Brad Paisley – America’s Heartland Poet

‘We learned early on,’ Brad Paisley told Bob Harris in November 2016 in an interview broadcast in February 2017, ‘it was about the songs.

‘I wasn’t going to let ego become inflated to the point that you start to think it’s about you. When you sing that catalogue of songs,’ he adds, referencing George Strait and his canon, ‘any decent singer could have done mine. It just so happens that I wrote a lot of these songs.’

It can be said that Brad Paisley, who visits Europe in March 2017 as the main draw of Country2Country, is the poet of heartland America. His songs are some of the most sweeping in the country music charts in a typical week, with production values to match. He was precocious, inducted as a member of the Grand Ol Opry in 2001 when he was only 28 years old, only two years after his debut LP came out.

George Jones and Buck Owens were two of many old-timers who saw the future of the genre in Brad. He wears his white Stetson proudly and as something of a trademark: Brand Paisley.

Every album from his third record onwards has topped the country sales chart, and he has on several occasions had the second biggest-selling album in America (the Billboard Top 200) on any given week. Could Love and War, out April 21, be his first album to go the distance and top the 200?

Country Nation

‘I am the farthest thing from exotic in America,’ Brad told BBC Breakfast as part of his media blitz plugging C2C 2017, when Dan Walker asked him about his cowboy hat. ‘But when I come over here I’m a novelty item!’

Mostly Brad’s songs deal in the familiar terrain of country music, with equal attention paid to party songs, love songs and meta songs that reflect the country genre. The songs that populate his recent tour, to promote 2014’s Moonshine in the Trunk, are a mix of these three, and include his most recent smash Country Nation. The two choruses of that song lay bare the constituent community of country fans, ‘the fabric of this nation, and a nation of our own’.

The first chorus goes: ‘We’re mountaineers and volunteers…We drive Ford and Chevrolet’; the second, referencing college football teams: ‘We’re Wildcats and Wolverines/ We’re Tigers, Buckeyes, Bruins, Bulldogs, Hogs and Hurricanes’.

He never panders to his audience in the way some acts do, in my view. As a guy born in West Virginia, the northern part of the South, Brad also knows what happens when he steps outside his ‘Southern Comfort Zone’ where ‘not everybody drives a truck/ not everybody drinks sweet tea/ Not everybody owns a gun, wears a ballcap, boots and jeans’.

The sense of location is attractive to a non-American audience, as this seems genuine and evocative of what ‘country music’ as a product is. It’s almost as if Brad is selling a version of the American Dream, with banjos and mandolins thrown in.

‘Too country, what’s that?’ Brad asked on his second album on a song written by and featuring Bill Anderson, the Brad Paisley of his day. George Jones and Buck Owens pop up too on a song that owns the criticism of the twangy nature of country, which admittedly did put me off the genre for about 26 years of my life.

Brad does venture into poppier sounds, but he knows when to ‘keep it country’.

This is Country Music, whose outro namechecks several country standards including He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones, has one of the most arresting opening lines of any country song: ‘You’re not supposed to say the word “cancer” in a song’. The song about songs includes the line ‘this is your life in a song’ in its chorus, with a sweet melody added. It’s also a good title for a UK-based country music blog…

Old Alabama was based on a tune Brad liked. The good-time band Alabama show up for the final chorus and the hoedown section at the end. Brad knows his place in the lineage of country music; like Vince Gill, his immediate contemporary, he is a custodian and missionary of the messages of the genre.

Brand Paisley

Chet Flippo, the esteemed late writer and journalist, wrote in 2009 on his Nashville Skyline weblog on CMT.com, after Brad had received more statues for his awards cabinet:

‘What I think he has stood for is a genuine attempt for sincerity and authenticity in his songwriting and musicianship (especially his flair on lead guitar), his obvious devotion to family ties and his respect for tradition and heritage.’

Chet continued: ‘I don’t think he’s gotten the attention he deserves for his music videos. More than any other modern country star, Paisley has paid so much careful attention to his videos that he almost single-handedly caused the country industry to follow him in elevating the genre.

‘The storytelling, the attention to detail, the careful casting of celebrities, his own animations — all of these mark Paisley videos.’

