Back in the saddle

Special to The Times

KENNY CHESNEY sits in the sun on the back deck near the pool of his enormous country manor, a weathered red ballcap pulled tight over his forehead. His island tan is well-displayed in a sleeveless T-shirt, baggy shorts and flip-flops, looking every bit the buff beachcomber that his publicity photos and CD covers suggest.

Still, his brow is creased above his wire-rim glasses, and the serious look turns to a grimace as the sound of a helicopter breaks the quiet. “Uh-oh, we’ve got company,” he says, motioning toward the sky. “I’ve had four or five of these this morning.”

As Chesney, 37, rubs his brow, he shows the strain of a year of crowning achievements and devastating disappointments. The high-flying paparazzi aren’t after him because he’s currently the biggest star in country music. After becoming tabloid fodder following his surprise wedding in May to actress Renee Zellweger, just four months after they met at a tsunami benefit, Chesney saw that interest resume with a vengeance in September, when Zellweger filed for an annulment. And he tried to roll with the punches when speculation into the meaning behind the word “fraud” -- cited by Zellweger in the annulment filing -- zeroed in on his sexual orientation.

“I can tell you,” he says with a soft, pained laugh after being asked how he’s coping, “I’m looking forward to the day when my face isn’t on so many magazines. I’ll be glad when it’s over -- I don’t mean with Renee. I mean when everything else stops, and I can go back to talking about music.”


Chesney makes it clear he’s not going to elaborate on what went wrong with his short-lived marriage and says the hardest part for him was the pain all the rumor-mongering brought to his family.

“I’ve been around town for a while,” he says. “I’ve developed a pretty tough skin. But my grandmother hasn’t. My mother hasn’t. My sister hasn’t. When they read things about me ... it’s hurtful to them. I’m pretty tough, I don’t care. But they do.”

In People magazine’s cover story on him last week, he attacked such reports more forcefully, saying, “They’ve done nothing short of calling me gay and her a whore. None of those things are true. I’m pretty firm in my sexuality and my love for women.”

Zellweger subsequently tried to clarify the issue, telling recently: “The term ‘fraud’ as listed in the documentation is simply legal language and not a reflection of Kenny’s character.” And to People, she said, “It was sad to see the [annulment] decision result in his enduring a fairly brutal public beating of damaging speculations about his sexuality and his character. I admire Kenny and am grateful for the strength he demonstrated in choosing to honor our decision despite the difficulties.”

Ironically, Chesney’s high-profile year coincides with his greatest career accomplishments -- feats that sometimes get overlooked in the media glare. His new album, “The Road and the Radio,” is his second this year to debut at No. 1 on the national sales chart and his fourth consecutive album to hit the top spot its first week out.

His “A Place in the Sun” tour ranked with those of U2 and the Dave Matthews Band as 2005’s top concert draws, according to Billboard magazine. Chesney also was the only country artist, and one of few in any genre, to play stadiums this summer. His concerts filled outdoor sports coliseums in the northeastern cities of Boston, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.

The spectacle of his live show assumes a central role in his first network special, “Kenny Chesney: Somewhere in the Sun,” which airs Wednesday on ABC. The show mixes live performance with segments that examine Chesney’s fanatical crowds, including shots from the tailgating parties that precede his concerts. The cameras also follow him to the Virgin Islands, his second home, where he’s shown mixing with the locals and kicking back with boats, brews and burgers grilled on the beach.

“Everyone wants a network special, but you have to be in position to pull it off, and we’ve finally reached that position in my career,” he says. “I’m glad it’s happening now instead of earlier. I’m in a position now where we can show people what we do, how much fun we have and how hard we work, and more importantly, how much fun the fans have.”


Because the Thanksgiving show is more than a concert special, however, it took more of his time. With work stretched over several months, it became one more major responsibility to fit into his calendar.

“It’s been the busiest summer of my life, and in some ways the hardest,” Chesney admits. “I had the biggest tour I’ve ever done. I had a record to finish that was really important to me, and of course I had something new in my personal life. Then on top of that we started putting this ABC special together. It really ended up being too much. At some point, I just got exhausted.”

Rather than dwell on his personal life, he steers the conversation back to the making of his new album, “The Road and the Radio,” which posted a first-week sales figure of 469,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

“It was a tough record to make,” he says. “I don’t usually feel pressure, but I felt it this time. I’d go from the road to the studio and back to the road, and it was that cycle all summer.”


In a follow-up phone interview Thursday, Chesney still bristled from the highs and lows that have come hand in hand throughout the year. The day before his album debuted at No. 1, he was shut out at the Country Music Assn. Awards, where his former opening act, Keith Urban, took the top award for entertainer of the year, one that most pundits predicted would go to Chesney for a second consecutive year.

Asked about this week’s roller-coaster ride, he explains, “You know, what can I say? Obviously, selling records never gets old. It’s great to know the fans are so passionate about what we’re doing. I see that every night in the sea of people we play in front of. That’s what makes the CMA Awards so disappointing. But it is what it is.”

Joe Galante, chairman of the RCA Label Group, is more outspoken about the failure of the primary country music awards show to recognize Chesney.

“It is a strange sort of slap in the face,” Galante said Thursday. “Kenny’s not mad at [Urban] in any way. He loves Keith; they’re old friends. But it was a real shock. Based on criteria for entertainer of the year, no one should’ve come close. Kenny had the ticket sales, the album sales, the TV special, the stadium shows. Who else is doing that? No one. So, yes, it was a shock.”


Chesney says he’s just glad the holidays are coming, and he’s ready for a new year. “I’ve been resting, spending time with family, and I’m going to do a lot more of that for now,” he says. “Then I’ll do what I always do. I’ll go back to work. I’ll get back on the road, and I’ll get back into the music and back with the fans. I’ll go back to what always gets me through.”