Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock & Roll &

Paisley's Progress

book cover

Fifteen seconds of tune-up precede a partying rock riff that's corny even by Nashville standards. But it sure does rock, and soon it takes on virtuoso flourishes. Finally, 40 seconds in, there's a rather un-Nashville lyric: "She's got Brazilian leather boots on the pedal of her German car/Listenin' to the Beatles singin' 'Back in the U.S.S.R.'" Thus begins the lead and title cut of Brad Paisley's American Saturday Night. So optimistic it's intrepid and shameless at the same time, American Saturday Night rejects the anxious escapism and dark undercurrents of actually existing country, pop, and rock convention. As it strives to touch every human being in a nation Paisley knows is less unified and forward- looking than he pretends, the farthest it deviates from message is two breakup songs of uncommon tenderness and dignity. There's not a bum track on it--unless you're one of those sophisticates who's a priori nauseated by tunes more memorable than striking, lyrics that parse, pitch-corrected vocal harmonies, waveform compression, and strawberry ice cream.

Serving up an enjoyably crafted, commercially successful album in the warm months of every odd year, Brad Paisley has tasted fine to me since 1999, when I admired how confidently he opened for Loretta Lynn at Town Hall. A 26-year-old newcomer riding a good little debut few in Manhattan knew existed, he seemed more at home than she did. But I never expected he'd headline Madison Square Garden a decade later. As happens in Nashville, the hits that kept on coming were soon indistinguishable from genre exercises. Beyond the funny stuff--great in "Me Neither," where he disavows a series of lame pickup lines as each is shot down, not so great in "Celebrity," where he lobs paintballs at a reality-show jerkola--what stood out most was his guitar, which got a showcase instrumental every time out. Genre exercises work fine in the country market as such, where "repository of tradition" is part of the job description. But the real America--right, I'm being arch, punch in "the typical American music consumer" if you like--expects forceful identities from its standard-bearers, and that goes double for dudes from the sticks.

So although Paisley was my favorite young male country artist, I pigeonholed him as a likable pro, thought of him seldom, and didn't notice when he got married in 2003. From the perspective of American Saturday Night, however, the marriage was a turning point. According to publicity myth, which I'm happy to believe, New York-born actress Kimberly Williams appeared to the young West Virginian as in a dream way back in 1995, when he went to see Father of the Bride II in the vain hope that he'd run into his high school sweetheart and was entranced by Williams's portrayal of the bride. After obsessing for a good long dry spell, during which he gathered material for songs like "Me Neither," Paisley invited Williams to co-star in the 2002 "I'm Gonna Miss Her" video, where the girl demands that Paisley choose between fishing and her and he chooses fishing. In the real America, however, he got both -- far from giving up fishing after he tied the knot, he took the missis camping. The couple split their life between a farm near Nashville and a house in Malibu. They have two sons, the oldest born in 2007 and christened William Huckleberry--Huck for short.

Those nauseated by meet-cute stories should rest assured that a political angle is coming, one that culminated in Paisley entertaining an Obama soiree with bluegrass progressive Allison Krauss, his duet partner on the atypically tragic 2004 "Whiskey Lullabye," and Charley Pride, country music's only African-American star ever. (Paisley's Twitter response to the invite: "Sure we'll play? what time? Now where's your house again? 1600 Pennsylvania? Got you have a p.a.? What about food?") Politics got me started on this album--the lead track, which only begins celebrating the ongoing mongrelization of America with the lines I quoted, and then "Welcome to the Future," inspired by Barack Obama's victory and going out on a cross-burning tale in which a high school football star tries to date the homecoming queen. But the politics that kept me going were sexual politics, which proceed from a marriage that helped him put the genre exercise behind.

Paisley is remarkable among country stars for writing his own songs. But of course, that doesn't mean they're autobiographical. For one thing, he almost invariably collaborates, usually with buddies he's known since winning an ASCAP fellowship to Belmont University in Nashville. Paisley's 1999 breakthrough "He Didn't Have to Be," for instance, is based on Kelley Lovelace's experience as a stepfather, not either man's experience as a stepson. But don't think Paisley was just making nice when he promoted the artistic benefits of marriage to Good Housekeeping: "Before, I had nothing to write about but failed relationships and life on the road. Now, I feel emotions more deeply in every sense."

There have always been country guys women swoon for--like Garth Brooks, paunch and all. And in a time when bad-ass macho powered Nashville new jacks like Montgomery Gentry and Toby Keith, Paisley's romantic come-ons had an appealing self- deprecation about them. But 2005's Mud on the Tires delivered something stronger: "Waitin' on a Woman," a song about how long they spend getting dressed, gender-based mortality rates, and if you stretch a little the elusiveness of female orgasm. Since then, Paisley has made the woman-friendly a mission--in a narrative voice more definitively his own.

That voice emerged on the two lookbacks at his naive youth that anchored 2007's 5th Gear: "All I Wanted Was a Car," which does its partying with a fiddle and sets up "Letter to Me," where an older and wiser Brad assures his teenage self that the bad stuff is temporary, though he really should learn Spanish and give Aunt Rita some extra hugs. Both songs promised domestic satisfactions that included an SUV in the driveway. Deeper in came "If Love Was a Plane," about an American divorce rate Paisley reckons at 60 percent, and "It Did," about the ongoing perfection of love. Even the broad-jumping punch line of "Ticks"--"I'd like to walk you/Through a field of wild flowers/And I'd like to check you for ticks"--is more the kind of thing a husband murmurs to his wife on a fishing trip than a practical way for a singles-bar jerkola to get a butterfly tattoo into his vehicle.

