Editor's note: Brad Paisley's new album, American Saturday Night, was released Tuesday (June 30).
Brad Paisley's face is made for music videos. It is so good at registering shades of emotion (usually degrees of delight or incredulity) that it constitutes a show within a show.
Whether the subject is light or serious, Paisley maintains a critical distance from it, observing and dissecting the action even as he takes part in it. That distance, that space in which he summons up his reactions, is, of course, the driving force of his humor. He is more amused by human foibles -- and he confronts plenty of them -- than he is shocked or annoyed.
Although he is a master of traditional country music styles, Paisley stands apart from his backward-looking peers in several regards, as his videos emphasize. Chief among these is the fact that he is neither offended nor threatened by advances in technology or shifts in cultural attitudes. He simply assimilates them, smiles knowingly and moves on. You can witness this tendency in such clips as "Online" and "Celebrity."
Nor does he have that "going back home" mania that afflicts so many country singers. He realizes that growing up, learning and venturing out into the larger world brings its own joys. As he says to his high school persona in his "Letter to Me" video, "These are nowhere near the best years of your life." He appreciates his past without regarding it as the golden age.
Another point worth noting: Regardless of the video's mood, you can always count on a few shots of Paisley's nimble fingers racing up and down the neck of his guitar.
CMT credits Paisley with 22 videos. Of these, this column has already covered two of his most popular -- "Whiskey Lullaby" with Alison Krauss and "Start a Band" with Keith Urban. Now let's peek at a few more visual-lyrical gems.
"Who Needs Pictures" (1999) -- This is Paisley's first video, back when he was still alternating between wearing a cowboy hat and going bare-headed. Prowling through a drawer, he turns up an old camera with undeveloped film inside. This discovery, which unleashes memories of a lost love and happier times, enables Paisley to show both his pensive and perky sides. It's quite an effective introduction of an exciting new talent.
"He Didn't Have to Be" (1999) -- Here, Paisley assumes the role of a man who's been raised by a loving stepfather. Now, as they sit outside the delivery room, Paisley dwells on the hope that he can be just "half the dad" his stepfather "didn't have to be." If this tableau doesn't move you to tears, you're granite.
"Me Neither" (2000) -- Even playing the buffoon whose every pickup line falls flat, Paisley emerges as a lovable loser who won't stay down.
"Two People Fell in Love" (2001) -- To make the point that love is the foundation of all human achievement, Paisley takes a child from birth to winning a Nobel prize in the first 37 seconds of this video. Then he slows the action down for some idyllic multi-generational family scenes. It's so warm you almost have to turn on the air conditioner.
"I'm Gonna Miss Her" (2002) -- It's ultimatum time. Mrs. Paisley (played here by actress Kimberly Williams, who would became the real Mrs. Paisley in 2003) tells her feckless husband, "It's me or fishing." As she throws his clothes out the front door, it becomes pretty clear which choice he's made. Lots of other celebrities are involved, including sportscaster Dan Patrick, Grand Ole Opry star Little Jimmy Dickens and TV schlockmeister Jerry Springer. Popping up as Paisley's fishing buddies are his producer, Frank Rogers, and his frequent co-writer, Kelley Lovelace, whose own story inspired "He Didn't Have to Be."
"I Wish You'd Stay" (2002) -- Through shots of scrapbooks, kids playing and cars driving away, Paisley casts a wistful eye on the bittersweet sensations of parting, whether it's a lover going away or a child leaving home. The singer's face is particularly eloquent in this one.
"Celebrity" (2003) -- Fame is a bitch. But such an alluring one. Paisley plays a contestant on Celebrity Icon, a show for people with more zeal than talent. William Shatner is a painfully bored judge, and Little Jimmy Dickens is the dark horse who gets the girl as Paisley looks on with slack-jawed amazement. Seinfeld's Jason Alexander is pricelessly insufferable as the wannabe star who inflicts his delusions of grandeur on a hapless coffeehouse barista.
"Mud on the Tires" (2004) -- Even spattered with mud, Paisley looks immaculate throughout this festival frolic.
"Alcohol" (2005) -- This one stands out from the others because of its stylized stage set, with a staircase that leads nowhere and empty picture frames hanging in midair. If this be alcoholic disorientation, it's not all that bad. Paisley's sly humor is instantly recognizable.
"Online" (2007) -- A thematic variation of "Celebrity" with Jason Alexander starring as a routinely dissed pizza-delivery guy who aspires to be superstar Paisley -- and who can be anything he wants to be when he's online. Joining in on the fun are William Shatner, Estelle Harris (George Costanza's grating mother on Seinfeld), Patrick Warburton (David Puddy on Seinfeld) and Paisley's former opening acts, Taylor Swift and Kellie Pickler. Anyone fascinated with this subject is advised to read James Thurber's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty or to watch the Danny Kaye movie of that name. Amidst all this thespian firepower, Paisley settles for a modest supporting role.
"Letter to Me" (2007) -- Consider this video as the high school commencement address Paisley won't have to give in person. It features members of his own 1991 graduating class from John Marshall High School in Glen Dale, W.Va., and is filled with the wise observations of one who's still chronologically close enough to high school to remember the glory but sufficiently distant to know that even brighter glories can lie ahead.
"Waitin' on a Woman" (2008) -- Paisley comes close here to upstaging that master of scene-stealers, Andy Griffith. Griffith has the key spoken line and the comic twinkle, but Paisley excels in reacting to them. We watch as his face transforms from skeptical to quizzical to understanding, all without his making a gesture or saying a word. Now that's acting.