Brad Paisley

Country singer Brad Paisley returns to the UK in March to headline the Country To Country Festival at London’s O2 Arena. He told me it’s a great thrill to be coming back “I think it’s a neat country. I’ve had such a wonderful time just getting to meet everybody. I tried shepherds pie for the first time.” Here I catch up on his career and how it led up to last year’s amazing WHEELHOUSE album. 


Photo by Jim Shea, 2013

Sometimes in making music, and even in writing about music, you have to stand way out there on the parapet, occasionally a lonely figure on the edge. It’s been my way ever since I started writing about my favourite music way back in the mid-1960s. Though I love a lot of commercial acts and bask in their success, quite often you’ll find that I was into their music long before the masses caught up with them. That was the way it was for me with the Beatles, Bread, Gram Parsons, the Eagles, George Strait, Eric Church, the Band Perry and Brad Paisley. Back in 1998 I was in Nashville and I stumbled across Brad Paisley. His debut album hadn’t been released, but I saw and heard something in his music that turned my world upside down.

An immensely creative songwriter and first-class guitarist, Brad was a Music Row newcomer who was shortly to be hailed as a traditional country saviour. Steeped in bluegrass, honky-tonk, gospel and rural story-telling, some 15 years and 20 million album sales later he remains a genuine country boy who connects with country music’s musical past and then gives it a compelling contemporary edge.

Small town, rural America, that’s where Brad came from. He might be married to Hollywood star Kimberley Williams—movie fans probably know her as Steve Martin’s daughter in Father Of The Bride and its sequel—and regularly rubs shoulders with the likes of Jim Belushi and William Shatner as he splits his time between their Hollywood home and Tennessee farm, but he remains very much a down-home country boy.


Photo by Jim Shea, 2013

He was born and raised in Glen Dale, West Virginia, a stone’s throw south of Wheeling near the Ohio border. “Mayberry,” he says, describing his hometown of just under 2,000 folks. “If you ever watched Andy Griffith, it was that. You’d walk down to the drug store. You’d sit on the swing. Go fishing. The river’s right down there. I’d head down there and see if anything was biting. You’d ride your bike to the creek. It was a perfect place to grow up. I could always go out the back door and say I’d be back. There were no worries. There were no abductions. No fear of anything.”

If he sometimes seems self-conscious about his role as a standard-bearer for tradition, he makes no secret whatsoever about his love of old school country, the Grand Ole Opry and the folks who he thinks made the music great. “I’m proud of the fact that I’m a Nashville-based country music artist who cares pretty much exclusively about what’s going on in my music within this community,” he says. “I’m not out to impress LA or New York. I sure hope some of those people get it, but more than likely they won’t. I’m not sure The Andy Griffith Show was as big a hit in LA as it was in Kansas, but I’m a big fan of it. I’m more into that mindset, trying to make sure that’s where I focus my efforts.”

Indeed, Brad’s strong sense of who he is, and how his identity should translate into his music are a big part of the reason he has established himself as a major talent. “We run the risk in this format, because of the lure of big success, of forgetting that it’s about the true enjoyment of creating an art form,” he says. “But every one of those old-time Opry members knows what it’s like to play this music with no hope of huge reward other than to sing every night—and that’s the reason I love playing there. I can walk on that stage and feel really good about country music again because it’s not a business there, but a love of this music which is supposed to reflect honesty and American tradition.”

Rooted in traditional country sounds, yet as modern as a hybrid vehicle, Paisley’s music draws on humour, sincerity, compassion, instrumental prowess and unique song topics to give him a style all his own. In short West Virginia’s favourite son has established a fresh sound and a distinct creative path that puts him up there with such legends of the past as Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Hank Williams and the more recent George Strait and Alan Jackson.

Like those legends of the past, especially the likes of Haggard, Owens and even guys like Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins and Roger Miller, Brad is always looking at ways to re-invent his music whilst still retaining those down-home values that he was raised on. If you want to try and analyse Brad’s music, you’ll discover he’s actually closer to Roy Clark and Jerry Reed, two performers known as much for their impressive guitar playing and cornpone humour as for their singing and songwriting. But there’s more, much more than that to his musical repertoire. What separates him from so many of the current country superstars is his ability to make you laugh at a song about leaving the toilet seat down for the missus, cry over a song about a stepfather’s devotion and marvel at his six-string skills. He is among the very few major-label country artists whose lead guitar work is quickly identifiable and technically unassailable.

Photo by John Russell

He is a widely recognised guitar specialist who fills his songs with head-turning instrumental twists. Some think Brad could have made it as a Nashville session musician—he always includes a couple of hot instrumentals on his albums—but early on he’d taken some stabs at songwriting and proved precocious there as well. He rapidly became known for using humour in his songwriting. “Humour has always been very important, as far as life in general,” he says. “I always had a family that laughed a lot. Life’s too short not to laugh.”

His albums tend to be a blend of heart and humour, reminiscent of the approach of the late Roger Miller. “I like the extremes in country music,” he readily admits. “I like the way Roger Miller could kill you with laughter and sadness all in the same record ... That’s just life, and I think music should, just like a good movie, be a reflection of real life emotions.”

