Brad Paisley: The Billboard Cover Story
Brad Paisley: The Billboard Cover Story

When Brad Paisley and longtime friend/collaborator Chris DuBois wrote "This Is Country Music," they knew they'd penned more than a catchy title track. They had a blueprint.

"The song itself is what inspired the album, which is the best way to have an album come about," Paisley says as he sinks into an overstuffed chair at home on his 85-acre spread outside Nashville. " 'This Is Country Music' is track one. It sets the tone. And from then on, all the songs on the album fill certain slots and paint the rest of the picture. It's almost like that's the opening credits, and then you have the rest of the movie to follow."

What follows is Paisley's thoughtful, loving homage to country music and the elements that define it. Many artists (like Alan Jackson, Martina McBride, Lorrie Morgan, Tanya Tucker, Patty Loveless and Dolly Parton, for example) record an album of covers to honor their heroes. The Country Music Assn.'s reigning entertainer of the year chose a more challenging route: He co-wrote 12 of the 15 songs on his new Arista Nashville album. His ninth studio effort, it drops May 24.

Video: Brad Paisley debuts "This Is Country Music"

"I'm not comfortable doing a covers album," Paisley says. "Those songs have been done as well as they could've been done or they wouldn't have been hits. No one needs to recut 'He Stopped Loving Her Today.' George Jones recut 'Hello Darlin' ' in honor of Conway [Twitty] and between those two, you can put that one to rest . . . Same with 'A Country Boy Can Survive,' and 'Take Me Home Country Roads' . . . I wanted the album to be 'This Is Country Music' now, not then."

"This Is Country Music" covers an expanse of emotional territory -- from childhood cancer on the poignant "One of Those Lives" to the secrets of sustaining a relationship on "Love Her Like She's Leaving," which features special guest Don Henley. Paisley even takes extra verses written for "This Is Country Music" that were too long to be included in the single version and uses them as intros for other songs on the record.

Paisley says he took a different, more universal approach on his new album than he did on 2009's "American Saturday Night," which he says includes some of the most personal songs he'd ever written. On the new album, he once again worked with producer Frank Rogers, a friend since their days together at Belmont University, who has produced all of Paisley's records. (Paisley, Rogers and DuBois are partners in Sea Gayle Publishing, which launched in 1999 and has expanded to include a label imprint.) As for writing, Paisley turned to frequent collaborators like DuBois, Kelley Lovelace, Ashley Gorley and Lee Thomas Miller.

Sonically, Paisley serves up a smorgasbord, tipping his hat to surf guitar legend Dick Dale with "Working On a Tan" and enlisting Academy Award winner Clint Eastwood to whistle on an instrumental aptly titled "Eastwood," which features Paisley's sons, Huck, 4, and Jasper, nearly 2, in a short intro. Paisley's albums always include an instrumental number and a gospel song, so for the new set, he recorded the classic "Life's Railway to Heaven" with special guests Sheryl Crow, Marty Stuart and Carl Jackson.

"Brad not only delivers for his fans what they want and have come to expect," Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO Gary Overton says, "but he has surprises for them too. There's an unbelievable duet with Carrie Underwood ["Remind Me"] . . . Brad actually turned his album in to us, then called to say that he didn't feel it was really finished, and asked for more time. We were already under a time crunch because of the immediate reaction to 'This Is Country Music' that he debuted on the 2010 CMA Awards show, and we had to ship the single to country radio immediately. But Brad felt strongly that the album was missing one key piece. That's where the Underwood duet came from."