In crafting Love and War, which drops today (April 21), Brad Paisley collaborated with members of both the Country Music and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. Mick Jagger, John Fogerty, Bill Anderson and Timbaland joined Paisley, 44, and his band at the yellow farmhouse studio on his spread outside Nashville.
The three-time Grammy winner (with 14 CMA and 14 ACM trophies) invited Billboard over to share stories from those sessions and what inspired the songs on his 11th studio album.
You spent three days co-writing with Mick Jagger and the result is the duet “Drive of Shame.” What’s one of your favorite memories of those sessions?
Huck, my oldest son , is having a Shirley Temple. Mick is drinking a beer. I’ve poured them both and I see this exchange take place. Huck Paisley turns to Mick Jagger and says, “Mick what was Muddy like?” He says, “Excuse me?” and Huck says, “Muddy Waters, was he a nice guy?” And Mick says, “Yes. He was amazing to me. He was my inspiration and he loved us. That’s why we’re called the Rolling Stones.” Mick comes to me later and goes, “Where did that come from?” I said, “I don’t know. He’s smarter than me. I didn’t think to ask that.”
What prompted you to work with Timbaland?
There’s a great guy named Jared [Gutstadt] who we co-wrote these songs [“Grey Goose Chase” and “Solar Power Girl”] with, who is also a writer and a friend of mine. It was his idea to get together. He had been working with Tim and he said that the three of us would be an interesting thing to see what would happen.
Tim approaches songwriting from a way different perspective than me because I write in the traditional Nashville way, which is to sit in a room with an acoustic guitar or something, write the song and then go cut a track once the song is done. In Tim’s world, they sort of are writing with every beat that gets thrown down. They are writing as it builds. They are building something almost like you build a house, whereas we like to work on the on the architectural plans for the house in Nashville. They just start hammering and they get what they get. It’s awesome.
What sparked the Mick Jagger collaboration?
I had played some shows with [Jagger] and in passing at dinner one night in Nashville, I said, “Hey you ought to come back.” I was serious, but I thought he’d never really do it, but I said, “You should come back and spend some time so we could write some songs and record out here at the farm.” He said, “Yeah, we could come back in September sometime.” The next thing you know, we were here recording and writing, sitting in this very spot. He was goofing around and doing what he does and singing and writing, and we had the best time.
I was struck by his focus. You would think at this point, with nothing left to prove, that this man would phone it in, but he doesn’t. He really is hyper aware of what music should be, and not only that, but current sort of trends. He’s a student still, and that’s so enlightening to see, because this is also a man who is probably more responsible for the paths that music took. There’s just a handful of people in his league, and here he is hungry to continually to create.
There’s a beautiful ballad on the album, “Gold on the Ground,” that you co-wrote with Johnny Cash. I understand it was inspired by his wife June Carter Cash. How did that collaboration come about?
John Carter Cash brought me that to finish. He brought that scrap of paper. It was in Johnny’s writing and there was something real magical about it. Somebody asked me the other day, “How do you do that? How does one go about writing with Johnny Cash?” I approached it like I would approach it with anyone that came in, like if Johnny had walked in — and this would have been amazing if he had — if he would have walked in with the lyric to the degree that he had started it and sat down with me. I approached it just like he was sitting on the couch, and tried to co-write no differently than I would have if we were actually writing the same way I wrote with Bill Anderson, or any of these guys.
You and Bill Anderson penned “Dying to See Her.” Was it inspired by Johnny Cash following June in death?
No, it actually wasn’t. It was inspired by my dad’s Uncle Johnny. His wife died suddenly in the middle of the night. She passed away of a heart attack, and boy, he loved her. When she died, we would go to visit him and he would just stand in the doorway sobbing when we left. He was alone in that house, and eventually the man went into the hospital with something wrong months later. My dad would go to see him, and you can’t even tell a guy like that to fight. [He] just wanted to be with her, and then he certainly got his wish soon enough.
What was your dad’s reaction the first time you played him that song?
He said, ‘That’s exactly it.’ He said, ‘That’s him.’ It all came flooding back to us.
Growing up in West Virginia, tell me about the songs that made you fall in love with country music.
