Brad Paisley's Engaging the Mainstream Country Audience Like No Other Contemporary Performer
Brad Paisley, undeniably intelligent, unfailingly congenial, culturally ambitious ambassador of country music, will once again aim to please the crowd Sunday night with his umpteenth CMA Music Fest appearance at LP Field. In a phone interview with the Scene, he mentioned that during another recent Nashville performance — at a ceremony to dedicate the convention center — he'd completely forgotten a verse to one of his own songs, chuckling, "I can make the news, you know."
Of course, Paisley was really making a joke about the fact that his interracial/inter-genre LL Cool J collab "Accidental Racist" has been one of country music's biggest headline-makers of the year so far. That song is one of 17 tracks on Paisley's latest, Wheelhouse, which arrived with a promotional campaign framing the entire album as a conscious effort to change things up.
But taken from another angle, the singer, songwriter and guitar-slinger's new stuff also continues an important conversation he'd already begun with his audience — a conversation few others in his genre (or any other) dare, or care, to have. The Scene spoke with Paisley to find out how that conversation's going.
When you debuted the first single from Wheelhouse, "Southern Comfort Zone," on the CMA Awards last year, it felt like you were speaking directly to the country audience and offering them something more than the comforting familiarity that usually comes with songs that have "Southern" in the title. What kind of response were you hoping for?
You know, that's a really good example of something that was very uncharted territory for me, because I'm used to picking a single based on being able to point to the left field wall and say, "OK, it's gonna go over the fence over there," or "This is the response it's gonna have." ... "Southern Comfort Zone" was written as the preface, really, of this record, and never intended to be a single at all.
Only someone who knows the language of country music could write a song that exhorts the audience to embrace difference and not look at other experiences and identities as threats. When and how did you decide your role wasn't just to entertain, connect with and reassure your fans, but also sometimes to challenge them?
Well, that's a really good question, and I'm not sure exactly how all that came about, except that I guess [it was] really what the song talks about. When you've gone to Rome and seen one extreme, which is the best pasta and cappuccino possible, and then you go to Haiti and you see what it's like to be in a country where there's no running water, both of those change you, when you get back to Tennessee. It wasn't necessarily about saying to my audience anything like, "I'm challenging you." It's more like I was saying, "Here's what I've learned."
Which as a songwriter felt really good to be that honest and in-the-moment as a human being — maybe as honest of a conversation as I can have with my audience. You know, because there's role-playing in any great song that I could do at this point. Like a song like "Outstanding in Our Field," which is the exact opposite of "Southern Comfort Zone" in many ways, where we're talking about what you do on a weekend out here where I live. It's not a total stretch. I mean, making this album, we lit a couple bonfires and the guys had a cooler full of beer. ... My kids came down and roasted marshmallows before they went to bed.
But that doesn't make as good a song as talking about when I was in West Virginia and I was 20 years old and on a weekend, what would you do? ... So you're role-playing. That's fun, but so is saying, "OK, here I am right now. No role-play about it. Here's my outlook." And my outlook is that I love this town. I love living here more than anywhere else. It is really a very, very special place. And I unfortunately have to leave all the time. I say unfortunately; it's really kinda fortunately I have to leave. Because I wouldn't. I don't know if I'd leave my farm if I could get away with it.
In the years after 9/11 up through the economic crisis, the momentum in country music was with songs that defended the nation or championed the stability of small-town life, because so much felt precarious. And that's when you started recording songs like "Celebrity" and "Online," that dealt with new realities of the internet age, and "American Saturday Night" and "Welcome to the Future," that were strikingly optimistic and celebrated progress and diversity. Why were those the ideas you wanted to offer your audience at those moments?
American Saturday Night, that's a really good example of being completely in the moment and finding those things that were on my mind at that time. It was a very optimistic time for me. As a nation, I think we all had optimism. It had been about seven or eight years since 9/11. We are forever changed by that, but we were starting to kinda feel a little more like we were getting through the wars that started after, and we were getting back to thinking about things like, "OK, can we fix this economy?" It was a time when everybody was sort of like, "All right, who are we now?" And that was my answer at that point: "We're a lot of things." On American Saturday Night, I realized that as a Scottish/English/German /Italian/supposedly-somewhere-there's-Cherokee-in-there mutt, we're all of these things. We're this nation that just absorbs, just evolves. And I wanted to write that album based on a lot of those things I was seeing and the optimism that came with it, as well as the feeling at the time that progress was inevitable and good and we were making it.
I read an interview you did with The New York Times when you put out This Is Country Music. You said that had been the album where you nudged the choir to think outside the box, and you didn't want to do it twice in a row. At some point the choir's gonna go to another church, you said. How did you gauge that?
Well, I didn't feel like they were even browsing at other churches or anything. But it's a sense that you get. ... It's that up-and-down thing. You've gotta have that as an artist, unless you just wanna play for people that wanna sit and think. [laughs] I'm not really interested in that.
You'd need to switch to folk venues if you wanted to do that.
