Chris Willman
January 17, 2005 AT 05:00 AM EST

One of Kenny Chesney’s breakout singles as a country star was a decidedly non-pop-crossover hit called ”She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” These days, though, you’re more likely to get something along the lines of ”I Think My Schooner’s Sexy.”

”People think it’s odd that I grew up in the Smoky Mountains and have this love affair with the tropics,” says Chesney, who’s become so Island-crazed and sea-witched in the five years since ”Tractor” that he makes Jimmy Buffett look like a melanomaphobic landlubber. Last year’s 3.1 million-selling When the Sun Goes Down — 2004’s fourth-best-selling album — had as its hit title song a duet with Uncle Kracker about partying anywhere in the deep, deep, deep south. The album preceding that was a marimba-laden holiday collection, All I Want for Christmas Is a Real Good Tan. Now he’s gone seriously troppo: His new Be as You Are: Songs From an Old Blue Chair is so Caribbean-centric that it qualifies as a concept album, maybe the first completely tropics-themed country disc since Marty Robbins’ Hawaii’s Calling Me in 1963.

Country is supposed to be the most everyday, relatable genre of music, in which case you might wonder why landlocked heart-landers so clearly still identify with a star who spends as much as three months at a time decompressing on his boat, when on break from being the most driven hat act since Garth. But Chesney figures plenty of Southerners hear the sea’s siren song the way he did as a kid visiting Myrtle Beach. Anyway, ”I think they’re relating to a little bit of escapism,” he says. ”A lot of my audience is looking for an outlet, and maybe if they can’t go there, I can take ’em there. Even though with me it’s more than just a big party.”

Indeed, Be isn’t just the Parrothead bait you might expect; it’s mostly introspective and acoustic, marking the first time he’s written or co-written an entire CD. The Zen title is a tip-off that Chesney — who has already remade himself once, from down-home shlub into chiseled superstar — is under-going another reinvention, as sensitive singer-song-writer. ”When I first started spending time [in the Caribbean], about five years ago, I was in a very soul-searching period of my life during a breakup, right when all this [fame] stuff started happening,” he says. ”That area became a place for me to get grounded and heal, and I wanted to write songs that reflect that.” He formed a particular attachment to the ”old blue chair” of the album’s title, in which he had a quasi-religious epiphany about creating your own happiness as he watched the sun rise over the ocean after a gloomy New Year’s Eve binge.

But this collection of ”pictures of my most private places” may be a one-off. ”It’s not a regular Kenny Chesney product in any sense, because this is a side of me that’s more hushed and laid-back than what people are used to seeing,” he offers. ”This is not a bunch of lights and big video screen and loud sound system.” Last year’s tour was 2004’s second-best-attended (behind Prince); when he starts a new tour in March, he plans to perform just two songs from Be, since ”we’ve got a pretty rockin’ rock show out there right now.” Another rule-book-defying move: ”We’re not gonna release any of these songs to radio. We’re still out there promoting When the Sun Goes Down; we’re gonna have two more singles off that record. So in that sense, yes, this island record is a side project.” In knowing which persona provides his bread and butter, and making this new intimacy thing a sideline, Chesney may be proving he hasn’t gone completely crazy from the heat.

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