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©Danny Clinch / Kenny Chesney
© Danny Clinch / Kenny Chesney
Kenny Chesney: Back to the 'Fishbowl'

A country superstar maps an ambitious year onstage and on record

By Phyllis Stark
Special to MSN Music

"You don't have to be in the public eye for your business to be everybody's business anymore," says Kenny Chesney, explaining the culture that inspired him to write the title cut to his forthcoming album, "Welcome to the Fishbowl."

"That world is getting smaller and smaller due to technology," he says. "You don't literally have to be in the public eye like I am to feel the effects of that."

While the album won't be released until June 19, Chesney has known what the title would be since Fourth of July weekend last year.

He was hanging out with some of his buddies from the football world at a bar in WaterColor, Fla., when fans seeking autographs and photos repeatedly approached him. After he was finished with the fans, one of his pals commented, "I had no idea your life was like that," to which Chesney immediately shot back, "Hey, man, welcome to the fishbowl."

A song title was immediately spawned, although the song itself ended up being the last thing he wrote and recorded for the album.

"I knew when I said that that it was going to be the title of my record, and that I was going to write a song about the culture that we live in today, how it's shrinking every day," he reveals.

The album is Chesney's 13th in a career that will mark its 20-year anniversary next year. That's 20 years since the release of his unsuccessful first single on his initial label home, Capricorn Records. It would be another two years (and one change in record label) before he landed his first pair of top 10 hits.

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As Chesney is fond of saying about his career, "I had the luxury of not happening early. ... There was a huge learning process for me, and I wouldn't [trade] anything for it."

That learning curve obviously paid off, as his credits now include 30 million albums sold, and 23 No. 1 hits, including his most recent, "Reality." With nine nominations, he was the most nominated artist at Sunday night's Academy of Country Music Awards, where he performed with his touring partner this summer, Tim McGraw.  The broadcast also found the platinum duo unveiling "Feel Like a Rock Star," a hard-charging duet that will be the first single off Chesney's album.

That tour, dubbed Brothers of the Sun, is a 20-date, all-stadium outing for which 600,000 tickets have already been sold. It kicks off June 2 and will mark the first time the two artists have toured together in a decade.

Of course, tickets sales have long been Chesney's specialty. Later this year, the ACM will honor him with its Crystal Milestone Award in recognition of the 10.5 million tickets he's sold in his career. Even Chesney calls that a "staggering number."

"We knew there were a lot of people in front of us for all these years, but we didn't really count. The years just kept kind of going by," he says.

"We knew that a lot of people were spending their summers with us, and we knew that they were investing a lot of their life into what we did, and how we made them feel every summer. But to hear that we sold that many concert tickets is more than any dream I ever had."

The honor makes him think back to the early days of his career.

"I remember being in a laundromat with my road manager in college going, 'Man, wouldn't it be great if I could just get one song on the radio and we could go out with all of our buddies in a bus and tour around the country just once?' This summer will be my 19th trip.

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"He's still my road manager, and I've got five guys that I went to college and high school with that are out on the road still," Chesney adds. "We've been very blessed. I'm very honored that we were able to connect with a lot of people like that through our music."

But two years ago, Chesney took an unusual and risky gamble in his career by opting to take a year off from touring.

"I was more concerned about being burnt out than losing momentum," he says of that time. "The relationship that I have with the fans out there has been built over time, and I feel like the people that have been coming to our shows over the past decade have invested so much of their life to do so. And I have invested basically all of my adult life to be that person onstage.

"It just seemed to me that that investment needs protecting at all costs," he continues. "If that meant taking a year off, then so be it. That was the mindset I was in when I decided to do so."

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But, he admits, "It was a tough decision because conventional wisdom says go out there and run until you've lost your moment. But ... I want to still be doing this and still having fun with it another decade from now. We've all seen a lot of acts that just kept touring and kept touring and the next thing you know they got into a predictable mode. Taking that year off kept us from being predictable. We've been hitting it so hard for so long, and I just felt that we needed to back away."

Last summer, when a rejuvenated Chesney resumed touring once more, he says, "We hit the stage, it was like a revival. It was awesome," he adds, comparing the feeling to the first year he started headlining.

He's expecting to have that feeling again this summer when he hits the road with McGraw. And while rehearsals for the tour haven't even started yet, Chesney says fans can expect to see the two stars performing together onstage for part of the show.

Asked what else fans can expect from this tour, Chesney says, "It's going to be a special year. ... To have Tim out there making music together again and bringing years of friendship out on the stage just makes it even more special.

"It's going to be a lot of fun. It's going to be very high-energy, and it's going to be fairly loud."

Veteran entertainment journalist Phyllis Stark has been reporting extensively on the music industry for two decades. As a freelance writer, her work appears regularly in numerous publications and sites, including Radio-Info.com, where she authors the newsletter Stark Country. She previously was Nashville bureau chief at Billboard magazine.

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