Brad Paisley Is Ready to Make Nice

A country star critics can love, with Obama-era tendencies Music Row can tolerate

"I am very disappointed in Brad Paisley," some yokel named Jack wrote in the comments section of Country Music Television's blog in September, a couple of months after the star performed at the White House with Alison Krauss as part of an educational workshop on country music. "He's never been true country anyway. He probably became liberal from being married to a Hollywood actress. You can tell he's whooped and she runs the show."

But being whooped isn't all that bad. The truest true-country honky-tonker on Paisley's current American Saturday Night, the best album he's ever made, is a witty sing-along called "The Pants," about how you might wear 'em, bucko, but whoop-dee-doo, it's who wears the skirt that counts.

The skirt-wearer in his own house is Kimberly Williams, who Huffington Post lists as having donated $2,300 to Barack Obama's campaign last year, and whom Paisley first fell for after seeing Father of the Bride. "Welcome to the Future (Reprise)," off Saturday Night, relates the details. The celebrities wed in 2003—the same year Paisley hit it big with a song chiding celebrities. Six years later, on "She's Her Own Woman," he confesses he still doesn't know where she keeps the tarragon, or even what tarragon is. (Psst, dude: Check the spice rack! If you really wanna impress her, the August issue of Cooking Light says tarragon can be useful with seafood; if none's on hand, substitute parsley. You catch lotsa fish, right? Go for it.)

The Williams-Paisleys now have two boys, Huck and Jasper. Saturday Night's "Anything Like Me" predicts that, before long, they'll be breaking windows and skipping class just like Paisley used to. Boys will be boys, after all. (Except for those metrosexual sissies who lotion their hands nowadays, as Brad pointed out on "I'm Still a Guy" a couple years back, 'cause how the heck do they grip their tackle box? Not that he has to worry: "I don't highlight my hair/I've still got a pair." And where his better half sees a priceless French painting, he sees a drunk, naked girl. Who is probably always changing her mind, and taking way too long to get dressed, and scratching up the car.) Paisley has also talked about being proud that Obama is his sons' first new president, and how moved he was last November 4. Which makes him the new Dixie Chicks in certain country fans' eyes . . . but, hey, there's always liberal rock critics!

Besides, country radio hasn't backlashed yet, as evidenced by his latest top 10 hit, "Welcome to the Future," the most optimistic musical statement about the State of America you'll hear in this recessed year: Now we can play video games on our phones and make deals with the Japanese who Gramps fought back in World War II, and, wow, look how far black people have come! The touching if confusing racial-progress verse sort of implies Obama, except the "man with a dream" Paisley refers to was somebody different (and not "Martin Luther," whom the lyrics actually name.) Weird. Still, stellar song, even with its "futuristic" '70s synth-pomp coda—gutsy how it runs against the Nashville grain by explicitly arguing that a changing world is a good thing.

"Welcome to the Future" is clearly Saturday Night's centerpiece—you can tell, since there's that reprise later, plus a hidden instrumental version. Video's a real throat-lumper, too: kids from all around the world planning a bright tomorrow (plus a Japanese country band twanging in front of a Confederate flag, in a song that mentions cross-burning, WTF?) It's a genuine melting pot, just like the record's Saturday Night Live audition of a title track, which celebrates a nation fond of Brazilian boots, French kisses, Spanish moss, Greek fraternities, Canadian bacon, Mexican beer, and pizza. Even actual immigrants, if you count Great-Great-Great-Grandpa!

What's impressive is that as Paisley reaches toward Big Statements—not to mention conceptually arranged albums increasingly exceeding an hour in length (very rare in Music City, as is his lack of a best-of disc)—the music also somehow seems to be loosening up. Only a half-decade ago, he was easy to dismiss as just another neo-trad blando in a white hat, with as little charisma as any and a less expressive singing voice than most: He got lucky with a non-mediocre number now and then, but they all do—an album every other summer since '99, one heartfelt Jesus song per, reams of shrug-worthy high-lonesome slow-song snooze, cornpone "Kung Pao" picking-and-grinning guest-star interludes starting with 2003's Mud on the Tires. Then he hit with two singles about drinking that were tough to ignore: the dark death-folk Krauss duet "Whiskey Lullaby" and the significantly lighter booze-narrated waltz "Alcohol," the latter novel enough to place in 2005's Pazz & Jop poll. His surprisingly playable 16-track 5th Gear—complete with its own crit-approved novelty hit in the outdoor-sex itch-scratcher "Ticks," some sub–Weird Al Web-geek-baiting called "Online," more obligatory boring ballads, and nifty studio sound-effects galore—followed in 2007.

If nothing else, you had to give it up for the fella's guitar playing. When it comes to vintage equipment, Paisley's as much a tech wonk as his "Online" protagonist. And by 5th Gear, his understated virtuoso fills and washes—hoedown, swamp, surf, spaghetti western, blues, Merseybeat, festering Muzak voluptuousness—had become downright encyclopedic. Since he avoids the semi-metal stomping that more and more stands as Nashville's norm, it's easy to miss how rock he is. But 2008's mostly instrumental wankfest Play had its Billy Gibbons and Eddie Van Halen moments, and his catchiest recent hits aren't far from Tom Petty. Good ol' boys like Montgomery Gentry and Toby Keith push way more buttons for me: Their politics are more threatening, their sessionmen more propulsive, their vocals more involved. By comparison, Paisley's a big ol' wuss. But the phrase "big ol' wuss," from a high-IQ rundown of his life history with water, of all things, is also one of Saturday Night's most grin-inducing hooks. Wusses deserve respect, too, especially funny ones with chops. I wish the Williams-Paisleys all the best.

Brad Paisley plays Madison Square Garden October 21

 
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