The first record I ever heard on a turntable was Buck Owens’ “Tiger By The Tail.” I was probably 5. Then there was the theme from The Dukes of Hazzard by Waylon Jennings. It was a popular TV show, and here’s Waylon Jennings singing a song that had a great beat, cool words and great melody. Then I went through times of loving things like Dwight Yoakam when he came out, and the guitar parts on that stuff, and Steve Wariner and Vince Gill.
Those albums they were making back in the ’80s, and then the ’90s revolution in country music where all of a sudden I was playing the cool music. I’d been playing it my whole life, but I was playing what was cool, and that was the thing that saved me in high school. The fact that Garth [Brooks] and Clint [Black] came along, and the next thing you know I’m the one in high school that knows how to do that. So that was the country music I grew up with. And then there’s the rock and roll that also saved me, whether it was Eric Clapton or the Rolling Stones or the Beatles or Creedence.
What would teenage Brad think had if he knew he would one day record with Mick Jagger, Bill Anderson and John Fogerty?
He wouldn’t believe that, and I would have told him he was an idiot for believing in that if he did believe that. It’s hard to fathom it. I’ve had a really very lucky run. A 10-year or eight-year-old Brad wouldn’t have believed that he and Buck Owens would be buddies. My grandfather would have lost his mind that I knew Buck Owens that well. My grandfather would have flipped out that I did this song with Johnny Cash. Those are the albums he owned, Jimmy Dickens, all of that. Roy Clark, my grandfather would have lost his mind every Saturday night seeing me open the  CMA Awards singing “I’m a pickin’, I’m a grinnin’” with Roy. That right there would have meant more to him than anything I’ve ever done.
You’ve done a lot of touring abroad with dates in the U.K. in March and you’re heading to Sweden in July. How are the audiences overseas?
It’s very inspirational to me. We have had the best times going and trying out these markets overseas, and the reward has been so much greater than anything we ever expected. That’s been one of my real proudest moments is being able to fill up venues in places like England and Ireland… They show up and there are a ton of cowboy hats in London when we play. They go back in the closet the next day, I’m sure, but it’s really been a rewarding experience and it’s really opened my mind as to how small the world is, and we all do really want the same things.
A lot of the humor in your songs is very topical, and very reflective of American culture. Ever have to change a lyric to fit a foreign market?
I was going to sing “Selfie” [from Love and War] there [in the U.K.], but the thing I realized was there’s a line in there that deals with an American football star who made a bad decision. So I asked someone, “Has anyone in the U.K. or England taken a bad selfie or something?” And they were like, “Oh yes, Vernon Kay would be the one you want! He’s married but he was texting some pictures of his private parts to some girls and he did it again. He did it like two times.” And I’m like, “Really? We need to put it in this song!”
So I rewrote “Selfie.” They laughed at every line like they were in America and when I get to the last verse, I changed it. I said, “So you can go on and take one of Big Ben or Stonehenge, that’s okay, but if you’re texting some girl that you’ve just met, pictures of Little Vernon Kay, you ought to be ashamed.” They went insane, and it was so neat to see, “Wow, we’re all stupid in the same ways.” We share the exact same stupid decisions and dumb technology addictions I guess.
Your family — wife actress Kimberly Williams Paisley and sons Huck (10) and Jasper (8) — accompanied you on the last trip to Europe. I understand Huck was on a mission to see Galileo’s finger.
Yes. I have a picture of it. The story is Galileo died in the 1600s. Huck would know more about it than me, but when he died there were grave robbers that stole his thumb and forefinger or something, and I think maybe the skull. Then they ended up putting it all back together, except they kept the finger out and it’s in the museum, the Galileo Museum in Florence, so that’s a pretty amazing thing.
This is your 11th album. What continues to inspire you?
I’m inspired by anything that gives you that sort of pit in your stomach. The most inspirational things in your life are the things that truly effect you whether it’s in your family or personal. There are other aspects of this album that were inspired by just looking at current events. “The Devil Is Alive and Well” is a good example of that, same with “Love and War.” Those are not things necessarily happening to me so much as it is things that I’m seeing.
In your life, the people that matter to you the most are the ones who are the best at inspiring songs, I think. It’s never the same when you are writing about a situation that you haven’t witnessed firsthand. It’s never as powerful of a song, I think, as where one where you’ve lived it.