At Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field this June, Kenny Chesney flew in a large group of VIP guests to visit with him before performing for some 55,000 fans. They weren’t music industry bigwigs.
They were school children and teachers from the U.S. Virgin Islands, where Hurricane Irma made landfall last year and caused massive destruction. And they also happened to be his neighbors on the island of St. John.
“I’ve spent the majority of my adult life walking those beaches and hanging out in those bars and writing songs,” Chesney, 50, recalled later in his manager’s office in Nashville, Tennessee. “All of a sudden, it was a place that was very beautiful and that was very broken.”
St. John was among several Caribbean islands hit last September by the most powerful hurricane to develop over the open Atlantic. Throughout the Caribbean, the Category 5 storm knocked out power and cell phone towers for weeks or months, damaged roads, airports and hospitals and smashed up boats, businesses and homes.
Chesney was not on the island, but he opened his home there to friends and neighbors so they could ride out the storm. They survived, but his home was destroyed.
“I could hear the anxiety and the stress on everyone,” Chesney said. “The people that actually rode the storm out in the bottom of my home, I was able to get them off the island a couple of weeks after the storm. And you know when they got to my home, they were wearing the same clothes they had on that morning (of the storm).”
Immediately after the storm hit, he wrote the title track of his new album, “Songs for the Saints,” out Friday.
“I was writing the songs as a lot of the destruction and devastation was happening,” Chesney said. “I’ve never made a record like that in the middle of such anxiety.”
Although born in landlocked East Tennessee, Chesney has become an islander at heart. On St. John, he made friends and enjoyed the peace and isolation away from the demands of his superstar life. There were years where he’d step off a tour bus and head straight for a boat.
“The people that I met there didn’t care what I did,” Chesney said. “They had no idea. It was great.”
He turned that island lifestyle into his brand and the loyal No Shoes Nation that pack out stadiums. The island had fed his human spirit and his creative side as a songwriter, but now he had his chance to give back.
Within days, Chesney set up a foundation called Love for Love City, also the title of the second song he wrote after the storm. He helped bring in medical supplies and equipment, had crews clear out debris and rescue pets and bought new musical instruments for the St. John School of the Arts.
“Not many people know what Kenny has done and is still doing for the rebuilding efforts in the Virgin Islands,” said his friend and country star Eric Church. “It’s a place that is a part of his DNA, of his story. It tells you the kind of person he is and how big his heart is to see him helping in this way.”
Chesney was also in the midst of working on a new record deal with Warner Music Nashville, making his move from Sony after more than two decades. He called up John Esposito, the chairman of Warner Music Nashville, and told him he was ready to work with Warner, but he had a caveat.
“He says, ‘The first record I’m doing is a charity record,'” Esposito said.
Esposito absolutely agreed that proceeds of the record should go to the foundation, but beyond that Esposito said the record is just a great album.
“I’ve actually listened to this album 250 times and not only am I never bored with it, I hear something else unveiled with every listen,” Esposito said.
The album has already produced Chesney’s 30th No. 1 single, “Get Along,” making him the artist with the most songs to top Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, surpassing Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson and George Strait.
On the title track, Chesney’s vocals take center stage at the beginning with an acoustic guitar and a single drum beat, as he sings that “God lifted these islands from the ocean.” On “Love for Love City,” Chesney adds delicate steel drums and Ziggy Marley to the loping, reggae-inspired song in which he promises to be a part of the island’s encore.
The songs aren’t sad odes to what was lost, but reflective of the grit and hope necessary to keep going. At the end of the album, Chesney covers a song called “Better Boat,” written by Travis Meadows and Liz Rose, which is a poignant description of the struggle of personal recovery.
Others like “Trying to Reason (With Hurricane Season),” a duet between Chesney and Jimmy Buffet, who wrote the song, are more lighthearted. Mac McAnally, an acclaimed guitarist and songwriter who worked on the record, said that Chesney kept the instrumentation to a minimum to keep the focus on the lyrics.
“That kind of framework lets you be a little more contemplative as you listen,” McAnally said. “A song that’s got some depth to it benefits from being listened to a little quieter.”
In February, Chesney visited students and their teachers at St. John School for the Arts after donating new instruments and he talked to them about life post-Irma.
“It was a really emotional day when we went there, just to see the look on their faces when you give them a guitar or a steel drum,” Chesney said. “You never know what one of those guitars will do. I know what one guitar did for me.”
There’s still a pressing need for help in the islands as hurricane season starts anew this year. Chesney, who says he is a firm believer in global warming, predicts that the catastrophic storms will continue to be a threat to the Caribbean as well as the United States. He’d like the foundation to help build up the infrastructure of the islands, possibly even opening a hospital on St. John and improving schools.
Chesney isn’t always comfortable talking about his philanthropy and he’s quick to point out that many people have been helping with hurricane recovery. But he does know how his music can affect people, which is why he considers this album among the best of his career.
“If you believe music heals and rebuilds the human spirit, this has the potential to be one of the most important albums I’ve made,” Chesney said.