Brad Paisley performs before the game between the West Virginia Mountaineers and the Maryland Terrapins

Brad Paisley performs before the game between the West Virginia Mountaineers and the Maryland Terrapins on September 26, 2015 at Mountaineer Field in Morgantown, West Virginia. 

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Brad Paisley Country Nation College Tour presented by Zaxby’s is hitting nine football-crazy college campuses this fall, capturing the attention of a much-desired demo and bringing to life the sort of synergies promised when William Morris Endeavor Entertainment acquired IMG in $2 billion deal that closed in late 2013.

The deal was brokered out of WME’s Nashville office, which represents Paisley, in conjunction with IMG College; the latter reps some 200 universities nationwide. Paisley has been out since May on his Crushin’ It tour of arenas and amphitheaters, and tells Billboard that dropping into college campus for a free show adds new juice to his 2015 touring.

Calling the tour “the first true integration of every single aspect of…WME-IMG,” Rob Beckham, co-head of WME’s Nashville office, says the set-up of the deal began about nine months ago when it was determined that “Country Nation” would be the fourth single of Paisley’s current Sony release Moonshine in the Trunk. WME Nashville worked with IMG College, along with various sponsorship, branding, digital, and touring divisions, to figure out how to coordinate a branded tour that capitalized on the on-campus frenzy surrounding NCAA football. Both Beckham and Paisley were committed to achieving the difficult task of actually being on campus. All of the of schools name-checked on “Country Nation” are repped by IMG College, and through using IMG’s connections with college presidents and athletic departments, they were able to make that happen.

The Zaxby’s sponsorship component of the deal comes via Paisley’s existing broad, multi-tiered existing relationship with the Athens, Ga.-based chicken restaurant chain, which now has more than 700 locations in 16 states. Zaxby’s involvement in the tour (financial details were not disclosed) helps defrays tour production costs; Paisley is bringing in “90 percent” of his show, including a giant stage that requires a 48-hour setup in these non-traditional venues.

By the time the tour wraps at the University of South Carolina in Columbia on Oct. 16, Paisley (as well as Eric Paslay and Zaxby’s) will have reached about 120,000 people, most between the ages of 18 and 24. “It’s a demographic that every single artist, brand, sponsor, wants,” says Beckham. “Zaxby’s is throwing babies in the air, Brad’s happy, Sony’s happy, we’re happy, IMG’s happy, the colleges are happy. It’s perfect.”

The optimization extends beyond the power of the two agencies; the tour takes place as Paisley’s single “Country Nation,” races up the charts, propelled by a video featuring college mascots (also made available through IMG). Culturally, the song (penned by Paisley, Chris Dubois and Kelly Lovelace) and video celebrate the “safe” affiliation of college sports teams in a time when other cultural signifiers are rife with political baggage, a fact not lost on Paisley, who calls such affiliations “a great unification thing.”

Eric Paslay, also represented by WME, is Paisley’s special guest on the tour, warming up the crowd with an acoustic set before Paisley (joined by cheerleaders and team mascots) takes the stage. Paisley has been quite visible this fall in association with college football, performing “Country Nation” on ESPN’s “College Game Day” on opening weekend, and later serving as a special guest (and offering his picks of the day) on the popular show. Paisley has also recorded a version of “Country Nation” that is updated and customized each week as part of CBS Sports’ broadcasts of “SEC Game of the Week” during regular season, and Zaxby’s commercials air during college football telecasts.

Plans are already under-way to return to college campuses again in 2016, which Paisley sees as a golden opportunity for the country genre overall. Additionally, Paisley will continue the momentum of the Crushin’ It tour, with another 20 dates to run through the end of March to be announced soon.  Calling from Wake Forest University as the college tour rolls through town on another game day, Paisley talks to Billboard about his season on the road, partying on campus, and the beauty of having a bar on stage.

Billboard: What kind of audiences have you been playing in front of on this college tour?

Brad Paisley: They’re what you would expect when you set up a stage in the middle of a college; it’s the greatest audience you could ever ask for. There are season ticketholders that come too, but that first, tight group of people crammed up against the stage are all 18-22 years old, which is a really fun demo to play for. This is a group of people who are, more than they maybe ever will be again in their lives, trying to figure out who they are, what they want to be, what they like. You feel like you’re not just doing a concert for people that are just hard-core fans, it’s a chance to play for people that are two things: they’re very appreciative and, more than that, they’re very open to figuring out what I do. It has truly been way more fun than I ever thought it would be.

That would seem a great opportunity to turn on new fans.

