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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 3)

It’s actually the guesthouse, just down the hill from the big house where country-music star Brad Paisley and his wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, live with their two young sons (Huck, 5, and Jasper, 2). There are horses grazing in the pasture beyond a fence; on another part of the property, deer wander.

In fact, the Paisleys lived in this four-bedroom guesthouse (the original structure has been expanded significantly) while they were building their main residence a few years ago. Now, for Paisley, this house is Creativity Central—the place where it all happens.

“We wrote every song on my last two records in this room,” he says, sitting in a living room that features a drum kit and piano (and a scuffed solid-body red Fender guitar) to go with the nicely appointed yet thoroughly homey furnishings. Tall, lean and broad-shouldered, Paisley is dressed casually: long-sleeved T-shirt, navy-blue pants from a tracksuit, sneakers and a baseball cap with a logo for Hendrick Motorsports.

“We’d have six people writing at one time. There were times when I had them writing in here while I was upstairs in the studio recording. This house has the greatest vibe for me. I don’t think I know how to write at the other house.”

As he gets ready to launch his 2012 tour—dubbed “The Virtual Reality World Tour 2012” by Paisley—on this afternoon a week before Christmas, his witty song, “Camouflage,” is still on Billboard’s Country Top 20; so is his most recent album, “This Is Country Music,” eight months after its release (including a stint in the No. 1 slot). Paisley’s music publishing company, Sea Gayle Music, was ASCAP Country Publisher of the Year for 2010.

Paisley has had 19 No. 1 songs since he released his first album, “Who Needs Pictures,” in 1999. Ten albums later (including a double-album compilation called “Hits Alive!”), his mantle (or, more accurately, his parents’ mantle) is clogged with award statuettes: from the Academy of Country Music’s Top New Artist award in 1999, to Grammy Awards for both his instrumentals and as a vocalist, to several awards as Top Male Vocalist from both the Academy of Country Music and Country Music Association. In 2010, he was named both CMA’s Entertainer of the Year and Artist of the Year at the American Country Awards.

As it happened, Paisley was the cohost (with Carrie Underwood) of the televised CMA award show the night he won Entertainer of the Year. He’s handled the hosting chores for four straight years—including writing comedy material for himself and Underwood.

“The day after the last CMA show, those women on ‘The View’ were saying, ‘Why don’t they get whoever wrote that show to write the Oscars?’ ” recalls Kendal Marcy, who, as leader of Paisley’s band, the Drama Kings, has played with him for 13 years. “In other words, professional writers don’t do as good a job as Brad did.”

And that’s not to mention the computer-animated cartoons that Paisley does himself, which play on the mammoth video screens that are part of his concert presentation. Paisley loves to draw and is also a self-taught painter; he schooled himself in the computer software that creates comic animated adventures starring cartoon versions of himself and his band as superheroes, which show behind them while they unwind an instrumental like “Time Warp” in concert.

“He asked me about cartoons—about how they do the animation on ‘South Park,’ ” recalls Scott Scovil, owner of Moo TV, which handles Paisley’s video production on tour. “I said, ‘Well, there’s software called Toon Boom, but it takes some training,’ and he says, ‘Toon Boom. Got it,’ and hangs up. And a few days later, I show up at rehearsal and he says, ‘Hey, you’ve got to see what I did. I made this little cartoon about me and the band.’ And he’d made an animated four-minute cartoon—except it went from one screen to the other, so he’d actually made TWO four-minute cartoons that fit together.”

“The first time I tried a cartoon, it looked bad, but it was campy and cool—and the audience just erupted,” Paisley says. “It turned the audience into a bunch of kids on Saturday morning. Since then, every tour I’ve done something new like that.”
He has his finger on every facet of the concert presentation, using rehearsals to tweak the visuals and spitball new ideas. He’s hands-on about the in-concert video—and about the band’s music videos, getting intricately involved with the conception, execution and editing.

“I like the process of controlling what’s going on behind me,” Paisley says. “Editing is a big part of the touring process. Some of the clips we show I might have edited myself on Final Cut Pro. With the music videos, I tend to go in with the editors and have a big hand in what we end up with. It’s as much of a creative outlet as anything else. I like it when somebody shows up for one of my shows and sees something new. You want them to be blown away because there’s so much more to the show than they expected.”

“People would be surprised at what an amazing editor this dude is,” says Bill Simmons, Paisley’s manager. “There have been two or three videos where I thought, ‘This is awful,’ until Brad got into the editing room. He’s a true renaissance man.”

Ask Paisley to describe himself, however, and he says, “I think of myself as a guitar player, first and foremost. My job description is songwriter. That’s why I’m hired to do what I do. I happen to sing—and I get to play guitar. But I was hired by the fans to write and sing those songs.

“I’ve had 25 or 30 singles. You take those and replace them with another 30 songs and I’m a failure. So it’s not about me—being me isn’t my job. My job is to write songs. If you start thinking that the people are there to see you wear your jeans tight onstage, well, they’re not there to see that. If I hadn’t had a hit with my records, I’d still be a songwriter and a guitar player. I think I could have made a living playing, whether it was in the studio or in someone else’s band.”

