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Editor's Note: For superstar Kenny Chesney, the glorious present is filled with packed arenas, industry awards and multiplatinum records like his latest, When the Sun Goes Down. But what about his past? What about the tantalizing glimpse of his life in songs like his recent smash "I Go Back," in which he reminisces about high-school football, young love and the death of a childhood friend?
We asked Kenny to go back and tell us, in his own words, how the experiences of his youth and the songs he loved back then combined to shape him into the man he is today. Here's what he wrote exclusively for Country Weekly.
Music and memories
There are moments in life that are made more vivid by the songs that are playing when they're happening. You may not realize it at the time, but the memory is burned onto that song forever. It doesn't matter where you are or what you're doing - could be a first date, a first kiss, watching the sun come up with your friends at a beach somewhere - that song becomes a trigger.
It plays, and you're transported.
Everybody experiences this, even if they don't realize it. But when songwriting's your life, and you're looking to expose the truths that everybody lives, these realizations have a way of coming to the surface.
Hell, looking back, I realize I've lived my entire life to the songs I was listening to. And if you love music, you want people to realize just how important these songs are beyond the moment.
For me, music has shaped my life. It's been my true friend, my constant companion and my bridge to the people I cared about. No matter what was going on, there was a song to help me understand it, to survive it. As I've explored what I can do as singer and songwriter, it occurred to me that this is something each of us has in common.
We all lead lives filled with friends, good times, broken hearts and anxious moments. That's what inspired me to write "I Go Back." Because it was a truth I wanted to share - and whether it's my songs or someone else's, we're all the richer because we have these musical moments that melt time and take us back.
"Old Flame" by Alabama
Every time I hear "Old Flame," it takes me to this field where my parents took me to an all-day concert. Alabama headlined it, and at the time "Old Flame" was my favorite song. I was maybe 7 or 8, and I met this girl named Penny at the concert. She and I sat on the hood of this truck and listened to Alabama play. She was short, cute, blond - and to this day, when I hear Randy Owen sing that song, I'm right back there on that hood, holding Miss Penny's hand.
"Free Bird" by Lynyrd Skynyrd
Once in high school, I wrote out the lyrics to "Free Bird" and taped it up in this girl's locker. That was how I broke up with her. We were in eighth grade, when you're not the best at the interpersonal stuff. To this day, when I hear "Free Bird," it takes me back to standing in that hallway.
"You Are My Sunshine" by Jimmie Davis
My grandfather used to set me up on his lap when I was a kid and sing "You Are My Sunshine." He'd be wearing his clothes from work, 'cause me and my mom lived with him while my stepfather was in Vietnam, and he'd come in all tired, but he'd light up when he saw us. We'd sit there and he'd sing that old song that everybody knows as if it was invented just for us.
Oh yeah, life goes on
"Jack & Diane" by John Mellencamp
Whenever I hear it, I'm immediately transported. It's summer league baseball practice and we were all hanging around this guy's dad's truck. He said, "Isn't this song cool?" I'd not even thought about it. But when he said it, I listened, and it was the coolest thing. We all recognized it, there that summer before freshman year - a bunch of guys, standing around talking about nothing, learning how simple and complicated life is, all from a song. That record just cut through everything. I think it was the first time I heard a song where the characters were living the same kind of life I was. Jack or Diane could've been people me and my friends were friends with, so it was like hearing a song about people you know.
Friday night football
"Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen
Songs and sports, they go together. "Born to Run" will always be Friday night, right before we took the field. We'd have our uniforms on and the coach would have just done his speech, then they'd pump that song on the speakers real loud before we'd run out of the locker room. They'd crank it up to really get us charged up to take that field as hard as we could. Bruce Springsteen will always bring the Friday night lights alive for me.
"Swingin'" by John Anderson
I was a freshman in high school. And we'd all be singing "Swingin', " walkin' by the lockers when we'd put our books away. Between the twang - especially kids like us, exaggerating John Anderson's delivery - and the echo where the lockers were, you could hear coun-treeeee all over the school. We were young and loud, and we were proud of who we were and where we came from. That song really takes me back there.
Dealing with death
"Only the Good Die Young" by Billy Joel
Even when life isn't so kind, the music will get you through. His name was Lance Wilson, and he was killed in a car wreck in May of '87 in Jacksonville, Florida. He and his brother lived across the street from me. They were the guys I'd play pick-up games of baseball, football and basketball with. We learned about life. We were just inseparable. And then he got killed at 17. I was numb to it for a long time. But I was playing a little bar during college and I heard "Only the Good Die Young" on the radio. That's when it finally hit me, how final it all was - and I never shook that feeling. I actually wrote a song called "Forever 17" about him, because he will never get any older. But it took Billy Joel to help me come to terms with my friend being gone.
Carefree in college
"Rock 'N Me" by the Steve Miller Band
This song's all about college. It takes me to a very small, smoky college bar that served nothing but barbeque sandwiches and cold draft beer. It's called Quarterback's Bar-B-Que on the campus of East Tennessee State University - and it's where I used to play the requests, flirt with the girls and laugh with my buddies. Life was sweet, indeed.
Sunday sermons and Grandma's cooking
Whenever I hear "Amazing Grace" or any of the songs they used to play in church on Sunday, I find myself thinking about fried chicken. I mean, the preacher was always hell-fire and brimstone and you'd walk out half-scared, but it was OK 'cause you knew Grandma had made a mess of chicken, biscuits and banana pudding. There was nothing better than that in the whole world. It let you know there was love and a God and to this day, it's all tied up in those songs from Sunday morning service.
Conway shows the way
"Hello Darlin'" by Conway Twitty
"Hello Darlin'" shows me the power of a song to stop people in their tracks. It was the moment when I realized that this is absolutely what I wanted to do. It was Thanksgiving night and I'd gone with my family to see his show. To see Conway walk out in blue polyester pants and a hot pink shirt with no music. He walked up to the mic, leaned over and went, "Hello darlin'" ... and just killed 'em.
"White Lightning" by George Jones
When I first started out, I somehow got the opening slot of the George Jones and Tammy Wynette reunion tour, which was enough right there - you know, for a kid from Luttrell, Tennessee. But that first night, George let me get up and sing with him. We sang "White Lightning." And when we were done, he says to me, "You going home?" We were in Beaumont, Texas, and I said, "Yes, sir, I am." "Then you're flying back with me." So there I was, with an eyeful of stars - and George Jones is telling me I can fly home with him on his private plane! I never got over it. I may be the only person in the world who hears "White Lightning" and thinks about the way the world looks from somewhere up above.
- Kenny Chesney