In 2009, A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.
Every year, my father puts on a Donovan McNabb jersey he won in a raffle, a knit cap, and jeans (an ensemble that makes him look like the world’s worst/oldest Ali G impersonator), and we travel to a sports bar in Skokie’s Old Orchard shopping mall called Chammps to watch the Super Bowl. And every year I go to the bathroom, take a long hard look at myself, and wonder why something that should fill me at the very least with some mild form of amusement—watching the big game at a suburban sports bar with a group of ineffably melancholy Jewish men in their 60s—instead fills me with a numb sense of disappointment and boredom.
I think my disappointment is rooted in the fact that I was once acutely in touch with my inner guy, but we’re barely on speaking terms anymore. As a teenager, I lived to watch sports and play video games, dug action movies, and waited impatiently for the arrival of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue like a child on Christmas morning. Then something went horribly awry and I largely lost interest in guy things and became the sort of solemn book-learner who would rather read a mammoth tome about Richard Nixon’s antagonistic relationship with the press or watch a documentary about the recent economic crash than catch a ballgame. That, in many ways, is a goddamned shame.
Listening to Brad Paisley, I wish that I were more in touch with my inner guy. For Paisley is a quintessential guy’s guy, and “You Need a Man Around Here,” from his 2005 album Time Well Wasted, is the ultimate guy’s song, a tongue-in-cheek list of home-decorating suggestions from a beer-drinking slob who thinks no home is complete without a largemouth bass mounted to the wall, a case of cheap domestic in the fridge, a big-screen television, and Field & Stream and Maxim on the coffee table. Paisley delivers his lyrics with tongue planted firmly in cheek and plenty of easygoing charm. It helps that the song spoofs the macho preoccupations of guys more than the dainty frilliness of the fairer gender.
I first encountered Paisley via a massive homemade anthology a reader compiled called Lost In The Ozone. Songs like “You Need A Man Around Here,” “Letter To Me,” and “It Never Woulda Worked Out Anyway” impressed me tremendously. Paisley seemed like a slicker, sleeker, Nashville-approved version of alt-country smartass Robbie Fulks.
Paisley has made a fortune from his ordinary Joe persona when, as a handsome, talented, successful, smart multimillionaire married to actress Kimberley Williams, he’s the furthest thing from an average guy. Yet despite his considerable gifts, Paisley’s oeuvre is refreshingly life-sized. Operatic heartbreaks and black moods are few and far between in Paisley’s oeuvre. They’re outnumbered, perversely enough, by songs about healthy, functional relationships like “That’s Love,” a goofy tribute to the little white lies lovers tell each other in the interest of keeping the peace.
So if Paisley is a guy’s guy who loves fishing, drinking beer, and watching TV, he’s also an unapologetic romantic. Take “Two People Fell In Love,” an endearingly sappy ballad that traces all the goodness and joy in the world to the event that ostensibly led to just about everybody being born: two people falling in love. That’s a sentiment as sweet as it is transparently phony. Then again, I very much doubt country fans would embrace a song about how we’re all here because, say, “Two People Got Drunk And Horny And Left The Condoms At Home” or “One Person Felt An Unplanned Pregnancy Would Make Her Boyfriend Love Her Due To Crippling Feelings Of Rejection And Various Daddy Issues She Incurred During A Rocky Childhood.”
Ah, but that’s not the world Paisley inhabits. He’s not an Old Testament figure like Johnny Cash. He doesn’t appear to be riddled with demons or writhing in self-hatred. Yet he’s been able to make good country music all the same. Strange but true. For Paisley’s forte is the drama and comedy of everyday life.
Paisley’s unfortunate unfamiliarity with life’s unrelenting misery can be traced back to his disturbingly non-disturbing childhood. He was born to a middle-class family in West Virginia, began playing guitar and writing songs before hitting his teens, graduated from Belmont University with a degree in music, then segued smoothly into a songwriting contract at EMI Publishing before becoming a popular singer-songwriter with a lengthy list of hits and platinum albums to his credit.
