Hurricanes and other disasters, natural and otherwise — from 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy and the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in 2012 — have all spawned numerous charity albums.
But last September’s Hurricane Irma is responsible for a single artist’s new concept album, which isn’t as common.
Country star Kenny Chesney’s home on St. John, one of the Virgin Islands devastated by Irma, was a casualty of the storm.
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Hurricane Irma’s fury largely inspired his new album, “Songs for the Saints,” a tribute to the hurricane-battered islands.
“No I wasn’t there on the island/The night that the drums went silent/But as much as I’ve lived my life on her shore/I’ll be a part of the encore,” Chesney confesses on the track, “Love for Love City.”
The “encore” he sings of coincides with work he has already done in Irma’s aftermath in which he reportedly helped shelter some of his island neighbors, rescued pets and reunited families, according to The Boot.
As Irma’s devastation was revealed in visits, photographs and conversations, the songs Chesney co-wrote and the others he chose from other writers to fit his thematic choice began to come together.
Guests like Jimmy Buffett, Ziggy Marley and Mindy Smith pitched in, lending vocals, and, in Buffett’s case, an old song.
Chesney is using the album as a means to fund the foundation he set up after Irma passed through the island. The foundation, Love for Love City, also the title of the second song he wrote for the album (after the title track), brought in medical supplies and equipment so that crews could help clear debris and rescue lost pets and try to help residents regain a sense of footing in the wake of Irma, Billboard reported.
Proceeds from the sale of the “Songs for the Saints” album are earmarked for Love for Love City.
“This album isn’t about St. John, so much as it’s about what happened to St. John and all those islands you didn’t see on the news,” Chesney told The Boot.
Indeed, as Laurel Brannick, a park ranger on St. John Island, scanned news channels late last summer to see how she might be affected after Irma’s attack on the island it appeared to her the U.S. Virgin Islands didn’t even exist.
“The weather channels didn’t even include us,” she told the Miami Herald mere days after Irma in September 2017. “All they kept saying was that Irma was in the Caribbean and headed to Florida.”
Chesney was paying attention. With his new album, he wants others to understand what the people went through but with accessible, sometimes lighthearted and even vague, open-to-interpretation songs.
Many of its tunes, like “Pirate Song,” “Island Rain,” and his guitar-heavy cover of Ben Schneider’s “Ends of the Earth,” a highlight here, wouldn’t have been out of place on several of his previous 16 studio albums.
“It is an album about the refuges we all have, how temporary life is and the way we navigate to better places, dig in and face the destruction. And sometimes, we learn to own our wild hearts in the process,” The Boot reported.
“Songs for the Saints” isn’t a wild album.
On the contrary, the music is largely contemplative, almost folk-based country. As such, this oft-quiet collection stylistically sits on the same shelf as Chesney’s previous, and decidedly non-commercial, efforts like “Be as You Are: Songs from an Old Blue Chair” in 2005.
But there are a couple up-tempo cuts on “Songs for the Saints” with boisterous, sing-a-long choruses that should go down well with Chesney’s live outdoor amphitheater audiences.
For example, there’s the non-political but topical first single, “Get Along,” which doesn’t chide the Trump administration for what many officials called an underwhelming reaction to Irma’s devastation on Puerto Rico and the Caribbean island chains. But the song’s lyric notes the divisiveness in the country today.
“Some days, it’s like the world is just angry, screaming people, all harping on what’s wrong, how other people are awful,” Chesney said in a press release about the song, which hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart ahead of the album’s release last Friday.
“The more I move around, talk to people, though, the more I know people are seeking the same things, working hard to get by and hoping for the best for their family and friends. It’s simple, but we keep getting driven apart — and made unhappy,” he said on the release.
Another tune, “We’re All Here,” takes a humorous tack in addressing the perseverance and pluck of the Caribbean islands’ denizens and uses an infectious, crowd-tapping chorus to get the point across without falling into country radio’s moronic “bro-country” trap.
“We’re all here, ‘cause where else would we go/When the world tips sideways, it’s just where we roll …Yeah, maybe we’re all here, ‘cause we ain’t all there.”
Conversely, songs like the title track are almost stark, relying solely on Chesney’s resonant voice to carry them when some background harmonies might have sweetened or even complemented a lyric like: “We’re just a sinner’s choir/Singin’ a song for the saints.”
Except the “choir” is one voice: Chesney’s.
Nevertheless, “Songs for the Saints” is Chesney’s most thoughtful and rewarding album since he released “Hemingway’s Whiskey” in 2010. The project is also a welcome addition to a market that is clamoring for singles rather than full 40-minute collections of songs.
Chesney cowrote five of the numbers on “Songs for the Saints.”
“’Songs for the Saints’ wasn’t made about the destruction, it wasn’t made about the devastation. It was made about the people. It was made about their heart, it was written about their spirit,” Chesney said in a promotional video about the dozen songs.
Buffett was a likely choice for a duet partner, made even more obvious by the fervently faithful way Chesney approached Buffett’s old “A1A” album cut, which was originally buried on side two of the LP the elder “Margaritaville” statesman released in December 1974.
But the East Tennessee-born, 50-year-old Chesney, who has collaborated often with the South Florida troubadour, saw little reason to update “Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season.”
“Jimmy, more than the lost shaker of salt, understands the poetry of the islands beyond what tourists see, the life, in a way that makes a song written decades ago so current,” Chesney told The Boot.
The music is largely built on acoustic guitars, some electric, along with mandolins, live sounding drums and a dusting of steel drums here and there for the island flavor.
You can add the album to your Wasting Away in the Florida Keys playlist without any fears of something jarring you off your hammock or lazy boat outing on one of Big Pine Key’s (still storm clogged) canals.
Chesney told Billboard he could hear the anxiety and sense the stress of his neighbors on St. John post-Irma so after attending to immediate needs, he set about picking songs for his album, with an eye on a supportive, we’re-in-this-together mindset.
Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne’s “Every Heart” captures the theme as well as any:
“Every heart is an island/But no one’s alone/Ship wrecked in a high wind/Tryin’ to find our way home/And every tear is an ocean/We’re all brothers in a storm/And we’re tryin’ to survive it/Lookin’ for dry land.”