July 27, 2018 at 12:00 PM EDT

If Kenny Chesney actually wore sleeves, he would be wearing his heart on one of them. As it is, the singer-songwriter’s emotions are apparent from his red eyes as he chokes up discussing the circumstances surrounding the recording of his new album, Songs for the Saints, out July 27.

“I wasn’t prepared for the amount of destruction I saw,” says Chesney, reliving the moment he returned to his part-time home on St. John following the havoc wreaked in the Caribbean by Hurricane Irma in September 2017. “My heart broke for all those people that I had lived with and loved with. A huge part of my adult life was — and still is — spent down there.”

Indeed, as the 50-year-old East Tennessee native recounts the tale of the “apocalyptic” storms — while sitting on his tour bus on a recent, scorchingly hot day in Phoenix — nearly 50,000 fans are filing into Chase Field, sold in part on Chesney’s tales of easy, breezy island life. The guitars-and-tiki-bars flavor of hits like “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems,” “When the Sun Goes Down,” and “Pirate Flag,” as well as his high-energy live shows, have helped Chesney win a combined eight CMA and ACM Entertainer of the Year trophies, making him among the most bankable stadium acts in any genre of music for more than a decade, and coalescing a massive fan base known as No Shoes Nation.

But last September, he wasn’t contemplating margaritas or the roar of the crowd. He was in Nashville, worried sick about his friends and family, 17 of whom were hunkered down in his house on St. John, which held together long enough for them to emerge unscathed.

“I was constantly on the phone,” he recalls. “I was glued to the Weather Channel. I was in the middle of such elevated anxiety.” So he turned to music to exorcise his stress. “This is a strange record for me because I’ve never made a record in the moment. I just started to create. Two days after the storm hit, I wrote ‘Song for the Saints,’” he says of the meditative title track, a love letter to the resilience of those living in the Caribbean. “The next day I wrote ‘Love for Love City,’ and I just kept going. It was a form of therapy for me.”

Courtesy of Kenny Chesney

While Songs for the Saints differs in tone from some of its blockbuster predecessors, it dovetails neatly with what is arguably the best album of Chesney’s career, 2005’s similarly island-inspired Be as You Are (Songs From an Old Blue Chair). Suffused with acoustic guitars, steel drums, and wistful melodies, the record is both buoyant and melancholy, toggling between moods like the uplift of “Love for Love City,” featuring Ziggy Marley, and the world-weariness of a cover of Jimmy Buffett’s “Trying to Reason With Hurricane Season,” featuring Buffett himself. (The album was also mixed at Buffett’s studio in Key West after Hurricane Maria. “I wanted these songs to soak up all the ocean’s energy,” says Chesney.) A cover of Lord Huron’s “Ends of The Earth” has a misty cinematic quality and Mindy Smith lends her soothing pipes to album closer “Better Boat,” a gorgeous song of surrender written by Travis Meadows and Liz Rose.

“When I first went down to the islands, Mindy had just put out her record that had ‘Come to Jesus’ on it,” Chesney recalls. “I was addicted to it. That voice accompanied me through a lot of cold beers and watching sunsets with friends.”

Chesney wrestled with the tracklist, which includes five songs he co-wrote, and debated including the bouncy, radio-friendly first single, “Get Along,” written by Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Ross Copperman. He was unsure whether the paean to finding common ground in an increasingly divisive world fit the record’s introspective atmosphere. “Those people in that place fed my soul for so long, and to see something that beautiful that broken, it just changed me,” he says, noting he wanted the music to reflect that change.

Friend and frequent collaborator Mac McAnally, who co-wrote “Island Rain” on the new album, says that dedication was palpable and that the sessions were “as far away from business as usual as you could get in the studio at this particular day and time.” The nine-time CMA Musician of the Year award winner, who is also a member of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band, meant to stay for two songs and ended up playing on the entire album.

