Kenny Chesney is not a guy who takes his trademark 29-in.-waist jeans for granted. To maintain his famously buff physique, the country star follows a rigorous diet and works out faithfully whether he’s on the road or at his homes in Nashville and the Virgin Islands. The physical exertion, he points out, also helps relieve stress, and after the year he’s had, “I’ve had to put a new belt on my treadmill,” Chesney says. “I’ve been on it a lot lately.”
Certainly there’s been the stress of logging thousands of miles on his tricked-out tour bus this summer, preparing for the release of his new album The Road and the Radio and working on his ABC TV special airing Nov. 23. But what occupied his thoughts most as he ran his treadmill right into the ground was the painful collapse in September of his four-month marriage to actress Renée Zellweger. Though he says he has no regrets about the rush to the altar just months after they met-“What I did in May, I meant. Isn’t it great that that kind of love exists?”—he also admits that now, “I’m sad, I’m angry, and I’m hurt and confused. This is not what I envisioned my life to be six months ago.”
Plainly, the end of Chesney’s marriage, not to mention the screaming headlines and speculation that attended Zellweger’s filing for annulment Sept. 14, has left scars. “It’s been very hurtful to me, her and my family,” he says. With the press pouncing on the use of the word “fraud,” a legal term, as the grounds for the annulment, “they’ve done nothing short of calling me gay and her a whore. None of those things are true. I’m pretty firm in my sexuality and my love for women.” Intensely private, Chesney, 37, seems determined to spare Zellweger, 36, further hurtful speculation and refuses to elaborate on exactly why the marriage dissolved. “Renee and I still care about each other,” he says, adding that they’ve gotten together a few times in the past two months to try to sort some things out. “This is not a me-vs.-her scenario. We are trying to figure it out in the classiest way possible.”
Zellweger, for her part, remains guarded. “Kenny and I decided not to publicly discuss the details of our relationship because we felt that it would be a compromise of personal integrity,” she says in a statement to PEOPLE. “It was sad to see the decision result in his enduring a fairly brutal public beating of damaging speculations about his sexuality and his character. I admire Kenny and am grateful for the strength he demonstrated in choosing to honor our decision despite the difficulties.”
After the split, Chesney retreated to his mother Karen’s home in Tennessee for a few days. “My mom told me that she loves me no matter what, and she just wants me to be okay,” he says. When he tried to ease back into his own life, the singer, who says he was “shell-shocked” at the amount of attention his relationship got, still found himself hounded at every turn—even at sea, the place he usually escapes to in his 60-ft. Sea Ray when he wants to slow his high-octane pace.
So instead, he poured himself into the launch of his new Road album. “There are some days when there are no highs or lows, this is just existence,” says Chesney, who is known in country circles for his work ethic. “I don’t have the luxury of being consumed by all of this emotion I have inside me.” Last week he made the rounds on the TV morning shows, and on Nov. 15 the reigning entertainer of the year will kick off the Country Music Association awards show, at which he is again up for both entertainer of the year and male vocalist of the year. “I have engulfed myself with work and music,” he says.
Though he and his 18-bus caravan just came off the road in August from a six-month tour, which drew larger crowds than either U2 or Celine Dion, Chesney is already planning the Road tour, which will start in March. “It was a lot like it felt in the locker room when I played high school football,” he says of his Somewhere in the Sun arena and stadium tour. “We were so excited. It was almost a numbing feeling before you ran out on the field.” But along with the exhilaration comes the weight of responsibility. “I’m the boss on the road, I’m the CEO of my company, and everything comes through me,” he says. “Right now I’m pushing and pushing and pushing.”
Sometimes, he admits, he pushes too hard—as happened over the summer when he was juggling a national tour, recording sessions and a new marriage. “It was the first time in my life that I might have had too much on my plate,” he says. He recalls a night when, unable to sleep, he grabbed a legal pad and began jotting a to-do list. Not usually given to making lists, he was dazed by the number of items on this one. “I was lying on my bunk thinking, ‘How am I going to do this and still have the energy people deserve from me when they pay that kind of money to come see us play? I’ve got to make this work.’ ”
Most of the time, Chesney wouldn’t have it any other way, as his new album attests. “I made a conscious effort when I started making tracks on this record to bring folks back to the stage,” he says. “I put a lot of my heart and soul into this.” Chesney, who penned 2 of the 11 songs, adds, “There are some really rockin’ songs on this record—songs that really define me and my life.”
Singling out “Living in Fast Forward,” an upbeat tune that tells of a “hillbilly rock star out of control,” he says, “That is the epitome of my life right now and the last several years.” The other songs, he says, “let me take listeners down different roads—each road meaning as much as the other one. I do believe an album should take you on an emotional roller-coaster ride. I’ve been on one,” he adds with a heartfelt laugh, “so it’s a very real thing to listen to.”
Jill Smolowe. Andrea Billup in New York City