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."
The title track to "This Is Country Music" peaked at No. 2 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. Paisley debuted second single "Old Alabama" during Country Radio Seminar (CRS), the annual Nashville gathering of country programmers that took place March 2-4. "Brad had a surprise for the crowd," Overton says. "When Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook from Alabama took the stage with Brad to join him on the song, the room exploded. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Alabama retired from performing together in 2004, and many of the programmers were there when they were first introduced to radio many years ago."
Paisley also kicked off the 46th annual Academy of Country Music Awards on April 3 in Las Vegas by performing "Old Alabama" with Gentry, Owen and Cook. The number earned an enthusiastic standing ovation. It was a big moment for Paisley, who grew up in Glen Dale, W.Va., listening to Alabama. "I was proud to have them," Paisley says of Owen, Cook and Gentry recording with him on the tune, which incorporates Alabama's classic 1982 "Mountain Music" into a new song written by Paisley, Owen, DuBois and Dave Turnbull.
Video: Brad Paisley and Alabama perform "Old Alabama"
"It's unique . . . a combination of a lot of things . . . blending what they do and what I do. I was a fanatic growing up. Guys like me and Jason Aldean and Blake Shelton . . . we played 'Tennessee River,' 'My Home's in Alabama,' 'Lady Down on Love' and 'I'm in a Hurry' . . . those were the songs you couldn't leave out of your set if you're from my generation. When you think about which bands influenced country music in a modern sense, it would be the Eagles and Alabama. You had Restless Heart, Exile and Highway 101 and stuff like that, but Alabama was the deal."
Owen enjoyed working with Paisley. "He was so kind," says the Country Music Hall of Famer, who sings on the track and plays the vintage guitar he used while recording "Mountain Music." "He's the real deal."
Fusing classic Alabama with Paisley's neotraditional sound is proving to be a winning combination at radio. "Old Alabama" is No. 16 on Hot Country Songs and climbing. "We're in an exciting position with the new Brad music," Arista Nashville VP of national promotion Lesly Tyson says. "Rarely do we have two big hit records at radio before the album is in stores. Radio has an incredible opportunity with these tracks being released prior to the street date. It's a great advantage to be able to drive listeners to stations as the place to hear 'This Is Country Music' and 'Old Alabama' from Brad before they can find them anywhere else."
During CRS, Paisley played the new music for key country programmers. "The beauty of this is it's not a song; it's not a single -- it's an album," says Nate Deaton, GM at country KRTY San Jose, Calif. "There are great songs, there's great sequencing. It's brilliant."
Paisley wrote his first song, "Born on Christmas Day," when he was 12, and his school principal recruited him to perform at a Rotary Club luncheon. The director of "The Wheeling Jamboree" then invited him to perform on the West Virginia-based show, which aired on WWVA. Paisley's first big gig was opening for the Judds. "I was 13," he says. "That was in 1985, so you know the Judds were rocking. The opening slots kept coming. I was on there every other week -- Jimmy Dickens and Steve Wariner and George Jones, Roy Clark, Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill, Exile and Desert Rose Band, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Dwight Yoakum -- everybody came through there. I got to see them all."
Like many aspiring artists, Paisley made the trek to Music City looking for stardom. "I did visit. I'm glad I didn't move here. I wouldn't have been Taylor Swift. I was sort of Taylor not-so-swift," he says with a grin. "I needed seasoning and probably still do. But luckily I made it."
Paisley performed on "Jamboree" until he was 20, when he moved to Nashville to attend Belmont University. During college, he interned at ASCAP, Atlantic Records and Fitzgerald Hartley Management, which now handles his career. He signed with Arista and his first album, "Who Needs Pictures," bowed in February 1999. Since then he's released nine albums, including six studio sets; a 2006 Christmas collection; an instrumental album, 2008's "Play"; and a greatest-hits package last fall, "Hits Alive," a two-disc set that includes live and studio versions of such hits as "Ticks," "Celebrity," "Online," "Waitin' On a Woman," "I'm Gonna Miss Her," "Little Moments," "American Saturday Night" and "Welcome to the Future."
Paisley has scored 16 No. 1 singles on Hot Country Songs and has placed five releases at No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart. His last set, "American Saturday Night," has sold 741,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and he's sold more than 10 million albums total. He's won three Grammy Awards and has been named the Academy of Country Music's top male vocalist the last five consecutive years. He's won 14 CMA Awards, including three male vocalist of the year titles, and the entertainer of the year honor in 2010. He and Underwood have hosted the last three CMA Awards shows, and Paisley recently celebrated his 10th anniversary as a member of the Grand Old Opry.
But he's not quite a member of the old guard. "I'm reading Twitter right now," Paisley says, "and people are actually mad at me. They haven't even heard the song and there are a lot of Carrie fans that are upset it's not the next single and they've never heard it . . . They're like, 'What a missed opportunity!' I wrote today: 'Patience please, you haven't even heard it. Come on. It doesn't mean it won't be a single just because it's not next. Give me a chance. We have some great things in the works. It will happen when it's time. Have some faith.' "
Paisley's wit and sense of humor have made him popular on Twitter. He was initially hesitant but at the label's prompting, he began tweeting.
"My first tweet was at the CMT Awards when I won an award and typed 'Thank you.' Then I was hooked because the followers started multiplying. It's a great tool. It's not as effective as people thought at selling product. That's not why I do it. They found in studies that it depends on the person. People following Charlie Sheen may not buy things because he tells you to, but people following Oprah [Winfrey] would be more likely to run out and do it if she tells you to do it. It's interesting. I don't know where I fall in that -- probably somewhere between Charlie and Oprah. I don't use it for monetary or career gain. People see through that. I use it for observation and I use it in a way that my fans can see a little bit of my personality."
Whether he's tweeting or writing a tune, Paisley's accessibility has been one of the keys to his success. "Brad is real. He's made friends with everyone in the industry," says Ginny Rogers Brophey, assistant PD/music director at country WKLB Boston. "And the way he uses words to create music is incredible in that it's not above anyone. His music is down to earth. He's a great guitar player, and Brad puts all the elements together to make great country songs that are so relatable to our listeners."
It's a platform Paisley takes seriously. "I'm proud to do this," he says. "We do sing about things that other people don't sing about, for good or bad. This is a format that isn't afraid, on the same album or on the same station, to have a song about patriotism following a song about faith, following a song about divorce, following a song about the beach. There's nothing off limits."