We do basically a stripped-down version of our show, but it’s still in some ways bigger than most things you would see at a college like this. The other thing is, it’s mostly students; we throw in a piece of a Hendrix tune before I do “Ticks,” and right after that solo I made a joke, “I got a ‘D’ in guitar, just remember that you can do anything.”  It’s fun to play for such an open-minded group of people; they don’t have as much of an idea of what I do as the people at one of our typical headline tour dates. When you play Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, you know what that audience is like; it’s a group of people that have expectations for what my show is, what songs I’m gonna do, what they want to hear. And rightfully so, they bought the ticket and there’s a reason that they’ve come. For this, it’s more like they know who I am, they know a few songs, they’re fans to some degree or they wouldn’t have decided to go, but they’re sort of like, “show us what you’ve got,” in a great way. I’m normally wearing a T-shirt, last night it was Auburn University, tonight it’s Wake Forest, they’re ecstatic. The guys are there to pick up the girls, and the girls are there to watch the music. It’s exactly what music has been since the dawn of rock ‘n roll, really.

Given that in many cases there's no preconceived notions about you on their part, it must be a bit freeing.

It is. Not only do you feel like you’re influencing the musical taste of somebody that age a little bit, but also, you can’t lose. If I went out there and did one song, they’d be happy pretty happy, to some degree, “cool, he came and played.” Instead, we do a full show. Eric Paslay’s been coming back out with me on a song, we strip it down and do an acoustic part of the show where I sit and sing some songs and talk about ‘em a little bit. We give ‘em everything we can give em, and what we hope is they go forward and not only check me out, but more country music, and everything else, as they go on.

You already had a full route booked or this year; what was appealing about this college tour when [agent] Rob [Beckham] and WME brought this opportunity to you?

We’d been talking about something like this for a while, and Rob and IMG were instrumental in making this happen. With the focus of the song we have out now, as it says in the song, ‘we’re Mountaineers,’ well, I’m a Mountaineer. I wrote the song with two Vols...

You’re talking to another one.

Right, [songwriters] Chris DuBois is a UT grad, Kelly Lovelace graduated from Belmont, but that doesn’t matter, he wears a Vols cap every time you see him. It’s a song about identity based on your team, which is a great, harmless thing these days, as far as if you want to make a statement about who you are you put on your Crimson Tide shirt, or whatever it is. So, when we were talking about that, and the evolution of why I wanted to do this really comes back to how do you go to a college and get these kids to find your music, as well as at the same time tie in your song, which is sort of like hey, you’re going to be this for the rest of your life.’ Last night, those kids at Auburn will be Tigers for the rest of their lives. It’s fun to play a show and say, “I know you get dressed up and go to games on Saturday now, but they chose Auburn and they will root for Auburn the rest of their lives, that’s how it will go. It’s fun to play a show in the middle of that decision. I’m singing that song, and the cheerleaders come back out on the stage, the Tiger mascot that’s in the music video is out there, and it feels like a moment they don’t even realize they’ll never forget, the moment they look back and say, “I’m a Tiger from now on.”

A lot will play the college bar, or at the football game, but I didn’t want to do the typical thing. That’s when IMG came to the table and said, “we really want to do a pairing with music, we want to do something that shows how much synergy we can get between these two worlds.” When you look at the SEC or the ACC or any of these organizations, that’s our fans, that is really who listens to our format, as much as anyone. I do think they bounce around more than a hard-core P1 listener in country radio, but these kids are the target. If you hook ‘em now on country music, they’ll listen to it the rest of their lives. I don’t want to see any of this wave go away. When you see somebody like Taylor do so much for bringing in young girls to check out country music, now that she’s moved on to pop, you don’t want to see them go away with her. I feel like the college generation is a lot less fickle than the high school generation. I know what I listened to in college. I still do. It’s sort of the same thing with TV, you’re starting to watch shows more for adults; when I was in college, Seinfeld was on, and I still have trouble passing up the “Seinfeld” reruns.

Now when I interview young female country artists, they say Taylor one inspired them to pick up a guitar.

No doubt about it, and if that doesn’t make you feel old…

A lot of this tour feels about synergy, including the sponsorship with Zaxby’s, where you had an existing relationship.

Yeah, they helped make sure this is possible. They did a great commercial that airs on Saturdays that talks about what this is, and they’re another one with the same vision: look, these things are happening with or without us. When it comes to school pride, football games on Saturday, and the lifestyle that goes along with that, tailgating and all that. That’s happening with or without us. If I don’t do these concerts, that doesn’t change anything. Zaxbys has the same philosophy we did, let’s be a part of it. If you’re going to tailgate, bring Zaxbys. If you’re gonna celebrate your school, we’ll be there on Friday the day before and do our best to get you all fired up for the weekend.

It seems the whole campaign has a big digital/social element to it.

