Brad Paisley is country music’s consummate artist: he writes, sings, plays guitar, and entertains at a higher level in all four areas than most acts do in just one. On his ninth studio album, “Wheelhouse,” out Tuesday (9), he adds producer to the list.
“Wheelhouse” opens with a few seconds of the WW1 chestnut, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm,” which segues into “Southern Comfort Zone,” Paisley’s No. 1 hit about exploring the rest of the world, while still feeling there’s no place like home.
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The song is a perfect example of what separates Paisley from every other contemporary country artists: while he has more than his share of good old boy in him, he’s an enlightened post-modern southerner who fully grasps that there is a big beautiful world out there that should be embraced instead of feared, as should social progress. Too much of country music focuses on an insular, small-town way of life that, quite frankly, never really existed outside of “The Andy Griffith Show.” (“Southern Comfort Zone” even includes dialogue from “The Andy Griffith Show,” perhaps in a nice tribute to Paisley’s friend, Griffith, who appeared on the video for his hit, “Waitin’ On a Woman.”)
Musically, Paisley is, not surprisingly, a confident producer, bringing in a wealth of different elements with total sure-footedness, whether it’s the aforementioned examples or samples of a human heartbeat on certain songs or turntable scratches on current single, the easy-going “Beat This Summer” or a slowed down Roger Miller sample on the chugging “Outstanding In Our Field,” which features Dierks Bentley and Hunter Hayes.
But Paisley is interested in far more than the sonics on “Wheelhouse.” To be sure, there are several tunes that want no more than to entertain, but he’s bringing up big topics on “Accidental Racist,” a dialogue with with LL Cool J; “Those Crazy Christians,” and “Karate.”
On “Accidental Racist,” the album’s most ambitious and problematic track, he has an imaginary conversation with the African-American who served him at Starbucks, addressing the lingering racism that exists in much of the south and continuing conflict between black and whites. “I’m proud of where I’m from, but not of everything we’ve done,” he sings, citing that he’s “caught between Southern pride and Southern blame.” It’s earnest and questioning, and, it’s likely a song that’s going to raise a lot of questions. LL Cool J responds in a rap, admitting that when he sees someone in a cowboy hat, “I’m thinking it’s not all good. I guess we’re both guilty of judging the cover and not the book.” LL Cool J’s part is as well-meaning as Paisley’s, but some of his lines fall horribly flat, including such offensive lines as “If you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget my iron chains.” (Even for the sake of the rap, there is no way you can compare those two). It may have worked better without LL Cool J, with Paisley examining the very real conflicts that an enlightened Southerner may have with his historical past.
On “Those Crazy Christians,” Paisley adopts the posture of an agnostic who sees people doing both wonderful and hypocritical things in the name of God, and while he can’t quite reconcile his own beliefs with theirs, he sure knows that when the chips are down, his believing friends are the ones he would call. Though the lyrics are pro-Christian for the most part, and Paisley does not hide his own strong faith, the song title alone is sure to provoke.
“Karate” addresses spousal abuse through a story about a woman who bides her time after her husband beats her, earning her black belt in karate, so she can give as good as she gets. To be sure, she’s the hero in her own revenge fantasy, but the attempt to even be remotely lighthearted about something as serious as domestic abuse will, understandably, rub some the wrong way.
For fans of Paisley’s guitar wizardry, “Runaway Train” is everything you could hope for. His nimble dexterity is startling to listen to. Unlike many similarly-accomplished guitarists, Paisley never seems to sacrifice melodicism for pyrotechnics; he manages to balance both. Same with the 1:39 interstitial track titled “Japanese-titled solo.”
The album closes with one of the stronger tracks, the layered, cascading “Officially Alive,” an uplifting song that stands alongside Garth Brooks’ “Standing Outside the Fire” as a song about not being afraid to boldly push against the boundaries, even knowing that there’s going to be kickback.
At times on “Wheelhouse,” it feels like Paisley’s reach exceeds his grasp, and he could have used a good editor, not only on "Accidental Racist," but on a five-song, loosely-linked suite of songs that deals with marriage from all different angles, many of them humorously, could have been trimmed by a song or two. But such complaints seem churlish when it’s clear that he is trying to elevate the level of conversation in country music, as well as lift the overall musical bar. Despite a few pitfalls, that effort should be widely celebrated.