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Out of his comfort zone: Brad Paisley takes the wheel

The Grammy-winning country star pushes to innovate in the studio

By Melinda Newman
Special to MSN Music

Brad Paisley/©Arista Nashville
Brad Paisley

Brad Paisley was ready for a change. After eight studio albums, he felt the need to push himself and his music to a new place, literally and figuratively.

On "Wheelhouse," he's produced himself for the first time, taking an amicable break from working with his longtime collaborator, Frank Rogers. Plus, instead of recording in a traditional recording facility, he converted a guest house on his Nashville property into a studio.

"The idea was to go in and make something that was outside my comfort zone," he says. The process was exhilarating as it was terrifying. "I was scared to death," he admits. "It's one thing to decide you're going to produce yourself and make an album similar to what you've made, but I said, 'No, I'm going to produce myself and I'm going to do something unlike anything you've heard me do. And also, I'm only going to use my band,'" instead of relying on topflight session musicians as most country artists do.

He challenged his bandmates to surprise him in the studio. "I don't like listening to something where you know exactly what's coming next," he says. "The real mantra was [be] outside-the-box creatively: 'If it's a really typical 'go-to' lick, don't do it. Don't give me that thing.' We needed to be unique because that's more fun to listen to."

About halfway through the process, Paisley, feeling way too deep in the weeds, admits he flashed the bat signal and called in Rogers, telling him, "'I need help. I'm down here at all hours of the night.'" But Rogers, who has known Paisley since their college days, listened to the rough tracks and reassured him that he was on the right path. "Or he thought I was out of my mind and didn't want anything to do with it," Paisley says with a slightly nervous laugh. "Either way, it was very, very brave of him and selfless of him to let me do this."

Review: Brad Paisely's 'Wheelhouse'

While thoroughly country and very recognizably Paisley, "Wheelhouse" is ambitious in its embrace of technology and different sonic styles, whether it be the Roger Miller music loop on "Outstanding in Our Field" (with Dierks Bentley and Hunter Hayes), the sound of an actual human heartbeat that pumps through "Death of a Single Man," or the turntable scratches that subtly punctuate current single "Beat This Summer."

"Wheelhouse" is filled with a number of easygoing charmers and love songs that highlight both Paisley's deft word play as well as his formidable guitar wizardry. However, the multiple Grammy winner, who has always been a keen observer of the world around him -- whether addressing the unstoppable forward march of social progress on "Welcome to the Future" or trends gone wrong on the humorous "Online" -- found that current events became direct fodder for "Wheelhouse."

The wry "Karate," in which an empowered female methodically turns the tables on her domestic abuser, was conceived around the same time period Paisley watched Congress debate the Violence Against Women Act. Asked if it's possible to make a song that takes a somewhat lighthearted look at spousal abuse via a revenge scenario, Paisley says, "You know, it's harsh, but life is harsh, and to me, that's country music ... not shying away from the subject as long as it winds up in the right place, which I feel like we did."

The national discussion about race, reignited by "Lincoln" and "Django Unchained," informed the album's most riveting track, "Accidental Racist," which features LL Cool J. In the song, Paisley attempts to put himself in the shoes of the African-American serving him coffee in the post-modern South, where "we're still sifting through the rubble" following the Civil War. He and the rapper trade lyrics, addressing the misguided perceptions, confusion and bitterness that often still exists on both sides.

"I'm not being provocative to be provocative," Paisley says, "but I'm not holding back." The West Virginia native adds, "I feel there's equal amounts of misunderstanding, whether it be [from] the North or foreign societies about the southern United States, and that's one of my greatest frustrations as well. I feel like, on one hand, I can, with this album, both entertain and challenge my fan base, [and] at the same time inform the North and some other people that listen to me that a lot of us really aren't stereotypical, you know?"

More on Brad Paisley | Brad Paisley & LL Cool J's 'Accidental Racist' is accidentally hilarious

For Paisley, even a song like the album's former No. 1 single, the lilting, cascading "Southern Comfort Zone," which explores how travel breaks down barriers even if there's no place like home, reinforces his belief in music's transformative abilities. "Being part of the conversation musically is important to me because, to me, art and music have always been something that is way more powerful toward making a difference than anything any government or lawmaker ever did," he says.

In the hands of someone less skilled, some of his songs might come across as heavy-handed or preachy, but Paisley always has a light touch. "Maybe why I don't offend is because I couldn't love country music more or the people I look at every night," he says. "I'm trying to do things that matter musically, and at the same time, it's always from the standpoint as one of you. 'Here's how I feel.'"

Speaking of the people he looks at every night, Paisley's "testosterone-fueled" Beat This Summer shed tour, with opening acts Lee Brice and Chris Young, hits the road May 9. Though he's no stranger to playing arenas, Paisley says, "I like playing outside in the summer. That's what country music fans want. They would much rather be able to stand on that lawn and drink a beer and listen to you than be in some cooped-up place where it's all sort of fancy and highfaluting. Our music was born to do it that way."

Melinda Newman is the former West Coast bureau chief for Billboard magazine. She has covered music and entertainment for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, MSN, AOL Music,, Variety, People Country and other outlets. Recent interviews include Taylor Swift, Susan Sarandon, Pink, Jeff Bridges, Brad Paisley, Foo Fighters, Katy Perry and Carly Simon.

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Apr 10, 2013 9:20AM

I like brad paisley and no matter what I will continue to listen to his music he' s one of the few people I like to listen to in country and he's old school not country pop what's that about country should be country if you want pop listen to a pop station then

Apr 10, 2013 6:36AM
I picked this cd up yesterday at the walmart.  Being somebody who enjoys music simply for the sake of the music, this cd is great.  i listened through the whole thing and the only negative i have is that it seems a little disjointed at times, but after reading the above interview, it sounds like this is what he was going for anyway, unpredictable and fresh.  I thought "karate" was a great song.  My favorite song was "mona lisa" as I listened to it with my wife of 16 years on the anniversary of the day that changed our lives forever.   Brad is extremely talented singer, songwriter and guitar player. 
I hope I can find some spare cash to buy tickets to the Salt lake City show in August...
Apr 10, 2013 6:33AM

Someone...I agree with you to the extent that the line between country and rock/pop is disappearing and I don't consider that a positive move for country. Brad Paisley is a talentd guy who puts on a great show for his fans, but I do percieve that he's reaching across the aisle like many of the newer country stars. What they are reaching for is less than what they already have. 

Apr 10, 2013 6:22AM
cma awards in vegas,people in tn would not come to listen to that garbage
Apr 10, 2013 6:21AM
he should rethink the shape of that cowboy hat. 
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