[23 June 2011]
Only a minute or so into Brad Paisley’s new album, the singer evokes the album’s title. “This is country music,” he declares, and he delivers the line with equal parts pride and resignation. What “this” actually refers to can mean the very song he’s singing, the sensibility of the entire genre in general, or where country music finds itself at this particular moment in history.
These are broad strokes with which to paint, and it takes confidence to step up and declare oneself a spokesman with the ability to define an entire genre. But Brad Paisley has a unique ability to do that very thing without disclosing an ounce of cockiness or sounding anything other than genuine.
One way Paisley gets away with such reach is his recent track record as an artist. 2009’s American Saturday Night was one of the decade’s best country records, and if Paisley had built up enough capital as an Entertainer of the Year to make him a legend in the making, This Is Country Music should seal the deal for a future Hall of Famer at the peak of his powers. Even for an album tailor-made to be a slick modern-country-radio blockbuster, it’s impossible to ignore how good the songs are… all of them.
In many ways, Paisley is country music’s great democratizer, a guy who’s hard to knock, even for people who think they hate country music. Paisley is good and country, as his white Stetson hopes to attest, and he’s worked as hard to honor classic country’s traditions and legends as anyone else in the game, from collaborating with Little Jimmie Dickens when most of Paisley’s contemporaries had never heard of him to dragging Alabama out of retirement to sing on the new record. But he also brings enough contemporary flash, winking irony, and hot-shit guitar solos to win over the masses.
Paisley knows all of this well, which is one reason he’s so successful at walking the lines and thereby remaining entirely inoffensive. In the opening stanza of the title cut/opening number/lead single, Paisley acknowledges that “tellin’ folks that Jesus is the answer can rub ‘em wrong”, for instance. While many Bible Belt country fans will read the line as staunch pride in “knowing the Lord”, the even-more-deeply convicted might scoff at the notion that Paisley should pay even a moment’s credence to those offended at a mention of Jesus.
Later, in “Camouflage”, Paisley sings “the stars and bars offend some folks and I guess I see why.” Whoa! One can imagine that for certain jingoists or Teabag enthusiasts that Paisley’s “I guess” doesn’t take the sting away from “I see why [the American flag offends people]”. Yet Paisley drops the line within a song about how camouflage is his “favorite color”, a surefire hit with the duck blind set, again proving that he’s a guy who can think like a modern man while simultaneously paying tribute to the lifestyle that butters his bread.
At the same time, Paisley is unafraid to modernize country music in ways that might rub the old-school wrong—flashy guitar heroics, supporting President Obama—but Paisley pulls it off through a mix of humility, musical integrity, and a deep reverence for Nashville’s past. And yes those great songs.
The first two singles—the title song and “Old Alabama”—have both shot to Number One on the country charts, but This Is Country Music sounds like an album crammed full of singles, ‘80s big rock style. In fact, like Taylor Swift, Zac Brown Band, and other country biggies, the last singles on Paisley’s previous releases, “Water” from American Saturday Night and “Anything Like Me” from last year’s best-of collection Hits Alive, have bled right into the first singles from this record.
“Old Alabama”, for its part, is the kind of half-cover that has been popular of late, this one incorporating Alabama’s “Mountain Music”, well within the wheelhouse of anyone born in 1972, as Paisley was. “Remind Me”, a duet with Carrie Underwood, is the next smash, a power ballad placed fifth on the album and released as the third single, following the famous Bon Jovi Template for hit production. An ‘80s hit-metal reference also makes sense for a guy born in ’72. Slippery When Wet came out when Paisley was in middle school, and while Paisley has less in common with hair metal than many of his country peers, his dedication to big, round choruses and, especially, guitar-solo fireworks, harkens to a similar spirit that shipped platinum a couple of decades ago.
Elsewhere, Paisley covers a range of bases, all with winning taste and creativity. “Working on a Tan” is based on Dick Dale-style surf guitar before settling into a catchy ode to spring break hedonism. “Love Her Like She’s Leavin’” has a clever country hook, abetted by Don Henley. “One of Those Lives” is the song that mentions “cancer” that Paisley warned us about in the title song, but it manages to do so without the kind of sentimentality we might expect from a lesser craftsman. Even better corn is “Toothbrush”, a sweet song that deliberately jerks tears yet works fine thanks to some nifty Merle Travis-style fingerpicking and Paisley’s poised vocal delivery.
Overall, Paisley pulls off another feat, hurtling a seriously high bar he’d set, improving as a writer, guitarist, singer, hitmaker, and performer. When folks start calling you the greatest country artist of your generation, you’d better deliver. This Is Country Music does.