INTERVIEWED AT STUDIO BERRY HILL IN NASHVILLE, APRIL 23, 2012
It’s late morning inside a Nashville studio and two of country’s biggest superstars are putting on an enthusiastic display of boys-will-be-boys antics. As the camera flashes, Tim McGraw grins wickedly before pinching Kenny Chesney‘s chest. Kenny counters with a punch to his buddy’s gut, and the blow is quickly returned with greater force. “Ugh!” Kenny grunts. They both laugh and begin trading lines from an old Hank Jr. tune: “It takes a whole lotta liquor to like her …” Tim belts out, and Kenny chimes in, “that’s why I drink all the time.” Suddenly the fortysomething stars (Tim’s 45, Kenny, 44) don’t seem so far removed from the rowdy young singers who met in Nashville way back in 1991.
A decade after they last toured together, the two are combining their star power for this summer’s co-headlining 22-city Brothers of the Sun stadium tour after scoring a hit with their duet “Feel Like a Rock Star” off Kenny’s new CD Welcome to the Fishbowl (out June 19). As they geared up for rehearsals, the longtime pals sat down with PEOPLE COUNTRY for a little trash talk and a conversation about their 21 years of friendship and putting on the season’s hottest show.
What will it be like to go on the road together again?
KENNY CHESNEY As good of friends as we are, we’ve been on different paths for several years. To be able to spend the whole summer together and reconnect is awesome. One of the reasons there’s so much chemistry onstage is that Tim and I both grew up the same way; we both have a lot of the same heroes-George Strait, Bruce Springsteen, Keith Whitley-and we’re both competitive.
TIM McGRAW That’s a good thing. It makes us elevate our game.
KC And we are competitive, whether it’s playing basketball by the buses or whatever.
How heated can it get?
TM I’m pretty relaxed, ’cause I always win! So I don’t get very heated, to tell you the truth.
KC [Laughing] Uh oh! [Singing a DJ Khaled rap loudly to Tim] “All I do is win, win!”
How did you two meet?
TM Tracy Lawrence and Kenny and I were running around town, playing clubs, when we crossed paths.
KC Tim and I met at Mack’s Cafe, a meat-and-three. I ate there every day.
TM Look at some of those old pictures and you can tell you did! [Laughter] I remember Kenny was a songwriter. That was his real focus when he came to town. I was writing songs but never considered myself a songwriter. When I heard his stuff, I was blown away.
Were you competitive back then?
KC Not really. Tim already had a record deal, and I was just trying to survive.
TM I had a record deal that wasn’t doing anything. Tracy [Lawrence] had success before either of us, and we both watched him take off.
KC To me, Tim had made it. But I remember him telling me when “Indian Outlaw” hit, “If this song doesn’t hit, I might be in trouble. I might be going back to Louisiana!” Watching Tim’s success gave me something to shoot for as an artist.
Why did you connect as friends?
KC I know his mother and met his grandmother when we were on the road together. Tim’s family and mine are almost identical. We didn’t have a lot growing up, but we didn’t know it.
TM Our mothers played a big role in both of our lives.
KC No doubt about it.
TM In inspiring us and pushing us and believing in us. Our mothers are kindred spirits, energetic, fun …
KC Little! My mom’s 4’11”.
TM And mine’s 5’1″.
KC To tell you how short my family is, I’m the tallest in my family!
What kinds of things have you enjoyed doing together?
TM Being arrested! [Laughter] We’ll try not to do that again.
Why was it good to have a friend on a parallel path to fame?
TM I’ve had instances in life where I wasn’t quite on track. And the way I might have treated Kenny, or been sort of an ass sometimes, which friends do, had sort of been a reflected mirror to me. That made me understand parts of my life that weren’t really on track the way they needed to be. And he was a big help in that.
In what way?
TM By calling me an ass. [Laughter]
KC That’s the chemistry, right there!
TM ‘Course I’ve called him an ass too!