5th Gear is the work of a master craftsman inspired to think about the shape of his life. Among its genre pieces are several born B sides and a soppy love duet with Carrie Underwood. But it establishes the foundation of a forceful identity. American Saturday Night's politics help flesh out that identity, but an even bigger breakthrough is a maturing craftsmanship that's learned how to address familiar themes in unfamiliar ways. If the breakup tales don't suit his happily married persona, their calm, loving substratum does. The marriage proposal "I Hope That's Me" knows it's him, promising the kindness already in place; "You Do the Math" works the same for sex. There's a lookback that mourns a grandpa as it fulfills Paisley's one- Christian-track-per-album quota, and another that looks ahead to Huck's mistakes. The boys'-day-out rumpus "Catch All the Fish" is counterbalanced by the almost metaphysical "Water." And then there are the three feminist songs.

Ideologues, cynics, and disappointed office seekers may balk at this characterization, especially as regards "Then." Its narrative hooked to the endlessly evolving refrain "I thought I loved you then," the album's first single updates "It Did." My wife Carola and I, together 30 years longer than Brad and Kimberly, had had a bad day when Paisley played the Garden October 21, but not with each other, and as he topped the show off by explaining how now he loved his spouse even more, we gripped each other's arms like teenagers in love. Avers Ms. Carola Dibbell, author of the groundbreaking "Inside Was Us: Women and Punk": "He notices all the things about marriage women are always complaining men don't notice." Given how many hits Paisley has, we forgave the omission of "She's Her Own Woman," a theme only strengthened by its unbraggadocious "and she's mine." But Carola was disappointed when the concert went out on Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer" instead of brandishing "The Pants," the subject of which is who wears them: "In the top drawer of her dresser there's some panties/Go try on that purple pair with the lacy frill/With your big old thighs I bet you can't get in 'em/With that attitude of yours, hell, I bet you never will."

Complete with the rowdy male choral farewell "You wear the pants/Buddy good for you/We're so impressed/Whoop-de-doo," "The Pants" is a typically sidelong gambit from an artist who knows how to sell simple truths to a resistant audience -- a master of the catchy chorus, the phrase ratcheted up a notch, the joke only a teabagging jerkola could resent. And though that's easier with marriage songs, those soppy country staples that sometimes come as well- honed as Loretta Lynn's "One's on the Way" or Garth Brooks's "Unanswered Prayers," no country artist has ever been sharper about what connubial bliss entails. In part because it's untainted by the dread sentimentality and in part because it comes less naturally, the political stuff gets ink, as when Paisley got to tell The Los Angeles Times: "You can name the reasons why you feel America is the greatest country in the world, but the fact of the matter is that pretty much anything you name, aside from American Indian customs, was not indigenous--it was brought here." Note, however, that the title track of Tim McGraw's new Southern Voice is in-your-face biracial, that Toby Keith's new American Ride highlights a heartbroken tribute to his departed African-American buddy Wayman Tisdale--and that both trend-spotters, avowed Democrats unlike the "staunchly moderate" Paisley, purveyed jingoistic trash post-9/11. I say Paisley's sidelong pro-Obama songs proceed from a less opportunistic place, and that that place owes his particular marriage big-time.

It's not just that Kimberly Williams donated the max to Obama, but that this New Yorker was the woman a clear-eyed, fair-minded dude from the sticks wanted to share his life with--and even more important, helped turn that life into an American dream come true, a dream the marriage embodies and signifies. Paisley isn't pie-eyed. He tells the world that if love was a plane no one would get on; he even took marital counseling with his prospective bride. Yet by some grace of upbringing, good sense, and body chemistry, success has only intensified an optimism that preceded and enabled it. The dark and the anxious seem foreign to him, yet he's never smug--he's so self-deprecating, so funny. I've watched too many kids grow up to think all their lives turn out like "Letter to Me." But Paisley evinces so much more reach and imagination than the hard- ass thrice-removed of roots-rock convention. I love Johnny Cash. I love the Drive-By Truckers. But right now, as a decent, intellectually gifted chief executive struggles to keep hope alive, I love and need Brad Paisley even more.

The Madison Square Garden show was a two-hour knockout-- amazing video, and even when Paisley was catching his breath and making jokes, he never stopped extracting riffs from his guitar, like Jimi Hendrix at the dinner table. But the top balconies were empty, and though "Welcome to the Future" went number 10 country--doubly remarkable given a shamelessly and intrepidly multicultural video that a priori nauseated some of his market--its sales didn't approach those of "Then." Like Paisley's nine previous singles, "Then" went number one, a record. Admittedly, Paisley shares that record with the anodyne likes of Alabama and Ronnie Milsap. But if us sophisticates don't figure out that optimism isn't always anodyne, this nation will never be as unified and forward-looking as we supposedly want--and hope.

Barnes & Noble Review, Nov. 9, 2009