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The Paisley Patterns

Brad Paisley Is at the Top of the Country Music World, writing songs and smoking cigars
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Brad Paisley, March/April 2012

(continued from page 1)

Paisley gets into shape for a tour with an exercise regimen of running and weights (and stretching, to fend off back problems that have occasionally bothered him). He doesn’t drink alcohol—never has, though, as he says, “I’ve tasted beer a couple of times”—or indulge in drugs (“Except antibiotics,” he notes).

His sole vice? A love of fine tobacco. Cigars, he says, have become not just a favored way to celebrate a good concert—they’re a passion and a source of relaxation, thanks to the teachings of Sesar, his long-time drummer, and Marcy, his bandleader.

Sesar had quit smoking cigarettes but had taken up cigars, which struck Paisley as odd: “But he told me that smoking cigars is nothing like smoking cigarettes,” Paisley recalls. “Cigarettes are a habit—but cigars are an event. Cigars are something that require focus; they’re not something you lean on. They’re something you consciously decide to do.”

His first cigar? A Cuban Montecristo he bought while on tour in Canada: “My drummer told me to sip the smoke, like water through a straw. He said to take little puffs, so it didn’t get in my lungs. He told me, ‘You’ve got to taste the smoke on your tongue, let it roll around and then blow it out completely.’ He also told me the taste would change throughout. I had a good teacher.”

Now it’s become something of a ritual: After a particularly satisfying concert, after the crowd has left, Paisley, Sesar and Marcy will wander up into seats in the upper reaches of the arena they’ve just played, light a cigar and watch the road crew tear down the stage: “It really puts a cap on the day,” Paisley says.

“Brad is very sophisticated in his taste,” Marcy says. Adds Sesar, “He can peel back the flavors with the best of them. He could be one of those guys who rates the cigars for Cigar Aficionado. We’re all cigar geeks, really.”

Certain post-show cigars come to mind for Paisley: after a rollicking set in front of a sold-out crowd at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough,  Massachusetts, in August 2010, or following a June 2011 concert at Progressive Field in Cleveland.

“It had been threatening rain all day in Cleveland but we did the show without it actually raining,” Paisley recalls. “When the show was over, we went and sat in the Cleveland Indians’ dugout while they tore down the stage and lit our cigars. And it started to pour. That’s pretty fun—we’d played really well and just got the cigars lit. And we just sat and watched it rain and talked about the show.”

Observes Marcy, “Having those cigars after the show—that’s like our way of spiking the football. There’s always a new tour, always a new song to learn, always a new horizon. But we take those little moments to spike the ball—to give thanks, celebrate, feel proud and then move on.”

“We don’t just casually have a cigar,” Sesar adds. “It’s not taken for granted. It’s always reflective.”

Paisley seconds that notion: “When I’m smoking a cigar, I don’t want to be doing anything else—I’ve got to sit and think. There’s something that feels almost Native American about it. That’s where it comes from, right? It’s our peace pipe; we use it to sit and think about the future and what we’ve just done. It’s kind of a Zen feeling. I look at it like dessert.”

He thought about it enough that he wrote “The Cigar Song,” which appeared on his “Mud on the Tires” album. The tune is a humorous tale of guy who buys himself a box of expensive Cubans and insures them against fire and theft. He smokes them all “one by one,” then submits a claim to his insurance agent: “With a straight face I told him that through a series of small fires/They’d all gone up in flames.”

Paisley has a pair of humidors in the guesthouse and another on his tour bus. Since he’s become known as a cigar lover, concert promoters tend to lavish boxes of premium cigars on him in recognition of sold-out shows: “It’s kind of the go-to, easy gift. Honestly, I’ve probably got more than I need, but don’t tell anyone. You can never have too many cigars.”

When he’s touring, Paisley tends to save his cigar smoking for the end of the week, to preserve his voice: “For me, Saturday night is a good night. If I’ve got a four-day weekend where I’m playing four cities and I smoke one on Thursday, by the Sunday show I’ll be in trouble, if I don’t watch my voice and how I sing.”

