“No one can make the album they made 10 years ago with a straight face,” Brad Paisley muses. The singer/songwriter/guitar slinger is siitting in Blackbird Studios, a state of the art Nashville facility owned by Martina McBride and her husband, and putting the finishing touches on his June 30 Arista Nashville release, “American Saturday Night.” “You change as a person. To be a true artist, I have to be true to who I am now and write that way.”
Since debuting in 1999, Paisley has recorded seven albums — five studio LPs, plus 2006’s “Christmas” and 2008’s mostly instrumental release “Play.” Each has sold in excess of a million units according to Nielsen SoundScan, with “Mud on the Tires” his top-selling title at 2,364,000 units. He’s also notched 14 No. 1 singles on the Hot Country Songs chart, with his current single “Then” poised at the top this week.
Paisley has long been Nashville’s sweetheart because of his ability to write both party songs and ballads perfect for radio. But thanks to the bucolic boot camp he and his songwriter friends went through, “American Saturday Night” is more reflective than anything he’s done before. The West Virginia native and triple Grammy winner talked to Billboard about his “American Saturday Night” Tour, which kicks off Friday, June 5 in Charlotte, NC (go to Billboard’s Tour Finder for more info), and gave a sneak peek at his new material.
How do you approach getting ready to record a new album?
Brad Paisley: We start every record the same way — we take a little time off. I don’t really write a lot in the middle of touring and everything else. I getaway from it, which I think is always healthy, otherwise you just don’t recharge.
As it turned out, there are no outside cuts. You co-wrote all the songs. Why?
I’ve got a great team that’s grown over the years, these guys I co-write with all the time, and they all knew I had an album coming up. So they came [with] their game faces on and just walked into every writing session prepared. I rely on guys that I trust like Chris DuBois, Frank Rogers, Tim Owens and Kelley Lovelace, Ashley Gorley and Bill Anderson–just all these guys that throughout the years have become family. It’s truly a team now. Certainly I would be steering the ship at this point, but it’s a lot of us working hard toward the end product.
What were the writing sessions like?
We wrote most of this at the farm. Between [Kelley Lovelace’s] house and my house, we have this old guest house that I’ve converted into a studio and writing area. We always get together there. There was one night back in December, in the living room was me, Chris [DuBois] and Ashley [Gorley] finishing up “Then.” In the other room, Robert Arthur and Tim Owens were thinking of another first verse for a song we had written called “You Do The Math,” which is on the record. Kelley was upstairs by himself writing something that he and I and Chris had been working on. I’ve never had more fun.
Who influenced you as a songwriter?
Mike Reid, Dean Dillon, Skip Ewing, Steve Wariner, Vince Gill and guys like Rodney Crowell. When we wrote this album, we went back and listened to a lot of old stuff that we still love, like Alabama. I even stumbled on stuff like Michael Johnson’s “The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder.”
Thinking about what was on the radio when I grew up and the way people wrote, it was a different time in country music. They were pretty artistic. Steve Wariner had things on the radio like “Some Fools Never Learn” and “What I Didn’t Do,” and then there were bands like Restless Heart that were [representing] the pop side of things. I didn’t realize at the time that I was hearing masterpieces pretty much one after the other on the radio.
How do your live shows impact your songwriting?
I have the unique vantage point at the center of that stage every night and I see the very people that have become my fans. I know pretty well what works for them. So I come off a stretch [on tour] with a handful of ideas I think will work. They don’t always, but some of them do.
What can people expect to hear on the new record?
If the last album was looking back to high school, on this one I look back to who I became from a little boy on. You’ll see it in a song called “If He’s Anything Like Me,” which is about my son Huck and also this newest one [son Jasper Warren, born April 17]. It has a lot of funny lines in it: “I can see him right now, knees all skinned up with a magnifying glass trying to melt a Tonka truck.” And there’s a song called “Water” which deals with a love affair with water that began with an inflatable pool and grew to bigger bodies of water, and eventually all the things that you can do around water that you can’t get away with anywhere else. My songs are certainly influenced by how I see the world through other sets of eyes as well as my own.
You’ve said this is an important time to make music. Do you address the economy or current social climate on the record?
I don’t really deal with the darkness of these times, musically. When we chose to put out “Then” as the first single, that was on purpose. At least the one thing that can help you find complete respite from these times is true love. If you fall in love with somebody or if you are reminded of your relationship with somebody and that song speaks to you, then you’re not even worried about your bills. Love can take your mind off of anything. That’s the kind of song that I wanted to hear.
“American Saturday Night” is being touted as your most mature effort, yet there are some party songs on the record.
I wanted to deal with the weekend scene in America, which is what people are living for these days. Those of us that still have jobs are living for Friday and Saturday. They are going to live it up. “You Do The Math” is really an almost Johnny Cash-meets- Merle Haggard, pick-up line song. The chorus says, “It takes two to make love, baby. I’m sure of that. I’m one, you’re one, you do the math.” It’s really fun. It starts out mono. It sounds like 1960 and then all of a sudden it goes stereo and it’s neat to hear.
Your albums usually include an instrumental. Will there be one on “American Saturday Night”?
I don’t want to redo something just because it’s something people expect. We just did 10 instrumentals [on “Play”], so we’re going to take a break. Even though I said I was going to always do an instrumental on an album, I think the instrumental album takes the place of that for now. We’ll do one next time.
Do you enjoy the recording process?
I love the album process because to me it’s the time when you can stop worrying. You’re not worrying about what’s going to sell when you are making it. You’re not worried about your career, because it’s all about the future and looking ahead. That part of the process is the most fun because you are writing the script you’ll have to stick to for a year or two, if it goes well. So I love that process. It’s the most fun you can have.
The tour kicks off June 5 in Charlotte, NC. You always incorporate interesting video into your shows, such as the “Guitar Zero” segment with Little Jimmy Dickens battling Taylor Swift, Bill Anderson and Dierks Bentley. What can fans expect this time out?
The premise of this tour really is that every night is a Saturday night…There are some massive street lamps that go above the set, and a lot of technology like we’ve used before. I’m lucky that the songs I record lend themselves to things like that. When you’ve got the “I’m Gonna Misss Her” and “Ticks,” “Online” and “Mud on the Tires,” it’s not really hard to stretch your imagination and say, “Okay, what can you do behind it?” The songs actually do dictate the show and that’s why we can get away with all that.
What’s your next career goal? Winning Entertainer of the Year?
I would like to win entertainer of the year because that’s in the record book, but more than that is the fact that I’ve watched Kevin Freeman, my production manager who co-designs the set and runs sound, and he’s one of the best in the entire business. He’s been with me since my first gig which was in 1999 and that’s unbelievable. It doesn’t happen. My band has been with me since then, unchanged. The only new player is Randle Currie on steel and he came along in 2000. So we’re talking the same guys, and to win that award is the one time that everybody shares it. That would be great.