In the decade since country singer Brad Paisley put out his debut album, the kid from Glen Dale, W.Va., has concocted a savvy musical amalgam of Roger Miller’s songwriting wit, Buck Owens’ hard-rocking twang and Chet Atkins’ guitar wizardry. But there’s powerful evidence of another influence at work in Paisley’s music, one of the titans of American popular culture: Mark Twain.
Like Twain’s youthful literary hero Tom Sawyer, Paisley frequently couples wisdom with a finely honed sense of humor, and appears to share Huck Finn’s disenchantment with the emphasis that all those grown-ups around him place on becoming “sivilized.”
In hits such as “Online,” “Celebrity” and “Ticks,” he’s proved to be a skillful sneak, slipping in the kind of clever ideas and wordplay that few of his peers at the top of the country sales charts dare to venture. He’s tackled the subject of alcohol abuse from different vantage points in two hit songs, the whimsical “Alcohol” and the artistic punch to the gut “Whiskey Lullaby,” his award-winning duet with bluegrass queen Alison Krauss.
Paisley’s eighth album, “American Saturday Night,” due out Tuesday, has the usual complement of straightforward love songs (the first single, “Then”), ruminations on love lost (“Oh Yeah, You’re Gone”) and humorous come-ons (“You Do the Math”).
But what is likely to elevate Paisley’s standing as a musician, both in and potentially outside of the Nashville music community, are two key tracks: the title song and “Welcome to the Future,” both of which broach topics that also were favorites of Samuel Clemens.
“I’m getting into some subjects that don’t come up very often in country music, like racism, and I think it’s time,” Paisley, 36, said in late April during the brisk walk from his tour bus toward the massive stage at the 2009 Stagecoach country music festival in Indio, which he co-headlined with Kenny Chesney, playing to some 40,000 to 50,000 fans.
In person, Paisley’s as quick with a quip as you’d expect from his humor-laced songs and he has a gift for putting visitors quickly at ease with his long-lost-friend demeanor. He frequently exhibits an impressive attention to detail, whether it’s concerning some facet of the stage setup for his live shows, the production work on a new recording or the musical equipment surrounding him.
Stagecoach was a cherry gig he couldn’t pass up, but it meant briefly tearing himself away from wrapping up work on the album -- a collection that constitutes an important step forward for him, and for country music itself.
“One of the things I thought about while we were working on this,” he said later, relaxing on the comfortably appointed tour bus parked out back, “is this nagging feeling that country music had sat this one out a little too long, as far as what’s going on right before our very eyes, and in our society.”
The new album again blends his respect for country tradition with unexpected sonic touches (such as the ‘80s-sounding Moog synthesizer on “Welcome to the Future”). He’s audibly proud when he talks about using his touring band in the studio rather than session players who create the majority of music that comes out of Nashville.
“American Saturday Night” leads off the collection with the feel of an instant concert centerpiece, an upbeat singalong outlining the myriad threads in the fabric of the nation.
There’s a big toga party tonight down at Delta Chi
They got Canadian bacon on their pizza pie
They’ve got a cooler full of cold Coronas and Amstel Light
It’s like we’re all living’ in a big ol’ cup
Just fire up the blender, mix it all up
“It’s definitely a different type of patriotism,” said Paisley, who doesn’t hesitate in citing Twain among his key role models. He and actress-wife Kim Williams named their first child William Huckleberry Paisley after Twain’s irreverent protagonist. (The Paisley family, which also includes infant Jasper Warren, lives on an 85-acre farm outside of Nashville.)
“Patriotism in general is the idea that our country is the greatest because it’s our country,” Paisley said with a Twain-like edge on the observation. “You can name the reasons why you feel America is the greatest country in the world, but the fact of the matter is that pretty much anything you name, aside from American Indian customs, was not indigenous -- it was brought here.
“We are this place of transplants,” he continued. “I think it’s wonderful; I like being able to have Indian food for lunch, go to Lares on Pico for dinner or the Taj Palace in Pacific Palisades . . . It’s the greatest place to party in the world, except maybe Ireland. But try getting a decent enchilada there.”
“Welcome to the Future” takes the social and cultural self-examination a step further, opening with a spirited appreciation of the technological progress in the last half century before segueing into an expression of amazement and gratitude at other changes that have taken place. He charts a seismic shift that courses from witnessing the burning of a cross on the lawn of an African American classmate years ago to the recent election of Barack Obama as president.
“There was an amazing shift in public emotion that night. It was breathtaking. I felt like in country music, we’re the first ones to write about some kind of conflict, or war, and yet we shy away from these other topics, like equal rights. . . . I had that idea, and Chris DuBois, the song’s co-writer, and I started mulling this around. I said I don’t want it to be a dark song in any way; I want it to be as hopeful as it can be. We need to make this point and make it well.”