He enjoys a variety of cigars, though he favors a Montecristo No. 2 or a Punch Grand Cru: “I like something complex,” he says, “something where the cigar changes throughout. I don’t like that tingly, sore-throat feeling from an overly spicy cigar. But I don’t rely on any one thing. I find CAOs are very consistent—but I’ve got these Cuban Cohibas a promoter gave me for when I’m in the mood for a big, intense experience.”

His band members tend to enjoy the cigars while sipping a fine whiskey, or a glass of wine. But the nondrinking Paisley has his own favorite beverage when savoring a cigar.

“If you have a Yoo-hoo with a cigar, it’s like a s’more,” Paisley enthuses. “Anything chocolate is fantastic. A hit of chocolate takes the bite away. A chocolate milkshake with a cigar? That’s just decadent. Grape juice is good, too. Anything thick and sweet is pretty cool. I think I’d like port, if I did that.”

As he spoke, Paisley was gearing up for his 2012 tour, which kicked off in mid-January with back-to-back shows in the deep-freeze belt: Grand Rapids, Michigan; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and St. Paul, Minnesota.

“The first time I saw the schedule, I remember thinking, who is the idiot in the organization that had this idea?” Paisley says. “But it’s brilliant, really. I’ve played Minnesota in the summer and the winter. Nobody in Minnesota is all that excited about wasting one minute indoors in the summer  because their summers are, like, five minutes long. But if you play St. Paul in the winter, they’re ecstatic to see you. There’s this amazing excitement level, because you gave them something else to think about other than avoiding frostbite.”

Forbes magazine ranked Paisley third among country music’s highest-paid stars in September 2011 (and No. 48 among all celebrities), estimating that he grossed $40 million between May 2010 and May 2011—which, they estimate, was double from the year before. (Paisley’s management wouldn’t comment on the figures.) That includes tour revenues, CD sales (“This Is Country Music” went gold in a month), publishing rights for his music and income from endorsement deals with Chevy and Sea Ray, among others.

But growing up in a family with two working parents, Paisley understood the value of money earned. He may have the resources of an entertainment mogul, but he says, “I don’t let the fact that I’ve made a lot of money go to my head—I wasn’t born that way.

“It’s hard to get out of the mindset of what it was like before I had anything. I still think that way. It’s funny, because it’s true whether I’m pricing a guitar pedal on eBay—and thinking that, well, I’d pay $200 but $275 seems a little pricey—or when I’m trying to decide whether to pull the trigger on five lasers instead of four for the live show, which cost thousands a day. “I really try to remember that it’s all finite. No matter how much you’ve got, there’s not an endless supply of good fortune.”

He recalls contests he and writing partner Kelly Lovelace would have in college, where they’d go grocery shopping at the local Kroger market to see who could spend the least on a week’s supply of food: “I could get a week’s worth for $15 to $17,” Paisley says with a laugh. “Kraft macaroni and cheese was 59 cents; a package of Ramen noodles was 99 cents. Milk, cereal, eggs—what else did I need?”

His one indulgence is the private jet he charters when he’s on the road, an expense that’s built into the budget for the tour. Even then, he doesn’t use it daily: He’ll fly to the first stop of a four-day concert weekend on the day of the show, ride the bus between stops, then fly home right after the last one: “It lets me spend more time with my family. Most entertainers at my level do that.”

Paisley sold more than a million concert tickets last year, placing him among the top touring acts in popular music. And he does it by appealing primarily to his base of country-music fans. While he may be a monster guitar player and one of the biggest acts on the country scene, Paisley has yet to cross over to the rest of the music audience the way that, say, teen sensation Taylor Swift has.

That’s the challenge he faces at this point: Having hit a pinnacle in his field, can Brad Paisley reach the mass-market audience? Certainly, Paisley has achieved mainstream benchmarks, playing on “Good Morning America,” “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno and “The Late Show” with David Letterman (though he still hasn’t garnered an invitation from “Saturday Night Live”), as well as hosting those CMA awards shows. He’s cracked the market in Europe and the Far East, selling out arena shows from London to Tokyo—with Central and South America the next territory he’s prepared to conquer.

