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We need to talk about Kenny Chesney. With 11 certified-platinum studio albums, regularly sold-out stadium tours and countless country hits under his belt, Chesney is an undisputed star. And given his stature, some of his songs have no doubt contributed to classism-tinged stereotypes about mainstream 21st-century country music: that it's vapid, jingoistic, relentlessly bro-y, anything but literary. (We are, after all, talking about the guy who sang "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy.")
Put all that aside for now. Chesney's new song "Jesus and Elvis," from his forthcoming album Cosmic Hallelujah, is a humbly elegant bit of wordsmithing that elevates the everyday into reverent poetry. In the space of a simple chorus-verse structure, the song sets a particular scene: a whiskey-soaked dive bar festooned with Christmas decorations. It introduces characters and establishes overlapping, pathos-laden narratives: the barkeep's son leaving home, the narrator and his pals returning there. And it's got parallelism of the most obvious-yet-satisfying sort, in a line about "the King of Kings and the king of rock 'n' roll."
The writing credits on Cosmic Hallelujah, as a whole, represent a collection of Nashville pros, including Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, Ross Copperman and other Music Row fixtures who regularly pen hits for Chesney and his fellow country stars. (Chesney himself cowrote two songs: the lead single, "Noise," and album closer "Coach.") But "Jesus and Elvis" stands out from the album's tracklist. Its authors are the singer-songwriters Matraca Berg, Hayes Carll and Allison Moorer — all three of whom move in the realm of Americana, where folk's storytelling, soul's honesty and gospel's spirit blend readily with country sensibilities. Berg, Carll and Moorer are each powerful performers in their own right; Moorer complements Chesney's oaky singing with warm backing vocals on "Jesus and Elvis."
Some of the most masterful songs are the ones that function as short stories, providing just enough specificity to tell listeners exactly what we need to know – no more, no less – and then stepping back to let us fill in the rest. You might not have paid a visit to Lala's Little Nugget, the real-life Austin dive that Carll has said inspired "Jesus and Elvis." But with a few deftly crafted phrases – a couple kitschy velvet portraits, a strand of holiday lights — you can feel yourself there.
Cosmic Hallelujah comes out Oct. 28 on Blue Chair/Columbia Nashville.
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