Is there a male country star in the last 20 years bigger than Kenny Chesney? Since his arrival in 1994, the Tennessee native has won pert near every country honor (barring a Grammy), including four Entertainer of the Year awards from the Academy of Country Music. Fourteen of Chesney’s 17 albums have been certified gold. His latest, Hemingway’s Whiskey, is his sixth Billboard 200 chart-topper. All told, his albums have sold 30 million copies. Chesney owns a home in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but one suspects he could buy the whole chain.
In short, Kenny Chesney knows a little something about the “good life”—at least as he envisions it—a subject that frequently turns up on his songs. But while Hemingway’s Whiskey might feel like a mellow tonic to some, it also packs a bit of a bite. Or, as Chesney says in the title track’s opening line, it’s “warm and smooth and mean.”
“Small Y’all” condemns incivility between feuding parents as Chesney and guest George Jones describe an escalating argument heard by “two little kids just a few feet away.” “Where I Grew Up” argues that learning from mistakes, not the mere passage of time, is what makes a boy a man. Among other things, the song reflects on the consequences of underage drinking and driving. Chesney says he was “getting a head start on 21” by drinking beer out by the river when he “crossed that center line/I bet I rolled a dozen times.” A desperate prayer follows (“God, just get me out/ … Then I hit my knees beside what was left of my truck”).
Despite approving winks at alcohol elsewhere, the title track tells us, “There’s more to life than whiskey.” And “You and Tequila” offers a cautionary tale about a man who realizes his addiction to that drink and his parallel addiction to a dangerous woman might be his undoing. “‘Cause you and tequila make me crazy,” he observes. “Run like poison in my blood/One more night could kill me, baby.” The song references his attempt to kick both habits (“30 days and 30 nights/Been putting up a real good fight”) and recalls how awful his capitulation to those twin vices feels the next day (“The bitter taste the morning left/Swore I’d never go back to you”).
“Round and Round” explores reasons many folks never seem content with what they have. “Live a Little” recognizes that there’s more to life than the incessant, stressful demands of work. “Boys of Fall” trumpets teamwork and community in the context of football.
“Seven Days” fondly recalls a week-long love affair with a woman the singer seems to have just met (“By Thursday I knew everything about her”). The song implies that the brief romance included sex (“Wednesday morning snuck in through the window/We just laid there and listened to the waves come and go”). On “Somewhere With You,” Chesney confesses to a former lover that while he seems to be having “fun”—as in, getting drunk and climbing into someone else’s bed—he’d “much rather sleep somewhere with you.” Margaritas, daiquiris and other alcoholic beverages turn up several times elsewhere, as do singular uses of “d‑‑n,” “b‑‑ch” and one exclamation of God’s name.
“Round and Round” contrasts “a stoner on the sidewalk wishin’ he could just get straight for a day” with “a man in a suit and tie thinkin’ gettin’ high might be a better way.”
That song hints at one of Hemingway’s Whiskey’s biggest philosophical problems: its romanticized obsession with escapism. The song “Reality” tells us, “Sometimes life/Ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be/So let’s take a chance and live this fantasy/ … All we need is a sunny day and an old tailgaite/And we’ll escape.” Other modes of “escape” include bellying up to a “beach bar,” ridin’ in a “fast car” and sippin’ “moonshine in a Mason jar.” On “Live a Little,” Chesney’s antidote to workaholism involves meeting a girl at a bar and running off on an impromptu vacation with her. Meanwhile, “Coastal” talks about retirees trading cold winters for beaches, mixed drinks and days at the dog track.
Kenny Chesney says the title song set the tone for the whole album. He told country music site The Boot, “As soon as I heard it, I knew I had to cut it—and call the album that—because it says everything about the way you live your life, and what life can be if you refuse to buy into limits, which, as someone who’s read all his books, is everything Hemingway’s novels revolved around.”
Indeed, writer Ernest Hemingway traveled the globe and lived life on his terms, never pausing, always experiencing, always (perhaps) escaping—on safari, on the beach, through his writing, through his drinking. That wasn’t the end of his story, though.
Hemingway’s Whiskey has occasional moments of clarity about what matters most in life. More often, though, Chesney seems intent upon appropriating Hemingway-style escapism and superimposing it onto his own material—romanticizing that lifestyle in the process. But it’s worth remembering Hemingway committed suicide with a shotgun at the age of 61. So maybe swigging a sonic shot of his Whiskey, as Chesney serves it up here, isn’t really—like Hemingway’s storied-but-ultimately-hollow life—all that it’s cracked up to be.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.