With his new album, Mud on the Tires, spending a second consecutive week atop Billboard’s country albums chart, Brad Paisley has plenty to smile about these days. He has scored a major hit with “Celebrity,” accompanied by a hilarious video featuring an unlikely group of the rich and famous, including William Shatner, Jason Alexander and Little Jimmy Dickens. And Paisley is also settling into married life with his wife, actress Kimberly Williams. Currently starring in Jim Belushi’s TV sitcom, According to Jim, her film credits include a starring role with Steve Martin in The Father of the Bride.
In the first installment of a two-part conversation with CMT.com, Paisley talks about what it took to get Mud on the Tires. In the second part, Paisley offers his candid opinions about the celebrity concept — and how he, too, turned into a star-struck fan when he finally met one of the stars of The Andy Griffith Show. The second part appears Monday (Aug. 11) on CMT.com.
CMT: Your last album, Part II, sounded like a step forward, but Mud on the Tires appears to be a giant step.
Paisley: I’m always so close to these that all I do is feel like we really kind of figured out what people want to hear from me, which is the job of an artist. One side of the job of somebody who wants to be a recording artist is figuring out who you are. That being told, there’s a lot of room there for error. But at the same time, when you start playing for people, you start seeing what really works for them and what sounds they like and what they like out of you in terms of types of songs. … I think this really influenced me a lot in how I made this record. I say in the “thank yous” on the CD — “to county music fans everywhere.” One of the lines is: “I made this album for you.” And even though I made it for myself, there was never a time when I didn’t think, “Man, I hope they like this.”
CMT: The trick is knowing what they like — but not repeating yourself.
Paisley: Exactly. And part of that is just figuring out as a songwriter which songs to throw away and which songs to keep. And at the same time, I feel like with this album, the guys in my band have all gotten a lot more comfortable in the studio. It seems to me like it sounds a lot more live.
CMT: There’s an energy to the tracks that you don’t hear on a lot of records these days.
Paisley: You can tell on a few of these songs that it’s a first take. And we really did keep a lot of first takes on this record. The one you would think we would rehearse and rehearse was the instrumental, “Make a Mistake With Me,” with all the chord changes and fast swing stuff. Ironically, that’s the one where we sort of wrote the chart out, learned it, rehearsed it a little in the studio to figure out who was going to play what and then said, “Let’s go.” And that’s really the first take on that song.
CMT: That song sounded like something Chet Atkins might have done. Were you thinking about him?
Paisley: Yeah. You know, I wrote it in sort of this slow sort of jazzy almost “Sinatra meets Ray Price” type feel — like the beginning of the song when I play the guitar part by itself. Then as a joke one night at a writer’s night or somewhere, I kicked in as a Chet version with the thumb style and walking bass line. And it worked like perfectly in a way that I’d never expected. … Every chord fit exactly into that Chet style. It was just made for that, so that’s how we ended up cutting it. And then I got the idea that it would make a really cool instrumental just because of the melody and the changes. We broke it up into two separate tracks where the first one is just me [singing] with a guitar, which to me showcases that Chet thing better than just sticking a band under it. And then we stuck a band under and had a free-for-all after that.
CMT: There seems to be a wider selection of guitar styles on the new album. Was that a priority?
Paisley: It was. On the first album we spent a lot more time on the guitars than we did on the second album. … And then the second album came up and I think I focused more on other things. When I did the guitar parts, they may have been a little … I don’t know if you would call it … tastier. But I sort of threw taste out the window on this one and said, “To hell with it. I’m gonna go and play everything I would want to hear as a guitar player — and then hope it works.” And I think in the end it somehow ended up ironically fitting the songs even better. I feel like on this one we really took time with the sounds. I used a variety of different kinds of amps. I tried to go in there and figure out a way to use guitar music that was fun to listen to and that sounds challenging but was hooky in its own way.
CMT: It seems like your guitar playing is getting even stronger.
Paisley: Well that’s the goal. I would probably credit Redd Volkaert as being a huge influence on the guitar lines on this record. [A former Merle Haggard sideman, Volkaert appears on “Spaghetti Western Swing, a track from Mud on the Tires.] Over the last couple of years I have spent a good deal of time down in Austin — to the extent that he played my wedding reception. I love his approach because I learned to play jazz as a kid. But I would always sort of reserve those licks for when I picked up a Chet Atkins hollow body [guitar] or “It Never Woulda Worked Out Anyway” or the other jazzy thing I did on the last record. I would play jazz licks on the hollow body and then I would go back to my Telecaster and play country licks. And then I learned after I saw Redd that you don’t have to do that. You can put it all together. To me it’s the neatest thing in the world to throw in these augmented chords, jazz scales, diminished runs and things that you’d never expect to hear out of a Telecaster.
CMT: Alison Krauss’ involvement on “Whiskey Lullaby” is going to create a lot of attention but that’s one of the best songs Bill Anderson has ever written.
Paisley: I agree. I heard that actually at my publishing company from our song plugger, Liz O’Sullivan. She came to me and said, “You need to hear this.” She’d heard it somewhere. Bill had already told me about it. As I listened I just thought it … just had one of those sentiments, one of those classic country sentiments. The dying for love. [laughter] Romeo meets Juliet meets Jed Clampett. And I thought, “I wonder what it would sound like if a woman actually sang the woman’s part in the song?” And of course, it didn’t take long to start thinking down a list of people that would nail it. And who better than, I think, the best female singer we’ve got. I approached Alison about it, and she said yes before she even heard the song. When she heard the song, I think it was just one of those magical things. She is an absolute joy to work with. So professional. She came in and spent seven hours getting everything right from her part to the harmonies to the viola — she played viola on it — and it was wonderful.
CMT: It was pretty cool getting Dan Tyminski, Jerry Douglas and others from Union Station to play on the album, too.
Paisley: I’m a huge fan of theirs, and who better on Dobro than Jerry Douglas, especially when you have Alison on that song. I think it really gave that touch of familiarity to combine her band and my band for that song. And then the song right after it on the album, “The Best Thing I Had Going,” also incorporates Jerry Douglas and Ron Block on banjo. It feels like that area of the album is a little mismatch of the bands — in a good way.
CMT: Did anyone try to discourage you from recording Vern Gosdin’s “Is It Raining at Your House”?
Paisley: You know, they didn’t — because they didn’t know I was going to do it. We were down to the wire on this thing. On this album, we made it in a shorter amount of time than we did any other album. We made it in three months. And that’s really pretty quick for us. In the past we had the luxury of having a year to do a record, off and on. I wound up just kind of painting myself into a corner with the touring schedule. When we went in to do these songs, I guess it made us do things a little bit differently than what we were gonna do. In regard to the Vern Gosdin song, I kind of lost track of how many songs we had cut. And just kept thinking we needed one more. I’d been singing that song in concerts for years and I’ve had more people walk up to me and say stuff like, “Did you write that?”
CMT: A lot of people have forgotten that Vern Gosdin co-wrote it [with Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran].
Paisley: Some surprising people on Music Row don’t know it. It was a Top 10 hit for him [in 1990] in a day when country music didn’t sell as many records as it does now. So I think that sort of went under the radar a little bit. To me, it’s the caliber of song that only gets written once every few years. I felt like my fans needed to hear it. Being that Vern wrote it, that makes it twice as cool to cut it because I figure that’s kind of like a little unexpected gift to him, too.