80. What was it like working with him?

A: I was able to spend some time with Willie in Hawaii in December. We sat around a poker table and listened to music and swapped a guitar back and forth. It was a blast. This song represents that time for me. Willie really inspires a lot of people in a lot of different ways. I respect him as a songwriter, musician and artist as much as anyone, but it's the way he walks through the world that I look at too.

Q: You recorded the reggae song 'Spread the Love' with the Wailers Band. It's about universal love, and it's about saving the planet.

A. The Wailers' music — what they've been giving to the world for so many years — is love. You can turn on the news and get a blanket of negativity. I didn't realize how relevant this song could be, especially now, when you can't go to the movies anymore, you can't take your kids to school and you can't go watch the Boston Marathon. If you've got somebody in your life you love, tell them as much as possible. That's how 'Spread the Love' came about with the Wailers. We can spread the love, and music can be a big part of that.

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