KC Oh, I’ve been an ass too. But I’ve known Tim so long that we’re like brothers, and you can’t be brothers and not have ups and downs.
TM And knock heads now and again.
During tough times, how have you been there for one another?
KC When Tim’s dad died [in 2004], he came over with a buddy, and we just sat around the pool, drinking beer. Next thing you know, we were in the hallway, sitting on the floor, philosophizing about life and stuff. [To Tim] Do you remember that?
TM Mmm-hmm, I do.
KC We were sitting across from each other, I was on one side of the wall and he was on the other, and I thought, “We’ve been all over the world, we’ve been more successful than we could have ever dreamed, two kids, one from Louisiana and one from East Tennessee, and here we are sitting in a hallway, talking like this.” That was pretty special. That was good for both of us.
TM And there were times when we each were going through a tough time, and we’d call the other up and say, “Let’s meet for lunch.” And we’d just have a talk.
KC Being in the public eye, there’s not a lot of people you feel comfortable with showing a human side, you know? Because it’s easy to look at our career and just go …
TM You become very two-dimensional to people very quickly.
KC I think people would be surprised at how human a moment that was, me and Tim in a hallway, drinking a beer, shooting the s— about life. I can’t do that with just anyone.
What do you most admire about one another?
TM Kenny’s focus. He’s very smart and has a grasp of the details of the things he wants to accomplish.
KC In being that focused and driven, you struggle with balance. Tim has put out great songs, put on great shows, branched out into the movies, but he has a family, and he balances both worlds. I can’t imagine how tough that is. I mean, I just got a dog and I thought I was going to have an anxiety fit. That’s just a dog! I can’t imagine having three kids. So I’m working toward it.
Is this your very first dog?
KC My first dog since I was a little boy.
TM [Laughing] I wouldn’t say his ‘first dog’ …
KC Well, yeah, I’ll second that! A friend gave it to me and said, “Here, Kenny, you have to learn to attach to something!” God’s honest truth! Now, I love the guy. But the point is, the way Tim has balanced both worlds is unbelievable.
TM Well, I appreciate that, but I have to step in and say my wife [Faith Hill] is the reason it’s balanced, not me.
KC Yeah, let’s not give Tim too much credit!
TM Don’t give me the credit. But I can handle dogs. I can give him dog advice!
Has Faith ever tried to fix Kenny up?
KC I don’t think Faith wants to be involved in that-she wouldn’t want to disappoint anyone! There was one time she said, “Kenny, don’t you want a couple of these?” meaning kids. And it was like, “Yeah … maybe … one day …”
TM Don’t wait too long, man! You’ll be like Larry King!
KC Or Tony Randall! Tony Randall had a kid when he was like 70!
Kenny, have you spent much time with Tim’s family?
KC Oh yeah! They used to live just down the street.
TM He’d bring Christmas presents over to the girls.
KC And I’d go there to eat. Faith’s a great cook. I could sit in my house when I got off the road on a Sunday afternoon and eat a bag of Doritos and watch football, or I could go over there and sit on Tim’s couch and eat Faith’s cooking. What would you do?
What’s the nicest thing Tim’s ever done for you?
KC When I toured with Tim in 2001, I bought a house and wanted to put in a pool but had to build this wall into a hill to do it. I didn’t want to spend the money …
TM He’s tight!
KC Anyway! McGraw paid for the wall. That was awfully nice of him.
Tim, has Kenny ever done anything that nice for you?
TM Nah! [Laughter] No, look, our conversations-good and bad-are the most important thing. And Kenny’s always been there to hear me bitch and complain and to help me set it right.
KC He’s right. Tim’s been there in some really, really rough spots in my life. There were moments that were so rough that it made me not even want to do this anymore. Tim’s the one that kicked me in the ass and pulled me out of that. That’s probably the nicest thing he’s ever done for me. We’re at the point in our lives where we can look back on our friendship and know where we screwed up and where we’ve been there for each other. I love that.