“He’s done everything there is to do in country,” Rob Beckham, his agent, says. “He’s in the forefront with country, and we’re expanding to the rest of the world. His celebrity is so big—and it’s getting bigger by the day. But I don’t know if he’ll ever cross over to the pop audience. The only thing that hinders him is the cowboy hat; it’s such a trademark, but in the mainstream pop world, a lot of people don’t think the hat is cool. Still, when we were playing Europe, he sold out a show in London just by putting out a couple of tweets on Twitter. And we sold about 500 of those cowboy hats at the concert.”

Bill Simmons, his manager, believes that Paisley doesn’t need to court the mainstream audience because it will find its way to him. Rather than dilute his brand by making more pop-sounding tunes, Paisley is moving in other directions: contributing music to movies (he wrote songs for the soundtracks of both Cars and Cars 2), producing (he was a producer for a TV pilot that didn’t get picked up), perhaps even as an actor: “As for the cowboy hat, well, the lines of musical genres are always blurring,” Simmons says. “I don’t know that he’s consciously trying to cross over.”

Indeed, Paisley offered something of a manifesto of his beliefs in the title tune of his most recent album, “This Is Country Music.” The song explains that, while some of the topics country music deals with—everything from cancer and Jesus to “tractors, trucks, little towns and mama”—may not seem hip to the cognoscenti, “This is real, this is your life in a song/Yeah, this is country music.”

Yes, Paisley admits, the song indicates a small chip on his shoulder about the genre: “There are still misconceptions—I’m asked all the time what makes something ‘country’,” he says. “My conclusion is that we don’t shy away from the specifics of life. We don’t find glossy, poetic ways around things. These are songs that deal with divorce, religion, patriotism. If you’ve got a heartache, you tell why. And really, there aren’t many pop songs that deal with anything other than heartache.”

Paisley also isn’t afraid to infuse his songs with humor. Tunes like “I’m Gonna Miss Her,” “Online,” “Ticks” and “Celebrity” are like extended but sly punchlines, jokes within jokes, set to juicy guitar licks and well-wrought production. A song like “The Pants” (“It’s not who wears the pants/It’s who wears the skirt”) is smart and witty, falling squarely within a venerable country tradition of telling it exactly like it is.

“I envy writers who can create imagery that’s less nail-on-the-head-type writing,” he says. “I’d love to be able to write something along the lines of what Bono would write, where you’re not necessarily sure what happened to the person who’s singing, even though you know what they’re feeling. A common complaint from the record company about a new song of mine is, ‘I don’t know what you mean.’ In pop, that doesn’t even enter the thought process. I don’t know what most pop songs mean. I listen to pop stations all the time—and I don’t want to turn on a pop station and hear a song about divorce or losing a job. That’s our real estate. When I listen to pop music, I want to hear metaphors, songs about loss told through imagery of planets hurling away into space. I love the Foo Fighters—but when I hear Dave Grohl singing, ‘Learning to walk again,’ I don’t want to hear the specifics of what Dave’s thinking.”

That doesn’t mean that Paisley wouldn’t like to reach that audience; he just wants to do it on his own terms. He saw Coldplay at Lollapalooza in Chicago in August 2011 (“That was pretty wild”) and contemplates getting the chance to show what he can do for an audience not primed for country music.

“I’d love to play at something like Lollapalooza,” he says. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to walk out and impress a crowd of people not normally in earshot of my music. It would have to be unexpected and unannounced. That’s where the guitar would be a real vehicle for me. As much as I love country, I’m a guitar player who was influenced as much by Eric Clapton and Eddie Van Halen as by Don Rich.”

Paisley’s tour will take him into the fall, when he’ll turn 40: “It’s not that big a deal,” he says. “Forty is the new 15.” When the tour is finished, he’ll focus on his next album—and he feels as though the next one affords him a unique opportunity.


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