If you want to understand Kenny Chesney’s popularity — the ten straight No. 1 albums, the football-stadium tours, the dedication he inspires in his fans and the antipathy he provokes in just about everyone else — cue up Cosmic Hallelujah, his new LP, and listen to the way he sings “I’m home for the summer” in the chorus to the strangely pop-punk “All the Pretty Girls.” The track implies that Chesney’s suffered some sort of loss, not uncommon in a country song, but he delivers the lyric like it’s the best news ever, addressing his buddies with the emphasis of an Eleventh Commandment. His message, backed by guitars that blaze like fireworks, is simple: Thou shalt chillax.
Chesney’s shoulders didn’t always hang so loose. He began his career, back in the Nineties, as yet another pop-country acolyte, drawling about heartache and trying to sound like George Strait. His only blip outside the country radar was 1999’s “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” a winking attempt at becoming Rod Stewart in overalls.
Then, on December 31, 2001, Chesney released “Young” as the lead single off album five, No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems, trading his Stetson for one of those curled-brim straw hats middle-aged men wear when they take early retirement. The rebrand had begun. He followed No Shoes with a sun-soaked holiday album, All I Want for Christmas Is a Real Good Tan, and embarked on one of the most productive stretches in country music history. Since “Young,” Chesney has put 34 singles into the Top 3 of the genre’s airplay chart, and at last week’s CMA Awards, he received the Pinnacle, a lifetime-achievement trophy they give you when you’ve already won everything else.
It’s fitting that the award followed on the heels of Cosmic Hallelujah, since the record is the most pure expression yet of Chesney’s transformation, a codification of his no-attitude attitude into something approaching philosophy. It’s a country album devoid of both tractors and sex but brimming with a Buffett-like dedication to the life unwound (no wonder, then, that Chesney has attracted not only a Buffett-like following but also some actual Parrotheads). “Bucket” is the representative track: Backed by a rock riff that suggests Big & Rich, Chesney instructs listeners to make a bucket list and “change the b to an f.” (The e becomes an i of its own accord, presumably.) Then, for good measure, you don’t just chillax — you “order up a six-pack of chillaxification.”
The shoes and the shirt are still off, but a few storm clouds have appeared on the horizon. “Rich and Miserable” is so brooding it ought to be subtitled “(Listens to Drake Once),” and the stakes are highest on “Trip Around the Sun,” a bouncy campfire song about global warming, the impending apocalypse, and the meaninglessness of existence. But in Chesneyland, these are not dampers on chillaxification; they’re problems that only make chillaxing more urgent than ever.
At 48, Chesney seems to be aging more gracefully than anyone could have guessed. His formula is familiar, but what’s lost in originality is recovered in reflexivity: By now, a Kenny Chesney song about summer evokes not just your own memories of summer but also all the songs Kenny Chesney has written on the subject (and there are many). Country lyrics have historically been dominated by the first- and third-person singular, but Chesney belts much of Cosmic Hallelujah from a nonspecific first-person plural, creating a big “we” with which his listeners can identify. No matter where you turn, there he is, waiting for you with a pineapple full of daiquiri and an extra towel bearing the logo of his official fan club, the No Shoes Nation — 25 dollars per annum to become a premium member of the country, a protectorate of Margaritaville.
Of course, every nation has its dissidents. In 2012, Kacey Musgraves made her debut, at 24, with the quietly devastating “Merry Go ‘Round,” the antithesis to Chesney’s group-hug hit “American Kids” (though in typical Nashville fashion, the songs share a co-writer). It was one of the most original country singles of the decade, employing Chesney’s same “we” but hollowing it out to depict lives coming apart rather than together. “We get bored, so we get married/Just like dust, we settle in this town,” she sang over rustling drums and finger-picked banjo. The song appeared on her first LP, Same Trailer Different Park, a lithe record appropriately indifferent to the categories that govern the ways music is consumed and distributed. People caught on across the spectrum: In 2013 she opened for Chesney, and two years later, to promote her second studio record, Pageant Material, she was on the cover of The Fader opposite Meek Mill.
It was hard to say how she’d follow Pageant Material, and although “Christmas music” certainly wasn’t the favored bet, that’s what she released a few weeks ago, the same day Chesney came out with Cosmic Hallelujah. Her holiday collection, A Very Kacey Christmas, flirts with Western swing, Tejano, and Hawaiian sounds. The record is somewhere between a deferment and a cash grab, but to Musgraves’s credit, it also rehearses possibilities for future recordings — these genre experiments likely won’t be one-offs (we should hope they’re not). And where her fragile singing calls to mind a few of Willie Nelson’s more subdued later albums, the veteran’s blessing on “A Willie Nice Christmas” reminds us that Musgraves is a singer capable of albums as good as those the older artist released in the Sixties and Seventies.
Musgraves is almost three decades behind Chesney in her career, and while her progress has been more fitful, it’s also been far more interesting. She often says more in failure than he does in success — certainly A Very Kacey Christmas beats All I Want for Christmas Is a Real Good Tan on every track. To call his future predictable puts things mildly, and while that’s good news for his Nation, the rest of us should reserve our excitement for where Musgraves is headed next.