Brad Paisley's multi-platinum claim upon the country mainstream hinges on a nimble mix of sincerity and showmanship. On the one hand, this has resulted in a string of heart-tugging pledges of fidelity dating back to "He Didn't Have to Be," his 1999 single about a stepdad who embraces his new wife's kid as his own. On the other, it's accounted for some of the punchiest, most dexterous guitar playing this side of Dwight Yoakam's early hits -- and for Paisley's sometimes irksome penchant for corn-pone humor.
It's all here on "Time Well Wasted," the 32-year-old West Virginia native's fourth and best album. There's everything from "Waitin' on a Woman," a wry profession of undying love worthy of Alan Jackson, to the stratospheric "Time Warp," a dazzling flight of cowboy jazz in the spirit of '50s daredevil pickers Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant. (As a guitarist, Paisley is equally adept playing bluegrass, honky-tonk and rock-and-roll.)
There's even a load of hay-bale hokum called "Cornography." In this particular sketch, a trio of Paisley's randy Opry elders -- Bill Anderson, George Jones and Little Jimmy Dickens (aka the "Kung Pao Buckaroos") -- ogle Dolly Parton's "guns" and, with good-natured encouragement from Dolly herself, actually manage to deliver the yuks.
Paisley's reach as an entertainer harks back to a time when country singers worked a little bit of everything into their vaudeville-derived acts. In Paisley's case, though, this ecumenism has also contributed to the lack of respect he gets from alt-leaning listeners, many of whom came to country from rock and expect more depth from Paisley than his lyrics typically afford.
With "Time Well Wasted," however, Paisley gives his detractors less to complain about. In addition to being lighter on the cracker-barrel witticisms than his previous records, the album is full of juking shuffles, amped-up turbo-tonk and burnished, muscular ballads sung in Paisley's molasses baritone. And for lyrical heft, there's a cover of Guy Clark's "Out in the Parkin' Lot," a mystical-existential meditation in which Paisley and Alan Jackson trade plain-spoken musings about the human condition while sipping whiskey outside a roadhouse teeming with lovers, fighters and assorted 9-to-5ers.
Granted, the Hallmarkisms of "She's Everything" and "Rainin' You" are a bit saccharine. Yet anyone who's ever been in a committed relationship but can't relate to admissions like "She's the giver I wish I could be / And the stealer of the covers" (from "She's Everything") just isn't listening. Even the borderline corn of "You Need a Man Around Here" is inspired -- a self-deprecating reversal of the notion of a bachelor's decor needing a woman's touch: "You could use a little help / Someone to kill the spiders / Change the channel and drink the beer."
Even more tonic is "Alcohol," a playful personification of all manner of spirits that's likely to be in the running for Single of the Year come time for the Country Music Association Awards this fall. Maybe best of all is "When I Get Where I'm Going," a statement of faith featuring a goose-bump-inducing vocal from Parton that's free of the cheap piousness that's alarmingly prevalent in country music today.
Brad Paisley is scheduled to perform Sept. 10 at First Mariner Arena in Baltimore.