A modern country artist who packs football stadiums, Kenny Chesney is a thoughtful superstar. Beneath his beach-bum exterior and straw cowboy hat is a focused workaholic who woos his "No Shoes Nation" fanbase with a canny mix of heartland rockers, sun-and-sand anthems and piercing ballads about making the best out of hard times.
After taking 2014 off the road while recording his current release "The Big Revival" (Big Chair / Columbia Nashville), Chesney is back on tour. He brings the party to Soldier Field on Saturday with special guests Miranda Lambert, Brantley Gilbert, Chase Rice and Old Dominion.
Chesney called recently for an interview on a day off from his stadium-storming road show. This is an edited transcript.
Q: You started your current tour in March. What prompted you to take 2014 off from touring?
A: It was by design. I felt as a human being I needed to take a pause and reflect on a lot of stuff that's happened. That was really good for me. And to get some of the ringing out of my years from all the amps on stage. (laughs) I feel a difference now. So far this year it's been very energetic. I feel that energy up there on stage. The band, the crew and our road family — the look in their eyes — they're so happy to be back doing what we love to do.
Q: What did you do with your time last year?
A: I took a complete year off the road, but a big part of that year was making 'The Big Revival.' I needed that down time just so I could concentrate. The one thing that starts it all for us is the music. That's what you create in the studio. That's where the magic happens. Without that, there's nothing to care about. I truly believe that music is the most powerful thing we have. It's the one thing that connects the dots in all kinds of ways. No matter how you were brought up, no matter what your religious background or political beliefs, people still love to sing along with somebody. That's why I wanted to go into the studio with a clear head. It was important to me. I'm glad I took that time to work really hard on the music. I feel the effects of that now in a positive way with my connection with the audience.
Q: The song 'If This Bus Could Talk' recounts your career from the perspective of your first Silver Eagle tour bus, starting with an early gig opening for Patty Loveless. It's a nuanced remembrance of a couple decades on the road. How emotional was it for you to consider your history and put it in this song?
A: It was very emotional. I'm glad you brought that song up. In 1994 I bought my first tour bus. I still own it and believe it or not it's still out on the road on my tour. The video crew guys and the sponsor people ride it. Last week that bus turned a million miles. Think about the whole scope of that. That bus knows everything. Like the song says, that bus has been a part of my whole journey. It was there at the free 4-H Fairs and the free radio shows. It was there when I opened for Alabama. It knew how excited I was when I opened for George Strait. It saw this kid become this person up there on the stage playing Soldier Field. In the middle of all that was a lot of great memories and laughter. A lot of songs written and jokes told. A lot of philosophizing about sports. We call it drunk philosophy. You have a few beers and you become a lot smarter. (laughs) There were years of that stuff that will never leave me. Never. When the bus turned a million miles — that's a lot of traveling. It's really cool to think about. I'm blessed to have traveled a million miles on a tour bus.
Q: There's joy in that song as well as a bittersweet feeling of nostalgia. You cover a lot of emotional ground in the lyrics about your experiences since your debut album in 1994.
A: In 21 years there are a lot of ups and downs. There are melancholy times. There are sad times. There are happy times. There are unsure times. There are life lessons. The beauty is that it's all a part of this wonderful dream I had in college. It's beautiful to see what it's turned into. It's the journey that I'm most proud of. There were all those times in my life that I didn't know this was going to happen. I didn't know if anybody was going to care about our music. All that mental back and forth and all of those feelings were all part of that bus. We did catch lightning in a bottle.
Q: You're a veteran now when it comes to filling large venues. Not many artists in any genre can fill a football stadium. You've played Soldier Field before. What runs through your mind during sound check?
A: It's special to me because I'm a big sports history buff. I love sports. To be able to play in these places that are so historic and mean so much to so many people, to be able to be a part of that in a small way, is really a thrill for me. The thing that I love, especially after sound check, is when I'm in that stadium alone. It's complete silence. I love that. I love being able to say a quick thanks to the man above for the music and the fact that we're even in this spot. If you'd told me this in college when I was sitting on a stool and playing for enchiladas and tips, I'd have bet everything against it.
Q: The title track of your current album is 'The Big Revival.' What drew you to that song?
A: The title alone fit what I was feeling. It defined what I was going through. That year off was a time to revive, to reset, to reclaim, to revitalize and to re-focus. It was a revival of how I made music, how I presented it and my connection with the fans.
Q: You grew up in the small town of Luttrell, Tennessee. How often do you get back home?
A: I was just there for Mother's Day. My grandmother and my mom live there. It was a fun day. The whole family was there. I don't get to go there as much as I want because my life right now has a life of its own.
Q: Has Luttrell changed much since you were a kid?
A: Not much. My elementary school is still there. I drop by my high school. It's a small community. I say this every night before I do the song 'The Boys of Fall' in the show — I'm really happy about where I grew up and how I grew up. I'm proud of that. We leaned on family, church, school, friends and sports. That's basically all we had. All those things really shaped my life and shaped me musically. It's why I write the way I do.
When: 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: Soldier Field, 1410 S. Museum Campus Drive
Tickets: $32-$250; 312-235-7000 or soldierfield.net
Dickinson is a freelancer.