The album title is bold: This Is Country Music. Twelve years and nine studio projects into his career, Brad Paisley has earned his place as a country superstar and to offer his opinions about the genre he so obviously loves.
Anchored by the title track, the music on his just-released album isn’t a stern lecture about what is — and isn’t — country but rather a reflection of the themes and artists that have established country as a uniquely American art form. After introducing the song on last year’s CMA Awards, it became a hit that Paisley followed with his current No. 1 single, “Old Alabama,” which reintroduces the band Alabama to a new audience while reminding older fans of the magic the group created with songs such as “Mountain Music.”
Paisley wrote or co-wrote 12 of the album’s 15 tracks, including “Remind Me,” a duet with Carrie Underwood. Legendary actor-director Clint Eastwood makes a cameo appearance, whistling on the aptly-titled “Eastwood,” an instrumental that recalls the signature soundtracks of films such as A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Other guests on the album include Blake Shelton, Sheryl Crow, Marty Stuart and Carl Jackson.
During a recent interview at his Nashville-area farm, the CMA’s reigning entertainer of the year talked to CMT.com about his latest music and the future of albums in general.
What are some of your favorite albums — ones that you tend to go back to listen to from start to finish?
I love the album as an art form. I hope it stays around. … I think it will. The first thing somebody says to me when they hear the first single off of an album is, “I like that. I can’t wait to hear the rest of the record.” So even though people are buying singles, and they’re selling fewer albums these days than they used to, somehow people want albums, I think. Hopefully, they won’t go away.
My favorite ones would be The End of the Innocence, Don Henley, and Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind, George Strait. Any one of the Alabama albums from the ’80s — The Closer You Get, Mountain Music, 40 Hour Week … Buck Owens & the Buckaroos’ Live From Carnegie Hall.
The Buck album captured a moment in time.
It did, and the best albums do that. They capture a bit of a moment, whether that’s real life in their lyrics or who that artist is at that time. And those are the ones I’ve always liked.
With single-song downloads and a trend toward EPs containing five or six songs, are you concerned that albums are in danger of becoming extinct?
I obviously said, “Screw that,” this time [with This Is Country Music]. When you do 15 songs, that’s nowhere near an EP, is it?
But will there be more pressure on new artists to go that route?
Maybe. I guess in the defense of some record companies, wouldn’t you? If you weren’t sure you were going to be able to sell enough of a 10-song album to justify the cost on a brand new guy or girl, you would probably say, “Well, why don’t we just let them cut five and see how that goes.” But I hate to see that because the thing I was most excited about when I got my record deal was making an album. It wasn’t about a single. See, I never did this just to be a star. I never even really did this just to be a songwriter. I can do that without having a record deal. Or to be a guitar player. Same thing. I did this for all of it, which means an album, which means a collection of songs that represents my vision for myself as an artist. It’s hard to be an artist without an album.
Are you concerned that the time may come when you won’t have the luxury of putting an instrumental and a gospel song on your albums?
Not for me. I don’t think they’ll ever tell me to do that. They would really know better, I think.
But that’s the difference between being an established artist and a newcomer.
Yeah, I don’t know what it would be like to be a brand new artist now. I’m thankful that I’m not.
I hear that from a lot of established artists.
How do you do it without winning some contest or impressing everyone on a reality show? That’s the fast track now, you know, to make people aware of who you are. Or being some Internet sensation. As far as that goes, there’s still people doing it — putting out one song after another, finding their way to the top — but it’s a harder road than when I started.
How has your process of making albums evolved through the years?
You start to become more confident in some aspects of it. At the same time, there’s things that are no longer uncharted territory, and that changes how you do it, as well. You make an album like This Is Country Music. That’s a different record than it would’ve been for my third album. I don’t know if I could have done this album then. But if I had, a song about alcohol hadn’t been done yet by me. A song like “Celebrity” hadn’t been done yet.
I did write something that felt … it wasn’t that much like it, but it was down the path of pop culture and celebrity-type things that didn’t make this album because it didn’t feel like This Is Country Music. It felt more like an observation on pop culture. It didn’t feel like a song that fit the criteria for this album, which was the line “this is real, this is your life in a song.” It was more a look at celebrity culture a little more, and that didn’t belong on here. At the same time, I’ve already done that, so it needs to be really unique. And that’s what changes the way you make these — is the coloring book, the pages you’ve already colored.
For all of the country artist and song references in the first two tracks of the new album, “Old Alabama” has to be the first country song to make a reference to the late jazz saxophonist, John Coltrane.
I guess so, maybe. Definitely the first hit that’s ever done that. I’m proud of that, too. I guarantee you, some of my fans do not know who that is. Some of them don’t know who the Righteous Brothers are. They know the songs, but they may not know their name.
Why did you pick Coltrane?
I think of that as kind of romantic. I think of that as great dinner music, great sort of boppy date music.
Maybe you wouldn’t choose something as experimental as Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.
But there are highbrow women, and that would be their choice. (laughs) And that’s the point. We’re saying this is not a highbrow woman. This is a Southern belle, a simple Southern girl.
