November 11, 2009 12:00 PM

On a clear morning in October 2005, somewhere off the coast of St. Croix, Kenny Chesney awoke on his boat Sixth Gear with a melody in his head. The singer, 41, was on one of his regular trips with songwriting pals Dean Dillon and Mark Tamburino, and after a quick dip in the blue waters, the words started to flow as well. “Staring at the ocean that day, I just thought, ‘I’m alive,’ ” he says. For Chesney, still raw from the breakup of his marriage to actress Renée Zellweger a month earlier, “it was an emotional and spiritual revival just to have that thought,” he says. “Ninety-nine out of a hundred things in your life can be great, but there’s that one negative thing, and you become it. Writing ‘I’m Alive’ made me not concentrate on this one thing. It made me remember that I have been blessed beyond belief.”

The song also gave Chesney the chance to shed his party-boy image, to slow down and reflect. “There’s more to me than just writing about going out and having a drink,” he says. “I think that this is the first time in a long while that I’ve gotten some more humanity back to it.” Chesney first gave the song to Willie Nelson for his 2008 album Moment of Forever, which Chesney coproduced, but then decided to team up with pal Dave Matthews to record a duet version for his own 2008 CD Lucky Old Sun. “For me, it was trying to get past my own demons,” he says, “But I’ve had a couple of friends who are cancer survivors who relate to it on another level. We did something pretty special—something that might be around much longer than life on the chart.”

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