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Brad Paisley, Explained in Seven Songs

The superstar has lived through the highs — and also the very viral, “Accidental Racist” lows — of the past 20 years in country music. Here’s how that happened.

(Aaron Dana)
(Aaron Dana)

Brad Paisley is the funniest guy in country music — intentionally so, most of the time. He’s a goofus, a one-man Hee Haw reboot, a Dad Joke connoisseur who plied his trade long before he became an actual father. A ham with a few grudging sprigs of kale: a balanced meal. A dirt-roads scholar fluent in the “Rectum? Damn near killed ’em!” school of humor. “I Gave Her a Ring (She Gave Me the Finger)” is his North Star, his Southern cross.

One of his early hits, about his wife threatening to split if he goes fishing again, is titled “I’m Gonna Miss Her.” One of his first peppy, affable crossover hits has a chorus that concludes, “I’d like to check you for ticks.” His marital advice: “It’s not who wears the pants / It’s who wears the skirt.” I have never been able to bring myself to listen to his deep cut “Ode de Toilet (The Toilet Song),” but I’m glad it exists. His 13th album, Love and War, is out Friday and includes the mildly randy “Go to Bed Early,” as in, “Let’s go to bed early / And stay up all night.” Oh, you.

Mildly and maritally randy, you understand. He famously first fell in love with his wife of 14 years now, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, when he saw her onscreen in Father of the Bride; we have her to thank for some of the sappiest, sweetest, most affecting ballads in recent country-music history. (Try “It Did.”) Brad is a huge softie. And a white-hot guitar player. (Try “Cluster Pluck.”) And a longtime award-show host who you can one day imagine transitioning to game-show host. And the rare tentative Nashville-superstar liberal unafraid to, for example, rework Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” into a potty-humor critique of North Carolina’s transgender-bathroom law. He’s an old-guard titan sidestepping the genre’s Bro Country wars more deftly than most; his tours will fill amphitheaters for decades hence with a bounty of Billboard Hot Country Song no. 1 hits, 16 of ’em and counting.

He is also, just for variety, responsible for the worst country song of the past decade: “Accidental Racist,” a 2013 Nashville-liberal thought experiment with LL Cool J that got as vicious and thorough an internet roasting as any song released in the 21st century. (As he told Vulture in a good-natured postmortem, “I saw a funny tweet the other day: ‘Your song with LL Cool J gave me cancer.’ I mean, you’ve gotta laugh at that.”) But that’ll happen when you take swings this big, this often. If you had to pick one country superstar’s catalog as a way of both explaining and enjoying the past 20 years of the genre’s evolution — the sonic innovations mingling with reverent old-school classicism, the expert interplay of tragedy and comedy, the broadening horizons lyrically and otherwise, the complex and occasionally disastrous politics — Paisley is your guy. His best is the best we’ve got; his worst is, if nothing else, really fun to make fun of. Love and War is a quite excellent addition to his body of work. Here are seven career-spanning songs to get you started, all fantastic and/or awfully compelling tunes that will, much like Jesus, thoughtfully drop-kick you through the goalposts of life.

“He Didn’t Have to Be” (1999)

Paisley’s debut album, Who Needs Pictures, yielded two country no. 1s, including this tender ode to a loving stepfather that immediately establishes Brad as a family man, or at least an aspiring one: “I hope I’m at least half the dad / That he didn’t have to be.” It’s the perfect millennium-straddling country line, a little dusty and cheesy, but delivered with a hint of sharp-but-plainspoken wit that feels modern somehow, or at least not totally retrograde. Every male country superhero starts out as just a fresh-faced rando in a hat; you survive because your writing’s sharp enough, or your singing’s seductive enough, or in this case, happily, both. “He Didn’t Have to Be” is way less glitzy and alluring than 1999’s heaviest hitters — the Dixie Chicks, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw — but it marked Paisley as a serious dude with a light touch. He loves his tearjerkers, but he learned early on that “maudlin” doesn’t necessarily have to mean “joyless.”

“Whiskey Lullaby [ft. Alison Krauss]” (2004)

On the other hand, this is maudlin as hell, a jilted soldier drinking himself to death via a killer chorus (“He put that bottle to his head / And pulled the trigger”) that’s dusty in the sense that it tries to bury you alive. Paisley’s third full-length, Mud on the Tires, was his first no. 1 country album and first Billboard 200 Top 10, important markers on the road from Guy With Hit Songs to Guy With Arena-Headlining Career. He’s winning awards at this point, fleshing out a personality, getting people to remember his name. As the centerpiece, “Whiskey Lullaby” is a flawlessly executed prestige play, weighty but not quite leaden. Paisley’s easy rapport with Alison Krauss, a prestige-minded bluegrass queen, portended his deftness with duet partners in general — particularly his bubbly, present-day foil Carrie Underwood, who has cohosted the industry-standard CMA Awards alongside him for what feels like the past 50 years.

“Online” (2007)

Paisley started wooing ordinarily country-averse critics with 2007’s bold and broad 5th Gear, with an arena-rock grandeur and songs so vivid and loopy he started to occasionally go viral, for the right reasons. He also started taking on a guitar-god aspect, a rock-star aspect, a thinking-man’s-joking-man aspect. Which is to say this album’s got “Ticks” on it, and the partially woke gender-roles study “I’m Still a Guy,” and also this keyboard-warrior, knuckle-dragger that shouts out MySpace and rhymes “sci-fi fanatic” with “mild asthmatic.” That Paisley was willing to even acknowledge the internet, if only as a fertile new source of Dad Jokes, put him way ahead of the curve in 2007. Twitter would turn on him eventually, but his honeymoon period was long and lovely and gracefully silly. Taylor Swift cameo in the video, by the way.

