Small-Town Inspiration

Brad Paisley takes to the auditorium stage in his high school to film footage for the music video for
Brad Paisley takes to the auditorium stage in his high school to film footage for the music video for "Letter to Me," which references people and places in his home town. (Photos By Kate Robertson For The Washington Post)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 6, 2007

GLEN DALE, W.Va. Home, for country-music star Brad Paisley, is where the signs are.

For instance, there's the one with the guitar on it that's posted alongside Route 2, in the northernmost part of this tiny Ohio River Valley town. "Welcome to Glen Dale," it says. "Home of Brad Paisley. Member of the Grand Ole Opry."

Head south, past the first of Glen Dale's two stoplights, and you'll happen upon the residential street that used to be known as Eighth. Now? The signs call it Brad Paisley Boulevard.

On this particular day, on the marquee outside John Marshall High School, there's also this: "Welcome Home Brad Paisley and the Class of 1991." And this: Across the road from the school, two little girls are holding up handmade signs that encourage passersby to "Honk If You Love Brad Paisley."

Beeeeeeeep. Beep. Beep.

"It's really weird to be back doing this," the homecoming king says.

Brad Paisley was born here, grew up here, learned to play the guitar and sing and write songs here. Then he left for Nashville and became a college graduate, then a professional songwriter (first big hit: David Kersh's "Another You") and, eventually, a superstar recording artist with a private jet, an adorable actress-wife named Kimberly Williams, a 100-acre property and Dolly Parton's phone number.

Paisley's 2005 album, "Time Well Wasted," sold 2 million copies; in 2005, the population of West Virginia was barely 1.8 million. Never mind Glen Dale; Paisley has become bigger than his home state. (Tonight, he performs in a neighboring state, at Nissan Pavilion.) Glen Dale's greatest hit has come back home to work -- to film his next music video -- because, he says, it just wouldn't feel right doing it anywhere else. The video is for a song called "Letter to Me," in which the 34-year-old Nashville star sings words of encouragement and wisdom to the angst-y 17-year-old high school version of himself. Because the song references real people and real places in Glen Dale, so, too, should the video, he says. Paisley has invited the Marshall Class of '91 to a reunion-as-video-shoot.

On a recent evening, dozens of his former classmates and their spouses are assembling in the very same school auditorium where Paisley performed for them as a student musician. Some of Paisley's former band mates are here, too, from back when he was a scrawny, squeaky-voiced kid performing at WWVA-AM's Jamboree USA concerts. There are also relatives, family friends, former teachers and even a former prom date, who is showing off pictures in which Paisley is wearing a black tuxedo with a lavender bow tie. Lavender! ("It was 1991," he says with a shrug.)

The stage is decorated with gold and brown streamers and balloons. There are folding chairs and banquet tables and slices of cake and centerpieces made of crumpled gold tissue and chocolate-brown stars. Lots of expensive cameras and hot lights angled just so and student production assistants scurrying about.

Paisley is handed a microphone. Cameras flash. He looks uneasy, particularly when people -- his people -- applaud. "I can't believe how many of you actually showed up," he says. "I think we should just do a reunion. We should stand there and talk; it shouldn't be about me."

And then: "Let's get to know each other again. I haven't seen you in years."

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