NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Kenny Chesney has relentlessly churned out hit after hit, won accolade after accolade and sold more concert tickets than most performers regardless of genre. Still, few things have affected him like "You and Tequila," his artful and unlikely duet with Grace Potter that he considers "a gift from God."
Chesney is up for nine Academy of Country Music Awards on Sunday on the strength of a song that's been a life-changing experience for just about everybody involved — from songwriters Matraca Berg and Deana Carter to Potter and even Chesney.
"That song's been around for a while," Chesney said. "To me it just goes to show you that a great song has to some extent an infinite life and good songs never go out of style. And this one surely hasn't, thank God."
Chesney is seeking a fifth win of the academy's top honor, entertainer of the year. Most of his nominations come from "You and Tequila" from his career-redefining album "Hemingway's Whiskey," up for album of the year.
"Tequila," nominated for song, single and vocal event of the year, embodies everything Chesney is trying to become as he evolves from a young firebrand rocking arenas and stadiums to the kind of artist who can cause all those fans to hush and listen quietly as he reaches for something more.
It shows Chesney in a far different light than when he broke onto the scene in the mid-1990s. While the 44-year-old certainly could have sung "You and Tequila" at any point in his career, he's not sure the younger versions of himself would have chosen it. And if they did, they might not have taken the same approach.
"I look at myself as more of an interpreter," Chesney said. "That's what makes people connect. And that's what I'm trying to get better at."
Chesney first heard the song nearly a decade ago when Carter recorded it. Berg and Carter wrote it after a memorial service for Berg's friend Harlan Howard in 2002. She noted the legendary songwriter bought her first shot of tequila.
"And for the rest of the night his kids sent me shots of tequila and I thought, 'Well, Harlan, I'm going to do it for you,'" Berg said. "And I was still sick two days later."
The song had already been around for a while when Chesney heard singer Tim Krekel's version. Something in the way Krekel's handled the material inspired the singer and he decided to record it. But he thought it needed something more, a "ghost" in the background who added a layer of depth to the vibe.
Around the same time, Chesney heard Potter sing for the first time. A mutual friend of theirs stuck a Grace Potter and The Nocturnals CD in Chesney's pile of music where it sat for a year. During this period, Chesney was thinking about singers he might pull in to make "You and Tequila" into a duet and one day Potter's song "Apologies" materialized out of an iTunes shuffle.
"He made a couple of calls and I got this bizarre email in my inbox — 'Who wants to do what with what?'" Potter said with a laugh.
A child of the rock world, Potter didn't really know much about Chesney beyond a few general basics: "You know, he was the 'She thinks my tractor's sexy' guy." But as soon as she heard the demo for the song, she understood the possibilities and was in.
"I just said, 'Well, this is magic,'" the 28-year-old singer said. "I don't care what kind of music this is considered, it's just music in my ear. The lyrics, I think everyone can relate to that feeling that something is not good for you, it's not right for you, but always coming back to it, whether it's love or substance abuse or just anything."
The key to the song's success is the interplay between Potter and Chesney. There's a little regret, but also some wistfulness. Potter says she's gotten to know Chesney quite well since their first tentative encounter. They are now close friends and collaborators who have recorded new music she can't yet talk about in detail, but is excited for fans to hear.
The more she learns about him the more impressed she is by his performance on the song.
"He's found a lot of nuance and subtlety in the whole album 'Hemingway's Whiskey,'" Potter said. "I do think he's a true artist and a musician who understands what an artist needs. That subtlety and nuance really lends itself to 'You and Tequila.'"
"Hemingway's Whiskey" is one of Chesney's most celebrated efforts. It was an album a long time coming, stripped down and retooled after Chesney decided to take a step back and re-evaluate what he was doing. "You and Tequila" is just one of several hits and it was nominated for Grammy and Country Music Association Awards as well.
"I think the 'Hemingway's Whiskey' album has a sense of freedom in it with his material and his performances," his longtime producer, Buddy Cannon, said. "For the most part, it's not one of the high-energy, rock-edged kind of records, though there are a couple of cuts on there that would fit into that category. But overall I think that if you look at the album as a whole, it's just like he stepped up to a different plateau musically."
And that was the goal when Chesney created a hubbub by pulling country's most successful act off the road for a year, and retooling his career to reflect the artist he's become. The avalanche of ACM nominations — and perhaps another coronation on Sunday — is a reflection of how the country community feels about it.
Chesney feels the nominations are "solid" and says he's proud of them for what they represent.
"When we came back, it was awesome," Chesney said. "It was like our first tour ever, you know, and it just felt great that the people there in charge of the nominations feel that in their gut."