Last August, the night before his show at the New Meadowlands Stadium, Kenny Chesney went all the way to the top of the New Jersey venue and sat by himself.
"The stadium was a ghost town," the 44-year-old country singer recalls. "It was barely lit, but you could see our big stage up there and everything we'd built. There was complete silence, and the only thing you could hear was the planes taking off and landing."
Trips like that to the upper seats of the stadiums he plays, as far away from the stage as he can possibly get, help Chesney get a sense of perspective.
"I know what it looks like from where I stand, but I want to see what it looks like from where they sit," he says of his audience. "I want to visually and mentally see how far I've got to go."
On this day, though, Chesney is in the office of his Nashville record company, wearing a gray Columbia University T-shirt and a favorite New York Titans baseball cap. He spends mornings readying his new album, Welcome to the Fishbowl, out Tuesday, and afternoons rehearsing for his three-month Brothers of the Sun tour with Tim McGraw, which kicked off two weeks ago.
"In all the years I have been doing this, I have never launched a tour and a record at the same time," he says.
"We tour just for the sake of touring. You always tour to promote your record, but we didn't necessarily have that mind-set of 'We're going to tour to promote the record that's coming out.' We were touring to build our fan base."
Chesney will film the rehearsal, then he'll spend the evening studying it the way a football player pores over game tapes.
"We'll see all the lights, we'll see the band, we'll see all the video edits," he says. "I'll watch the whole rehearsal and make notes on what I don't like. Then I'll call the lighting and video guys and tell them what I want changed. They'll change it, and the next day at rehearsal, we'll do it again."
Tour stops are events
That level of attention to detail has made Chesney one of the top-drawing musical acts in the country, grossing $84.6 million for 55 shows in 2011, according to Billboard Boxscore. For 2012, he's headlining a tour that requires 283 crewmembers, more than 80 tractor-trailers and 20 buses. The production involves duplicate sets constructed simultaneously in two cities so that, for example, Chesney can play in Nashville on Saturday, then in Charlotte on Sunday.
With not only Chesney and McGraw on the bill but also rock band Grace Potter & The Nocturnals and rising country star Jake Owen, the Brothers of the Sun stops aren't just shows but full-fledged events lasting nearly seven hours.
And that's just inside the venue.
"People were planning the day before for the tailgating," says Mike Culotta, operations manager for CBS Radio Tampa, who attended the first show in Tampa on June 2. "People showed up first thing in the morning and started setting up. They were driving from all over the state of Florida, and people flew in from other states to be at that first stadium show."
Chesney has played more than 70 stadium shows since his first in 2003, when he performed in front of nearly 62,000 at the University of Tennessee's Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, about 25 miles from his hometown of Luttrell, Tenn. But just like a football player talks about the game slowing down as he adjusts to it, Chesney needed a while for the distance between him and the audience to shrink.
"For me, it wasn't a learning curve, it was a connection curve," he says. "I remember the night it clicked — it was at Qwest Field in Seattle. We've played that place three times. The first time we played it, it was just magic. That stadium felt like an arena, and sometimes like a club. That night, there was something inside of me that just clicked and said, 'OK, I really think I can come out here and connect with all these people.' "
'Fishbowl' digs deep
Though the shows are about connecting with his audience, new album Welcome to the Fishbowl is more about reconnecting with the past and those closest to him.
But the past can be even more elusive than the most distant fan in a 70,000-seat stadium. And so Chesney finds himself, in Always Gonna Be You, trying to recapture the feeling he got from an idealized lover, lost to his own mistakes. In El Cerrito Place, he searches for traces of her in places she might have been, finally returning to the last place he saw her smile.
"People can relate to a certain sense of longing, to a certain sense of searching, to this idea of wanting something in your life, you may not even know what it is at the time," he says. "Whether it's a faith thing or a sense of balance, whatever it is that you're searching for in your life, all of us have those things, and I'm no different."
With Fishbowl, as well as such recent hits as last year's You and Tequila with Grace Potter, Culotta says, "Kenny's getting to do what Kenny wants to do now. So we're getting some insight into what he loves. I think we're starting to see the next level of Kenny, so these are songs that mean something to him and touch him."
Fishbowl also is the album where Chesney begins to acknowledge his mortality, staring old age in the face on Sing 'Em Good My Friend, in which a young musician buys a guitar from a man selling his possessions to pay for his dying wife's medical bills, and While He Stills Knows Who I Am, in which a son plans a trip home to visit his Alzheimer's-stricken father. Considering how often Chesney sings about memories, hearing him sing about someone who is literally losing his past is downright chilling.
Those two songs "ground this record, no doubt about it," he says. "Lyrically and melodically, Sing 'Em Good My Friend is probably the most different song I've recorded. But it fits. While He Still Knows Who I Am is the kind of song that would have made me want to be a songwriter in the first place, the kind that made me want to move to Nashville."
Songs people 'want to hear'
Don't expect to hear those songs, or many others from Welcome to the Fishbowl, on the Brothers of the Sun tour. "It's OK for every song not to be something somebody would hear in a stadium," Chesney says. At the early tour stops, Chesney has played only Feel Like a Rock Star, a duet with McGraw, and current single Come Over, which he says is about "comfortable sex."
"We're going to play a couple of songs off the Fishbowl record, but that's about it — they're just not that familiar yet," he says. "I've always been a big believer in playing the songs that people have lived with and want to hear. As good as the cover song or the album cut might be, as much as I want them to hear it, I'll play it later."
Feel Like a Rock Star, however — that's an event song, the kind of thing two superstars touring together are expected to do, and it provides a high point in the Brothers of the Sun encores.
But what makes Chesney feel like a rock star?
The first time that really happened, he says, came in 2009, after he finished that year's tour at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
"I leased a 747 jet and took the whole band and crew to the Virgin Islands," he says. "We were sitting there, celebrating being off the road. We were already overserved at 9:30 in the morning, and we were having hot wings. We were celebrating.
"That's when I knew my life had changed, just a little bit. So, yeah, I felt like a rock star."