My own favourite videos include Celebrity, in which Little Jimmy Dickens wins The Bachelorette, Jason Alexander makes a cameo flicking coffee at a barista and William Shatner is an Idol judge swearing at Brad; Online, in which Jason Alexander is the tuba-playing nerd who pretends to be Brad, William Shatner plays Jason’s dad, Estelle Harris revives her Seinfeld role as Jason’s mum and Taylor Swift and Kellie Pickler play backing singers; and Remind Me, where Brad and Carrie Underwood walk towards each other in a desert.

For the video of recent hit Today, Brad personally contacted people who had used the song for their own video or photo montages. One of them was a girl who was walked down the aisle by her sick father, who happened to have seen Brad in concert and was a huge fan.

The videos’ budgets are as impressive as the locations (Remind Me is obviously shot from a little plane, like November Rain by Guns N Roses). There is much in the way of country iconography. Dip into his catalogue and then compare them with videos from his contemporaries; Brad’s are usually deeper and more meaningful taken as an average.

Oddly, Brad has only won Male Video of the Year once, for Waitin’ on a Woman in 2009 (he has never won the overall title), since CMT, country’s MTV, started awarding the trophy. The video opens on a bench in a ‘west town mall’, as the lyric dictates. Brad is on the phone leaving increasingly desperate voice messages. The guitars come in, Brad eats pizza and an old fella sits with him and pours out his story.

It doesn’t excuse the fact that Brad’s woman doesn’t turn up…

Lyrics and Picking: A One-Two Punch

Brad is also a reputable guitarist, which means he takes the solos in his songs, making him a three-in-one hitter: singer, songwriter, guitarist. His 2008 album Play was a showcase for his skills on the guitar; perhaps only Keith Urban (who appears on Start a Band from that record) and Hunter Hayes can match him of those who usually sing but are capable of fretwork fireworks.

In addition, Brad himself has hosted the CMA Awards – the Oscars of Country Music – multiple times to show his playful side. In the opening monologues, he always parodies the hits of any particular year with guitar in hand; in the CMA’s Golden Jubilee year, he pastiched the state of the nation with fifty years’ worth of country hits at the 2016 Awards.

‘This election’s been taking forever and ever, ever and ever…Make it end!!’ borrows Forever and Ever Amen. I implore country fans to appreciate Brad’s comic timing, especially in the 2016 Awards where he unveils items from the topical Basket of Deplorables (‘Willie Nelson’s potted meat…I tried it once in college’).

Known as country music’s prankster, he is also laugh-out-loud funny on his recorded output, even if some folk don’t get the jokes. No other singer could boast at least four gold-plated LOL-filled crowd-pleasers in his catalogue.

I’m Still a Guy is my favourite, with a lyric about men ‘lining up to get neutered, it’s hip now to be feminised!’ while Brad continues the traditionally masculine pursuit of punching anyone who gropes his girl. Ticks, Online and Celebrity all raise a smile, the last of these an extended lament on being on the A list, which Brad very much is: ‘It’s adios reality…People think you’re cool just cos you’re on TV’.

There’s a smattering of party songs to gee up the crowd in every concert he plays, alongside the comic songs already mentioned, starting with Crushin’ It (‘Every week has a weekend’) and ending with Alcohol.

That song is sung from the perspective of the eponymous character: ‘Been making the bars lots of big money and helping white people dance!’ On the recording Brad ducks out the last time that line is sung, meaning a crowd of fans can bellow that line.

The irony? His fans are white people holding alcohol who have just danced for two hours to Brad’s music. The guy knows his fanbase.

Brad told Guitarist magazine that he was inspired by the instruction by Opry MC George D Hay to ‘keep it close to the ground’, for the ordinary punter to appreciate what was being said and sung.

He also knows how to keep his music in the papers. Accidental Racist, a duet with LL Cool J, has probably gained more column inches than any other Brad tune. It’s a sort of update of Ebony and Ivory, where LL takes the side of the black American experience and Brad is an avatar for the white man. ‘It ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin,’ Brad mulls in the second verse, with LL taking the third after the chorus.

That chorus contains these lines: ‘We’re still picking up the pieces, walking on eggshells, fighting over yesterday’; ‘Paying for the mistakes that a lot of folks made long before we came.’ It was meant to start debate.

The renowned writer Ta-Nehisi Coates was moved to write a piece for The Atlantic which called it ‘actually just racist’.

