Album Review — Kenny Chesney’s ‘Songs For The Saints’

[Editors note: This post originally appeared in Aug. 2018 on Fusion Country and is appearing as it was originally published. It’s being reposted here for reader visibility. It’s also one of the best releases of Kenny Chesney’s career, so it’s an album I definitely recommend.]

I have to be honest. I did not see myself chomping at the bit to discuss new Kenny Chesney music in the year 2018. Take it back two years ago when Chesney released Cosmic Hallelujah, an album I absolutely ripped to shreds for its lazy and uninspiring content. I remember declaring that Chesney would have to make one hell of a turn around to get me to ever take him seriously again. And well here we are, as Chesney delivers one of the most surprising albums I’ve heard this year in Songs For The Saints.

It’s important to know this album is inspired by and revolves around the Virgin Islands and the destruction caused by Hurricane Irma on the islands in 2017. Chesney has a home on one of the islands, Saint John, and felt compelled to give back to a place that’s meant a lot to him. Not only is this album about the islands, but all proceeds for the albums are being donated to relief funds that help rebuild the islands. It’s an incredibly classy and heartfelt move by Chesney and his label. While Chesney’s legacy is defined by beach and island songs at this point, I don’t think I’ve heard this much passion and drive from Chesney in his music in years. His beach music is usually on the casual/party side, but this is the most mature take he’s ever done on this sub-genre of country music.

The album’s opening and title track is a direct ode to the islands. The saints in this song refer to each island, as they were each named after a saint. It’s the perfect opener, as it establishes what this album is all about and that’s the people of the islands, who clearly mean a lot to Chesney. “Every Heart” is a soft and sentimental song about the general struggle everyone shares in life. It’s a little sweet, but a nice message. I really enjoy the little touches in instrumentation in this song, particularly the bouzouki and organ. The lead single of the album, “Get Along”, is my least favorite track of the album. While I can appreciate the message of peace and happiness, I still don’t like the “buy a boat” line in the song. It’s just so consumeristic, although it doesn’t sound as bad I guess in the context of the rest of the album and can be interpreted as more of a throwaway line rather than some subliminal message.

Chesney has recorded several pirate-themed songs over the years, but “Pirate Song” is his best take on the theme yet. I particularly enjoy the details Chesney goes into as he fantasizes the life of a pirate sailing the open seas. By setting the scene well, you as the listener can really picture the life being painted in the song. This is what makes atmospheric songs work. Chesney collaborates with Ziggy Marley on the reggae-influenced “Love for Love City.” Love City is the nickname for St. John, Chesney’s home in the islands. Chesney and Marley sing of the people coming together in good times and need, highlighting the tight-knit nature of the communities on the islands no matter the situation. It’s a peaceful and easy-going song that makes you feel good in many ways.

I thought Carrie Underwood and Ludacris would be the most unlikely collaboration of the year, but Kenny Chesney and Lord Huron top it. Chesney covers the indie rock group’s “Ends of the Earth” and it’s one of my favorite tracks on the album. The song is about the endless thirst for adventure and exploring the unknown. The soaring, spacey production of the song is immediately infectious and memorable. This has my vote for a future single. “Gulf Moon” is another standout on Songs For The Saints. The John Baumann-penned song gives you a look inside a little town along the gulf coast and the lives of the people who inhabit it. The storytelling in this song is absolutely great, as the little details of the surroundings and the people put you right there in the town with them. It’s great to see Chesney give an artist like Baumann a spot on this album and for Chesney it’s a legacy-type song.

“Island Rain” is about the relief and therapeutic attribute of an island rain. It goes on to relate it to general relief from an uncomfortable situation in everyday life. It’s yet another song on this album that does such a great job of relating to the everyday person. This track is a breath of fresh air to a person having a rough day. The touches of steel drum and organ throughout add even more to this peaceful nature. Beach country’s most recognizable face Jimmy Buffett joins Chesney on a cover of Buffett’s “Trying to Reason With Hurricane Season.” The song is about the stress and anxieties of anticipating the impending hurricane season, a regular preparation for those who live in the islands and coasts. While they tire of this yearly happening, they continue to live and deal with hurricane season. It’s another good cover pick from Chesney, as it fits the theme of the album well.

