Sitting backstage at the Grand Ole Opry recently, Brad Paisley is in his element. Though he’s been busy this summer appearing Sunday nights on ABC’s Rising Star competition and traveling across the U.S. on his Kraft-sponsored Country Nation tour, Paisley is never too busy to come home and perform at the Mother Church of Country Music. After his set, he visits with other performers, including Sarah Darling, who was recently booted from Rising Star, and playfully shoots Instagram videos with a young cancer patient from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
As the room clears, he settles down to discuss his new album, Moonshine in the Trunk, due Aug. 26, which he wrote and and recorded at an unusually brisk pace. He says it was a fun one to make -- and that sense of playful adventure has continued as Paisley has been mischievously leaking new music from the album while wreaking havoc with Arista Nashville’s carefully crafted marketing plans. After carefully brewing this batch of songs on Moonshine, he’s more than ready to pour.
Billboard.com: This is your second time producing yourself and this time you co-produced with Luke Wooten [Dierks Bentley, Dustin Lynch]. Was it easier this time around?
Paisley: It was so easy. It was effortless. The first finished song was Jan. 14 and the album was mixed in April. I wrote them all in that time period. We’re talking about a really quick time for me. I usually take a year. And yeah, I can see me doing this completely the same way again. We cut four or five [songs] that aren’t on here... They are sitting there waiting and I believe I’m four songs into the next album. What we wound up with sounds great and works really well for what I wanted it to be and watching what the first single is doing, I feel like we are on the right track.
Why did you choose “Riverbank” as the first single?
It ticked all the boxes in a great way in that it sounded like me, old me, but it sounded like a new me at the very same time. This is interesting because I’ve never done a groove with this composition of elements. I’ve done things this tempo, but I’ve never done this kind of groove, plus the new technique of the way I’ve done the vocal, which is sort of a punch and hammer it. At the same time, it’s a subject that’s not far from things I’ve sung about in the past, which is what you do to have a good time in the summertime if you don’t have a lot of money and you live in the country. But at the same time, it’s a new hook. I’ve never heard this hook before: "Laughing all the way to the riverbank." I can’t believe that hasn’t been done. It seems like it’s been sitting there waiting since the dawn of country music to be written and nobody did it yet. I just felt like it was the right thing to add to my show, the right thing to get my fans fired up and ready to hear more.
Have your sons, Huck and Jasper, heard the new album? What do they think?
Huck and Jasper are great critics. They have a very good perspective and they know what they like. They don’t like ballads so this is the album for them because there’s only about three on here out of 13 songs. They love "4WP." They love "Crushin’ It." They love "Riverbank." When I first made the loop for "Riverbank" and cut a little vocal and listened to it in the kitchen as a demo, Huck came running in and went, "What is that?" I said, "That’s something I’m working on." And he said, "That doesn’t sound like you" and I said, "Actually, I think it does sound like me." And he said, "No, I mean that in a good way." "Well thanks Huck." I knew I was on to something at that point.
Where do you see this album and what you do fitting in with the rock and rap influenced country that dominates the format right now?
It’ll fit in. It feels like modern honky tonk music to me. There’s a lot of alcohol and a lot of talking about the weekend and a lot of celebrating what is right in life in spite of whatever is going wrong. That’s kind of what honky tonk music always was. That will never die. That’s who we are as a format. It’s just new ways to say it. You look at [album opener] "Crushin’ It," that’s completely at home on today’s airwaves. You’ve got things like "Limes" and "4WP," they fit right in. This is my version of what this stuff is, but it’s still not what you would technically call hip hop.
There’s a song on the album called “Shattered Glass.” It’s a female empowerment song but written from a guy’s perspective. What inspired that?
