“Kenny & His Island Style”

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When Kenny Chesney wakes up in the morning, he climbs out of a mahogany sleigh bed. He’s got vanilla-scented candles on the nightstand, a 19th-century map of the Caribbean on the wall above his head, and, mussed up on the bed itself, creamy layers of thousand-thread-count sheets. “I didn’t really understand the power of thousand-thread-count sheets until I actually had ’em,” he says. “And now I’m spoiled. I have ’em on my bus, I have ’em on my bunk. They’re unbelievable. Feel that.” Upon waking, he pads through the spotless foyer of his house outside Nashville—past the autographed memorabilia from Bruce Springsteen, Joe Walsh, and REO Speedwagon—and heads for the kitchen, where sugar-free beverages and carrot sticks await, neatly arranged in his Sub-Zero refrigerator. “I eat egg whites, a piece of wheat toast, and maybe a sliced tomato,” he says. “I go work out, and when I get back I drink a protein shake. About three hours later I eat a piece of chicken and some broccoli. After that I eat somethin’ else, maybe a turkey sandwich with some carrots. Then late at night, if I’m hungry, I will drink another protein shake, but one with no carbs in it. Almost every single day I eat the exact same thing, and have for about three and a half years.” Six months ago he took up yoga—Bikram yoga, to be precise, which he tends to do after the egg whites. “It’s a real hot room where it’s about 110 degrees,” he explains. “It has taught me a lot about balance, and that’s something I look for in my life.”

In case you’re confused, this seeker of equilibrium, shedder of carbohydrates, and connoisseur of fine linens happens to be the biggest country-music star in America—and, yes, Renée Zellweger’s new husband. His latest album, Be As You Are: Songs From an Old Blue Chair, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart, and most of his previous ones have gone multi-platinum. His tour last year was the second-most-popular concert draw in the country. Country music is a mirror of Middle America, and if Middle America once longed to live vicariously through the outlaw antics of Waylon and Willie, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that a nation plagued by corpulence and attention-deficit disorder now attaches its aspirations to a cowpoke who carefully peels the skin off a chicken breast.

Chesney lives in a shingled Cape Cod manor on about 50 acres of rolling Tennessee hills. He used to live closer to Nashville, but such is the fever pitch of his popularity that yahoos camped out at the curb and fished through his mail. He had to flee. “It’s not that I’m anti-fans,” he says, “but I’m very pro-private.”

Women have been known to swoon over footage of Chesney’s island-tanned triceps, to compose impromptu odes to the way he wears a pair of jeans, so it can be slightly jarring to meet him. He keeps a couple of signature cowboy hats in his closet—a dressy black Resistol and a casual, sun-bleached one made out of palm fronds—but around the house he wears a baseball cap, backwards, and when he takes it off he’s as bald as Michael Stipe. He also wears a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles, which give him the air of a postwar German intellectual. He stands five foot six (“on a good day”) and weighs 144 pounds. He has no problem blending in at the local Walgreens.

About six years ago, Chesney was fairly anonymous even with the Resistol on. “People were buying my records, but I didn’t really feel like they knew who I was,” he says. “How could they? I didn’t even know.” When his personal life ran aground, he headed off for the tropics to sort things out. Chesney often refers to this as a time “when my life changed”—when he not only stopped bingeing on pizza and beer in the middle of the night, but dropped anchor at the creative atoll that would give him a recognizable and lucrative brand in the marketplace. Blockbusters followed: 2002’s No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems and 2004’s When the Sun Goes Down. Chesney’s now known for specializing in a sort of Piña Colada country, complete with steel drums, and his house is stocked with so many pictures of palm trees and pink sunsets and skiff boats bobbing in aquamarine coves that you realize it’s much more than a pose; it’s a fixation. (He began dating Zellweger this spring after she took the place of the roadie who strolls onstage mid-show to hand Chesney a margarita, and when he married her at his place on St. John, he was barefoot.) Be As You Are, a song cycle about burned-out cases who escape to the islands, sounds like what might happen if Jimmy Buffett decided to remake Nebraska.

Chesney wrote or co-wrote every song on Be As You Are, which is uncommon for a Nashville star. Not coincidentally, rocker John Mellencamp remembers standing in a dressing room with Chesney about 18 months ago and saying, “You know, Kenny, to have people take you seriously as an artist, you’ve got to start writing for yourself. Because you have something to say, so say it.”

We climb into Chesney’s white Lexus SUV and go get lunch at a Calypso-themed restaurant (“Hey, do the sweet potatoes have any butter in ’em?” he asks the waiter), and then it’s off to Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville for a rehearsal. The stage looks like an ark of blinking lasers shrouded in Ridley Scott movie fog. Chesney was weaned on hair metal (first concert: Def Leppard; lost his virginity to: REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling”), and he makes no apologies for a show that’s more Van Halen than hoedown. “It’s gonna be loud,” he says. “Loud loud loud. I want the kick drum to reverberate through their spines.” Nor does he apologize for a touch of Nigel Tufnelian excess: On a recent boat trip Chesney caught a 235-pound marlin. He had it stuffed. Now the fish travels around with the band. A cartoon of the marlin appears on a giant scrim that hangs in front of the stage, ridden bareback by a blonde in a bikini.

We’re watching the opening overture of the show—a bricolage of flashing strobes, eerie silhouettes, and shotgun blasts of AC/DC, Queen, U2, and Ozzy Osbourne—when the scrim comes loose and drops to the floor. Chesney’s jaw tightens in frustration and he suddenly looks as if somebody’s jacked the thermostat way too high in the hot yoga room. He takes his cap off and furiously rubs his pate. “Goddamn it!” he says. “You wasn’t supposed to drop it! Fuck.” A button got pushed at the wrong time; it’s going to take 30 minutes to put the scrim back up. “Half an hour,” Chesney says, sighing. “I wanted to see it right now while it was fresh in my mind. I want to make changes.” It’s reassuring to hear that Chesney does not take his Von Stroheim–like need for control along on his tropical excursions. “He’s got a wild side, man!” says Sammy Hagar, who invited Chesney and his band down to Mexico for a weekend of tequila-hazed debauchery. “We sure tore it up in Cabo, that’s all I know!” (As Chesney likes to put it, “What happens in the hot tub stays in the hot tub.”) Nevertheless, Chesney says his honky-tonkin’ days were over, even before his secret island wedding: “I guess that comes with finally growin’ up. I’m 37. I’d rather stay at home and write a great song than go out and chase girls.”

Yep, his rigid sense of discipline applies even to groupies. “Used to take advantage of it,” he says. “I used to eat it up. I was the kid in college that had pimples all over his face, and all the girls were goin’ out with the football players. Then all of a sudden I put a guitar over my shoulder and started singin’ a song and people looked at me in a different way. Then I went on the road and went, Oh,my God. The devil had a bunk on my bus. Hell, we invited him. It was fun. Really, a lot of fun. But it’s—what’s the word?—it takes my focus away.” Let it be known that the heartland is safe; the devil no longer rides with the biggest country star in America. Kenny Chesney has learned how to eliminate mistakes, and the only catch is that he’s done so in a genre that’s all about making them.

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