The sing-a-long “We’re All Here” is about finding escapism from the troubles of everyday life, something Chesney has perfected many times in songs and does so again here. These are the kinds of simple songs that may not offer much variety, but it’s a comforting familiarity to many. The album’s closing track “Better Boat” is perhaps one of the best songs Chesney has ever recorded. Written by Travis Meadows and Liz Rose, the song is about getting better at coping with the everyday struggles and stress of life. This is likened to learning how to build a better boat, which is such an apt and fitting metaphor. Chesney is joined on the song by a wonderful vocalist in Mindy Smith, who adds another layer with her harmonies with Chesney. There’s so much heart and truth in the lyrics that you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t connect with this song. It’s a small reminder of what country music is all about.

Songs For The Saints will go down as one of Kenny Chesney’s best albums at the end of his career. On this album he casts away the lazy tropes and paper-thin depth that has plagued his career at times and delivers an album full of songs about love, happiness and finding peace after destruction. This album’s biggest strength is its songwriting, as it’s rooted in a place of reality of real people and places, highlighting the ups and downs of life. The production of this album is pretty good too, as it’s varied and does a wonderful job of weaving reggae, island and pop influences throughout. Kenny Chesney should be quite proud of this album, as he delivers a real gem in Songs For The Saints.

Grade: 8/10

The Past Pulse Of Mainstream Country Music [October 2004]

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This is the past pulse of mainstream country music. Each week, I take a look at the Billboard Country Airplay Chart (or, “Hot Country Songs” as it used to be called) from years ago and grade the top 30 songs. Each week will be a different year. The grading format I use each week is every song will receive one of the following scores: +5, +4, +3, +2, +1, 0, -1, -2, -3, -4, -5. These will then be tallied up for an overall score, or pulse of the past top thirty country songs, with the highest possible score being a +150 and the lowest possible score being a -150. The grade I would give it determines its Pulse score. The grading key: 10 [+5], 9 [+4], 8 [+3], 7 [+2], 6 [+1], 5 [0], 4 [-1], 3 [-2], 2 [-3], 1 [-4], 0 [-5].

The goal of this exercise is to evaluate the past state of mainstream country music and determine if it was better or worse compared to now. To see the full list of the top 30 country airplay songs for this week, click here. This week I will take a look at the top 30 songs of the Billboard Hot Country Songs from October 30th, 2004 (I asked last week if there were any charts you wanted to see, so this week is dedicated to reader and commenter Scotty J. Thanks for reading Scotty!)

  1. George Strait – “I Hate Everything” +4 (Yep, I’ve been there…)
  2. Sara Evans – “Suds In The Bucket” +3
  3. Phil Vassar – “In A Real Love” +2
  4. Brooks & Dunn – “That’s What It’s All About” +2 (Was sad to find out this wasn’t about the hokey-pokey…)
  5. Toby Keith – “Stays In Mexico” -2 (what the hell?)
  6. Gary Allan – “Nothing On But The Radio” 0
  7. Keith Urban – “Days Go By” +2
  8. Lonestar – “Mr. Mom” -2
  9. Kenny Chesney – “The Woman With You” +3
  10. Joe Nichols – “If Nobody Believed In You” +4 [Best Song] (Remember when Joe actually cared about the music?)
  11. Rascal Flatts – “Feels Like Today” +1
  12. Gretchen Wilson – “Here For The Party” -2
  13. Dierks Bentley – “How Am I Doin'” +3 (a little arrogant in its delivery but eh, it works for me)
  14. Tim McGraw – “Back When” +3
  15. Trace Adkins – “Rough & Ready” -1 (Holding back from any more demerits since I feel like this is intended to be viewed as stupid. I don’t really know about the grade for this…)
  16. Blake Shelton – “Some Beach” +3
  17. Shania Twain & Mark Currington – “Party For Two” -3 [Worst Song] (Doesn’t matter who she does this song with. It still isn’t good)
  18. Darryl Worley – “Awful, Beautiful Life” +3
  19. SheDaisy – “Come Home Soon” +3 (A little boring but still pretty good)
  20. Lee Ann Rimes – “Nothin’ ‘Bout Love Makes Sense” +2 (By no means a LAR fan, but this isn’t bad)
  21. Alan Jackson – “Too Much Of A Good Thing” +1 (Just average really)
  22. Montgomery Gentry – “You Do Your Thing” -1 (I actually really like the darker atmosphere of this one. The lyrics and melody not so much.)
  23. Reba McEntire – “Het Gets That From Me” +3
  24. Jimmy Buffett & Martina McBride – “Trip Around The Sun” +2
  25. Brad Paisley – “Mud On The Tires” +2 (Back before bro-country made songs like this damn near insufferable)
  26. Travis Tritt & John Mellencamp – “What Say You” +2
  27. Big & Rich – “Holy Water” +4
  28. Josh Gracin – “Nothin’ To Lose” +2
  29. Alan Jackson – “Monday Morning Church” +4
  30. Pat Green – “Don’t Break My Heart Again” +2 (I’d probably like this more if his voice didn’t annoy me somewhat)