There’s two people I really wrote that for. One of them exists and one of them is imaginary. The imaginary one is my wife [laughs] I’m kidding. The real one is my wife [actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley]. I have so much respect for her and what she does. And I’ve watched her as she’s ventured into new territory as she’s been a leading voice for Alzheimer’s research because of her mother’s illness and she’s been working on a new project that I’ve been helping her with. We’ve been taking some meetings in Los Angeles together. It’s the closest I’ve been to seeing what it feels like when a woman walks in a room with big dreams and a disadvantage being a woman. I don’t mean it to sound like women are disadvantaged, but it’s true that in our society we still have a ways to go, but we’re better than it’s ever been. This song is supposed to be a pep talk to her and any woman who has dreams she wants to achieve, and thinks to herself "This might not be something a woman like me can do." Not true. Go do it! It’s meant to be a total vote of confidence and love song in that sense. It’s basically [saying] "I believe in you!" And the fictional character I wrote it for is our daughter who does not exist...What song would I write for my daughter? It would be this exact song.
Your five-year-old son, Jasper, inspired “American Flag on the Moon.” What did he say that sparked that song?
He looked up at the sky -- after he heard about the moon landing -- and squinted and said, "I think I can see the flag." My wife thought that was the cutest thing ever. What a great thing for the kid to say! It stuck with me for a while and I started thinking about watching the news and all the negatives. The naysayers saying, "We’re going down the tubes,’ and all of that as a country and thought to myself, ‘Why can’t we just be proud to be Americans?" In spite of everything that’s wrong, let’s be proud of what we’ve done so far, and maybe that’s the trick to figuring out the future is looking back a little bit. The phrase just caught my attention. After all, there’s an American flag on the moon. To me, that’s mind-blowing to think about that that thing is sitting up there 45 years.
Your friend and CMA Awards co-host Carrie Underwood is featured on a song titled “High Life.” Tell us about that one.
We were in the middle of this wacky, crazy story about a family that absolutely sees the potential in any situation. These are optimists these people in this story, this litigious family. They see opportunity everywhere. Other people may see disaster and these people see opportunity. It was fun to bring Carrie in. I mean we are singing about her in the last verse and she’s a good sport. I didn’t know what she’d say when I sent her the verse because it’s talking about suing her butt, but I think it will be fun to see what people think of this. I think they’re going to crack up.
The song “4WP” says “featuring Brad Paisley.” Why?
"4WP" is featuring Brad Paisley, which I think might be a first. I don’t know if somebody has had featuring themselves on a record. I sample a piece of “Mud on the Tires” in the song so that to me is funny that I’m featuring myself. And believe it or not, we still had to get clearance and it took a few weeks to do. The easiest thing to do was get the legal copy of John F. Kennedy’s speech [that precedes “American Flag on the Moon.”] I thought we were talking about something that would never make the record because it wasn’t possible to get, but it’s actually the property of any American to use his vocal. You just have to use the track that they supply you from the Kennedy Foundation.
What did you learn from the controversy over your duet with LL Cool J, “Accidental Racist,” from your previous album Wheelhouse?
What I learned is that there are certain subjects that are almost next to impossible to sing about, to do songs about, but that was the point of the last album was to tackle those things that seem like they would be impossible to do and see if they are possible. Intention is everything and our intention was to try to raise awareness for points of view... I’m proud that we stood up and did this. I wish we’d gotten out in front of the people who took it the wrong way and framed it a little bit better that way and framed the debate ourselves, but it’s too late for that, but I also don’t know if I’d change much about it because in the same way that training for a fight as a fighter, you have to take punches to train for a fight. You can’t just stand there and throw punches, you have to take them and I took them. And in that sense, I’m ready to do better things and greater things because of the punches I took.
Would you collaborate again with another rapper?
Absolutely! I would love to. I like a lot of these guys. I didn’t on this album obviously because this album doesn’t exist for those reasons. This album isn’t about shattering borders or barriers or notions in any way. This album is about having fun within my world and being the best me I can be as far as the guy you’ve come to know if you’re a fan. This is an album where I basically spent all the time with the focus of, "What will my fans like?" This is an album with them in mind. And that’s what I like as well. I listen to the same things that a lot of my fans do and I grew up in much the same way they’re growing up.
What do you listen to?