“Welcome to the Future” (2009)

This stadium-rocking ode to national ingenuity and progress, the cornerstone of his American Saturday Night album, is hilariously wide in scope, spanning from We can play Pac-Man on our phones now! to, somewhat obliquely, We elected a black president! Paisley kept relatively quiet politically in his early years, avoiding the sort of ugly Toby Keith vs. Dixie Chicks skirmishes that typified the George W. Bush administration. But his openly left-leaning tendencies are rare in country’s upper reaches, and “Welcome to the Future” is where he went, if not public, then much more public. He played this song for Obama at the White House that same year and, by his own admission, almost started bawling. Country-superstar politics are rarely as cut and dried as any side of the debate would prefer — even Toby Keith himself, a noted Trump inauguration-concert headliner, has played both sides of the aisle — but Paisley has always worked harder than most to cover all his bases, flaunting his Southern pride even as he interrogates it. The results can be transcendent.

“This Is Country Music” (2011)

This is my favorite Brad Paisley song, a tearjerker and a lighter-waver. You can interpret it as a red-state retrenching after all the Obama stuff, praising his chosen genre for alone having the balls to address cancer, and familial love, and beer-fueled exuberance, and pride in our military. You can forgive self-congratulation this blatant, though, when the guitars are this rousing and pristine.

“This Is Country Music” was the title track to his 2011 album, which might’ve been his first overall Billboard no. 1 were it not for Lady Gaga’s Born This Way (which has, come to think of it, a similar take-me-as-I-am conceit). A good companion piece is one of Paisley’s other big 2011 hits, the manic and robust “Camouflage,” which proposes that we replace the Confederate flag with, yes, a camouflage one. It’s a typically shrewd attempt at shoring up his base while acknowledging those who understandably find the very notion of Southern pride unsettling. Which is a fine impulse, even if it would soon inspire everyone’s least-favorite Brad Paisley song.

“Accidental Racist [ft. LL Cool J]” (2013)

On 2013’s more-sprawling-than-usual Wheelhouse, Paisley was going for it in a way few country stars past or present ever have. The general theme is “caught between Southern pride and Southern blame,” attempting to reconcile his audience’s red state/blue state divide via brute force. Exhibit A: “Southern Comfort Zone,” which politely suggests to his camouflage-flag-waving fans that leaving the South and doing a bit of traveling will give them even more appreciation for their own culture amid an increased respect for everyone else’s.

The result was a pretty good tune that didn’t rattle or ruffle anybody; “Accidental Racist,” which begins with our hero apologizing to a Starbucks barista for the Old Glory on his Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt, was a different story. It had messianic Bono overtones; it suggested that he was trying to single-handedly End Racism. The result is honest in its cluelessness, or at least its lack of answers, but it’s barely readable as a think piece and unlistenable as a song. And that’s before you get to LL Cool J’s verse, whereupon he jumps on a sinking ship and deep-sixes the hell out of it. (For the record, LL, “If you don’t judge my gold chains / I’ll forgive the iron chains” is a terrible trade.)

The Vulture interview is worth reading in full, as Paisley is a remarkable mixture of apologetic and unapologetic. He absorbs a goodly amount of the criticism but refuses to disown his motives. Handled poorly, this could’ve been, no bullshit, a career-killer, or at least it could’ve permanently frightened Paisley into clamming up and abandoning the fearlessness that elevated him so far above the pack to begin with. What you can safely conclude is that his worst moment came from very much the same emotional and intellectual place as most of his best moments. Surviving this is, perversely, its own sort of career highlight.

“Today” (2017)

Paisley hasn’t gotten too political since “Accidental Racist,” it’s true, and the new album, Love and War, sticks to love the vast majority of the time. (The title track, a fiery duet with John Fogerty that condemns our societal treatment of returning U.S. soldiers, is a notable exception.) Sonically, the palate is still somewhat overbroad: Guest stars range from Mick Jagger (fine) to old-school country titan Bill Anderson (great) to Timbaland (largely imperceptible, which is a relief, especially on a song called “Grey Goose Chase”). Paisley’s discomfiting crossover ambitions are still admirable but no longer as successful.

But “Today” is the jam. It’s a mushy power ballad, with a simple but devastatingly effective bridge that is, without question, the best thing I’ve heard on the radio in 2017. You know where it’s going immediately, spiraling heavenward, but it’s all you can do not to pump your fist and drive your car off a cliff when it gets there:

Amazing. It’s the sound of corn spinning itself into pure gold. Paisley might not have all his old weapons at his disposal anymore, but he’s still got this one. Plus, he’s still a little mischievous. On Love and War, “Today” is immediately followed by a monumentally goofy track called, swear to god, “selfie#theinternetisforever,” a jocular condemnation of online chicanery with a shout-along chorus of, yes, “The internet is forever.” He knows of which he speaks. He’s still winking, and knee-slapping, and fumbling toward post-millennial ecstasy. He has royally screwed up a time or two, sure. But there’s enormous value in learning to tweet through it.