OVER THE holidays, country star Brad Paisley played Santa Claus to his home town of Glen Dale, W.Va., about 10 miles from Wheeling.
First, Paisley made a major donation toward a 20,000-square-foot concrete skate park -- the first of its kind in West Virginia. Nobody has mentioned a figure, but the cost of such a park is in the quarter-million range.
Brad Paisley practically grew up in the country music business. At age 12, he became the youngest regular on radio's "Jamboree USA" in West Virginia.
Then on Jan. 15, Paisley headlined a benefit concert at Wheeling's WesBanco Arena for victims of September flooding as remnants of Hurricane Ivan moved through the Ohio Valley. Wheeling is situated where the prone-to-overflowing Ohio River separates West Virginia and Ohio, and it's also home to "Jamboree USA" -- the second-oldest country music program, after the Grand Ole Opry.
Since the "Jamboree USA" Saturday night live radio broadcast is where Paisley began his career as a precocious 12-year-old guitar sensation, it's not surprising that the man whose latest album, "Mud on the Tires," has sold more than 2 million copies, has maintained strong community ties.
"My home town was really great to me," says Paisley, who has lived in Nashville since 1997. "If you've ever watched 'The Andy Griffith Show,' it's like Mayberry. I was a little kid that they noticed had talent, and I was given every opportunity you can have to learn how to entertain people. You can't help but pick up a few things when you've had that kind of guidance. I really do love those people a lot more than just a benefit concert."
Paisley started playing guitar at age 8 after watching his father, a night-shift railroad worker, pick away on his days at home. He talked his way into a Sears Danelectro Silvertone (the one with an amp in its carrying case) and displayed an early proficiency by forming a band with his guitar teacher, Hank Goddard. On Paisley's second album, "Part II," there's an interlude of the two conversing and Paisley worrying about having peaked -- at the age of 12. A laughing Goddard counsels, "You've got lots to look forward to."
Some think Paisley could have made it as a Nashville session musician -- he always includes a couple of hot instrumentals on his albums -- but early on he'd taken some stabs at songwriting and proved precocious there as well. Tom Miller, the program director at WWVA, which broadcasts "Jamboree USA," heard Paisley performing "Born on Christmas Day" at a local Rotary Club holiday show in 1984 and invited him to appear at the Capitol Music Hall, the home of the radio program, which has been airing from Wheeling since 1933.
"It's like the Opry for us because it's the local thing," Paisley explains, "a great, long-running theater with a concert series and a radio show as well as a huge festival that draws 70,000 people every summer."
After Paisley's Christmas song went over well, he was invited to be a "Jamboree USA" regular, the youngest ever at age 12.
"More than anything, it was a lot of fun for me to be around it, to see all of these wonderful performers that I was a fan of up close. And I got to study the culture of putting on a performance, watching them load it all in and set it up, getting to meet the guys in the bands as they came through. They were always good to me: I was a kid hanging around, and they treated me with a lot of respect and saw it as a chance to pass along stuff."
Yet Paisley didn't have Nashville ambitions, even after starting at West Liberty State College, 12 miles from Wheeling.
"It's so much easier to be oblivious and live in the town you're at and be a big fish there," he admits.
Fortunately, Jim Watson, Paisley's student adviser at West Liberty, suggested he transfer to Nashville's Belmont University, whose well-known music business program might better advance Paisley's talent. Even then, he didn't visit Nashville until a hometown friend who was working for George Jones got married there.
"That's when I checked out Belmont, and it only took me walking into that studio they had, which was a good million-dollar facility," Paisley recalls. "I would have been a fool not to go to a school that gives you credit for pretty much the things I needed to learn."
And a school that was perfect for networking, he adds. "I totally understood the fact that it was about who you know and who knew of you as well. I don't think you can get everything based on who you know, but you can't get anything until you do know the right people."
Among Paisley's fellow students were Frank Rogers (now his producer), Kelley Lovelace (a frequent songwriting partner, including on his first No. 1, "He Didn't Have to Be") and several of the musicians in his band. And Belmont is at the base of 16th Avenue, better known as Publisher's Row, "the absolute place to be in country music," Paisley says. "You could take classes and then walk to your internship."
His was with the performing rights organization ASCAP, yet for a long time he didn't mention his own gifts as a writer, singer or musician.
"Then someone asked, 'Do you write songs?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Can I hear them?' I said, 'Noooo, I'm not here to do that, I'm here to learn.' He said, 'Yeah, bull, play me something.' He was very excited when he heard what I had, which, looking back, was sort of the beginning of what I do now," Paisley says. "At that point, they took it upon themselves to make sure it wasn't just an internship but sort of a songwriting seminar and on top of that made sure I was heard by the right people. By the time I graduated, it was as if the path was almost laid out."
