More than a decade into his career, Brad Paisley is continuing to evolve, musically and personally. That growth is particularly evident in his creative new album, Wheelhouse.
"You have different stages in your career where you have different things to prove. And early on, like most people who move to Nashville, I wanted to prove that I belonged here, that I belonged in this format, that I had a love for it. And I was trying to sort of 'out-traditional' other people in some ways, like, 'No, I can be more traditional than you,'" Paisley tells CMT Hot 20 Countdown's Katie Cook.
"This one felt like it was time to say, 'All right, what happens if I say I'm not going to really obey the rules? Whatever feels like it's in my heart, or it's something that would be entertaining and fun to listen to, should be on here if it helps the song.' And so we really stretched."
Already this year, Paisley has scored a hit with the lead single, "Southern Comfort Zone." And in a month, he'll return to the road on a tour named for this latest single, "Beat This Summer."
CMT: On the cover of Wheelhouse, it looks like you're taking this flying leap. Are you trying to tell us something about what you're doing musically?
Paisley: Maybe, yeah. It feels that way. I sent Luke Wooten, who mixed a lot of this record, the cover when it was done. Which is me sort of in midair and the wheel of guitars and knickknacks that represent songs and the water. And he said, "You're gonna tear your ACL on that Strat." And I told him, "No, no, no, I'm rising, I'm not falling." I don't necessarily know what it's supposed to represent, but it does sort of feel a little bit metaphorical that way.
Looking at the lyrics on this album, I'm getting the sense you've grown a lot as a person -- that maybe you're more open minded, even more progressive, than before. Would that be fair to say?
Yeah, time does that to you. ... I think that [happens when] you have children and you travel the world. When I made Who Needs Pictures, my first album, I had been west of the Mississippi River one time in my life, and that was in fourth grade. We traveled to California for vacation and stayed with some friends of my parents. It was culture shock and it was different. But the next time I went back to California was to film the first video for "Who Needs Pictures." Since then, you see the world and you travel. You listen to other artists. You meet other artists. You do a CMT Crossroads with John Mayer, or you do the Grammys and backstage John Fogerty is coming up and saying, "Hey, you wanna do something?" Or you play with Joe Walsh on his Crossroads. ... Next thing you know, everything's just bleeding into each other musically. It feels like you want to incorporate whatever it is that's starting to be on your mind and also an influence.
There must be some fear as an artist, like "Is it going to get stale?"
Yeah, exactly. You don't want to get stale. One of the things that was always on my mind with this was that it needs to only fit in the country format. Which I think it really does. Ironically, as many things as we've done on here that are interesting, they still don't belong anywhere else. I mean, even something like "Accidental Racist" with LL Cool J is a very traditional country song. He just happens to do what he does in it. I mean, it sounds like something Alabama or Lynyrd Skynyrd would've done, to me.
You produced this album entirely by yourself. You wrote or co-wrote every track. You're so immersed in it. Going for something this different, was it overwhelming?
Yeah, I've had three or four meltdowns throughout the course of this, and I'm not a meltdown kind of guy normally. But this is something that's been very difficult. I actually called up Frank Rogers, my old producer, at one point and sort of begged him to take over. I was like, "I don't know what I'm doing."
He said, "Well, let me come listen." And he came over and listened, and he says, "You know what you're doing." He basically said no. (laughs) He said, "This is yours, you know. Finish it." He was very supportive, but you feel self-conscious because while I believe in everything I did, I knew it was different. There were safety buttons I could've been pushing. There are ways that you can get something that sounds great in a typical studio with studio musicians, and then you can have it digitally edited. They'll fix everything, and you don't have to work so hard at your takes. We didn't do that. This is my band in a house that was never meant to be a recording studio. It still isn't meant to be a recording studio, but we made it one.
The song "Outstanding in Our Field" is such a fun twist on an idea. How did Dierks Bentley and Hunter Hayes end up on it?
It felt like a party, you know? I felt like it needed to have that. I've known Hunter since he was probably 10. He used to come out early on to our shows and play the squeeze box with the band when he was 10 years old. We had this little blond-headed kid over on the side of the stage doing his thing. We loved him. He was awesome. Anyway he sort of disappeared for a while, and I didn't see him again. Then somebody's talking about this new kid, Hunter Hayes, in country music. I said the name didn't ring a bell, and that's when my keyboard player or somebody told me, "No, that's Hunter, remember Hunter?" And I was like, "That's Hunter?" So, yeah, he grew up. Turned out great.
Then Dierks is one of my best friends in our industry. And the idea of the song being, these guys that on a Saturday night ... the right time of year you'll find them outside. They will light something on fire in the middle of nowhere, and that's an evening out. You know, a bunch of people with as cheap a deal on alcohol as they could get and coolers and ice and whatever. And that's entertainment. Sound systems in trucks that shake the trees.
One month after releasing the album, you're starting your tour. Do you feel ready?
Yeah ... no. Not yet. But we're doing that right now, actually, working on that. Time will tell if we get that. But the nice thing is, fans are so forgiving. I mean, we have great toys and gadgets. And, like normal, there will be alcohol served and a PA system and Lee Brice and Chris Young. ... C'mon!
I'm thinking there's going to be more than that. What do you have prepared for the fans this time around? You always do something a little different.
Yeah, we do. I don't know. We're sort of in that planning phase of, "Would this work?" And most things are met with "No." But every now and then, we'll say, "Would this work? Would it work if I jump in the water?" ... "Yeah, it'll work." ... "All right, let's try it."