It seems like the title song encapsulates a lot of the themes you explore on the album. How did things come together?
We wrote the map first, in that sense [with the title track]. That determined where I went lyrically a lot. There are songs that were born purely without thinking about where they would fit … and they yet have to look like we knew what we’re doing. And I don’t know that we did — “One of Those Lives” being a good example. It says the word “cancer” in it. I didn’t set out to do that. I had no intention when I wrote “This is Country Music” of actually saying the word “cancer” again in this album. And then I wrote this song ["One of Those Lives"]. I had the idea for a while, which was, for me, it’s been one of those days, and for them, it’s been one of those lives.
The song mentions a young couple dealing with their child’s serious illness. As bad as it is to be aware that other people are suffering and dealing with life-and-death issues, it also gives us a certain perspective about our own lives.
Absolutely. And that’s what I had to do in the writing of it. It was the same exact feeling. I’ve got no reason to have some of the feelings I have from time to time if you take it in an apples-to-apples comparison with someone else. My problems versus the problems of some people I know very well, I should never stop smiling. But you and I both know that’s impossible in life because it’s all relative.
You don’t hear a lot of albums that include songs with religious themes.
But it is something almost exclusive to country music, other than gospel, obviously. You don’t hear religion songs in pop much or in rock or rap, especially.
“A Man Don’t Have to Die” [written by Rivers Rutherford, George Teren and Josh Thompson] touches on religion without hitting people on the head.
It’s a good look at that. I love the concept of that song, which is not fire and brimstone. It’s the anti fire-and-brimstone song. There’s nothing more timely on this record than that song, really, in the sense that you’re saying to the preacher, “You can talk about hell all you want.” But the guy in the song just lost his job. He lost his family. He’s drinking too much. He’s made every wrong decision a guy can make in that position. And he’s like, “I’d kinda like to hear about heaven this week.”
The album’s instrumental, “Eastwood,” features Clint Eastwood. You met him at the Kennedy Center Honors?
Yeah. I spent the weekend with him and his wife a while back, right before I came up with the idea of the song.
Eastwood has written the musical scores to several films. Is he a very good musician?
Oh, yeah. He’s a great piano player. He can play jazz. He’s a much better player than he ought to be for all the irons he has in the fire, for someone whose life’s work is anything but playing the piano. Wonderful people. He and his wife are more fun than you could possibly have with anyone.
Did you already have a rough idea for the instrumental?
No, I’d gotten to know him. I didn’t know what the instrumental would be on an album called This Is Country Music. What do you do? You could recut [Buck Owens'] “Buckaroo,” but why? That was done right. There’s “Wildwood Flower.” There are some iconic country instrumentals. What would you do? Then I realized one little niche thing that would be considered country is western. They still think I’m country-western in some circles.
Does it bother you when people use the phrase “country-western”?
Not really. It just tells me off the bat. Like when they say, “Big fan. So when you got into country western …” First of all, no you’re not!
But I wanted to write a western song because it was one of the things I felt belonged on here. I love spaghetti western music. Crazy, cool music. I don’t know where [Italian composer] Ennio Morricone got the idea that a Fender guitar through an amp with reverb and a guy whistling was the sound of the Old West, but he did. And it’s amazing to me how much that is the sound of the Old West. So I covered the guitar with the reverb part, and I figured if you want street cred — if there is such a thing as street cred in the western movie world — it’s to have Clint do the whistling.
How has business changed since you started?
Luckily, there’s one that that hasn’t changed. People want to come see you play these songs they love. Almost everything else has changed, the way that you go about providing them that music. … When I did Who Needs Pictures [his 1999 debut album], they pressed a few in vinyl. That was about the last time, I think. And now, I don’t know how many people listen on CD anymore. They might buy the CD, but before they’re done with it, it will end up on some other format in a headphone device as an MP3. But that’s the thing that’s good about it. The business doesn’t change in terms of live music. People still go see you play.
You have the luxury of having lots of hits that people want to hear you play live.
Hopefully. At least for now. And I’m loving that because I think that’s the most fun part of the job. I love recording. That would be a close second.
But all of this goes back to an earlier question. In today’s technological and business climate, how can new artists set themselves apart and build a career?
I don’t know. There are ways to use it. It’s just not the old ways. I have fun with the media part of it. I love Twitter. I like going on there and seeing a DJ who says, “Just got Brad Paisley’s album in the mail. I’ll let you know if it doesn’t suck.” I wrote him back right away. Ten years ago, I never would have heard that guy say anything. I wrote him and said, “Wow! What a glowing expectation you had for my record.” He came back and said, “By the way, it does not suck.” So, you know, that’s fine. I’ll take it. But what a great time to be trying to get the word out about music and songs and concerts and just being a celebrity of some sort, it’s kind of fun to be able to see a fan who says, “Do you ever … whatever?” And I’ll just write back, “Yeah” or “No” or “None of your business.”
How often is the response, “None of your business”?
Quite a bit. (laughs)