- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 9, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn — Kenny Chesney, at age 34, finally is starting to feel like an adult. Heartbreak and other life lessons have made the singer more reflective, and he grapples with such weighty issues on his new album, "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems."

"It's hard for a guy to grow up," Mr. Chesney says. "It's even harder to know what you want. When you're thirtysomething, you realize you're not 21 anymore."

Even though his songs might be a little more serious now, don't expect Mr. Chesney to stop crowing his hit "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy" at arenas across the country.

"Look, 'Tractor' isn't going to save the world but does it get people to the show? Do they have a great time when they listen to it? Not every song has to change the world. I look at music as medicine for whatever ails you," he says.

The song a silly, sexy and wildly popular concert staple set Mr. Chesney's image in cement. He was viewed as a country pinup, and critics called him a lightweight talent.

"I'm probably the best definition of the gap between industry and fans," Mr. Chesney admits.

He grew up in the eastern Tennessee town of Luttrell. He made money during his college years at East Tennessee State University, playing guitar at parties and bars.

He steadily built his career in the 1990s with hits such as "Me and You," "She's Got It All" and "That's Why I'm Here." Things heated up in 1999 with the breezy "How Forever Feels," which spent six weeks at No. 1, and "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy" on the "Everywhere We Go" album.

Mr. Chesney knows his fans can be rowdy.

"Let me tell you a story," he says. "The other night, we sold out an arena in Jacksonville, Fla. After the show, I looked out the window from the back of the bus, and I saw this group of young guys and girls in the back of a pickup truck.

"They had one bottle of wine and two paper cups; they had the music cranked as loud as they could get it out of that truck; they were yelling and screaming.

"That's who my audience is. That's who's coming to see us, and there's a lot of them coming. That's where my focus is, and where my heart and soul goes."

Mr. Chesney is trying to lead those fans somewhere new. Many of the songs on "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems" are about men feeling their youth slip away ("Young" and "Never Gonna Feel Like That Again") or struggling with relationships ("I Can't Go There" and Bruce Springsteen's "One Step Up"). "Young," the first single from the album, is No. 3 on Billboard's Country Singles chart.

The songs reflect how Mr. Chesney feels these days. He's still getting over the breakup with his fiancee two years ago.

Mr. Chesney had wanted to record Mr. Springsteen's sober "One Step Up" years ago but feared he wouldn't be taken seriously.

"I'm so glad I didn't do it on one of the earlier albums," he says, "because there's a lot of lessons in that, relationshipwise. And I've learned those lessons firsthand in my own life the past three years.

"I felt like I was finally mature enough to sell it, my own way."

Two years ago, the maturity of Mr. Chesney and friend Tim McGraw was questioned after a backstage escapade near Buffalo, N.Y. There was confusion over whether Mr. Chesney had permission to ride a police horse, and a scuffle ensued.

The result was a lot of snickering and criminal charges against both singers. Fearing that an out-of-court settlement would be seen as an admission of guilt, they went to trial.

"Tim and I obviously wish it never happened," says Mr. Chesney, who was cleared of a disorderly conduct charge. "We didn't set out to break the law, and the jury up there decided that we didn't break the law."

Mr. Chesney cautiously moved up to headlining status this year, after co-headlining with Mr. McGraw last year. He's waiting for his deeper new material on "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems" to get radio airplay before working much of it into his show.

"Sure I'd like some respect from the critics," he says. "I think we may get some of it with this album, but I don't know if they're ever going to love what I do."

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