If you see Brad Paisley and he’s smiling a little more than usual these days, please cut him some slack. It’s not every day you write a song with your best friend that becomes your first No. 1 single.
In an emotional, jam-packed ceremony Monday night, Arista Records celebrated the success of “He Didn’t Have to Be” with Brad and co-writer Kelley Lovelace. In addition to accolades from the label, the CMA and his publishing company, Brad was named a “Distinguished West Virginian” by the governor of his home state, and he received a special recognition from his alma mater, Nashville’s Belmont University.
It was on the Belmont campus where Brad and Kelley first met as students. They wrote “He Didn’t Have to Be” a few years later about Kelley’s actual life with his wife and stepson. Brad says he knew pretty quickly the song was a winner.
“The first week it came out my attendance went up,” he said. “We had sold out a show for the first time ever.”
Since then, the singer has heard countless tales of how the poignant song has touched families across the country. It has been played at weddings and funerals, and it has reunited those who just needed a reason to make the call.
“There’s thousands of stories, like this girl from Oklahoma,” Brad remembered. “She lost touch with the stepdad that raised her. Her mom had died and they lost touch. It had been 19 years since she talked to him, and when she heard my song she decided to call him.”
The woman soon found out her stepfather was due for heart surgery, so she tracked him down and flew to be with him through the operation.
“They spent their first Thanksgiving together in 19 years this last year, and she gives me the credit for that. I don’t know what to say. It’s amazing to think these things happen because of some little song.”
Nine-year-old McCain, the inspiration for the song, attended this week’s Music Row party with his stepdad. Kelley says the little blonde-headed boy likes hearing his own story coming out of the radio. He’s excited about his newfound fame, especially when his picture was featured in the newspaper recently.
“His principal found out, and she went to his class one morning, and all the school knew he was in the paper,” Kelley said. “He came home from school and said ’Mama, I know what it feels like to be famous now, and I like it.'”
In addition to giving McCain a little attention among his schoolmates, the song continues to give even their modern family inspiration.
“Even though we’re already close, it’s just a reminder,” Kelley explained. “There’s no fairy tales out there. Everyday you have to work at being a family, and every time I hear that and think about the words, it helps us all remember what a special thing we’ve got and to treat each other good.”
Brad’s next single won’t be as heart wrenching as “He Didn’t Have to Be.” Instead, he’s going for laughter this time with “Me Neither,” the story of a guy who gets shot down time after time in his search for love.
“It just started out being something fun we wrote in the car on the way back from a beach trip where we also wrote ’Who Needs Pictures,'” Brad said. “Me and my co-writers who at the time were all single, we all had been through rejection before. We always have to say ’I’m sorry, never mind,’ but we thought ’What if we didn’t?'”
Instead of “never mind” they came up with “me neither” as a response to a woman who turns the guy down flat when he asks her to dance. The song was featured in the independent film Happy, Texas, a comedy that tells the story of escaped convicts posing as gay pageant directors in a small Texas town. As Brad was watching the movie for the first time, he admits he was surprised where the song turned up.
“It’s funny, you know, I’m watching along, and I wasn’t even sure where this scene was and here it comes. They’re dancing in a gay bar,” Brad explained, laughing. “I just want to let folks know that’s not what we intended, but if you want to use it that way, fine.”
Besides the movie screen, the Grand Ole Opry has been another outlet for Brad’s music. It’s rare for young up-and-comers to play the Opry more than once or twice a year, but Brad has already stepped onto the hallowed stage 23 times.
“I feel like someday they’re going to figure out that I don’t deserve it and say, ’You’re playing too much,'” Brad laughs. “I love that place. I take it very serious.”
The 27-year-old singer says he feels honored to be included in what he calls “a museum of country music.” He plans to pay attention and learn all he can from the Opry greats he admires.
“I still get nervous around Little Jimmy Dickens, and I guarantee I could take him, too, but I’m still nervous around him so it’s got to be something else,” Brad jokes. “It’s gotta be that the guy is the reason I have a career, because he worked so hard and Porter Wagoner and Bill Anderson and Jeannie Seely … all these guys who go out there and slave it every week.”
Bill Anderson in particular is one Brad really admires for his songwriting talents. Bill has written a new song called “Too Country,” and Brad asked if he could sing it out on the road. The lyrics challenge the notion that anything could be “too country” for country radio in today’s market. It’s a charge Brad wrestled with himself recently when he was booked as a guest on Good Morning Texas, a local TV show in Dallas.
“About a week before I got there, we got a call from them saying, ’I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to pass on him and cancel.'”
They asked why and got this response: “Well, we apologize, but he’s too country.”
“So at Billy Bob’s and KSCS and every other radio program I went on, we talked about that,” he said with a smile.
Brad says he heard Bill perform “Too Country” on the Opry, and soon after he began singing the song in his encore.
“Sometimes I end the show with that and just walk off,” Brad said. “People usually go nuts and totally get it. That’s a phrase I think we need to lose.”
There’s no such thing as “too country” on the Alan Jackson tour, for which Brad is an opening act. He played his first show with Alan last weekend in Cincinnati, and he says he felt right at home among the Jackson faithful.
“Those are the folks I’m after. Those people who are into what he does are the people I’m hoping to target. I have no desire to win pop fans over. If that happens, great. I want the fans back that feel like there’s nothing on the radio for them.”
In addition to hitting the road with Alan and being the special guest at Bill Anderson’s annual benefit in Commerce, Ga., this summer, Brad’s success has also afforded him the chance to write with some of his heroes. He says he has offers from Bill, Steve Wariner, Chely Wright and Dixie Chick Martie Seidel, and he promises to find time on his schedule for all of them.
“I asked Alan, too, but he just said, ’Why do you want to write with me?'” Brad adds, laughing. “So, I take that as a no.”
One guy he hasn’t written with lately is Kelley Lovelace. The pair wrote ” He Didn’t Have to Be” in November 1998, and that’s the last song they’ve created since. The old friends admit it may be hard to sit down and come up with something better.
“We don’t want to ruin it cause there’s no way we’ll get back together and write something as special and good as that,” Kelley says. “Even if it’s 10 years from now we’ll say, ’Yeah, the last time we got together, it was a number one.'”
Brad agrees. “I think when he and I sit down to write again, it’s going to be that old tap on the guitar bit, look at each other and say ’Are we going to beat that one? No? Want to eat?'”