About six years ago, Chesney was fairly anonymous even with the Resistol on. "People were buying my records, but I didnít really feel like they knew who I was," he says. "How could they? I didnít 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: 2002ís No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems and 2004ís When the Sun Goes Down. Chesneyís 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 itís much more than a pose; itís 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, youíve got to start writing for yourself. Because you have something to say, so say it."
We climb into Chesneyís white Lexus SUV and go get lunch at a Calypso-themed restaurant ("Hey, do the sweet potatoes have any butter in íem?" he asks the waiter), and then itís 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 Speedwagonís "Canít Fight This Feeling"), and he makes no apologies for a show thatís more Van Halen than hoedown. "Itís 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.
Weíre 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. Chesneyís jaw tightens in frustration and he suddenly looks as if somebodyís 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 wasnít supposed to drop it! Fuck." A button got pushed at the wrong time; itís 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." Itís reassuring to hear that Chesney does not take his Von Stroheim–like need for control along on his tropical excursions. "Heís 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, thatís 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-tonkiní days were over, even before his secret island wedding: "I guess that comes with finally growiní up. Iím 37. Iíd rather stay at home and write a great song than go out and chase girls."