Perhaps because his own background is so shamefully devoid of colorful trauma, Paisley has never been shy about co-opting larger-than-life country legends. George Jones and Little Jimmie Dickens make regular appearances on Paisley’s albums as part of a tongue-in-cheek supergroup dubbed The Kung Pao Buckaroos. The Kung Pao Buckaroos’ spectacularly silly spoken-word song-sketches don’t add much to Paisley’s albums musically, but they affirm his deep connection to country’s storied past. If they turn even a single contemporary country fan onto the genius of George Jones, then Paisley is truly doing God’s work.
Paisley’s most playful songs threaten to give being a guy’s guy a good name. “I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song)” is essentially a wacky bumper sticker in song form, but Paisley has the comic timing, friendly delivery, and rakish charm to pull it off. “It Never Woulda Worked Out Anyway,” a goofy story song about an incorrigible wag who sabotages an ex-girlfriend’s love life, manages to make behaving like an asshole seem strangely likeable, thanks in no small part to a jazzy little arrangement rooted in the showy musicianship of Western swing, a subgenre Paisley shows a definite affinity for with the Western swing-flavored instrumentals that pop up on most of his albums.
Paisley specializes in alchemizing small, universal moments into outsized declarations of love. Just this last weekend I went to a department store and sat patiently by the dressing room while my girlfriend tried on clothes. While I fiddled around on my iPhone I sat next to several men in the same boat as me and we exchanged brief looks of solidarity, for to be a heterosexual man is to spend a good chunk of your life waiting on a woman. In “Waitin’ On A Woman,” Paisley begins with a scenario like the one I just described and expands it until the protagonist has died years before his soulmate and consequently spends years up in heaven waiting on a woman.
In country music, heartbreak usually trumps happiness. Paisley writes great love songs, but in “Somebody Knows You Now” he wrote a damn fine kiss-off song. It’s a song about a woman who longs to be understood completely by a boyfriend. The song traffics in ambiguity throughout: Knowing someone completely is a profoundly mixed blessing, as is knowing yourself completely. There is much to be said for self-delusion. Hell, a lot of us couldn’t get out of bed and face each new day without an awful lot in the way of self-delusion. Any ambiguity about whether being known is ultimately a good or bad thing dissipates with the killer closing lines, “Well baby all your mystery/Like you and me is history/’Cause somebody knows you now.”
Paisley’s funny songs straddle the line between clever and too clever. Take “The Cigar Song,” for example. It begins as a song about a simple man who enjoys treating himself every once in a while to a big box of his favorite Cuban cigars. It takes a turn, however, when the deceptively sly narrator gets his beloved cigars insured then tries to collect on his policy by claiming that they all perished in “24 small fires.” That’d be a big enough twist for most songwriters, but Paisley takes it further by having the luckless protagonist rot in jail for causing 24 separate cases of arson. What starts out as a song about life’s guilty pleasures evolves into a song whose punchlines are rooted in linguistics and semantics.
I enjoy the uptempo, jazzy, light-hearted breeziness of Paisley’s oeuvre even if he sometimes seems content to skirt along the surface rather than plumb murkier depths. A good exception would be “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” an ominous narrative about a small town that tends to swallow the ambitions and aspirations of its inhabitants. It’s a stark, powerful, and ultimately tragic song and a winning reminder that there’s more to Paisley than clever lyrics, likeability, impressive musicianship, and boyish charm.
“You’ll Never Leave Harlan” aside, I like the fact that the universe of Paisley’s songs is primarily a happy realm devoid of the epic heartbreaks, personal ruin, and suicidal depression endemic in so much classic country. Paisley’s world is a nice place for nice people populated by nice songs by a nice young man. I look forward to returning to it regularly.
Up Next on Nashville or Bust:
Climactic Trip Down South