When Brad Paisley decided on a water theme for his 2010 tour, the ideas started to flow -- new special effects on stage, an outdoor water park for fans, a fundraising campaign for safe drinking water around the world and so on.
"It became more than a single or a song on the album. It became the whole year of my life. And then we had the flood. It got way more meaning than I ever really expected it to get or wanted it to get," Paisley told reporters in Nashville prior to a recent No. 1 party for the song. "At the height of it, I was like, 'OK, I'm ready for this to have a little less meaning.'"
Amid the disaster that hit Middle Tennessee in May, Paisley lost countless pieces of touring equipment just three weeks before his H2O World Tour was set to begin. However, the tour launched as planned, and he has extended it into early 2011 as his H2O Frozen Over Tour.
"'Water' has been really fun and certainly successful for us, in every way," he said. "It's also been disastrous. But it's been way more than I expected, in every way. In the end, it was sort of serendipitous. We were faced with all of these things like rebuilding the set, rebuilding the city and making something good out of a bad thing. I don't mind that position to be in. It was actually so meaningful and the best year of my life, in every way. There was nothing that felt hollow about this year, after having a song that couldn't have been more appropriate and also a little painful. I kind of like that. It felt like I was tapped on the shoulder a few times."
With a decade of hits to draw upon, Paisley is wrapping the year with Tuesday's (Nov. 2) release of Hits Alive, a double album with studio versions of his hits on one side and live recordings on the other. He's also co-hosting the CMA Awards with Carrie Underwood on Nov. 10. He revealed to reporters he's going to sing a brand new song on the show, yet he spoke at length about his early career.
Asked about choosing the songs for Hits Alive, Paisley replied, "There are certainly those that were life-changing, more than others. 'He Didn't Have to Be' is still probably the most life-changing three minutes that I've ever written. I really believe we wouldn't be sitting here anymore [without that song]. Maybe we'd be sitting here with me having written a No. 1 hit for someone else, but I don't think I'd still have a record deal without that song.
"It broke the ice for me with radio and with you guys [the press]," he continued. "It was like you could see potential in it. That's an important thing. That would be my advice to any new artist: Find a song early on that shows your potential. It doesn't have to show everything you're capable of. But it needs to show that. And that did. I was really lucky. It wasn't like we knew what we were doing. I just happened to write that with my best friend [Kelley Lovelace] from the bottom of my heart about his situation.
"He and I were really proud of it and really didn't think that was something we would cut on my first album when we wrote it. It was sort of late in the game. I mean, all of my focus was, 'How do I write a great love song? How do I write a great heartbreak song? How do I write a funny thing? How do I show people what I like?' Then I wrote this thing about a stepdad, and I thought, 'Well, that's not necessarily radio's favorite staple -- the 'stepdad song.'"
Before his first album was released in 1999, Paisley performed the song at a private event for country radio programmers. Then the president of his label personally asked him to record it for his debut project. It became his second single and his first No. 1 hit. That initial mark led to the CMA Horizon Award in 2000 and an invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry in 2001.
"It didn't have to go that way," Paisley said. "I could have not had it on that album. I could have had the first single, 'Who Needs Pictures,' peak at No. 10. A lot of people liked it, but 'like' doesn't get you 10 years later, necessarily. You have to make more of a wave than that. So that's the first one that changed my life."
He followed "He Didn't Have to Be" with "Me Neither," a clever song which peaked at No. 18.
"'Me Neither' was kind of a hit, but it was really sort of goofy," Paisley acknowledged. "Everybody liked it -- but not enough to want to hear it a million times in a row. It's sort of like a good joke. You hear it once and you like it and you tell it a few times, and then you forget it. That happened."
So, it was back to the ballads -- "We Danced" (his second No. 1 hit) and "Two People Fell in Love." Although the up-tempo "Wrapped Around" spent three weeks at No. 2, "I'm Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin' Song)" was released in 2002 and became the biggest hit of his career to date. That success surprised everybody but Paisley, who believes the song "took me to the next place."
He added, "The label did not, in any way, want to release that. I told them, 'I've been singing this in concert for two years, and this is ridiculous that you guys aren't going to put this on the radio. I don't know what it'll do chart-wise, but I know what it'll do to their telephone lines. Because this is our audience, this is me and I've done that. I've been this guy.'"
Paisley said the label feared that women would be offended by the song, but he convinced RCA Label Group label chief Joe Galante to release it by promising to get ESPN's Dan Patrick and TV host Jerry Springer in the video. Paisley didn't know them personally, but after hearing the song, they took the bait. The song became his third No. 1 hit, spending two weeks at the top.
"That was a game-changer because instantly I went from this ballad guy to the funny guy," Paisley said. "Then I had to get back and remind them, because they forget."
The lighthearted "Celebrity" maintained his funny persona, and "Little Moments" showed his softer side. He matched those two themes of fame and falling in love by marrying actress Kimberly Williams in 2003. But he caught everybody off-guard in 2004 with "Whiskey Lullaby," a somber duet with Alison Krauss about alcoholism and suicide. The song won two CMA Awards.
"It was like, 'OK, I don't know who he is,'" he said. "Those are moments for me when I look back and [realize] I've been really lucky. I owe everything to radio because they didn't have to be so accommodating. They could have said, 'No, we really want this from you. We like it when you're funny. We need that on the radio.' Or, 'We really like these ballads you do. Don't give us these funny, goofy things.' So they were willing to say, 'We'll play what you give us.' And they always have."
Indeed, Paisley's career exploded after "Whiskey Lullaby" as he racked up No. 1 hits like "Mud on the Tires," "When I Get Where I'm Going," "The World," "She's Everything," "Ticks," "Online," "Letter to Me," "I'm Still a Guy" and "Waitin' on a Woman." He's also won 13 CMA Awards, including three as male vocalist. On the strength of hits like "Welcome to the Future," "American Saturday Night" and "Water," he has secured his sixth nomination for CMA entertainer of the year, although he hasn't won that top award just yet.
When the discussion turns to his chances of winning the CMA's top honor this year, Paisley said, "I would be lying now to say that's not the one I would like to win. I'm not an idiot. Yes, I am actually. But I know what that can mean and the short list of people who have ever done that. So yeah, it would mean a lot. But I will also say that I will not be the least bit upset if somebody else wins it. ... I'm a fan of everyone else in the category. I'm a fan of the momentum they all have and the songs they're cutting. I'm proud of this industry -- currently."
He continued, "You read it on message boards, you see what people say or if I'm looking at a guitar website: 'Old country music! Whatever happened to old country music?' Well, it became old country music. And I love it. I love everything about it. I love the day and time of Johnny Cash and Buck Owens on the radio. I love it. But they aren't with us. We have what we have now, and I'm very proud of these people."