by Julian Spivey
Kenny Chesney released his 17th studio album Songs for the Saints on Friday, July 27 and it’s one of his best albums in some time. The album was inspired by the devastation Hurricane Irma wrought on Saint John, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands last year, where Chesney had one of his homes destroyed and saw the tragic affect on his friends and an island he adores.
The album continues Chesney’s favorite theme of beach and sea songs, but in a more introspective manner than we’ve been accustomed to lately from an artist whose beach bum stature has been more “Margaritaville” than “Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season,” the Jimmy Buffett tune he covers and duets on with Buffett on his latest. Chesney has always been better when he’s gotten more introspective and that’s the biggest reason Songs for the Saints is his best work in a while. But, being introspective and about the devastation from Hurricane Irma doesn’t mean the entire work is a downer. It’s a hopeful album about the rebuilding process with proceeds from album sales going to Hurricane Irma disaster relief funds.
But, my focus here isn’t so much a review of Chesney’s release, but a salute and a look into his selection of singer-songwriter songs over his last decade of releases. Its inspiration comes from his selection of songs by John Baumann and Travis Meadows on Songs for the Saints, which have been standouts in the early days of the release and are in line with a pattern we’ve seen from Chesney for a while, though he doesn’t seem to get enough credit for. You can say what you want about Chesney, who’s been one of the more controversial figures in country music going all the way back to his 1999 hit “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” and has followed him throughout the beach bum stage of his career with many accusing him of trying to be country music’s version of Buffett, but his selection of songs by artists like Guy Clark, Hayes Carll and others on his albums has done a lot to get better songwriting and terrific non-mainstream artists into the mainstream. It may be overstating the importance of this, as many music listeners may not go through track listings and liner notes to see who wrote which songs, but if Chesney’s inclusion of these singer-songwriters on his albums has led to even some listeners discovering Clark, Carll, Mac McAnally or others than that’s a win for good music.
Let’s start with Chesney’s Lucky Old Sun, from 2008, which included the terrific duet “Down the Road,” performed with and written by McAnally. The song is a fantastic portrait of young love told from the perspective of the young man falling in love with girl down the road and then turns to the perspective of the father of the daughter, who’s the target of the boy’s affection. McAnally had released the song as a single in 1990 and it did absolutely nothing on the country charts, so it was great of Chesney to give it new life and turn it into a No. 1 hit. It’s one of Chesney’s best releases of his career.
Chesney’s 2010 release Hemingway’s Whiskey took its name from a song co-written by Guy Clark, Ray Stephenson and Joe Leathers, which appeared on Clark’s album Somedays the Song Writes You from the year before. People should’ve already known the name Guy Clark, the writer of some of country music’s all-time greatest songs like “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train” and “L.A. Freeway,” but I don’t know how the fanbases of Chesney and Clark overlap. If Chesney covering “Hemingway’s Whiskey” led people to discovering one of the greatest singer-songwriters to ever walk this earth than they should truly feel indebted to him.
“Hemingway’s Whiskey” wasn’t a single, songs like it rarely if ever are, especially in the world of country music over the last decade, but another release from Chesney’s 2010 album “You and Tequila” would become a huge radio hit and a nominee for CMA Song of the Year. That song was written by veteran country music songwriter Matraca Berg, one of the genre’s best of the last 30 years, along with Deana Carter, who reached country music superstardom in 1996 with “Strawberry Wine.” Carter had previously released the song on her 2003 release I’m Just a Girl.” Berg, who has never had any hits as an artist (though her albums are critically-acclaimed) but has written or co-written plenty of them like “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl)” for Trisha Yearwood and “Wild Angels” for Martina McBride, as well as “Strawberry Wine,” released her version on her 2011 album The Dreaming Fields after Chesney had made it a hit.
Chesney’s 2012 album Welcome to the Fishbowl included “El Cerrito Place,” a song that I had loved for nearly a decade ever since I caught the video for Texas singer-songwriter Charlie Robison’s version on CMT in 2004. I’d always assumed Robison being a songwriter had written it but learned rather recently that it was penned by Keith Gattis, who was at one point Dwight Yoakam’s band leader and had songs on albums by George Strait and recently Wade Bowen. Only an artist like Chesney – a massive superstar within the country music genre – could get such a cinematic story song like “El Cerrito Place” into the top 10 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart.
I didn’t care too much overall for Chesney’s 2014 album The Big Revival, but my favorite track on the album was “Don’t It,” which ranked as my 28th favorite country song of 2014. That song was co-written by Brent Cobb, who has since become a Grammy nominee and one of the incredibly talented young guns of the non-mainstream country music scene, with Chase McGill. Having a track on a big Chesney album (along with his relation to super producer Dave Cobb) likely went a long way toward Cobb having his own burgeoning singer-songwriter career.
Chesney’s Cosmic Hallelujah from 2016 was an album I thought even less of than The Big Revival two years before. It earned Chesney a nomination for Best Country Album from the Grammy Awards, but it could easily be the worst of his career. But, there at track number nine was “Jesus and Elvis,” a song about an older woman who owns a bar prominently featuring photos of Jesus Christ and Elvis Presley, two men her son who died in the Vietnam War dearly loved. “Jesus and Elvis” was written by the terrific trio of Hayes Carll, Allison Moorer and Matraca Berg. Even on an album filled with mostly tripe, Chesney manages to include a great selection featuring some of the best singer-songwriters of the time.
That brings us to the latest release of Songs for the Saints, which thankfully breaks a streak of bad Chesney albums. The track that has been my favorite thus far and is seemingly one of the standouts from reviews I’ve read is John Baumann’s “Gulf Moon.” Baumann is a songwriter I discovered last year, and he immediately struck a chord with me with “Old Stone Church” ranking No. 18 on my 100 Best Americana and Country Songs of 2017 list and “Pontiacs” being No. 53 on the list. He’s also collaborated with Mike and the Moonpies on one of my favorites of this year, “Country Music’s Dead.” “Gulf Moon” appeared on Baumann’s 2014 release High Plains Alchemy and hopefully that performance and the rest of his work will be found by a larger audience now.
Songs for the Saints also features the Travis Meadows and Liz Rose penned “Better Boat.” Both Meadows and Rose have been touted as two of the genre’s best current songwriters. Country fans may know Meadows as a co-writer on Eric Church’s fantastic story song “Knives of New Orleans” from Church’s career best Mr. Misunderstood album in 2015 and Rose has been Taylor Swift’s most effective co-writer throughout her career.
Like I said, you can say what you will about Kenny Chesney. He’s released some of my favorite country music songs of the last quarter-century like 2005’s “Anything but Mine” (written by Scooter Carusoe) and 2008’s “Better as a Memory” (written by Carusoe and Lady Goodman) and he’s released songs I’d like to take a baseball bat to the radio when I hear – a lot of his fun-loving, beach bum stuff. But, no matter what you think of him as a superstar artist it’s a fact that he’s done a great service to some truly fantastic singer-songwriters by including their work on his mega-releases over the years. I’m sure they’re incredibly grateful for him not only for the royalties, but also the attention it’s brought to all their careers.