No kidding. That's what sorta led to the way we did this album. It felt like it was time again. I've said too that I feel like my songwriting has tides to it. The ocean goes up the beach a little ways, then it goes back out. We went back out for This Is Country Music and tried to do songs that were really everything I love about this format. ... It was time for the tide to come back in a little bit: "I don't want to do This Is Country Music again. So what is the next thing I wanna say?"
You experimented with all kinds of sampling on this album, which fits with you being both a respecter of tradition and technologically savvy and cosmopolitan.
[laughs] Careful. I don't know who you're callin' cosmopolitan here.
Well, you know.
Every song on this record had to have that thing that you didn't quite expect. That was my criteria, that one way or another, each of these should feel like, "That's not what I thought I'd hear next." Whether that be the guest that's on it, the lyrical twist, the fact that there is sampling, the fact that you've got a subject that's like, "OK, wait a minute — can he sing about that?"
It seemed like some of the most vitriolic reactions to the song "Accidental Racist" came from contexts where people didn't have any sense of your work or your relationship with your audience — or what's on country radio. Were you prepared for those sorts of responses? How concerned were you by reactions coming from outside the country music world?
Oh, man. You can imagine what it was like to be me for a week or two.
No, I can't imagine. That's the thing. It's a unique situation.
Well, I'll help ya. LL Cool J called me right as I was about to go do Ellen, which aired, ironically, the day after the album came out, but was taped the day before. He said, "Have you been online?" And I said, "No." He said, "Man, you're not gonna believe it. They are going nuts. It's trending. I think somebody put something on YouTube." And I went, "Huh. Well what are they saying?" He goes, "It runs the gamut. There's people mad in all walks of life, and there's people that like it. Most of it is just really loud right now. And it's beautiful." ... It was trending so quickly that as we started the show on Ellen, I didn't have couch time. ... [Then] they said, "We're gonna make a couple minutes at the end if he wants to sit down and talk to Ellen." ... I remember waking up in California the next morning. ... As I drove to Dancing With the Stars, I listened to part of the NPR discussion of my song. [laughs] It hadn't been out at that point for 12 hours.
I don't know of any other recent country cut that's taken on the topic of race relations.
The day we really began it, I said, "I think LL is the perfect guy to do this." Because you want someone that is so respected and so non-controversial to do this. ... I kind of would consider myself in some ways similar to him, in the sense that that's the first time I'd ever seen controversy under my name. I played him the song after seeing the Ryman, which is really crazy. To tour the Ryman, stand out on the stage, look at the Confederate Gallery on the balcony and him turn to me — not knowing, by the way, what I'm wanting to write — and say, "What kind of country is it that you and I can stand here, after everything we've been through, together?" I said, "Well, you need to come hear what I'm thinkin'." And he wrote his verses. When we did it, I thought, "OK, this is going to ruffle a few feathers, but I have a lot of faith in my audience that they're willing to have a discussion." Because country audiences are actually really used to paying attention to the words.
It's a very lyric-focused genre.
I didn't really think it would get much attention outside of country. I thought that we would have this discussion here. And I couldn't be prouder of this format and these fans and this town. I felt so understood. And I felt like the people around us seemed so ready to have a mature, loving discussion.
I heard a country radio interview you did the Monday after the Saturday Night Live skit. It was clear you got a big kick out of that bit, which I guess isn't all that surprising considering the role self-deprecating humor plays in what you do. What is the relationship for you between taking up a topic of substance, something controversial and the humor factor, the punchline?
I think that humor fixes everything. Seeing Jason Sudeikis and Kenan Thompson wheel out dressed like us, high-five and say, "We ended racism," and have Seth Meyers say, "You guys did not end racism." "Yeah, we did. Didn't you see?" ... There's a collective sigh of relief when people don't feel like they've hurt you, because deep down I don't know that people really do want to hurt you. They don't see you as real when they do these things. A lot of the stuff on the Internet is so something you would not say to someone's face. ... Look, I'm the guy that gets up every year on the CMA Awards with Carrie [Underwood] and we roast people. We're very careful about it, but we still roast people. Who am I if I say, "How dare you do that to me?"
The discussion will be written off in some circles as, "Well, obviously that was a pointless discussion." And in other circles it's being taken very seriously. For instance, Dartmouth did a class on it. We've reached out to them to say, "Well, if you really want to discuss this, I'll come up." And then Berklee School of Music contacted me a couple weeks ago and said, "Would you wanna come do a seminar on songwriting, specifically this song, but other things as well?"
Are you going to do both?
I'm going to this fall, yeah, because school just let out. ... And I had a good discussion with a woman the other day who knows a lot of the bloggers that had the biggest problems with it. Obviously there's one perspective I can't have, and that is the perspective of what it's like to be African-American and find offense with this. ... Somebody said, "Well, you should go talk to so-and-so who had a real issue with this song." "OK, great. I would love it." Because there was no interest, for me, in firing a shot across the bow of racial inequality and then retreating.
It really interests me to think about this leading to more understanding for me. That's what I really would love, is to see what good can come from this. And I think that good has come from this and will come from this, because it's just such an uncharted territory.