A Lively Mix of Honky-Tonk, Heart

By Joe Heim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Country music has always had something of an image problem, particularly among people who fancy themselves as progressives. Immigrant-trashing, gay-bashing, race-baiting, women-hating songs aren't hard to find in the country catalogue. Heck, sometimes you can find them all on a single album.

But, for all of its redneck revelry, country music also supplies many examples of forward-thinking artists who served up traditional hits while subverting traditional stereotypes: Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and the Dixie Chicks, to name just a few, not only upended perceptions, they became country superstars in the process.

Now add to that list Brad Paisley, whose superb new album, "American Saturday Night," celebrates cultural diversity, lionizes women, stirringly welcomes a black president and, for good measure, whoops it up about drinkin' and fishin'. It also already boasts the No. 1 country song in the land, "Then," a sweetheart of a ballad that is likely the loveliest song a husband has ever written for a wife (thanks, Brad, for making the rest of us husbands out there look like chumps by comparison).

There are a couple of clunkers on the 15-song album by the 36-year-old West Virginia native. "You Do the Math," a dopey collection of bad pickup lines, should have been subtracted. The same with "Water," an ode to . . . uhh, water. But Paisley, who co-wrote every song here and plays a vicious lead guitar, gets it right so often that these slip-ups can be forgiven.

The title track, the album's rollicking kick-start, updates the idea of the American mixing bowl as a party anthem:

It's a French kiss, Italian ice

Margaritas in the moonlight

Just another American Saturday night.

Simplistic? Sure. But sometimes sermons go down better when everyone's dancing and in a good mood -- and drinking tequila.

A meatier offering is "Welcome to the Future" on which Paisley starts off singing about how as a kid he wished he could have had his own Pac-Man game at home and now "I've got it in on my phone." This idea of things that seemed impossible coming to pass is explored throughout the song before culminating in an allusion to the momentousness of Barack Obama's election:

I had a friend in high school

The running back on the football team

They burned a cross in his front yard

For askin' out the homecoming queen

I thought about him today

And everybody who's seen what he's seen

From a woman on a bus

To a man with a dream

Elsewhere the album reveals that, unlike many of his counterparts, Paisley is no one-hat wonder. As versatile an artist as Nashville has produced in years, the honey-drawling singer is equally adept at humorous, twangy rave-ups ("Catch All the Fish") and honky-tonk putdowns ("The Pants") as he is with sentimental storytelling ("No," "Anything Like Me"). But nowhere does he sound better -- or sadder -- than on classic country weepers. "Oh Yeah, You're Gone" could be about a lover who has simply left, or one who passed away:

This is gonna take some gettin' used to baby

I'm gonna need more time

Because I still say us when I oughta say me

I still say ours instead of mine

Whatever way you interpret it, Paisley's mournful reading is devastating and the song's heart-on-the-sleeve sentiment is pure country. As on most of the album's other songs, his delivery is honest and true, free of mawkishness, full of feeling and fine-tuned to its emotional core.

Download These: "Welcome to the Future," "Catch All the Fish," "Everybody's Here"

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