‘Paisley wants to know how he can express his Southern Pride…He could hold a huge party on Martin Luther King’s birthday’ or celebrate the South’s contribution to literature or ‘insist than Tennessee raise a statue to Ida B. Wells’, a civil right activist. Coates, as a black man writing about LL Cool J’s appearance on a country music album, is a concerned citizen; Brad preaches beyond a white base, and I wonder whether Love & War will see him include another black man on vocals. Chance the Rapper, perhaps, or Kendrick Lamar…

The second part of this essay deals with Brad’s catalogue as a whole, including words from his trusted writing team, and also looks towards the release of Love and War, which is released on April 21 2017

A User’s Guide to Brad’s Catalogue

I described Brad in the first part of this essay as the poet of America’s heartland, and I stand by that.

Some of the best turns of phrase in contemporary country music have been found in Paisley’s songs: ‘I feel like the frame that gets to hold the Mona Lisa/ And I don’t care if that’s all I ever do’ makes The Mona Lisa, a three-chord marvel, one of Brad’s finest singalong anthems.

The World is one of his smartest songs and, even more annoyingly for the also-rans, includes one of Brad’s finest guitar solos, picking like the best of them. The chorus: ‘To the world you are just another girl/ But to me you are the world’.

Anything Like Me has the lyric ‘I’ll lose my temper and some sleep’, a zeugma where one verb governs two nouns, while the sombre Perfect Storm includes several gems interspersed with what is called the ‘Millennial Whoop’ (‘oh-woah-oh’): ‘She ain’t just a song, she’s the whole mixtape’; ‘A sunshine mixed with a little hurricane/ She destroys me in that t-shirt’.

One of America’s top critics, Robert Christgau, has followed Brad’s career. Of his debut, Who Needs Pictures, he wrote: ‘There’s words in that there cowboy hat’, and spotlighted the two big singles Me Neither and He Didn’t Have To Be.

The latter track was his first modern standard, exceptional because Brad wrote it while not yet 25 years old. It’s told from the perspective of a child with separated parents whose prospective candidates for stepdad might ‘run away’ on discovering his existence. ‘I overheard him pop the question and I hoped that he’d say “yes”’ places us in the child’s bed, as he himself hopes he grows up to be ‘half the dad he didn’t have to be’. Bobby Bones’s song Fishing With my Dad takes inspiration from this, and the soft and very late-90s arrangement (all echoey hits of the snare rim and vibrant guitars) makes this song as ageless as the struggles of stepfather and stepkid.

Part II came next, with Too Country (see Part One) and the acoustic ballad I’m Gonna Miss Her. On third record Mud on the Tires, Brad’s ‘command of Nashville conventions’ is all over tracks like the title track, Celebrity and the haunting double-suicide tale Whisky Lullaby: ‘She put that bottle to his head and pulled the trigger, and finally drank away her memory…The angels sang a whisky lullaby, la la la la la’. The album carries a two-star rating which, according to the guide on Christgau’s website, makes it ‘a likeable effort consumers attuned to its overriding aesthetic or individual vision may well enjoy’. That’s code for a bloody good LP.

One of Brad’s most beloved cuts is the contemporary love song She’s Everything, a song full of metaphor and simile which picks up themes from The World and, of course, most love songs in the genre. Both, alongside Alcohol, were found on fourth album Time Well Wasted. That record also featured the Dolly Parton duet Where I Get Where I’m Going, a meditative song about the afterlife.

Fifth album 5th Gear saw him ‘getting set in his ways…but still smarter than the Nashville norm’, as Ticks, Online and I’m Still a Guy helped it sell brilliantly. Play came next, for fans of Brad’s picking.

Record seven American Saturday Night carried an A Grade (‘rarely flags for more than two or three tracks’), and a very positive Christgau write-up. Amid the relatability, Brad sought ‘to stray from the comfortable’, as he told one interviewer.

In 2009, he played at the White House and called his album Welcome to the Future, a song which namechecked Martin Luther King, and had a verse based on someone he knew who burned crosses in his yard. It was as political as country music can get without talking about guns, but such is Brad’s profile that he could sneak politics into one of his many number one hits.

‘The filler could be somebody else’s hits,’ writes Christgau in admiration of the album Welcome to the Future, adding that the superstar is ‘as woman-friendly as Garth Brooks without the emo overkill. Paisley seems happier than ever, and I don’t think it’s just about his wife and kids. I think it’s about Barack Obama.’

