A lifelong dream of Brad Paisley’s will be realized this holiday season when he hosts the upcoming televised variety special Brad Paisley Thinks He’s Special, airing Dec. 3 on ABC. The country superstar serves as host and executive producer of the one-hour event, which includes appearances from some of his A-list friends like Carrie Underwood, Hootie & the Blowfish, Jonas Brothers, Kelsea Ballerini, NFL legend Peyton Manning, and Tim McGraw, among others.
While the special serves, in part, as a roast of the country singer alongside hilarious bits with his friends, it also highlights the ever growing city of Nashville. Filmed on Music City’s Lower Broadway, as well as historic concert venue War Memorial Auditorium, Paisley says it was important to feature all that Nashville has to offer.
The singer was also inspired by country legends before him, like Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell and Buck Owens, who had their own television specials years ago. He says his upcoming special is an example of his record label Sony Music Nashville branching out into other genres of entertainment, while realizing how each can work together. Paisley’s vision came together during a pitch meeting with Tom Mackay, president, Sony Music Film and Television A&R, in Los Angeles and other Sony television executives.
“I said, ‘I think L.A. and New York are represented on television. Wouldn’t it be neat to take one of America’s hottest, booming cities musically and creatively in so many ways, and put something on TV where we showcase the best of that, and show people on a TV special that Nashville is so cool?’” Paisley tells Billboard of his initial meeting.
The company liked what they heard, and Sony serves as Paisley’s producing partner for Brad Paisley Thinks He’s Special. The team then went to ABC where the one-hour television variety event was greenlit. “It’s really fun to have creative partners that want to see my vision through,” Paisley says. “To have the synergy of both; a company that’s got your back in every way, allowing me to create beyond just the records is a lot of fun… If we could do another [special], I’d love it. But first things first, let’s see if anybody likes what we did.”
Below, Paisley chats with Billboard about what viewers can expect from Brad Paisley Thinks He’s Special, airing Dec. 3 at 7/8 p.m. ET on ABC.
Carrie Underwood makes an appearance in a bit where the two of you go mudding, and it shows a side of Carrie we’ve never seen before.
I had no idea how that would go on paper. I had no clue there was this trailer park, screaming banshee, hillbilly, crazy woman inside. The funniest image to me is the stunt driver on hold on the sidelines, holding a blonde wig, ready to go if she’s not comfortable — and boy we didn’t need him. She was so fired up about doing this, and it was neat to watch her take the reins of something like this and really unleash that personality in a great way. We’re dear old friends and at this point I would think it’s hard to surprise people with what she is capable of. I think we did it on the show.
When the Jonas Brothers walked out on the stage at the Nashville taping, the screams were deafening. How did that collaboration come about?
Well, I was the one screaming. I felt so indebted to them for doing this. They’re so on top of the world, but we go way back. We really are friends, and I think the world of them. When I got this special greenlit, that was one of my first calls. I actually [ran] into Joe and after hanging out, I said, “Would you guys maybe want to do this?” And instantly, the answer was “Yes” — which was so cool and so nice of them because they are very busy.
I knew they’d be exactly the right fit for this because I wanted to show that it doesn’t have to just be country music and Nashville. I also wanted people that were willing to goof off with me. I knew when giving the Jonas Brothers a script like this [I should] let them ad lib and let them come up with stuff, it’s going to be fantastic. That’s one of my favorite moments in it, too, when we’re casting for the Jonas Brothers.
Kelsea Ballerini also makes an appearance, and you share a video of her singing in her childhood bedroom to the Jonas Brothers. Did you know that tape existed?
No, I had no idea that existed! On the phone I said, “Well, there’s this other segment in the show that I’m doing where I sing my song ‘Letter To Me,’ and I have celebrities give a few lines of advice to [their younger self]. So, is there anything you would tell yourself? It would be fun if you wanted to walk out. I was thinking of having the Jonas Brothers walk down.” She’s like, “Well, I’ve got a tape of me singing [their song]. It’s not great.” She texted me the clip and made the mistake of showing me.
Kelsea is amazing, and one of the bright shining examples of the future of country music. That was another thing we wanted to show: artists on the rise. I am the biggest Kelsea Ballerini fan at this point. She’s another one that fit the bill, willing to goof around, willing to do anything.
Are there any moments you’re especially surprised turned out the way they did?
I was really surprised by everything that worked, because I think we were ready to throw some things on the cutting room floor if they didn’t work. And we had the problem when we were done, everything landed. I can give you a great example of something that is way more than I expected as far as magic — and that was the song “Alive Right Now,” with Addie Pratt, who is a St. Jude survivor. I have this new song that we debut on the show that’s kind of the spirit of the show. One of the lines in the bridge is talking about St. Jude as a place. A long time ago, that place wasn’t doing what it does now, and here we are with, I think, the best example of what humanity is capable of with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
I said, “It would be so great to showcase a survivor in this bit, do something good with an hour of television.” In that process, I thought it would be a touching moment, and it was. What I didn’t expect was — in the true spirit of the show, of course, out walks Addie Pratt, 18 now, an amazing singer. She comes out, and again, I wind up having this show stolen from me, and I’m also so happy for that to have happened. It’s really emotional for me. I hadn’t sung with her before that day. I had no idea how that was going to go. At the end, she’s belting the song out like she’s Celine Dion. To sing those words; it’s one thing to say, “I’m so glad to be alive right now,” for you or I to say that. A girl who went through chemo and beat leukemia, to sing those same lines; there’s just no way any of us could have the gravity that she does on those lines.
What do you hope viewers take away from the special?
How much fun it is to be able to take some friends of mine, like the Jonas Brothers, and do a performance you’ll never see anywhere else. We do “Lovebug,” and then they mash up and go into “She’s Everything,” one of my songs, and I played a little bit of “Ticks,” and it’s a very organic and stripped down performance. To be able to offer that to the world in the middle of all this noise is really fun. We’re all trying to create, but it’s fun to have this platform where we were able to do fun stuff and be able to see if people will latch on and grab it.
I play the rock guitar solo on “Lovebug” with those boys. And then I play acoustic guitar bluegrass-y with Kelsea on her song, and then I jam out at Tootsies with Hootie & the Blowfish. This was a fantasy for me. One of the things I said to Kelsea was, “I’m such a big fan, I just want to be your backup guitar player on this show for a minute,” and I got to do that. So it’s fantasy camp for me.