Summer Guide: Don't Take Brad Paisley to the Airport Strip Club

The country star likes six strings, not G-strings. Plus, summer music picks

Brad Paisley uses a laboratory metaphor to describe the difference between 2009’s American Saturday Night and his new album, This Is Country Music. “Last time I got as personal as I possibly could,” says the singer from his home in Nashville. He’s referring to Saturday Night cuts such as “Then,” about how he met his wife, and the two-part “Welcome to the Future,” in which he draws a line from his grandfather’s experience during World War II to the sense of wonder that comes over him every time he tucks his two young sons into bed. “It really was me in the Petri dish,” Paisley continues. “Whereas this time I’m the one looking through the microscope.”

As always, Paisley’s focus remains laser-sharp. In “One of Those Lives,” he examines a family’s battle against childhood cancer with devastating specificity, while “A Man Don’t Have to Die” offers this brutal summation of a night spent ogling dancers at the airport-adjacent strip club: “All you feel is drunk and broke and lonely when they’re through.” Country Music contains plenty of lighter stuff, too; the title of “Working on a Tan” probably speaks for itself. But Paisley never wavers in his mission to capture what he calls the “plow-through-it mentality” that seems to have suffused American life since the election-year high of 2008. The result suggests a Sundance documentary with tent-pole production values.

“Brad writes songs everyone can relate to,” says Sheryl Crow, who contributes vocals to the album’s gospel-traditional closer, “Life’s Railway to Heaven.” “There are lines in his songs that make you go, ‘Oh, my God—I think that all the time!’ ”

The Country Music Association’s reigning Entertainer of the Year, Paisley singles out that universality as the defining quality of his genre, no matter how slick the delivery device. “The debate over what it means to sell out has been raging within the country-music community since the days of Hank Williams,” he says. “And it didn’t get any more civil in the ’60s, when Patsy Cline and Eddy Arnold were basically cutting Frank Sinatra records in a different city.” The point he’s trying to make with the new album’s title track—which he opens by admitting, “You’re not supposed to say the word ‘cancer’ in a song”—is that “country music is about lyrics and about choice of topic.”

In Paisley’s case, at least, it’s also about hot-shit guitar heroics. Frank Rogers, the singer’s longtime producer, says that midway through the American Saturday Night tour Paisley bought a vintage Martin acoustic that “just grabbed him.” The new album, Rogers adds, “really started with that guitar, which is why it ended up a little earthier than the last one.” (In modern-day Nashville, earthiness is a relative concept.) Paisley’s live shows contain no shortage of six-string spectacle; during a gig last year at L.A.’s Staples Center, dude strolled the arena floor while peeling off the kind of licks most country stars hire session guys to perform. “Brad basically writes songs so he’s able to get onstage and play guitar for two hours every night,” Rogers says with a laugh.

Paisley doesn’t deny it. But he also admits that his tours—this summer’s North American trek hits Holmdel’s PNC Bank Arts Center July 15—are prime research opportunities. “I’m fascinated by the lives of the people I look out at every night,” he says. “Whenever I see some statistic about the average American, I’m always like, ‘I don’t need a statistic to know about them—they come to my shows.’ ”

July 15, PNC Bank Arts Center, Holmdel, New Jersey, livenation.com

Summer Music Picks

Brian Wilson
June 11–13
The recent announcement that Brian Wilson is prepping the legendary Smile sessions for official release later this year earned the expected oohs and aahs from Wilson’s devoted record-nerd constituency. Wouldn’t it have been nice, though, if more of those High Fidelity types had rallied around 2010’s underappreciated Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin? At the Highline for three nights as part of the Blue Note Jazz Festival, the 68-year-old Beach Boy will perform his sumptuous, sensitive renditions of such American-songbook staples as “I Loves You, Porgy” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Don’t sleep (again). Highline Ballroom, 431 West 16th Street, highlineballroom.com

NKOTBSB
June 12–13 (Izod Center)
July 31 (Nassau Coliseum)
Armed with what might be the most unwieldy name in boy-band history, NKOTBSB unites members of New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys in a nine-member supergroup whose roots extend to the adolescence of Justin Bieber’s mom. These shows are sure to be long on hits from the old days, but the outfit also seems determined to compete with today’s young chart-toppers: “Don’t Turn Out the Lights,” a new tune from NKOTBSB’s joint greatest-hit disc, is virtually indistinguishable from Jason Derulo’s “In My Head.” Izod Center, East Rutherford, New Jersey, meadowlands.com; Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, nassaucoliseum.com