In 2017’s post-Obama, post-hope world the song stands as a museum piece. The video is optimistic and points towards the new America full of that ‘hopey-changey’ stuff. That America still exists, and may return to the White House in 2020. It will be fascinating to see exactly what Brad has to say about Mr Trump while promoting Love and War.

This Is Country Music, from 2011, sees an ‘undiminished’ craft. ‘He remains the smartest and nicest guy in his world,’ Christgau writes of the guy who could corral (in a more than OK way) Clint Eastwood into appearing on one track, called Eastwood, which pastiches Morricone’s greatest Western themes. Christgau also compares Brad to Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers, an apt comparison as both are stalwarts of their genre (DBT are as Americana as denim).

The next album, Wheelhouse, contained The Mona Lisa, Southern Comfort Zone and Accidental Racist. Christgau is less keen on this album, awarding it a B+ (‘flirts with the humdrum or the half-assed’), but is effusive in praise for songs like Karate (which has Charlie Daniels reprising his Devil Went Down to Georgia shtick) and Those Crazy Christians (‘They pray before they eat, they pray before they snore’).

Luke Bryan is shaking his bottom; Brad Paisley is shaking his listeners. ‘A lot of the time he’s trying too hard to say too little, or trying too clumsily to say too much’. Will Christgau approve of Love and War?

Writing Partners

Brad played a session for the BBC in 2014 accompanied by his three songwriting buddies Lee Thomas Miller, Kelley Lovelace and Chris DuBois. As outlined in the book Nashville Songwriter, in which journalist Jake Brown talks to the men behind the songs, these guys contribute greatly to Brand Paisley.

Kelley met a precocious Brad while at Belmont College in Nashville and went on to co-write several of his live favourites, including Online, I’m Still a Guy, Ticks and Remind Me. Chris was working in music publishing and came across Brad, who was ‘the only person I ever met that was close to my age that knew almost as much about country music as I did’.

Initially Chris had no idea Brad was a player and writer, and the pair ended up writing late at night. ‘Brad and I just shared a real vision for what a great lyric and a great song was,’ continues Chris, the son of a songwriter himself.

Particularly illuminating is the story of Online: ‘We wrote it, rewrote it, cut it, still didn’t like it so we gave it a different melody and a different feel,’ Kelley says of the torturous process. ‘Brad knew there was something there.’ Chris DuBois adds that the song was ‘an enormous amount of fun’ to write, ‘like putting a puzzle together’.

Chris and Brad wrote We Danced, one of Brad’s first hits and a gorgeous ballad that rhymes ‘yours’ with ‘purse’ (try it in a Southern drawl). This and other songs had a ‘creative innocence’ all artists have on their first records, without the need to justify the enormous outlay from a record company to ensure a massive hit from a massive artist.

By the time Brad released I’m Still a Guy, he was an uberstar. Lee Thomas Miller recollects that the world premiere of the song, to Brad’s wife Kim and her sister, directly led to Brad’s eldest child being born, thanks to ‘that ridiculous last verse’ about men getting ‘neutered’. Lee is also a longtime cohort of Brad’s: ‘He’s not only a great songwriter, he’s such an insanely good musician,’ which helped create the killer riff and sound on The World, which had ‘thirty-two tracks of guitar’.

The three of them (Chris, Kelley and Brad) wrote the fantastic Wrapped Around, where the poor chap is besotted with his girl: ‘It’s time to put a ring on the finger I’m wrapped around’ is just brilliant as a lyric, which came from Kelley driving without the radio on determined to come up with a hook. Mud on the Tires was written in spirit of an old Alabama song, while Old Alabama was enhanced because Brad and the guys could call on the actual band Alabama.

Chris DuBois makes clear the reason for the success of Brad and his product: ‘The search for the idea, the direction, is the most time-consuming part of the process…Brad and I have been working together for so long that we’re typically on the same page’.

Love and War

Kenny Chesney may have the No Shoes Nation, but Brad’s fanbase is more directly taken care of. Though he came in for some criticism when he did it, his campaign for the Moonshine in the Trunk LP of 2014 was based on a PR stunt: fighting his record label to release individual songs, which he leaked via Twitter, with the label in on the joke.