“As a session player in Nashville, your mission is to do whatever it is you’re singing or playing that day in such a way as to try to make it be a hit on the charts right now,” says McAnally, who has also spent time down in the islands. “As soon as we got in the door, and ran the first song, Kenny’s like, ‘No, this project needs to match this event, this is about helping these storm victims.’ So he wanted the songs stripped down to their essence, and he didn’t want bells and whistles or an extra hook every three or four bars to try to make certain that it was commensurable with what’s on the radio at any given time. This was straight out of his heart. It took a couple of songs for me to realize how serious he was about that. It was wonderful.”

Courtesy of Kenny Chesney

Ultimately, the inclusion of “Get Along” proved fortuitous: It just became Chesney’s 30th No. 1 Billboard Country Airplay hit, and he is donating all of the proceeds from the album to his Love for Love City Fund for island relief. “I knew I was gonna give it all away when I started making it,” he says of the financial gesture. Chesney had left his longtime home at Sony and signed with Warner Music Nashville in January. He offered to release Songs for the Saints some other way, knowing the label might not be keen to have its first album from him be a musical-outlier benefit release.

But Warner was happy to accommodate its newest signee. “We’ll get around to making money [eventually], so I’m thrilled that he’s donating the proceeds,” says John Esposito, chairman and CEO of Warner Music Nashville, who recalls a time 13 years ago when Chesney rescued him during a storm on the islands when the singer had no idea who Esposito was. “He drove us in the middle of the night, and I just thought, ‘Wow, this big superstar is carrying my bags,’” says Esposito with a laugh. “When I reminded him of that, he said, ‘Oh my God, that was you? I had no idea. We just had so much fun listening to music for two days.’”

Chesney is not only giving away the proceeds from Songs for the Saints. In the midst of its recording, he also — with the help of an army of volunteers and members of his team — repeatedly sent his personal plane, loaded with supplies — generators, food, water, construction equipment, you name it — down to the islands. “As soon as FEMA would let me land,” he says, “I went down there. There was a two-month window where all we did was fly medical supplies down and fly people back. That was the cycle we were on for a long time.”

Those trips informed Songs for the Saints.

“It fed me in a way that I’d never felt before,” says Chesney. “I came back and I went into the studio with a different perspective. I would go in there and sing the songs knowing what I had just seen and I just wanted it to be perfect.”

In addition to friends (many of whom used his Nashville home as a way station), Chesney came to the aid of strangers, including the injured, the elderly, pregnant women, more than 250 dogs, and basically “anyone that had to get off.”

COURTESY OF LOVE FOR LOVE CITY FUND

“It was a strange and chaotic time,” says Chesney, still clearly viscerally connected to the memories of handing out sleeping bags to storm-weary friends arriving in Music City. “I was in the studio singing some of these songs after we cut them, and I was getting texts from people getting on my plane, saying thank you. These people I knew and loved were coming to my house [in Nashville].”

(This isn’t Chesney’s first time at responding to a major event: following the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, he started the Spread the Love fund to help survivors of the attack obtain prosthetic limbs and meet other medical needs.)

A silver lining did emerge from the storm clouds when two of Chesney’s core beliefs were confirmed: that the people who inhabit the islands are an extended family who help one another in times of need, and that music is medicine.

To that end, Chesney also flew down five truckloads of musical instruments and sound equipment to donate to the battered St. John School of the Arts.

“I wanted to give them something to hopefully be passionate about and look forward to,” he says, recalling visiting with the students and seeing how much they wanted to get back to school, to structure, to normalcy. “That was the thing that had the biggest impact on me. These kids didn’t have a roof over their house and so I kept thinking about that, about when I got my first guitar, and the path that it set me on.”

“I was just beside myself,” says Kim Wild, executive director of St. John School of the Arts who has worked at the school for 20 years. “I could not believe how many keyboards and guitars and ukuleles [there were].”  In addition to spending time with the kids recently, Chesney also sat with some of the faculty, who shared their stories of weathering the storm. “It’s so weird because he is famous and yes when he comes to St. John everybody knows him,” says Wild, “but now he’s really become part of us.”

“There’s a lot of restoration that needs to happen, but not just physically,” Chesney says, emotion welling up again. “I mean, the human spirit. Everybody’s soul needs to heal. That’s where music comes in.”

JILL TRUNNELL

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