That’s the most interesting change I’ve seen from typical concerts. I always have a pretty young crowd, and I always have a lot of people with cell phones and stuff at concerts. You’ve been to concerts recently, it looks like a major video shoot. But I’ve never seen it like this. From the first song of the set at one of these college shows, it looks like an iPhone ad, it’s ridiculous. It’s the rare kid that doesn’t have the phone up taking a photo or video. I play off of it, I grab one out of one of their hands and take a shot with it myself, or sing a verse with their phone and film it and hand it back. I’ve been doing that a while, but there are songs where I just grab phones one after another and sing as I’m going. Then I’ll make an announcement later in the show and say, “hey, by the way, I don’t know if anybody told you, there’ll be no electronic devices allowed at tonight’s show.” Can you imagine? Remember when they used to make that statement at concerts? First of all, I think all of it helps. But you’ve never seen anything like one of these college shows. If it’s 50 percent at a typical concert for me have their phone in the air, it’s 98 percent at these shows. This age group watches through their device.

They experience life through their device. A lot of artists tell me they don’t try out new stuff or they give up on working out material on stage now, because it lives forever.

I’ve been working on new stuff and thinking about when to do it. I think you can, but you have to be prepared. You better know you’re ready with it and when you play it, make that part of the launch. The other day at something in New York, Coldplay did a new song. I saw that picked up in the trades, and I had to go to YouTube and see what it was like. You know for a fact they weren’t just trying it out, they were testing the waters. The only way you have to be careful is, if you have a song that you feel like will make an impact if it all hits at once, the video, the lyric, the goes for adds all at the same time; or if it’s something you want to grow, then it’s not a bad idea to try it out. It has changed how you think about it, but I don’t think it’s gone, I just think you have to be ready. You’re launching this thing when you play it, it doesn’t matter if you’re in Duluth.

On the flip side, as a musician, if you flub something, it lives forever. Does that make you self-conscious?

It depends on what the flub is. Not really, I love messing up, if it’s good entertainment. Anything that helps the show, I’m good with it. Like, falling on stage is fine, people love that, you’ll get a lot of hits for that, that’s taking one for the team, like an interception and you take it in for a touchdown. But saying the wrong thing is where it gets scary, making a joke that’s taken the wrong way. That’s where the comedy stuff I do gets you into trouble. I hosted a stand-up comedy night in Nashville -- now that’s a nerve-wracking experience, knowing that you could make a headline with a sentence. Can you imagine what it’s like to be someone like Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock, who all their lives tried out material in standup situations, and now one little joke and they could offend half the population when they’re in a comedy bar. That’s where I think music is a little safer. Mistakes I don’t think matter. What you say, that’s where you’ve got to be careful. If I got up tonight and just went off on one of the football teams, it would be bad. You want to fire up the crowd a little bit, [ESPN] “Game Day” the first time, that was fun. I was bashing Pitt, because that’s who West Virginia's rival always was, they chant “Eat Shit, Pitt,” even if we’re not playing Pitt. That was one of the picks I had to make, I was joking around that I hate ’em, the chant behind me was on ESPN. Oh my god, if you looked at Twitter and take any stock in Twitter, it would be, “what am I gonna do for a living next, because this is it for this.”

You’ve been out since May, what was tour like this summer?

BP: It was great. The main thing about the Crushin’ It Tour was this bar that we built. I built a bar in our studio house, and it shaped the record. There was this old glassed-in porch on the house, kind of run down, and I said, “could we make this an old English pub?” And this great contractor friend of mine went, ‘yup,’ and he ordered all this curly maple and built the thing from scratch. It looks like it’s from the 1800s, it’s unbelievable. I’ve got Guinness taps, bourbon, everything. So that, as you can imagine, makes for fun recording.

When it came time for the new tour, the Crushin It tour, we were designing a set and I said, “what if we stuck a bar on stage?” They said, “like what, a five-foot bar? No, a 30-foot Cheers bar.” And we did. Almost half the stage is a bar that comes out, that you don’t realize on the first song is a bar. You’ll see 20 people come out a couple songs into the show and sit down, we have working taps on the stage and we pour them drinks as the show goes, and that changes out a few times during the concert. At first Bill Simmons, my manager, was like, ‘uh, is this gonna be a horrible idea?” By the first night, when you saw the way it looks, what ends up happening is there are people up there, but mostly silhouettes, you kind of see ‘em, kinda not. It is the coolest thing, because it feels like a honky-tonk.

It’ll just evolve, we just scratched the surface of what that can be.

There’s nothing like the reminder of who these people really are when you’re in this business. That’s a key thing that a lot of us forget, they’re a specific group of people, and there’s nothing like actually looking out and seeing them to change your mindset about how you do a show, or what you do for a living, and how it can be important to them, and what your obligation is to them.

And edited version of this article first appeared in the Oct. 27 issue of Billboard.