Stop me if you’ve heard this: Man walks into a bar, pulls out a guitar and takes the stage.
“My wife didn’t think this song is funny, so I’m not going to put it on my album,” he says. “See what you think.”
That singer could be Brad Paisley. Even though he’s had several humorous hits, country music’s newest superstar doesn’t always trust his instincts. So he tries out his tunes on audiences - “almost like a standup comic would rehearse things,” explained Paisley. “A live audience will never lie to you.”
Even before he finished the song, he tested “Ticks” - about a young guy who wants to take a new gal into the moonlit woods so he can examine her body for, um, ticks - and this summer it became his eighth No. 1 country single. “I’m Still a Guy” (which disses metrosexuals) connected with crowds, too, so he included it on his latest CD, “5th Gear,” released in June.
But one number didn’t pass muster with his toughest audience: actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, his wife.
“It was a song that dealt with a man shucking responsibilities, pretending to not be any good at things to get out of them - like folding the sheets wrong and dropping dishes when he washed dishes,” said Paisley. “Kim hated it. But I said: `This guy’s smart. People are going to think it’s funny.’ In the end, I decided I can’t put on a song that she’s going to (skip over) and not listen to. I still want to record it someday.”
There’s plenty of humor on “5th Gear” - so much that Blender magazine wrote: “If Brad Paisley weren’t a country superstar, he could be a comedian ... Nashville has always welcomed punchline-packed novelty tunes, and Paisley’s well-nigh-perfect new album will deepen his reputation as a master of the art.”
Take his new single, “Online,” about a living-with-his-parents geek who fantasizes facts for his Internet dating profile. While writing the tune, the singer imagined a video starring Jason Alexander of “Seinfeld” fame, who’d appeared in Paisley’s “Celebrity” video in 2003.
“It’s like `The 40-Year-Old Virgin’ meets `The Matrix,’” Paisley said of the video, which Alexander also directed. “William Shatner plays his dad and Estelle Harris plays his mom; she played his mother on `Seinfeld.’ Jason’s a huge sci-fi fan - `Star Trek,’ `Star Wars,’ all that. He’s a black belt in karate. He’s an asthmatic. Isn’t it hilarious? It is him. Except he doesn’t live with his parents.”
What is this modern-day Roger Miller like away from the spotlight?
“He’s very sarcastic,” says Scott Scovill, who has directed two Paisley videos and designed the singer’s tours. “He loves practical jokes.”
Scovill recalled the time that Paisley, opening concerts for Reba McEntire, made an animated short of her and slipped it to the tour’s video director. When Paisley joined her onstage, the short came on the big screen with the animated superstar flashing her breasts (“they were blurred out,” Scovill said), and some folks turned as red as Reba’s hair.
Scovill described Paisley as a driven person who enjoys being creative. “He’s extremely intelligent and a very quick learner,” Scovill said. “He can grab animation software and start doing animation. I wouldn’t call him a workaholic but his hobbies are work-related. For fun, he’ll sit down and edit his videos or his TV special.”
On a recent visit to promote his new CD, Paisley was affable and easy-going with a quick wit. He answered probing questions from fans about diapering his newborn son, getting speeding tickets and the meaning of his wife’s new short film (the star of “Father of the Bride” and TV’s “According to Jim” just made “Numero Dos,” about a guy on the road who desperately has to go to the restroom).
Growing up in Glen Dale, W.Va., Paisley got his first guitar at age 8, wrote his first song at 12 and started gigging a year later. He received a full scholarship to Belmont University in Nashville, where he met fellow students Frank Rogers and Kelley Lovelace, who would become his producer and songwriting partner, respectively.
In 1999, four years out of college, Paisley released his debut album and scored his first No. 1 song, “He Didn’t Have to Be.” With his second album in 2001, his career broke open with the classic “I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song),” in which his lady gives him an ultimatum - fishin’ or her.
His fourth CD, “Time Well Wasted,” was named album of the year in 2006 by both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music on the strength of the hits “Alcohol,” “She’s Everything” and “When I Get Where I’m Going,” a duet with Dolly Parton.
Besides the humor, what sets Paisley apart from most country stars is his guitar playing. Like Keith Urban and Vince Gill, Paisley could be a lead guitarist in any country or rock band. His influences include Nashville pickers but also big names from the rock world. That was evident when he explained his sonic approach to “Ticks”:
“We stole some things from early Van Halen, which works really well because you have verses that feel sort of modern and technological with all these weird funky guitars doing this Mark Knopfler-type Dire Straits sound, going into a banjo-laden bluegrass chorus, which becomes the yin/yang of the city and the country.”
“Ticks” and “Online” may be novelty numbers, but “5th Gear” has plenty of serious selections, too, including “Oh Love,” a duet with Carrie Underwood, and “Letter to Me,” about what Paisley wished he’d known at age 17.
“I think at 17 you wonder where you fit in,” said Paisley, who is now twice that age. “When I was in high school, everyone told me those were the best years of my life. They couldn’t have been further from the truth.”
When writing tunes for “5th Gear,” he found himself in a reflective mood about his teen years because he was about to become a father.
“It’s the closest I get to a second chance - this little boy,” the proud papa said.
William Huckleberry Paisley was born in February. Dad came up with the middle name, which is what the parents are calling him.
“I threw out the possibility of that name and Kim loved it instantly; I was instantly prepared for five more options,” he said. “We like the uniqueness of it. I love Mark Twain. I love what Huckleberry Finn as a character stood for - this free thinker, sort of outdoor adventurer.”
The same description could apply to Paisley, who has dubbed his summer trek the Bonfires and Amplifiers Tour. The free-spirited guitarist is aware that such outdoors-themed songs as “Ticks” and “I’m Still a Guy” could rub concertgoers the wrong way.
“Sometimes it’s good when they are offensive,” he said with a chuckle. “A little bit of offense can be good. If you’re not offending somebody, you’re not that funny.”
Unless that somebody is your wife.