Sade
June 21 (Nassau Coliseum)
June 24 (Izod Center)
June 25 (Prudential Center)
Last year, the English avant-soul star released her first studio album in a decade, and now Sade and the band that bears her name are crisscrossing the globe on their first world tour since 2001. Should you anticipate a rejiggered sound here in reflection of all that elapsed time? You should not: On The Ultimate Collection, her new double-disc best-of, Sade starts out cucumber-cool and stays that way through a Jay-Z-equipped remix of “The Moon and the Sky.” With John Legend, whose smoothly operating ballads speak to Sade’s enduring influence. Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, nassaucoliseum.com; Izod Center, East Rutherford, New Jersey, meadowlands.com; Prudential Center, Newark, New Jersey, prucenter.com

Eddie Vedder
June 21–22
There’s nary a bellow to be heard on Ukulele Songs, the straightforwardly titled new solo album by Eddie Vedder: Singing fresh tunes of his own as well as standards like “More Than You Know” and “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” the Pearl Jam frontman accompanies himself on the four-stringed Hawaiian instrument; it’s an even sparer, sweeter sound than the rustic folk settings Vedder employed on his 2007 soundtrack for Into the Wild. At the Beacon, you can expect a catalog-spanning set list stretching back to PJ’s Ten, which this summer turns 20. Beacon Theatre, 2124 Broadway, beacontheatre.com

Def Leppard + Heart
July 12 (Nikon at Jones Beach Theater)
July 13 (PNC Bank Arts Center)
Got a hankering to hear “Foolin’ ” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” with added crowd noise? This summer, you’ve got two options: Schlep to Secaucus to pick up Def Leppard’s new Wal-Mart-exclusive live disc or hit one of the long-running hair-metal band’s two local dates. I recommend the later, if only because you’ll also see Heart, whose excellent 2010 disc, Red Velvet Car, served as a vital object lesson in how to grow up without growing boring. Bang your head to “Barracuda” and “Magic Man,” but save some fist-pumps for “WTF” and “Queen City,” as well. Jones Beach, jonesbeach.com; PNC Bank Arts Center, Holmdel, New Jersey, livenation.com

tUnE-YarDs
July 14
You don’t need me to tell you how great the new tUnE-YarDs album is: Citing raves by Robert Christgau at MSN and Mike Powell here at the Voice, Metacritic accurately refers to w h o k i l l’s critical reception as “universal acclaim.” What you might not know, though, is that Merrill Garbus’s current live band (which includes a pair of sax players) pushes her bracingly polyglot pop into brainy-funky dance-party territory. If you couldn’t afford to see Paul Simon at the Beacon earlier this month—or even if you could—this free show is not to be missed. Pier 54, Hudson River Park, riverrocksnyc.com

Zoot Woman
August 10
England’s Zoot Woman are probably best known in the United States (if they’re known at all) for the membership of Stuart Price, who in addition to his solo work under the names Les Rythmes Digitales and Jacques Lu Cont has recently carved out a healthy production career with the likes of Scissor Sisters and the Killers. Yet each of Zoot Woman’s three studio albums—start with Living in a Magazine, from 2001—is a small wonder of sleek, ’80s-inspired electro-pop. Fans of Phoenix are strongly advised to take advantage of this rare American appearance. (le) poisson rouge, 158 Bleecker Street, lepoissonrouge.com.

Sonic Youth + Wild Flag
August 12
It’s never a bad idea to check in on Sonic Youth, especially in an outdoor venue where those silver-rocket guitars can spiral skyward free of restriction. But what makes this date a must-see is the noise-rock veterans’ choice of opening act: Wild Flag, the buzzy new psych-garage outfit featuring ex-Helium frontwoman Mary Timony with Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, both formerly of Sleater-Kinney. Earlier this year in a warm-up slot at Radio City, the ladies threatened to steal the show from Bright Eyes. Thurston, Kim, Lee, and Steve? Consider yourselves warned. Williamsburg Waterfront, 93 Kent Avenue, ticketmaster.com

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