The Past Pulse Of Mainstream Country Music: +49

Again, another good chart this week. I have to tell you, I had a tough time awarding the best song this week. Joe, Big & Rich, and Alan all were extremely close. I was familiar with a lot of the songs on this chart so it was even a trip down memory lane for me!

As always, if you have any questions as to why I gave a song a certain grade feel free to ask me. Also, let me know what you guys think of the chart in the comments!

The Past Pulse Of Mainstream Country Music [July 2011]

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This is the past pulse of mainstream country music. Each week, I take a look at the Billboard Country Airplay Chart (or, “Hot Country Songs” as it used to be called) from years ago and grade the top 30 songs. Each week will be a different year. The grading format I use each week is every song will receive one of the following scores: +5, +4, +3, +2, +1, 0, -1, -2, -3, -4, -5. These will then be tallied up for an overall score, or pulse of the past top thirty country songs, with the highest possible score being a +150 and the lowest possible score being a -150. The grade I would give it determines its Pulse score. The grading key: 10 [+5], 9 [+4], 8 [+3], 7 [+2], 6 [+1], 5 [0], 4 [-1], 3 [-2], 2 [-3], 1 [-4], 0 [-5].

The goal of this exercise is to evaluate the past state of mainstream country music and determine if it was better or worse compared to now. To see the full list of the top 30 country airplay songs for this week, click here. This week I will take a look at the top 30 songs of the Billboard Hot Country Songs from July 18th, 2011.

  1. Jason Aldean – “Dirt Road Anthem” -5 [Worst Song]
  2. Chris Young – “Tomorrow” +2
  3. Blake Shelton – “Honey Bee” 0
  4. Zac Brown Band & Jimmy Buffett – “Knee Deep” +1
  5. Justin Moore – “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away” +3
  6. Lady Antebellum – “Just A Kiss” -1
  7. Dierks Bentley – “Am I The Only One” -1
  8. Luke Bryan – “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” -5
  9. Brad Paisley & Carrie Underwood – “Remind Me” -1
  10. Kenny Chesney & Grace Potter – “You & Tequila” +4
  11. Jake Owen – “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” +1 (I’ll explain why later on)
  12. Trace Adkins – “Just Fishin'” +2
  13. Eric Church – “Homeboy” +3
  14. George Strait – “Here For A Good Time” +2
  15. Billy Currington – “Love Done Gone” +2
  16. Toby Keith – “Made In America” 0
  17. Rodney Atkins – “Take A Back Road” -1
  18. Scotty McCreery – “I Love You This Big” -2
  19. Eli Young Band – “Crazy Girl” -1
  20. Keith Urban – “Long Hot Summer” -1 (I actually think this is a good pop song. But if we’re going by country standards…)
  21. Thompson Square – “I Got You” 0
  22. Brantley Gilbert – “Country Must Be Country Wide” -2
  23. Jerrod Niemann – “One More Drinkin’ Song” 0
  24. Steve Holy – “Love Don’t Run” 0
  25. Darius Rucker – “I Got Nothin'” +2
  26. Ronnie Dunn – “Cost Of Livin'” +5 [Best Song]
  27. Frankie Ballard – “A Buncha Girls” -2
  28. David Nail – “Let It Rain” +2
  29. Craig Campbell – “Fish” -3 (Yes Craig, we get it…)
  30. Joe Nichols – “Take It Off” -2

The Past Pulse Of Mainstream Country Music: +2

Even with two outright atrocious songs we managed to net a positive score! Out of 150, a positive two isn’t really that impressive but hey, it’s better than the charts in 2016.