Indeed, a week after graduating, Paisley had a deal with EMI Publishing and soon after, his first royalties from David Kersh's recording of his song, "Another You."
"Here I was, just out of college, and I had a top-5 single as a writer, which paid for everything," Paisley recalls. "I'd been living on about $18,000 a year, and to go from that to a hit single was like, 'Whoa, what do I do with all this?' "
What he did was get a contract with Arista Nashville, which led to his 1999 debut, "Who Needs Pictures" (the title track is about a jilted lover with photographic memory). It earned him the Country Music Association's 2000 Horizon Award as best new artist, but oddly the album didn't include a funny old song that had been put on hold at times by superstars Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and George Strait. Call it the one that almost got away, appropriate since the song in question is "I'm Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin' Song)." That's the twisted confessional in which Paisley sings, "Today she met me at the door, said I would have to choose / If I hit that fishin' hole, she'd be packing up her things and she'd be gone by noon . . . well I'm gonna miss her."
According to Paisley, the first hold (the exclusive right to record a new song) was by Brooks, the backup hold by Strait. Jackson almost cut it a few years back but demurred; by the time he wanted to revisit it, "I told my publisher, 'You tell him to forget it!' " Paisley says with a chuckle. He included it on his second album, "Part II," which like the single, went to No. 1. "I saw Alan later, and he said, 'I was right about that fishin' song, wasn't I?' "
Humor is a strong element in Paisley's songwriting, much in the tradition of two of his heroes, Buck Owens and Roger Miller.
"It's important for sure. I think people like it, and it makes the albums better more than anything. Otherwise you've got a bunch of love songs and sad songs. We've had a couple of songs on these records that make people grin or laugh out loud, which is hard to do as a songwriter. The other side is you don't want to be known just for that or run the risk of having two hits in a row with 'I'm Gonna Miss Her' and 'Celebrity,' " a song [from 'Mud on the Tires'] that sends up celebrity and reality television. The video, featuring guests such as Jason Alexander, William Shatner and "Bachelorette" Trista Rehn, came close to earning Paisley the CMA's music video of the year, after a win in 2002 for "I'm Gonna Miss Her."
Paisley's most recent Country Music Awards were a double -- best musical event and best music video -- for "Whiskey Lullaby," a somber duet with Alison Krauss. Written by Bill Anderson and Jon Randall, it's a mournful tale of lost love, alcoholism and double suicide, the kind of classic dark narrative country radio normally shuns. And classic country is important to Paisley: For "Part II," he got to work with Anderson, Owens and George Jones on the song "Too Country," a defense of traditional American music and values. Jones and Anderson, joined by Little Jimmy Dickens, do a narrative encore on "Spaghetti Western Swing" from "Mud on the Tires," whose title track was recently No. 1 on the country charts.
"I was just excited to meet them," the 32-year-old Paisley says. "This won't be the last time we do this sort of thing," he adds, looking forward to working on his next album at the conclusion of the Mud and Suds tour that brings Paisley, Sara Evans and Andy Griggs to the Patriot Center Friday.
Another positive consequence of Paisley's rising stardom and good looks was his ability to snag Kimberly Williams for a video. She played Steve Martin's daughter in two "Father of the Bride" films and now co-stars on the ABC sitcom "According to Jim."
"I'd liked her in 'Father of the Bride' and had written a song about the movie, 'Part II,' and when we were talking about making a video for 'I'm Gonna Miss Her,' I naturally asked her to be in it. When I called, I definitely had other motives."
Apparently: Paisley and Williams were married in March 2003. He says she's the basis for the song "Little Moments," and she appears in that song's video. In turn, Paisley has guested on "According to Jim." He's also portrayed Ricky Nelson on NBC's "American Dreams" and serenaded Rehn and Ryan Sutter at their ballyhooed televised wedding.
Despite all that, "I still consider myself working in Nashville. I visit Hollywood," he insists. "I turned down a bunch of things recently. It's good exposure, but I'm finding it hard getting enough time to get this album done."
However, Paisley does find time to appear twice a month at the Grand Ole Opry, which he joined in 2001 (at 32, he is the youngest current member). Paisley, who at his induction wore Buck Owens's legendary canary-yellow rhinestone Nudie jacket, appears far more frequently than most of the big-name members.
"It's priceless," he says of the opportunity. "The Opry is still strong, and it reminds me of home in so many ways. And I'm a fan of all these guys that are on it: Where else can you go on a Saturday night and see all your heroes? My commitment is entirely based on my childhood and where I come from."
BRAD PAISLEY -- Appearing Friday at the Patriot Center with Sara Evans and Andy Griggs. To hear a free Sound Bite from Brad Paisley, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)