For the most part Brad Paisley shines by doing what he does best: His deliveries are wry when it helps, heartfelt when need be and sometimes both at once, his musicianship is outstanding and his arrangements are clean, well-rooted contemporary country. He is equally comfortable with emotional extremes. The live-audience dynamic is part of his focus on two criteria when creating a new album:

“With each song I choose, I have to visualise the people in the front rows of my shows enjoying it as we perform it. If I can see them singing along, smiling and laughing, or holding up a lighter or cell phone, then the song is a keeper.”

Brad Paisley, Castlebar, Ireland. Photo by Ben Enos

The second rule comes when he considers if this song is different than anything he’s said before in a song—and if he can imagine it becoming somebody’s favourite. “That way, I’m sure each song is different than others on the album, and each song is a potential hit,” he says. “I don’t want to feel anything on there is weaker than the song next to it. I never want to think: ‘Man, I wish we could’ve found something a little better.’”

For last year’s WHEELHOUSE he more than lived up to the criteria of each song being different but he suffered somewhat in the ‘potential hit’ department as he stretched the envelope with the most ambitious album of his career so far. The album was recorded at Brad’s home in Franklin, Tennessee. He converted the yellow farmhouse on his property to a studio, which allowed him to work on the album at all hours of the day and night. In addition, it was the first album of his career that he produced himself and also utilised his own band, the Drama Kings, rather than typically using studio musicians.

“A lot of rock bands will go rent a house for a year and that’s their studio,” he says. “They don’t want to do that in Nashville. In Nashville, we’ve got places like Blackbird and the Castle, where I’ve always recorded … I thought what I need to do is build the funkiest little workable space where I could cut songs.”

The studio was built in the home he and his wife occupied for several years at the beginning of their marriage. Once they built a new place, it became a guesthouse, but Brad began to envision it as more of a creative space. His old bedroom had odd angles in its ceiling and closets that created perfect acoustics for a studio environment. He turned the living room into an expansive location for the piano, and used a tiled downstairs bathroom as an echo chamber.

This refurbished environment gave him a new freedom to experiment both musically and lyrically without the restraint of studio time or the commercial limitations likely to be placed upon him by record label executives. Brad challenged himself from the beginning of the process working on the album at all hours of the day and night, re-writing songs and arrangements as and when the inspiration took him. His dedication and commitment to the album was fully vindicated by the quality of the completed recordings.

WHEELHOUSE is the most diverse album that Brad has so far recorded. As producer, performer and writer of the album, he shows himself as a seasoned veteran who knows exactly who he is and what he wants to say, with his formidable gifts on full and marvellous display. He shows remarkable skill in pacing 75 minutes of country music. By varying his accompanists and mining several veins of country, he keeps the music engaging and surprising. Some of those surprises will initially just stop you in your tracks. He faces the kind of big-life problems that we all encounter—religious doubts, racism, death, break-up, family roots, bullying—head-on and in a way that few, if any, major country star has ever done.

In my humble opinion WHEELHOUSE was not just the best and most important country album of last year, it was and is, the most important country album of the past 20-odd years and is one of those records that will almost certainly be more widely appreciated and acknowledged many years in the future. But not everyone has shared my enthusiasm for the album. Reviews, especially in America, were mixed. None of the four official singles made number one on the American country charts—the excellent and commercially savvy Beat This Summer stalled at number nine—and WHEELHOUSE is the only one of Brad’s nine studio albums not to have gone gold or platinum.

An album that I automatically considered to be a shoo-in for the CMA Album of the Year and a Grammy Award was given the cold-shoulder by the American media, the music business and the record-buying public. For me, a Maverick, this is worrying, as I’d hoped against hope for years and years that a major modern-day country act would follow in the footsteps of past legends like Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and step out of their ‘comfort zone’ and record a groundbreaking album that would be universally embraced.

A few years ago Alan Jackson took a risk with his stunning LIKE RED ON A ROSE album and was treated in similar fashion to Brad Paisley. Rather than risk upsetting the proverbial apple cart, Alan retreated safely back into his comfort zone. Though to his credit, he has ventured out gingerly with a couple of low-key gospel albums and more boldly with last year’s BLUEGRASS ALBUM.

I just hope that Brad Paisley doesn’t become disillusioned by the comparative commercial failure of WHEELHOUSE and take the George Strait safe route of feeding the American mainstream radio machine with safe singles that hardly rock the boat or cause any kind of a ripple. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with George Strait’s country music, but I just wish that ol’ George would stretch a little, attempt something a little different, instead of keeping that one eye on the radio dial everytime he walks into a recording studio.

And what of Brad Paisley. Well, I’m hopeful that he won’t simply play the Nashville game. I’m looking for him to follow in the footsteps of the Hag and Cash, maybe serve up a heartfelt tribute or two to people like Roger Miller, Little Jimmy Dickens or Bill Anderson, all of whom he rates highly. Maybe even a country-comedy album. Or even a contemporary bluegrass album. With his own studio, the world’s his oyster. I think that ringing the musical changes is too important for Brad Paisley to simply jump back the on that radio treadmill that shakes the tail of modern country music in Nashville.   

“To me, if you sing country music, it’s a mark of respect to those that came before us to honour them. It’s not something you can just dive into and pay no homage to. Country music is something I take very seriously. I’ll be true to it and the places it needs to go, and in my heart I usually figure out where it needs to go. The important thing for me is the music. Doing the records that I’m proud of. If that ever wasn’t happening, then I would rather write songs and do a lot more bass fishing, which is my other great love.”

Brad Paisley Wrigley Field, Chicago. Photo by Ben Enos 6.9.12