As for our best songs, Ronnie Dunn’s “Cost Of Livin'” takes it running away with what I consider to be one of the best songs mainstream or otherwise of the past couple years. Even though radio was a little different back then, I’m shocked a song like this cracked the top twenty. Today I doubt it would chart. And while Kenny Chesney has been the butt of many jokes throughout the years, I’ve always liked the guy, and “You and Tequila” may be his best song ever. Other than that, there were a couple other good ones like “Homeboy” (although, I’m curious to hear what you guys think of this one), and “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away”.

Now, you might be wondering why I gave Jake Owen a positive score. If there has ever been anyone who could pull off a “bro” sound and actually make it somewhat enjoyable, I think it’s Jake Owen. He’s just got a natural charisma that often at least adds some life to his songs. I don’t think “Barefoot…” is a great song, but I never quite understand the hate for it.

As for the bad songs, they’re pretty easy to spot. Jason Aldean takes the “worst song” award easily with the horrendous country-rap song that was “Dirt Road Anthem.” “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” was ironically the first time we had to really come down hard on Luke Bryan for cutting a bad song. Other than that, Craig Campbell’s “Fish” always annoyed the heck out of me, and there are some other stinkers here too. Overall though, not a horrendous chart.

As always, if you have any questions as to why I gave a song a certain grade feel free to ask me. Also, let me know what you guys think of the chart in the comments!

Review – Kenny Chesney’s “Noise”

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When you see the title of a song is “Noise,” there’s one thing that immediately comes to mind: if this is bad, at least its titled properly. In fact if I saw this was a Sam Hunt song, I would think, “Finally, he’s appropriately labeled his music.” But instead it’s Kenny Chesney and you unenthusiastically hit play. You won’t find a better definition of a mediocre to middle of the road artist than Chesney. After a decade or so of ripping off Jimmy Buffett, Chesney said he was getting more serious with his last album in 2014, The Big Revival. And….it was just the same old stuff from Chesney. Of course that didn’t prevent everyone from tooting its lead single “American Kids” as some deep and thoughtful commentary on the everyday person. I lost track of how many Song of the Year award nominations it netted. I can’t believe how much credit Chesney gets from fans and awards shows and how they blow his importance out of proportion. It isn’t too tough to make breezy, radio-friendly music. I think though the main reason he gets a pass from everybody is because he never makes outright terrible music, which has always been the secret allure that makes people like his music (along with Chesney being a pretty nice guy himself). He’s safe, clean and just enough fun for the average, casual listener. None of what I said above changes with his new single “Noise.”

Upon first listen you think this song is kind of good. Then you listen to it more and you realize this is “American Kids” 2.0. Once again Chesney has crafted the absolute perfect song to get people to fall over heels about. When they finished recording “Noise” (written by Ross Copperman, Shane McAnally and Jon Nite), I can imagine the dollar signs appeared in Chesney and his label’s eyes because this has hit written all over it. The song is about how in the world today we’re surrounded by so much noise from the media, to people actually shouting at each other to social media. Yet no mention of country radio? I feel like they contribute a lot of noise… Anyway the message of the song is people are so enamored by these distractions that they can’t focus on what really matters in life. This message is nice enough, but the song really doesn’t expand upon this. It explores the topic in a shallow manner, when you could delve into this a lot more and create an interesting song. It’s perfect timing too with the presidential coverage at full steam, something Chesney admitted was the reason he wanted to release this song now. It’s a shrewd move on his part.

“Noise” isn’t a bad song at all, but I certainly wouldn’t call it good either. Like most Kenny Chesney songs, it had a chance to be good and really explore an interesting topic. Instead it settles for good enough and I’m just left wanting more from Chesney again. As I said above, a lot of people are going to love this song and I’m going to catch flack for not giving it a lot of praise. Sorry I see Kenny Chesney’s music for what it is and why it’s made. If you enjoy Chesney’s music good for you. I can enjoy it too when I’m sitting on a warm, sunny beach and I’ve had a few to drink (you can say this about most music). When I’m sober though all I hear is another just above average song that I’ll easily forget about. “Noise” makes for perfect background noise when you’re sitting in your car in traffic bored.

