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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 6)

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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