What is country music? Is it doggone dogs goin’ doggone gone? Is it a way to live your life in the absence of a supreme monotheistic deity, or alongside one? Is it ‘your life in a song’?
Brad Paisley is country music’s heartland poet, perhaps the best of all time. I wrote four thousand words on him here, if you fancy a cure for insomnia…
Brad is able to articulate the world through song, and carry on the traditions of the likes of Albert Lee and Bill Anderson. At the start of his career George Jones and Buck Owens said he was the future; now the future is a forty-four-year-old husband and father of two little boys.
Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett are bringing pop fans into a genre which in the last ten years has been about machismo and beer. Maren and Kacey and Kelsea are all versions of Taylor Swift, while Carrie Underwood is the contemporary queen of country. Brad just keeps plugging in and plugging on.
Love and War shares with the rest of Brad’s catalogue his mix of traditionalism and contemporary country. Both sides are explored here, and I’ll get to that, but I am positive you are reading this to find out how two major pop stars fit into country. So here goes.
Mick Jagger is the guest on Drive of Shame, which opens Jagger chatting to Brad before the guitars come in Keefishly. The song is set in Vegas at 6am, and it makes you smile and sing along, two things most of Brad’s songs do if they aren’t making you stroke your chin in thought (more on which shortly). Sir Mick takes the second verse and I almost laughed at the chutzpah – a Rolling Stone on a country album would have been unheard of in 1967!! – and by the final chorus I was clapping along.
Brad can put David Duke AND Daisy Duke on his albums and they’d still sell hundreds of thousands. Can he get some Rolling Stones fans to his gigs? Absolutely. But hiphop fans?
The intersection of the Venn Diagram of country and hiphop is bluegrass, rhythm-driven country, and that’s evident in both tracks on which Tim ‘Timbaland’ Mosley, who produced Missy Elliot and Justin Timberlake, guests. Solar Power Girl sounds a little bit like Beyonce’s Daddy Lessons, while Grey Goose Chase is a title begging for a drinking song.
Before the album’s release we heard Heaven South and Last Time for Everything, the former an absolutely killer ‘southern’ song with a nice woah-oh, the latter a driving rock song about things changing and the passage of time with a marvellous melodic shape. It’ll be a live favourite, like most of the tracks on Love and War.
The first side of the album ends with Today, already a modern standard and live favourite. The song contains all the typical Paisley ingredients: whimsy, love, the future, a guitar solo and a singalong outro. It may win Song of the Year if Zac Brown doesn’t pip him to it; Ashley Gorley and Chris DuBois do it again.
DuBois, Brad’s friend and writing partner, is credited on seven of the 16 tracks, and can afford another nice holiday or six. Go to Bed Early (‘and stay up all night!’) is a soft-rocker with lovely diminished chords. One Beer Can is a country music song, as traditional as you can get, from the very first seconds. It’s set at a ‘legendary evening, the whole place got trashed’ as a kid throws a house party with his parents out of town. When they return ‘they gave him a hug and almost a heart attack’ when the kid noticed the titular aluminum object (spell check wanted to correct this to ‘aluminium’ for some reason!) just behind the sofa.
‘It could have been a rubber or a half-smoked joint!’ Brad counsels, with a smirk. Dierks Bentley could cover this song, but you could still tell it was a Brad Paisley song, which is the genius of the man.
The trio of Brad, Kelley Lovelace and Lee Miller (The Mona Lisa, Crushin It and many more album cuts in Brad’s canon) provide Contact High, a tune in 12/8 time about the feeling of being touched on the hand (how chaste!), and Meaning Again, a love song with a great title. ‘Breathing don’t make you alive’ is one of about one hundred great poetic aphorisms on Love and War, an album to provide you with a country way of life.
The Devil is Alive and Well is a meditation on the world in the mould of Noise by Kenny Chesney: ‘Hateful words that we all use/ So much anger, so much pain’. Is it about Trump? In a great piece with Rolling Stone Country, Brad said he wrote it after the shooting of an unarmed black man. Republicans buy country music too, to paraphrase Michael Jordan.
The title track is a duet with John Fogerty on what is the first time John has written with someone else (gulp!!). Love and War is an anti-war song that references Vietnam and includes lines like ‘he lost a leg and a girlfriend’ and ‘waiting in a VA line’. It makes you wonder why Mr CCR, with a voice that would sit well with the likes of John Osborne and Chris Stapleton, hasn’t dabbled in country before. This one may well pip Today to Song of the Year, if the people who vote for such things have any cojones at all.
Based on a poem written about June Carter Cash by her husband Johnny, Gold All Over the Ground is given a fantastic treatment with echoey guitars and a brilliant vocal. It may well win Song of the Year.
Bill Anderson himself co-writes and co-stars on Dying To See Her, one of them thinky-think songs Brad includes on every album (Welcome to the Future, When I Get Where I’m Going, He Didn’t Have to Be, Waitin on a Woman and on and on). It’s another great title that I am positive has inspired so many songs left off albums in the last ten years in favour of beer-and-party songs. The third verse is a tearjerker; grab some tissues and thank me later. If this one doesn’t win the Song of the Year awards…
How on earth can Brad get away with such a brazen anti-war song? Because he’s Brad, and he can do silly throwaway tunes too. Debuted on his UK shows at Country2Country, and with a video you can never unsee, selfie#theinternetisforever is a fun tune which starts Side B. ‘It’s all fun and games until your Dad follows you on Instagram!’ cautions Brad, whose own kids will be entering an age where they can use social media. Perhaps it’s one for the dads, since Ringo Starr gets a namecheck.
Thus the Beatles and the Stones make it onto one country album. But will they return the favour? That is the major question as country music infiltrates popular music in the next ten years, with Brad as an elder statesman churning out masterful pieces of work like Love and War.
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