He told Maverick Magazine: ‘It’s a weird time to be making albums because I think everybody is realising that people don’t necessarily want them. And yet we’re still making them…I just can’t see me doing it this way again.’

Nonetheless, it is a long-playing record that remains the format of choice for Brad’s new set of songs. As of March 8 2017 Love and War’s tracklisting has not been announced, but he tweeted about working with Tim ‘Timbaland’ Mosley (who rocket-launched Justin Timberlake’s solo career) and Mick Jagger.

Back in 2010, he first came to the UK to play consecutive dates at the 4,000-capacity Shepherd’s Bush Empire, which seats tens of thousands fewer fans than the stadia he usually fills. He told the Guardian about trying to crack the British market: ‘I really won’t take no for an answer from you guys.’

His appearance on BBC Breakfast that year, preserved on Youtube, begins with a warm ‘Morning guys!’ He shares his fondness for ‘British entertainment. I’m a huge fan of The Office and Top Gear and Extras.’

He admits he only wears his white hat ‘as a great stage thing’. Asked to sum up country music, he says: ‘It’s the music of America’s everyday life, full of details and what it’s like to grow up and live in these times.

‘Some of the things translate very well over here,’ he says, whereas getting mud on the tyres is less habitual in the UK. ‘If I were to focus, and if we were to pick and choose some songs, you guys can relate to them.’

Brad was a headliner at Country2Country in 2014, and that year recorded that BBC special where he played his biggest hits. It aired on BBC Radio 2 as well. I marvelled at the standard of songwriting, which was so high for a man who, at forty, is now royalty over in the US.

Irksomely, in 2016 Brad cancelled dates ‘due to a scheduling conflict’ that would have taken him to the O2. It is thus a palliative that he can play C2C 2017, perhaps premiering some songs from his new album, though more likely putting to bed his 2016 Life Amplified Tour.

At the time of the 2010 interview he had two infants, aged one and three, so I wonder if Brad is bringing the family over for a break now they are older. They get to see Glasgow, Dublin and London and press the flesh of the UK’s most devoted country music fans.

After watching the actress Kimberly Williams in Father of the Bride II, he cast her in a video then made her his wife and the mother of those two kids. Brad seems to be a family man; in the video to Today he uses footage of two fans coming on stage to discover the gender of their baby, with Brad opening the envelope.

Today is the country standard that Brad sent to radio to launch Love and War. (It is the first track on the Blastocyst.org.uk Country Way of Life Playlist.) The album’s title, though, is a line from Without a Fight, a duet with Demi Lovato which recalled other recordings with ladies. These include Remind Me, a sweeping song with Carrie Underwood, When I Get Where I’m Goin, with harmonies by Dolly Parton, and the murder ballad Whisky Lullaby, where Alison Krauss added her tender voice to another million-seller.

Brad is not afraid to burst through the limits of his genre. His collaborators have been enormously eclectic: Alan Jackson, Colt Ford, Keith Urban, Blake Shelton, Dierks Bentley and Charlie Daniels from the country world; B.B. King, James Burton, Eric Idle, William Shatner and LL Cool J from outside it. On the track 4WP (four-wheel park), he duets with himself because his song Mud on the Tires comes on the radio.

I would hazard a guess that he could not give less than a jot about anyone who tells him he shouldn’t be working with Timbaland, the man who produced Sexyback and Get Ur Freak On. Brad cares more about how he moves a crowd than with what genre he moves them with.

Speaking to Bob Harris in the interview broadcast in advance of C2C 2017, he said that ‘one of the top five moments of my entire career’ was his C2C 2014 appearance hearing the crowd sing the ‘woah-oh-woah’ of The Mona Lisa after he was offstage. ‘They were singing it in the tube on the way from the gig. I gotta get on the tube [this time] and see what that’s like!’

This fits Brad’s MO, as he told Maverick Magazine: ‘I want to achieve the ultimate saturation for that message with each song that I write, and that’s both exciting and daunting’.

The last word goes to the late Chet Flippo, who had followed a few country messiahs in his time writing for Rolling Stone and CMT.com.

‘When it comes to taking true pride in what is now being presented as country music, Paisley has quietly done as much or more than any other person I can think of.’

Brad Paisley plays the UK and Ireland as part of the Country2Country Festival. Love & War is released on April 21.

Jonny Brick

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