The last time Brad Paisley released an album, it was clouded by the controversy surrounding "Accidental Racist," a deep cut that leaked just ahead of 2013's Wheelhouse.
Written and recorded with hip-hop heavyweight LL Cool J, the song was meant to start a dialogue about racism in the modern-day South. Instead, it mostly established Paisley as the punching bag du jour for music fans who wanted another reason to poke fun at country music. Everyone from Stephen Colbert to Saturday Night Live took their jabs, and Wheelhouse — a daredevil album that showcased the full spread of Paisley's abilities, stretching his guitar riffs and wisecracks from one corner of the musical spectrum to the other — went down in history not as the album where Paisley carved his own path, but the moment where he (briefly) lost the point.
Nearly a year and a half later, Paisley is gearing up for the release of his 10th record, Moonshine in the Trunk. If you're a country fan, you've probably heard some of the tracks already. Moonshine doesn't hit stores until tomorrow morning, but Paisley has been "leaking" its songs for weeks, turning to people like astronaut Reid Wiseman (who helped premiere one of the album's three ballads, "American Flag on the Moon," via a Tweet sent from the International Space Station) and Chick-fil-A boss Dan T. Cathy (who leaked "High Life," a funny, fictional tune that tips its cowboy hat to the chicken chain's Polynesian sauce) for help. The goal? To regain control over the way his fans hear the new tunes, even if that means streaming the songs for free on Twitter.
According to Paisley, the execs at his record label, Arista Nashville, haven't been happy with the leaks. Not that he cares. Standing behind the maple countertop of the small bar he recently built inside his home studio, Paisley looks happy and mischievous, like someone who can't wait to spill every secret he knows. He built the bar to help fuel the recording sessions for Moonshine in the Trunk, a fast-moving, fun-loving record that he describes as a "modern honky-tonk album." Paisley isn't a drinker — the bar basically exists to lube up his band — but a certain kind of buzzed excitement creeps into his voice whenever the conversation steers itself back toward Moonshine. Rolling Stone Country sat down at the bar last week to see what the buzz was all about.
So you built this bar to help establish a vibe for the whole album?
Yeah! You know, some guys will smoke pot and think they're being creative that way, but that would be a detriment to me. I'm not a pot smoker. I need lyrical precision to write a country song, and I don't think you can do it hallucinogenically. Inspiration is everything. I wanted this to be a modern honky-tonk record, but not one that's a "cry in your beer" honky-tonk record. More like a honky-tonk record that Buck Owens would've made. So you build [a honky-tonk] in your studio, if you can! You make the vibe everything you want it to be.
Why make a Buck Owens-influenced record at this point?
Wheelhouse was such a departure for me, and I felt like I didn't want to repeat myself. I didn't want to do anything that was the least bit predictable. I pushed that envelope about as far as I could push it, and I broke the edges out of it — in a good way and a bad way. This time, I said, "Let's make a record that's everything l love about country music, in a modern sense with some new technology. We'll throw dub-step banjo on one song. We'll sample myself on one song." The record is a largely positive take on life right now. It's got this sentiment of, "Well, things aren't perfect, but it's Friday."
Technology has played a role in the way you've been presenting the record, too. A lot of the songs have already been released via Twitter.
I realized that I made this record with my fans in my mind, so I am going to present this my way. LL [Cool J] and I could've presented "Accidental Racist" in a different way, and the story might have been different. When I made [Wheelhouse], I was trying to be very artistic. I said, 'This is the record I made, and I'll just present this and walk away, and whatever you think is whatever you think,' naively thinking that people would say, 'Really cool! I'm glad you're saying this.' But we ended up with NPR pieces and three-person panels on CNN, debating what we were doing. This time, I wasn't gonna let that happen. I didn't tell anyone this, but I started leaking the songs one at a time. "Jeff Gordon, would you like to deliver 'Moonshine' for me?' Chick-Fil-A, you there?' Hey, NASA! You wanna do this one?" By the time the record's out, reviewers can say what they want, but my fans will have heard it… and at least I had fun presenting it like a bootlegger would.
