Kenny Chesney had already recorded 11 songs on his new album, "Hemingway's Whiskey," when he decided to scrap all but a few of them and start from scratch.
It was the end of 2009, and he was about to take a year off from music.
But, Chesney said, "I listened to it, and it wasn't complete. I realized I had made that record [when he was] tired, and it sounded it."
Chesney, one of the few musicians who can command a stadium show — he performs Saturday at FedEx Field — has had a long, successful career. But he said the album that he ended up releasing in September is his most grown-up.
"It was the most satisfying recording experience I've had, because I could have very easily released the bunch of songs I had. In my gut, I knew it wasn't right," he said. "It was satisfying to take a risk and see it pay off."
Until now, Chesney specialized in Margaritaville music — country-western by way of Jimmy Buffett. The songs were upbeat and breezy, and had names like "Key Lime Pie," "Key's in the Conch Shell" and "Boats."
"Before, I was more concerned with getting on the radio, like many young artists," he said. He churned the songs out, almost an album every year since his first was released in 1994.
When he entered his 40s a few years ago, he'd reached a point where he needed "an artistic shift."
Except for "Seven Days," "The Boys of Fall," and "Somewhere With You," the songs he'd originally recorded for his 12th album did not meet that criterion.
"I let everything else go," he said. "They would have sounded fine on the radio, but they didn't sound deep enough. I needed to be pushed as an artist and as a person."
Even though he was supposed to take a year off, he started working on the new "Whiskey" at the end of 2009 and into 2010. One of the first songs he recorded was "You and Tequila," a duet with rocker Grace Potter that was released as the album's fourth single in May.
The song had been kicking around Chesney's Nashville studio for several years without going anywhere.
"I didn't know if I was going to record it, but I thought, if I ever did, I needed something special. That something special showed up in Grace Potter."
Chesney said he's been a fan for years.
"I heard her sing a song called 'Apologies' that just killed me," he said. "I thought, 'That's the voice I want.' "
A mutual friend put them in touch, and three days after he sent her a demo, they were in the studio recording it.
"We were there for 45 minutes. It was the easiest thing ever," he said. "The process inspired me, and I needed to be inspired. The whole idea that we'd never met, that we had different backgrounds, different upbringings, but still had something in common was like magic."
More than any other song in "Whiskey," "You And Tequila" is a reflection of Chesney's new, more sobering outlook.
"It's about desperation, about how you get to addicted to people. I've been addicted to a person," he said. "You've spent time with a person and a relationship, and it can run in your blood. That person will be a part of you forever even if the relationship ends. Getting over someone is tough. You don't break up at once, you break up over time."
Released more than 15 years after his first album, "Whiskey" may finally be Chesney's "Coconut Telegraph," the album where Buffett started to show his age. It marks a significant shift from the 11 upbeat, breezy albums that came before it, starting with its somber title — something he acknowledges.
"I just felt the music that I ended up making for this record reflected me and my growth as a person," he said.
And yet, Chesney doesn't know if he'll stay in this direction. He hasn't decided what his fifth single will be.
"Depends on how 'You and Tequila' does," he said. "If it does really well, then I can do whatever I want. If it doesn't, then I'll put out something more radio-friendly."
There's at least one song on the album, "Reality," that is as innocuous as his early material. It's designed to appeal to Chesney's base, he said.
"I had the idea for "Reality" in a dentist's chair," he said, because it's the only place where he can truly come to escape reality and feel relaxed.
"Over the years I've had people tell me that they come to my show to escape. So this is a song for my fans," he said. "I'm their dentist's chair."
If you go
Kenny Chesney and the Zac Brown Band perform at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at FedEx Field, 1600 Fedex Way, Landover. Call 301-276-6000.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun