With his tenth career studio album, The Road and the Radio, Kenny Chesney declared to CMT that his mindset was to “bring people back to the stage.” His previous album Be As You Are (Songs From an Old Blue Chair) transported fans to Chesney’s life away from the stage in the Caribbean Islands, where the star often retreated for a getaway combination of work and play. It was a mellow affair, leaning heavily on gentle ballads and idyllic reflections like “Old Blue Chair” and “Soul of a Sailor.” But now, Chesney aimed to bring back more touches of his well-established party vibe, in which his loyal legions reveled. “There’s a lot of guitar on this record that’s pretty edgy,” Chesney told CMT, “and it’s the way I like it.” He added, “There are a lot of pretty rockin’ party songs on this record.”
And obviously, the fans were ready to rock along with their hero. Chesney released The Road and the Radio on November 8th, 2005, not quite ten months after putting out Be As You Are in January. As a sterling example of Chesney’s across-the-board popularity, the album debuted at No. 1 on both the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and the all-genre Billboard 200. The Road and the Radio yielded a mother lode of five hit singles, with “Living in Fast Forward,” “Summertime,” and “Beer in Mexico” all reaching No. 1. The good times culminated in a CMA award nomination for Album of the Year. Buddy Cannon, who produced the album with Chesney, looked back at the milestone project as it celebrates its 15th anniversary.
SHIFT IN GEARS
Chesney seemed ready to ramp things up a notch, particularly after the low-key, laid-back grooves of Be As You Are and the album prior to that, When the Sun Goes Down. “His thinking shifted a little and the music needed to be edgier,” says Cannon, who has produced all of Chesney’s albums since 1997’s I Will Stand. “We started changing up some of the pieces.” By that, Cannon mainly points to bringing in a new guitarist to the sessions, Kenny Greenberg, noted for his rock-influenced style of playing. You can hear Greenberg shredding away on “Living in Fast Forward” and other tracks. “That was our first time to use him,” says Cannon. “He’s been on every album for Kenny since then.” Greenberg also became a member of Chesney’s touring band. For the cut “Beer in Mexico,” Cannon enlisted a horn section, for a different sonic flavor.
Over their time together, Cannon and Chesney developed a team chemistry that generally puts them on the same page artistically. The camaraderie worked again for The Road and the Radio. “We went about this the same way as always,” Cannon tells Sounds Like Nashville. “When listening to songs for a project, I have never paid attention to who wrote what. It doesn’t matter to me who the writers are. Kenny never does that, either. He doesn’t want anything to cloud his judgment. We just hunt for the best songs, and we never really have disagreements. And I have to say,” Cannon adds in understated fashion, “we hit a pretty good gold mine with this album.”
For the kickoff single, instead of an up-tempo party tune, Chesney and the label gurus went with the poignant, reflective number, “Who You’d Be Today,” which hit radio about two months before the album’s release. “Who You’d Be Today” pondered a deep and profound subject, addressing a person who had died too young and questioning what his or her life would have been like if still alive. Chesney once admitted that the subject matter marked new territory for him.
“That is an awesome song,” raves Cannon. “I had a friend, [singer/songwriter] Freddy Weller, and this happened to him. He and his wife lost their son in an accident. They always said that this song gave them so much peace. There were a lot of people who had similar occurrences and the song had the same effect for them. Kenny did such a great job on it.” The single peaked at the No. 2 spot.
The follow-up single, “Living in Fast Forward,” proved the polar opposite of “Who You’d Be Today.” This one rocked to the heavens, with its portrayal of a Hillbilly rock star, out of control, whose life was a constant swirl of never-slow-down activity. The song, written by David Lee Murphy and Rivers Rutherford, made its way to Cannon in a most unusual circumstance, with Rutherford playing it for him in a record label parking lot.
The ball got rolling in early 2005 when Cannon and Rutherford were taking classes in the Leadership Music program, an educational organization for leaders and decision-makers in the music industry. After one class at the Warner Music Nashville label building, Cannon and Rutherford were walking to their vehicles in the parking area and engaging in some friendly small talk. “Rivers asked me what I was working on,” Cannon recalls, “and I told him Kenny’s next album. I mentioned that I needed an up-tempo song. He said something like, ‘Well, David Lee Murphy and I have a song going but I don’t have it recorded anywhere. It’s not finished yet.’ So, he says that he’ll just sing it for me. He pulled his guitar out of the case from the back of his truck and stood there with one foot on the tailgate. He played me the first verse and I told him to go ahead and finish it. I loved it. They finished it and brought it in and Kenny loved it also.” Further proof that one never knows where a future hit might be unearthed. “Getting a song for the album was the last thing on my mind that day,” Cannon laughs. “I’m glad we were shooting the breeze because it led to me finding that song for Kenny.”
Chesney looked at “Living in Fast Forward” as basically a microcosm of his life. He was reaching superstar stratosphere with eight No. 1 singles to his credit and a CMA Album of the Year win in 2004 for When the Sun Goes Down. Chesney had also copped the 2004 CMA Entertainer of the Year honor. His 2005 Somewhere in the Sun Tour played to high-capacity football stadiums like Heinz Field in Pittsburgh and such major city arenas as St. Louis’ Savvis Center and the Pepsi Center in Denver. This was life on the rapid track, and “Living in Fast Forward” seemed the perfect documentation. “If anyone is living his life in fast forward right now, it’s me and my band and everyone involved,” Kenny conceded in a CMT interview. Cannon recalls, “Kenny did mention something like that to me about ‘Living in Fast Forward.’ His career was exploding. He was having big hits and becoming a huge concert draw. So, it was the perfect song for him.”
The playful, breezy single “Summertime” also has an accompanying bit of backstory. Craig Wiseman and Steve McEwan wrote the song and submitted it to Chesney and the production team. All were in agreement on including it for the album, but with one reservation. Chesney was thrown by a line in the opening verse, according to Cannon. “Craig had the words ‘snow cone’ in there,” Cannon explains. “Kenny said that he wasn’t singing ‘snow cone.’ I guess he thought it was clichéd or something. The phrase was changed to what you hear now, ‘That old ball park, man, is back in gear/Out on 49/Man, I can see the lights.’ That seemed to fit better.” Released in April of 2006, “Summertime” hit No. 1 for five consecutive weeks during – what else? – the summer months.
“Beer in Mexico” was the only cut from the album written solely by Chesney. In the liner notes for The Road and the Radio, Chesney revealed that he wrote the song while vacationing in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, to celebrate the birthday of rocker Sammy Hagar. Chesney also mused about his inspiration for the title tune, written with Casey Beathard. “No matter what has gone on in my life,” he says in the liner notes, “there have been two constant things over the past twelve years, and that’s been the road and the radio.”
Because of its late release date, The Road and the Radio would not qualify for the 2005 CMA awards. But the album obviously stayed in the minds of CMA voters for 2006, as it garnered a nomination for Album of the Year, won by Brad Paisley’s Time Well Wasted. “Summertime” picked up a nomination for Single of the Year. On the strength of The Road and the Radio and his sold-out tours, Chesney won his second CMA Entertainer of the Year title in 2006.