Over the course of four albums, including the most recent top-seller, Time Well Wasted, Brad Paisley has grown from country music's favorite young traditionalist to its most unpredictable hitmaker and most slyly exciting concert performer.
At first, we marveled at the breadth of his talents as a multi-threat singer, songwriter, guitarist, performer. Now we marvel at the breadth of Paisley's vision: Who could have foreseen that an artist so rooted in tradition could succeed in taking the music he loves in so many creative directions and do so with such entertaining style?
His sold-out headlining concerts reveal similar surprises: From the computer-animated cartoons he creates and presents during his shows to the amusing way he leads his crack band through their breakneck instrumentals, Paisley broadens the idea of how country music can be presented and how music can hold an audience's attention in a multi-media age.
"When I sit down with a guitar to write a song, or when going into a recording studio, the focus is really on one thing: 'How will this song work on stage night after night?' I think about that every time I write something and every time I record a song," Paisley says.
Mostly, he stays fresh by challenging himself to keep coming up with something new and unexpected--whether it's on record or on stage. His genius comes in how he continues to stretch his artistry while maintaining an easygoing, everyman quality that connects with his audience and invites them to join him on his journey.
For him, the variety and innovations serve one goal: To entertain his fans. "Every move is about creating an enjoyable experience for the audience," says the laid-back West Virginian. "We want to take them on a musical ride that has a lot of different emotions and textures to it."
That's one reason he's repeatedly remained at the forefront in the number of awards and categories in which he's competing at both the CMA and ACM shows. His four 2006 Grammy nominations led the country field, and since the release of his first album in 1999, Paisley's five CMA wins are the most of any new artist to emerge during that time. Moreover, his five No. 1 hits indicate his consistent success at radio, but the number is even more striking when realizing that several of his career-making fan favorites--"Whiskey Lullaby," "Alcohol," "Celebrity," "Little Moments"--aren't among those five.
Along the way, Paisley's four Arista Nashville albums have all been certified Platinum or Double Platinum, with total sales well in excess of six million copies, while his two most recent discs--Mud on the Tires and Time Well Wasted--debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart. Time Well Wasted also ended its first week at No. 2 on the pop sales chart with 192,000 copies sold, while Mud on the Tires likewise launched in the pop Top 10.
Of course, statistics don't measure his remarkable range; for that you have to look at the musical and topical variety found on his albums. When Paisley sings about drinking, he can go from the clever social mirror of "Alcohol" to the dark devastation of Song of the Year award winner, "Whiskey Lullaby." When he sings about relationships, he can shift from the comical reality of "Little Moments" to the poignancy of "We Danced," and from the tongue-in-cheek humor of "I'm Gonna Miss Her" to the sincere directness of "I Wish You'd Stay." He can also convincingly sweep from the spiritual depth of "When I Get Where I'm Going" to the witty social commentary of "Celebrity," and from the backwoods celebration of "Mud on the Tires" to the perceptive family dynamics of "He Didn't Have to Be."
Paisley observes, "I don't want to be one of those artists where someone says, 'All the songs sound the same.' I want to be one of the artists where people never know what might be coming next. That's why 'Whiskey Lullaby' and 'Alcohol' are so different; they're on the same subject, but they're completely different in what they say and how they sound. You're going to write about love and about death and the other big topics, but the fun part is finding a new way to do it--to find a new way to talk about the subjects we all experience or care about."
Similarly, he wants his songs, even the witty ones, to be anchored in reality--for someone to be moved or to laugh because they recognize the situation, no matter how dramatic or funny it may be.
"I think songwriting is at its best when it's a reflection of life, and that's my goal with my songs," he says. "Anything that has something humorous in it is because I've seen something like that and it tickled me. At the same time, anything that's serious or deep, it comes from something I've been through or observed and wanted to write about it."
The variety isn't just in the themes and lyrics; it's also in the musical arrangements. Embracing shuffles, swing, bluegrass, ballads and blues into his songs, Paisley blends traditional and modern influences into something seamless and distinctive, yet always country at its core. "I am a fan of a lot of different styles of music," he says, "and I'm always looking to incorporate them into what I'm doing."
He and his band have built up experience together that lets them stay loose and spontaneous on stage while always staying conscious of the primary mission of putting on an exciting show. "We are really a tight group--on stage and off," notes Paisley. "We hang out quite a bit when we're home. We have a great time with one another, and we miss each other when we're off the road. That's a good situation to have, and I really believe it comes across on stage."
That value of being connected is important to Paisley. He draws on the values of family and community in his songs, his stage show and in his home life. He and his wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, recently purchased 85 acres outside of Nashville. The couple is living in the 100-year-old farm house on the property while building a log cabin for their permanent home. The land also includes two Palomino horses, 14 Holstein cows and a four-acre pond that the Paisleys added.
"It's really been a godsend," Paisley says of his land, from which, on a clear day, he can see as far as four mountain ridges in the distance. "It's my favorite piece of property I've ever seen. We have all these woods and hiking trails, and room for the horses and cows. I plan to have this land forever."
But that's how Paisley thinks: For the long term. He's always had his eye on building something that lasts--whether it's his music, his concerts, his relationships or his land. He's going to be with us a while, so settle in and enjoy the ride.