It’s a big gamble whether the country audience will embrace that kind of subject matter -- a gamble Paisley’s label is courting by releasing the song shortly as his next single. It also will test whether he can extend his current streak of 10 consecutive No. 1 singles, a modern record in pop music.
“We tend to be a Republican format,” said Joe Galante, chairman of Sony Music Nashville, the parent company of Paisley’s label, Arista Nashville. “He’s reaching out a little differently with this one, so it is a little riskier than normal.”
Paisley’s taken risks before. “Whiskey Lullaby” from his third album, 2003’s “Mud on the Tires,” was a surprisingly dark turn for the performer. But country radio embraced its portrait of two people caught in the downward spiral of alcoholism.
“A double-suicide love song, if you will, is not typical for any format,” said Galante. “It’s a big chance for an artist to take just recording it, much less singling it. . . . But it tied him to the audience in a much deeper way. . . . There’s no doubt it was a major moment for him.”
“Welcome to the Future” has the potential to deepen that bond further still.
“I wanted to get the emotion of it without being the least bit preachy,” Paisley said. “Republican or Democrat, on Nov. 4 you had to be moved. People stood there in disbelief at the turn our country had taken. There was a sense of pride, no matter who you were. I remember having discussions on my bus, in my household: Could he really win this? A lot of people were saying, ‘I don’t know if it’s time, if the country’s ready.’ And then all of a sudden, I guess we’re ready. Welcome to the future.
“It’s the proudest thing I’ve ever recorded,” he said, a superlative he’d previously reserved for “Whiskey Lullaby.”
“Very rarely do you put something on tape you feel is bigger than just you personally,” he said. “But once we recorded this, I thought, ‘OK, we have finally put something on tape that is more important than whether or not it gets to No. 1.’ ”
Success after success
Paisley steadily has turned into one of country’s biggest stars and last year ranked fifth among country acts on Pollstar’s year-end tally of the highest-grossing tours, behind Chesney, Rascal Flatts, Carrie Underwood and Toby Keith. He actually sold more tickets than the Police, Tina Turner, Coldplay, AC/DC, Kanye West and “American Idols” Live, but his total box office was less because he also logged the lowest average ticket price, a reflection of his wish to keep his tours affordable for rank-and-file fans.
Each of his regular studio albums has gone platinum or double platinum -- not counting his 2006 Christmas collection or last year’s predominantly instrumental outing “Play.” The latter spawned another No. 1 hit in his duet with fellow ace guitarist Keith Urban, “Start a Band.”
He’s also a favorite of industry types, with three Grammy Awards and a combined 23 Country Music Assn. and Academy of Country Music trophies. That kind of establishment approval might astonish those who knew Paisley back in high school, when he was the kind of class clown who prided himself on never getting caught for the pranks he pulled.
“Truthfully, in the end, will [the awards] be what matters? Not at all,” he said. “I won’t be sitting around gloating about anything I’ve won. I’ll be somebody who’ll be telling my kids and grandkids, ‘No, seriously, people used to go out and see me play. And they paid.’ . . . I can hear myself saying that.
“What matters is that people came out and gave me a night of their lives to entertain them.”
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Who Needs Pictures (1999): A self-assured debut, produced by Paisley’s college pal Frank Rogers, elicited predictions of great things with its freshly minted ballads (“We Danced,” “He Didn’t Have to Be,” both No. 1 hits) and humor-laced ditties (“Me Neither”).
Part II (2001): The hits really began to roll with “Two People Fell in Love,” “Wrapped Around” and his breakout, “I’m Gonna Miss Her.” His vocals shine in “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.”
Mud on the Tires (2003): Paisley stretched out on this wide-ranging collection, which has the hit “Celebrity,” the slice of romantic life of “Little Moments” and his award-winning duet with Alison Krauss, “Whiskey Lullaby.”
Time Well Wasted (2005): At times it’s familiar territory, but highlights included the concert rave-up “Alcohol” -- and his celebration of patience in male-female relations (“Waitin’ on a Woman”) kept his momentum going.
A Brad Paisley Christmas (2006): A sprightly assemblage of standards, country holiday favorites (Buck Owens’ “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy”) and a bid for a future classic of his own (“Penguin, James Penguin”).
5th Gear (2007): He got sillier than ever on the eye-rolling hit “Ticks,” but showed off his penchant for revealing self-study in “Letter to Me” and “I’m Still a Guy.” The album also had the uproarious radio and video hit “Online.”
Play (2008): A mostly instrumental outing that reveled in the fundamental joy of being in a band and yielded another No. 1 hit in Paisley’s duet with Keith Urban, “Start a Band.”
-- Randy Lewis