Part II Finds Paisley at Home With Heartland Values

When his first album sold a million copies, country singer Brad Paisley felt no sense of panic about how he would follow it.

He gives credit to Tim DuBois, former label chief at Paisley’s label, Arista Nashville, for helping the young singer prepare for the pressure of making his second album, Part II, released Tuesday (May 29).

"When he first was looking at me as an artist," Paisley recalls, "he told me, ‘You need to write as much as you can right now and you need to try and see how many things you can have ready. You need to write your first couple of albums right now and not in a couple of years.’"

DuBois was half-joking, Paisley thinks now, but the young singer, who came to Nashville from Glen Dale, W. Va., to study at Belmont University, went to work from 1994 to 1997 creating both Who Needs Pictures, his 1999 debut, and most of the songs on Part II.

The new set uses the idea of a movie sequel as its unifying concept. The album cover sports movie-poster style credits, casting record producer Frank Rogers as the man behind the "film" and crediting Buck Owens , George Jones and Bill Anderson as guest stars, while songwriters Kelley Lovelace, Chris DuBois and others are named as authors of the screenplay. On the back of the CD, Paisley stands, hat in one hand, a light stand in the other, gazing out at a movie-set sunset.

"Frank pulled off what I think is the perfect little emotional journey," Paisley says of the album, and he’s willing to admit that the journey described in the songs is pretty much his own.

"In making this album, I’ve let go of a lot of personal things," he explains. "You ask about personal life and how I feel, what’s going on, well, listen to the record. Usually, that’s where you’ll find my past or my present. I try to include as much of myself as I can in each song that we’ve cut or we write."

Which is Paisley’s way of saying that he’s not eager to respond to questions about personal relationships — with co-writer and duet partner Chely Wright or with any other "significant other." At present, the Country Music Association’s reigning Horizon Award winner seems more concerned about guitar solos, fishing and playing the Grand Ole Opry than about trying to advance his personal relationships.

Though he claims to be a little tired of the controversy, Paisley is willing to talk about becoming a lightning rod for the debate over the direction country music might be taking. Like Who Needs Pictures, most of Part II features sparse arrangements that make liberal use of the fiddle and the steel guitar. (One song, "I Wish You’d Stay," opens with a lush string arrangement. "A lot of people told me they had to check and see if their CD changer had switched when that string intro comes up, ’cause they don’t think I would do something like that," he says.)

"I don’t put as much time into [thinking about matters of tradition] as people think," he contends. "I try to make the records I want to make, and I’m enjoying going into the studio with the freedom I’ve been given to be myself. That entails fiddles and steels and those things I grew up loving to hear."

For all the support he gets from his fans and from his colleagues at the Grand Ole Opry (where he became a cast member in February), Paisley has had to endure some bias and backlash, too.

"A TV show I was going to do wouldn’t let me sing ‘He Didn’t Have to Be,’ actually wouldn’t let me do the show," he recalls. "They said, ‘He’s too country.’ We’re talking about ‘He Didn’t Have to Be,’ me and a guitar. I wasn’t even going to bring a band and do steel or fiddle. That was their exact words.

"You know what?" he continues, clearly a bit steamed at the memory. "Don’t tell me that. If you think the message I’m trying to convey is the wrong message, tell me that. If you think I sing off-key or I have too much twang in my voice, tell me that. Don’t tell me I’m ‘too country.’ What does that mean?"

The same question gets asked in a song, "Too Country," on the new album. Written by Anderson and Chuck Cannon, the tune makes a statement about lifestyle as much as it does about music, Paisley contends. In one sense, the problems are the same. "There’s a bit of the ‘big city’ versus ‘country’ mentality out there right now, too," he says. "How many shows on TV are based around a small town right now? Any of ‘em? There’s nothing wrong with being simple."

This year Paisley joined Anderson and Jones as a member of the Grand Ole Opry, a powerful symbol of country and its traditional values. As his career heats up, he continues to find time to make appearances on the show, following an example set by another picker, singer and songwriter, Vince Gill .

On a recent Friday, Paisley fished all day, quitting about dark. "I got home in time to put the boat away, changed my shirt and drove to the Opry and sang two songs. I was on at 9:30. I got there at 9:15. There was something really, really cool about that," he says. "You can drive 25 minutes, walk into a building full of 2,000 or 3,000 people, ready to hear country music, wanting to hear you sing. You walk out, they love you, you sing your two songs, you go home. Who could get tired of that?"

To underline his allegiance to the Opry, Paisley ends Part II with "The Old Rugged Cross," recorded live the night Anderson, Jimmy Dickens and Jeannie Seely invited him to join the show as a regular member. Paisley says he intends to put a sacred number on every album he makes, in keeping with an older tradition that has fallen out of favor now.

"That’s a big part of my life," he says of his decision to include gospel material. "I feel extremely blessed, and I’m also a very spiritual person who wastes a lot of God’s time talking to him. I’m one of those people, too, who sees the answers quite a bit, quickly. … Who am I if I’m going to leave out that very important part of my life, spirituality, in this portrait of who I am?"

Indeed, Paisley’s strong sense of who his is and how his identity should translate into his music are a big part of the reason he has established himself so quickly as a major talent. When Arista’s Nashville division was folded into the RCA Label Group last year and DuBois departed the company, RCA’s Joe Galante moved fast to assure Paisley that he remained a key member of the company’s roster. "Joe has probably been to 20 performances in the last year," Paisley estimates. "That’s crazy. My dad hasn’t been to that many. He cares immensely about my artistry."

And Paisley cares immensely that Part II will demonstrate to his fans that he is staying true to the values he brought with him from West Virginia to Nashville.

"I’m proud of the fact that I’m a Nashville-based country music artist who cares pretty much exclusively about what’s going on in my music within this community," he says. "I’m not out to impress L.A. or New York. I sure hope some of those people get it, but more than likely they won’t. I’m not sure The Andy Griffith Show was as big a hit in L.A. as it was in Kansas, but I’m a big fan of it. I’m more into that mindset, trying to make sure that’s where I focus my efforts."