Brad Paisley thought he was holding his own with Mick Jagger until he got upstaged by his son.
A little more than a year ago, Paisley's oldest boy Huck, then 8, wandered into the studio on Paisley's farm outside Nashville where his dad and the Rolling Stones singer were crafting songs for Paisley's new album, Love and War, out April 21st. "Out of the blue, Huck asked Mick about Muddy Waters because he'd learned about him in school," Paisley says, recalling the legendary bluesman. "Mick said [Muddy] was amazing and that he's the reason [Mick] wanted to be a musician. He went into this whole story telling Huck what Muddy Waters was like. I'll never forget that. Then Mick came over and said, 'What was that?' I was like, 'I don't know.' He's smarter than me. I didn't know to ask about Muddy Waters."
In addition to Jagger, with whom Paisley co-wrote and performs the "Tumbling Dice"-redolent sizzler "Drive of Shame," John Fogerty, Timbaland and Bill Anderson join Paisley on his 11th studio set, his first since 2014's Moonshine in the Trunk. "This album really was about collaborations," says Paisley. Even the late Man in Black contributed: Paisley set to music a gorgeous love poem Johnny Cash wrote for future wife June Carter, "Gold All Over the Ground," after their only son, John Carter Cash, presented Paisley with his father's hand-written lyrics.
Growing up in West Virginia, nothing prepared Paisley for hanging with rock gods like Jagger and Fogerty, much less calling them friends. "I didn't allow myself to freak out until they left," he says. But then, "I was like, 'What in the world kind of fantasy life is this?'"
Paisley, 44, met with his collaborators in three-day bursts of creativity that followed the same pattern: "It had an Easter feel…" and then on the third day, they emerged with "something good," he jokes. His guests – including some of his frequent co-writers – would arrive for the days of writing and recording at Paisley's studio armed only with ideas. None of the album's 15 songs were written in advance.
Despite the tight time schedule, there were side trips to restaurants for relaxing dinners, fishing excursions and, in the case of Fogerty, a Grand Ole Opry debut. "It was unbelievable to see him singing 'Lookin' Out My Back Door' and 'Proud Mary' on the Opry stage," Paisley says.
"It's a scathing indictment, but who could possibly disagree with this?" Paisley says of the veterans-issues song "Love and War"
From the outside, the biggest culture clash would seem to be with R&B artist/producer Timbaland, who co-wrote and appears on two songs, the bluegrass rave-up "Grey Goose Chase" and the countrified "Solar Power Girl." But Paisley and Timbaland easily found common ground. "He didn't want to come in and turn me into something like what he does; he wanted to see how what he does can be a natural fit," Paisley says. "He said early on, 'I think where we collide the best is bluegrass.' He had a couple of guys who were going in and beating on the banjo while Kendal [Marcy] played it and they'd make a loop out of that and it sounds like a jug band."
Jug is the operative word. Timbaland and his crew made ample use of the well-stocked bar that Paisley built in his studio while recording Moonshine in the Trunk. "[They] drank me out of my bar," he says with a laugh. "It cost more for that session in alcohol than it did in any sort of [studio] time. It was nuts. We had a bonfire and smoked cigars and made s'mores. One of the guys caught his first fish while he was here. We did have a good time."
He equally enjoyed his time with Fogerty, though their song, the title track, tackles a much deeper subject: mistreatment of war veterans. "They send you off to die for us / forget about you when you don't," Paisley sings, in what is one of the most biting songs he's ever recorded. Though he tends to stay away from politics in song and in interviews, both he and Fogerty felt the veterans issue was non-partisan. "It's a scathing indictment, but who could possibly disagree with this? I don't feel like I'm out on some limb. Everybody from John McCain to Jon Stewart, we all feel this. Somebody has dropped the ball. You don't always know you're right. I know we're right on this."
Fogerty has long addressed war in such rock classics as "Fortunate Son" and "Run Through the Jungle." Paisley hoped he was willing to enter the territory again. As the pair sat down to write, "John Fogerty says, 'By the way, this is my first ever co-write.' I realize at that point, I'm in over my head," Paisley remembers. "This is a man who wrote everything himself his entire career. Sometimes the [other members of Creedence Clearwater Revival] got credit, but he never specifically sat in a room and did that before. I was like, 'Well, crap. That means I can't blow this. I'm not just another appointment for him.'"
Equally dark, at least at the start, is “The Devil Is Alive and Well,” a song that Paisley co-wrote between a shooting of an unarmed black man by police and the ambush in Dallas that left five police officers dead last summer. "That, to me, felt like we're in the cauldron at that point and it just felt so out of control. It was sad on both sides and just wrong on so many levels," says Paisley, who played Dallas a few weeks after the police shootings and ended "When I Get Where I'm Going" by showing photographs of the slain officers.
Balancing the moments of darkness are lighthearted or sentimental songs – the album's first single, the "appreciate-this-moment" anthem "Today," earned Paisley his 24th Number One. And he continues his role as country music's most adept – and wry – social commentator by examining our need to chronicle every move on "selfie#theinternetisforever."
As David St. Hubbins muses in This Is Spinal Tap, "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever." But Paisley has perfected that balance on past hits like "Celebrity" and "Alcohol," often by trying the more novel songs out in concert before committing them to record. He did the same with "selfie." "You don't want to get a groan, you want to get a laugh, and that's where 'selfie' ended up," he says. "Some of the worst selfies I've ever seen are at Auschwitz or Ground Zero. When we were looking for the inspiration for this song, we were like, 'No, you can't sing that. It conjures up things you don't want to conjure up."
As he notes on the buoyant "Heaven South," which opens the album and closes the set with a quick reprise, "turn on the news, you'd thing the world ain't got a prayer." Therefore, he reasons, there are times when unplugging is sensible recourse to help remember what is truly important. That spirit inhabits "Meaning Again," the last song he wrote for Love and War after he felt that he'd failed to answer life's grand question on the album.
So what is life all about, according to Paisley? "It's about when you walk through the door at the end of the day and it's who's waiting for you to get home," he says. "That can be your wife and kids or it can be your dog, but the point is, when you boil it down, that's what matters."