Which is appropriate, given the album's title. You made it at home, too, so it's definitely bootlegger-worthy.
It's definitely illegal.
Is this the first album you've done at home?
We did Wheelhouse here, and we did all the guitar parts and vocals on This Is Country Music and some of American Saturday Night here. But this became a tracking studio with the last album. The drums are in a room across from the kitchen, and the bass amps are in the basement, down where the kegs are. The guitars are upstairs.
Did you ever let a guitar riff steer the direction of any of the new songs?
I write songs first, coming at them from a lyric perspective. To me, that's what sets my music apart. I think there's so much room for creativity right now in our format, because everyone's singing the same song to some degree. We get the lyric right and the melody right, and then the guitar parts come. Guitars are the last part of the puzzle.
With Moonshine in the Trunk, you've got straightforward riffs that your average fan can walk away humming, as well as riffs that are much more technical. Was that balance intentional?
Yes, but I sometimes default to the complicated stuff, because I'd rather be accused of being too complicated than being too typical. I always try to be unpredictable. I also realize that people have to warm up to [the complicated parts]. The first time you heard "Layla," I bet you weren't humming that yet, and to me, it's the greatest rock riff of all time. On first listen, though… well, it's not "Smoke on the Water," that's for damn sure.
Newer songs like "Limes" are more straightforward. That's the kind of riff that a 10-year old kid who just got his first Stratocaster can play.
Yeah, and it's the same with [the title track]. When I grabbed the guitar the day we wrote "Moonshine," it was the first thing that came out. I said, "OK, that feels like a car. It feels like you're shifting and putting the clutch in. It sounds like a Camaro." Any time you can marry [the riff] to the song and it fits the lyric, too, that's when you know you have what you want. Like, the [album track] "Perfect Storm" guitar part sounds like thunder. It's got that crackle. Sometimes, the guitars and the lyrics come about at the same time… but I'm not one of those guys who's got a lot of riffs lying around. You get into trouble when you start talking your eye off of the song. You can have this riff that you think sounds so cool, but to whom? Are you speaking the language your fans want you to speak? You've got to picture that person as they're hearing the song for the first time. You don't get many tries in country music to hook 'em for the first time.
That's something your albums have always done well. They take stock of the current state of country music, then work within those boundaries… while pushing the envelope just a bit.
Last time, we said, "Push it as far as you can, and if you burst the bubble, you burst it." And then we did burst it. I have the bruises! But this time, I wanted this to be easy to love. I know what [my fans] want. I know when they're gonna like something. It's not that hard to write 12 things that they'll love, as long as you're a little picky about it. I love everything on here, too. Look at something like "4WP." In the middle of this bro-country movement, with all this criticism about [the genre's reliance on] the jean shorts and the mud and the outdoors, we do a song that's just like that… but we include a sample of myself from 2003! Which is kind of like saying, 'I have a little license. I kinda did this already.' But it's written so tongue-in-cheek, and it doesn't take itself too seriously.
The album also has a cover of George Jones' "Me and Jesus," which you mixed while flying over the Black Sea in Air Force One.
Right. [Grabs a shot glass branded with the Air Force One logo and slides it across the countertop.] If you want a shot of Jack on there, that's what it comes in. I kept everything. Luggage tags, napkins, in-flight entertainment, my laminate…
Did you feel guilty, working on your album on that plane?
No, because everyone else was working. It's like an office. Someone's scheduling Obama's phone call with Karzai, and the press secretary is talking about how many minutes the press can have once the plane lands. Susan Rice is over here, and she's talking to John Podesta. And I'm like, "I guess I'll mix a song. It's the most important thing I can do." They're running the world, and I'm like, "Hmmm. More treble?"