Grade: 6/10

Album Review – Toby Keith’s ’35 MPH Town’

To say Toby Keith has had a long-standing career in country music would be an understatement. He’s consistently released albums pretty much every year since his self titled debut in 1993. (Fun Fact: 1995, 1998, 2000, 2004, and 2014  are the only years he hasn’t released an album of new material). Even with all the recent releases, Toby Keith still hasn’t had a top-ten single since 2011’s Clancy’s Tavern. Meanwhile Keith doesn’t seem to be too worried, as he’s devoted to writing his own songs and recording music he wants to make. There’s been a natural change within Keith’s song subjects as the years have gone by, and a large number of drinking songs in recent years have deterred some. But with his 18th studio effort, 35 MPH Town, Toby Keith seems to step away a bit from the drinking songs and bring a nice variety of music to his fans.

The album kicks off with the lead single, “Drunk Americans”, a song I heavily criticized in the original single review. It’s a song that I felt tried too hard to be too inclusive with a lazy sounding production. There seemed to be a lack of effort within all areas of the song. “Drunk Americans” is the only song on 35 MPH Town in which Keith did not have a hand in writing. “Good Gets Here” follows and is a typical Toby Keith country rocker. Fast-paced guitar licks accompanied by horns creates a melody that sounds familiar to past Keith hits. The song depicts a self-aware man who knows he’s not quite a catch, but there’s a lady in the bar who finds an interest in him. He says “I’m good for a laugh, good for a beer. Baby, I’m good ’til good gets here.” There’s not much to praise, nor complain about with “Good Gets Here.”

The album’s title track and second single is next. Our review of the song praised Keith for telling a story that’s more age appropriate as opposed to some of his previous singles. While I applaud that sentiment and agree with some of the cultural critiques in the song, I think the song gets a little too “get-off-my-lawn” like with Keith’s critical delivery. “Rum is the Reason” is an island inspired country song with steel drums present throughout, more reminiscent of Jimmy Buffett than many other island inspired country songs from Keith’s counterparts. The song details how leaders of the past drank and couldn’t hold power for too long due to the alcohol. This theory is punctuated with the notion that “rum is the reason pirates never ruled the world.” 

“What She Left Behind” is a mid-tempo break up song. Keith describes how the relationship suddenly fell apart, implying that she left as quickly as she could bringing with her only a handful of essentials. But what she left behind from her ring to perfume and old clothes haunt Keith’s mind with painful reminders of what used to be. “What She Left Behind” is one of the stronger tracks on the album, a fair modern country production with good lyrics. “10 Foot Pole” documents another relationship ending, but the resulting feelings are much more sour than sad. Another upbeat country rocker where Keith describes their relationship as fast-moving and wild as Bonnie and Clyde. But after the relationship fell apart, neither of them seem to care where or how the other is doing. Toby Keith continues with heartbreak in “Haggard, Hank & Her.” This slow tempo country ballad is better than the title suggests. The steel guitar is fully present on this traditional country heart-break song: Keith sings of drinking away his sorrows in the bar and how the painful memories combined with old Haggard and Hank songs bring out all his emotions.

I mentioned how “Rum is the Reason” is reminiscent of Jimmy Buffett. Well Toby Keith collaborates with Buffet on “Sailboat for Sale.” This acoustic, breezy song finds both men telling a story of how they got drunk with a sleazy man and ended up trading their fishing boat for a sailboat. The men load the sailboat onto a creek, but with no wind to move them, they just drink in regret of the trade they made. Toby Keith sings another song about meeting women in bars with “Every Time I Drink I Fall in Love.” This upbeat country song finds Keith going home with a woman, but not before warning her that his mouth runs amuck while he’s drunk and will leave in the morning. It’s a song self-aware of its immature recklessness. 35 MPH Town ends with “Beautiful Stranger.” This sentimental love song finds a couple preparing for a night a romance. The song suggests this couple have been together for a while and that it’s been too long since they’ve shared a passionate night. It’s a slow-tempo ballad with an acoustic guitar and violins chiming in on the production. It’s a nice song that feels age appropriate for an older country singer like Toby Keith. “Beautiful Stranger” is set to be Keith’s third single off the album.

35 MPH Town is an album that finds Toby Keith striking a good balance of appealing to modern country fans and continuing to build on what’s made him a successful country singer. Keith is at a point in his career where he can maintain his music and career without needing to sellout. There’s a good mix and combination of country music and its sub genres, and none of the songs, save for the opening track, sound out of place. 35 MPH Town is a good example of an aging country star still moving forward with an album rather than backtracking or going a different direction for extra attention. It may not be the best country album, but you have to give Toby Keith credit for delivering a good variety of songs and styles that fit into his musical niche.

Grade: 6/10