Whatever is on country radio as well as the Southern rock stuff and some of the old country stuff as well as the Eagles and modern music such as the stuff on Top 40 radio that I gravitate toward as well as what’s on alt stations. I like Katy Perrry. I like Kesha. I really like Ed Sheeran. I think people who are fans of mine have those things in their iPod too.
Tell me about the Country Nation tour.
We’re in the middle of it this summer. It’s a strange way of doing it this time because we launched the tour three months before the album even comes out so I’ve been flying all over creation this summer in a good way. We play a date on Thursday, Friday and Saturday a lot and then I’m in L.A. on Sunday doing the [Rising Star] TV show. It’s fun actually. It’s a lot of work right now, but it’s fun to have all of this stuff just bubbling -- to have a song on the chart that’s doing really well and a tour that’s a lot of fun with great people like Randy [Houser] and Leah [Turner] and Charlie [Worsham] and DJ Silver... It’s all gonna change when this comes out for me cause then it’s a whole other palette of songs that we can add to this. We’ve got some dates in the fall, which will be fun. We have some September dates and I imagine they’ll look a lot different than the ones this summer.
How are things going on Rising Star?
I’m having an absolute blast! I can’t tell you how much fun it is. It’s such an interesting challenge every week... We’re all working so hard to make this thing great because we’re having a ball. We believe in these kids. We’ve gotten to know them, and now mentoring them and getting to watch them perform. They’ve been through the audition phase and are all accepted and you are starting to fall in love with these people. It’s like, "She’s so kind! She’s great! What a voice! This guy? Oh man, if he goes home, I don’t know how I’m gonna feel." The next thing you know, it’s like working at a dog pound. You fall in love with this animal and nobody adopted it.
What’s it like working with Kesha, Ludacris and Josh Groban on Rising Star?
If you came to me a couple months ago and said, "Which two artists would be the two artists you would love to spend the summer with on a Sunday night live TV show?" Looking back now, I would say Kesha and Ludacris, and throw in Josh Groban too. It’s an interesting mix. I don’t feel like there are egos at play with any of us. We are all 100% committed to making this thing work. I feel like it gets better every week. You can tell with the way the ratings are rising, people are seeing there’s something there. I love that’s happening and I think we’re going to be old, old friends some day.
What was the highlight of your trip to Afghanistan with President Obama to perform for the troops?
There’s one soldier in particular that I remember. A soldier handed me a photo of his family and said, "I want you to have it." This guy has been there since the beginning of the year. I just can’t even imagine it. I get really cranky after two weeks away, which is the most I’ve ever been away from my kids when we toured Europe. He chose to defend us and go do that. So I keep that photo and I remember that’s why I went. That’s why I’m standing there. I got to shake his hand.
You mixed the bonus track “Me and Jesus” on the trip. Is that the only song ever mixed on Air Force One?
Yeah, that’s got to be true, unless George W. was cutting music on there that I’m not aware of. I cut the track the day before we left. It was 13 hours over and 16 back, plenty of time to mix the record. I had all the files and opened up the computer and thought, "I’ll get to work on this." It didn’t take too long. It’s only my voice and a guitar. It was mixed somewhere over the Black Sea.
Any souvenirs from Air Force One?
We’ve got shot glasses. I’ve got matches that say, "Air Force One." I’ve got luggage tags. They gave me those cause they stuck Air Force One tags on everything. I’ve got the in-flight entertainment booklet if you want to see what movies they have [laughs]. I think I’ve got towels. I don’t know. Who knows? Let’s just say I came back with a bag more full than I left here with.
You recorded the album in the yellow farmhouse-turned-studio on your property. What made you decide to install a bar?
A creative space is an important thing. There are so many studios that feel like doctor’s offices in Nashville. I couldn’t write there...Nothing makes a better country record than having a bar nearby and you won’t get one more nearby than my studio. [laughs]
If you went back and wrote a letter to yourself when your first album was coming out, what would you say?
Don’t wear the fuchsia suit on the CMAs when you win the Horizon Award. It’s not your color. And don’t flatten your hat. Don’t flatten it. Curves are your friend in a cowboy hat. What are you doing? You’re not a Mountie.