Brad Paisley’s country continues to expand its borders


Brad Paisley’s “Moonshine In the Trunk” is out Aug. 26. In it, the country star continues to push Nashville’s boundaries. (Michael A. Schwarz/For the Washington Post)

Country music is supposed to be about real life, and in real life, Brad Paisley is sipping Perrier.

Will we ever get to hear a Paisley lyric about French bubbles in little green bottles? This is a man who hung his star over Nashville singing about the perils of ticks, tanning beds and online dating. So, yeah, maybe we will.

Nashville loves to agonize over what country music should and shouldn’t be, and that’s the tangled yarn ball Paisley’s been spinning on his finger for more than a decade. Of any country superstar working today, he’s the guy with the songs most intimately connected to the contemporary American experience — the blood, the sweat, the tears, the beers and everything else in the grocery bag. He populates his lyric sheet with people who don’t normally appear in country songs, gilding their unfamiliar dramas in deeply familiar melodies. Sometimes, there’s a political message. More often, there’s a punch line.

“I defuse everything I can with it,” Paisley says. “Humor is such a great shield. You’re going to get flak if you tell the wrong joke, but it’s still the wrong joke. Give the wrong speech, you take it on the chin.”

That’s exactly where Paisley took it in April of last year when critics locked their ears on “Accidental Racist,” an earnest duet with rapper LL Cool J about racial healing that went wrong, then went viral. “I’m just a white man coming to you from the southland,” Paisley sings on the refrain, “trying to understand what it’s like not to be.”

The song was ridiculed by bloggers, blasted by critics, eviscerated by Stephen Colbert and parodied on “Saturday Night Live.” Then the great digital outrage machine did what it always does. It moved on to something else.

Paisley didn’t. “I’m still on a journey to learn this stuff,” the 41-year-old says, relaxing on his tour bus before a recent concert in Atlanta. “I want to hear what the professors and the pundits have to say. I had great conversations with a couple of people who were vocally upset, and I’m trying to learn what I can do better.”

As a songwriter, one of Paisley’s central themes has always been “taking pride in progress” — in America’s and, perhaps subconsciously, his own. Accordingly, his eleventh album, “Moonshine in the Trunk,” out this week, finds him bouncing back from controversy while racing through the busiest summer of his life.

He’s been on tour, giving the late country legend Roger Miller a run for his money as a guitarist and a cutup. He’s been on television, serving as a judge on ABC’s latest singing game show, “Rising Star.” He’s been at home on his farm outside Nashville, soaking up time with his young sons, Huck and Jasper, and his wife, actress Kimberly Williams. And he’s been online, executing his own rogue publicity campaign, leaking songs from “Moonshine in the Trunk” on Twitter, one by one.

He calls the album “a Mason jar half-full” — which means lots of drinking songs and lots of optimism.

And while the album’s excessive sunshine might seem a little tone-deaf to anyone who’s been following the news this summer, Paisley is far from oblivious. His music doesn’t just chronicle the America we live in. It envisions the America he wants to live in.

“Thinking, ‘Boy, are we blowing it, now’ — I don’t want to do that,” Paisley says. “I have two little boys. I want to say, ‘Here are the possibilities.’ This is the best time to be alive in the history of our country. And hopefully, this isn’t as good as it gets.”

He’s the closest country music has come to Norman Rockwell.

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The great art critic — and Music Row songwriting veteran — Dave Hickey had a terrific understanding of what Rockwell was really about.

“This is what [Rockwell] celebrates and insists upon: that ‘normal’ life, in this country, is not normal at all,” Hickey wrote in 1995, “that we all exist in a general state of social and physical equanimity that is unparalleled in the history of humans.” On Rockwell’s fundamental message, Hickey spelled it out: “Hey! People are different. Get used to it.

Paisley, who embarked on his songwriting career immediately after graduating from Belmont University in Nashville in 1995, loves Rockwell, too — and he’s quick to volunteer a favorite image. He saw it hanging at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch: two janitors taking a break from mopping a theater to leaf through the playbill. “Love that one,” he says, blinking hard so he can see it on his eyelids.

It’s easy to imagine Paisley in a songwriting session, conjuring similar characters with his eyes clamped. He has a knack for singing from other perspectives, sometimes playing an opinionated narrator on the brink of a big realization.