In his best-selling memoir, Diary of a Player: How My Musical Heroes Made a Guitar Man Out of Me (Howard Books/Simon & Schuster, 2011), Paisley reminisces affectionately about his first guitar—a Sears Silvertone, with the amplifier built into the case, given to him for Christmas 1980 by his grandfather, whose instrument it had been. That guitar currently sits next to one of his signature paisley-decorated electric models in a display case in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

“Truth be told, this may not have been the best first guitar choice for an eight-year-old kid,” Paisley writes. “At the time, that made no difference whatsoever—I quickly plugged it in and tried my little hands at playing it, thrilled to make some kind of noise of my own…From my perspective, a guitar is the most life-changing machine there is and offers the greatest return on investment you can get.”

Paisley grew up in Glen Dale, West Virginia, near Wheeling, where his father worked for the state’s Department of Transportation and his mother was a teacher. After getting that first guitar, he began taking lessons—and wrote his first song when he was 12, “Born on Christmas Day” (which was included on his 2006 album, “Brad Paisley Christmas,” in a mix that included samples from a recording made when he was 13).

The young Brad began performing at local Rotary lunches and church functions, leading a band, Brad Paisley and the C-Notes, that included his guitar teacher, Hank Goddard, and several other players—all his grandfather’s age. The host of a Wheeling radio show, “Jamboree USA,” heard him play and invited him to play on the program—and he became a regular fixture on the regional broadcast, playing with the big names in country music on a weekly basis as a teen.

After high school, Paisley followed his parents’ wishes and went to college: first at local West Liberty University, then at Belmont University in Nashville—mecca to the aspiring country-music artist—where he made connections that became the roots of his career. He met fellow songwriters Frank Rogers, Kelley Lovelace and Chris DuBois, who have remained creative partners, with Rogers producing his albums. They would meet after work everyday, spend all night writing songs and, surreptitiously, work in the college’s recording studio.

“We wrote like it was a free buffet,” Paisley recalls. “Some of us had day jobs—so they’d come to the apartment at six when they got off and we would write songs from six at night until three or four in the morning. None of us had anything better to do—we were all hopelessly single.

“It would be, ‘What idea do you have today?’ and we’d have three ideas for songs. So we’d start one, get about halfway through, then start on another, get halfway through that before we went back to the first one—and there was still a third one we hadn’t started yet. Sometimes we spent all night in the studio because it was easier not to stop. I can’t believe I got by on that little sleep.”

Guitars continue to define his life. He lost a chunk of his collection in a 2010 flood that submerged Nashville, destroying all of his touring instruments and gear three weeks before the start of a tour. He still got the tour off the ground on time, replacing the nine or ten guitars he regularly used in concert.

His collection includes about 75 guitars; one room of the guesthouse has a dozen instruments hanging on the walls, including one with the neck attached to a body carved in the shape of a jumping fish (reflecting both Paisley’s passion for fishing and the success of his hit “I’m Gonna Miss Her [The Fishing Song]”). Two treasured gifts hang near each other: One is inscribed by the late Buck Owens, who gave it to him; the other is a guitar given to him after the flood by Roy Clark. Nearby hangs a commemorative guitar, given to new inductees to the Grand Ole Opry (Paisley was inducted in 2001).

“I think I’ve got an acoustic guitar in every room in my house,” Paisley allows. “If I walk into a room and there’s nothing to be done, I’ll pick one up and just play. It’s like a crazy appendage. They’re all a little bit different and each one brings something different out of you.”

Many of his guitars are made by Bill Crook of Crook Custom Guitars, but Paisley also owns Fender Stratocasters, and Gibson acoustics: “I’m not monogamous,” he says with a smile.

Paisley—who has songs in several editions of the “Guitar Hero” video game—has developed a reputation as one of country music’s most inventive and nimble-fingered guitarists, someone who fills each nook and cranny of every tune with tasty guitar fills and frills: “One of the things you can bet  on with any new song we do is that Brad will want a lot of guitar solos,” says Marcy, who plays keyboards, banjo and mandolin in the band.

Paisley has a distinctively twangy guitar tone, country filtered through Duane Eddy and Dick Dale: “But when he plays with other players, he’ll gravitate to their zone,” Marcy says. “He starts to cop what they’re doing. He has the ability to clone their sound.”

Adds Paisley’s drummer Ben Sesar, “He’s kind of a chameleon. And he’s the kind of player who will never have a peak as to how good he can be—it’s just steadily up. The older he gets, the more rich and complex his playing gets.”

Paisley has his own guitar heroes, many of whom he’s played with. He won a pair of Grammy Awards for best country instrumental, including for “Cluster Pluck,” for which he gathered such noted pickers as James Burton (who backed both Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson), Vince Gill, John Jorgenson, Steve Wariner and Albert Lee to trade licks. He’s played onstage with Buck Owens and Roy Clark, but also with Brian Setzer, and recorded a duet of “Let the Good Times Roll” with blues legend B.B. King for his album, “Play.”

Paisley is modest about his own abilities. While he loves to cut loose with an instrumental in concert, “I think if I said, ‘I won’t be singing tonight,’ we would have a problem. They want to hear the songs when I play a concert.”

There are still players with whom Paisley would love to sit in, a list that starts with guitar god Eric Clapton.

“I’ve even said that on ‘The Tonight Show,’ ” Paisley says with a smile. “In fact, I say it in every interview I give. I guess he’s avoiding me.”

Eddie Van Halen is also at the top of his wish-list: “And I’d really love to play with the Eagles—just to get up and play at the end of the night, those double-guitar parts on ‘Hotel California.’ I know all those guys, but I’ve never been to an Eagles concert.”

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).


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