On the new album, there’s “Gone Green” — a song penned by Paisley’s bassist, Kenny Lewis — in which a “redneck” reluctantly embraces environmentalism in a world that’s “done gone green.” On 2013’s “Those Crazy Christians,” Paisley sings from the position of a grouchy atheist willing to admit that, “If I ever really needed help, well, you know who I’d call is those crazy Christians.” And all those ditties about the ups and downs and upside-downs of alcohol? They’re inspired by the sloshiness Paisley sees at his concerts. He doesn’t really drink.

This tactic usually works pretty well, but something went awry with “Accidental Racist.” In the song, a guy in a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt (Paisley) walks into a Starbucks and places his order with a black barista (LL Cool J), realizing the Confederate flag on his chest is problematic. Paisley’s lyrics stepped out into a minefield— “It ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin” — while LL’s clunky response rhymes created dubious equivalencies. “If you don’t judge my gold chains,” he raps, “I’ll forget the iron chains.”

Paisley says the uproar that followed made him smarter. “And contrary to popular belief, I wasn’t that dumb before,” he says. “But discussion is all you can ask for. That’s my biggest regret about that song: It became an argument and not a discussion.”

To many critics, the song’s broad strokes made the absurd suggestion that centuries of racial strife could be solved over a caramel macchiato. But Paisley was just doing what scores of country songwriters have been trying to do since Hank Williams roamed the Earth: cram life’s complexities into tidy, legible, memorable, melodic three-minute packages.

“We were having a very personal discussion [within the song], and everyone said, ‘How dare you speak for us?’ ” Paisley says. “But I think two people sitting at Starbucks can reach a conclusion together. As a country, we can’t. But with that song, we were trying to say, ‘Hey, you can talk about these things.’ ”

And while the controversy over “Accidental Racist” raged almost completely outside of the country music world, it’s worth remembering that Paisley was sending that message to country fans, a bloc that’s overwhelmingly white and completely unaccustomed to being confronted with songs about race.

“I found incredible consolation in their reaction,” Paisley says, “which was, ‘Huh, I never thought about that.’ ”

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Outside the bus, thousands have streamed into the amphitheater, where Paisley will soon have them singing, laughing, snapping selfies and thinking about the social contours of modern America. But if the loyalty of these fans is paramount to a boundary-nudger such as Paisley — and it is — when do their expectations become a fence?

“I think the expectations are opportunities as well, don’t you think?” Paisley says. “It’s easy to break convention when people have a very clear understanding of what that is.”

In order to pull that off, he bounces his song ideas off a brain trust of collaborators, including co-
songwriters Kelley Lovelace and Chris DuBois, and the producer of “Moonshine,” Luke Wooten.

“I don’t like being surrounded by yes men. A lot of people think that that’s impossible at this stage, to not be isolated, but I don’t feel like I am,” he says. “My mistakes are my own, but I don’t have people saying, ‘Yeah, Elvis, you look great with that needle in your arm.’ ”

DuBois, who’s been writing songs with Paisley for more than 20 years, says he’s still amazed by Paisley’s readiness to take risks. “But it doesn’t even cross my mind to tell him what he wants to hear when he plays me a song,” DuBois says.

With a strong circle of friends and his gut to trust, Paisley doesn’t second-guess himself often. But he does wonder if the backlash to “Accidental Racist” might have set Music Row back a few years when it comes to producing socially minded material. (And considering Nashville’s hypersensitivity to negative media attention, Paisley’s worry is more a legitimate expression of concern than of ego.)

“But with all respect to Brad, I’m not sure he’s responsible for that,” says RJ Curtis, an editor at All Access, a trade publication that follows country radio. “If you look at the country charts right now, we’re not only in party mode, but we’re drinking heavily. So a song that’s taking on one of the biggest social issues in our country would be a real reach for what’s driving listenership right now.”

Plenty of the songs on “Moonshine” operate in that boozy mode, but Paisley is hoping radio will eventually latch on to “Shattered Glass,” a feminist ballad about empowerment and progress. “When it’s sung from a man’s perspective, it’s a different kind of cheer,” he says.

And Paisley always wants to be different, inviting his listeners into that uniquely American space between what’s real and what’s possible. “I don’t want to do risky,” he says. “I want to do important. And lovable. Important and lovable.”

For an hour, he’s been speaking in crisp, confident rhythms, but for a moment, he zones out and his voice jumps up a key, as if he’s seeking permission from God, his fans, the future or maybe just his own human limitations: “Can I do that?

Brad Paisley performs at Jiffy Lube Live on Sept. 20. “Moonshine in the Trunk” is available Tuesday.

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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