In baseball they’re called five point players: they hit for average with home run power, possess a strong throwing arm, broad defensive range and have base-stealing speed. On rare occasions, you’ll find comparable “five point players” in fields outside of baseball, and twenty-seven-year-old Brad Paisley is one of the few that the world of country music can call its own.
Consider what Paisley brings to Music Row’s table: he writes his own tunes, sings in an assured West Virginia twang, does his own lead picking, knows his country music history up and down and has a bottomless reservoir of charm and charisma. So it’s no wonder that in the course of a year, his debut album has shot to nearly platinum status, he’s pulled in six Country Music Association Awards nominations (tied with Faith Hill for the most this year and tying a record for a country rookie), he was the most nominated musician at the Academy of Country Music Awards earlier this year and the winner of three TNN Music Awards. On the eve of country music’s biggest annual event, the CMA Awards, he is poised to become one of its biggest stars.
Every few years, mainstream country music starts a dirty dance with its pop cousin. And time and again it takes a genuine country singer to break up this incestuous shuffle. Time has come for a new dance card and Paisley came armed with kudos from his predecessors. Buck Owens called Paisley “a multi-talented rocket sitting on the launching pad, the real deal.” Loretta Lynn, who features Paisley in her new (and first ever) video recently said, “I couldn’t believe he could play that guitar like he does, he’s a writer and sings like he does. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.”
Having performed with the likes of George Jones and Little Jimmy Dickens as a teenager, Paisley moved to Music City hoping to break through as a songwriter. After a series of internships and sporadic work as a demo singer, he hit something akin to paydirt when David Kersh took one of his tunes, “Another You,” to No. 3 on the country charts. With the hit came a boat and with the boat came something resembling piece of mind. “I’m able to sit out on a lake in the middle of the week and the only obligation I’ve got is to turn in another song before the month’s over,” he said a year ago before his album took flight. “Shoot, somebody would have to be crazy not to think that’s a great life.”
Paisley’s debut album, Who Needs Pictures was released in a crowded field of albums by bright-eyed wannabes looking to reach the heights of Clint Black, Alan Jackson and the other alums from the last class of classic-minded country singers gone big time. The difference between Paisley’s debut and the competition is that Pictures is the best neo-trad country debut since Black’s Killing Time ten years ago. With an emotional songwriting flexibility that recalls Roger Miller, the album hit as a rare contemporary offering that functioned as a singles album while still avoiding the clunkers and filler that frequently make up a standard ten-song country album.
“Country music has gotten away from the lyric in the last few years,” Paisley says. “But I think more than anything, what’s going on right now is an awareness has been reawakened as far as songwriting. Hopefully the industry has taken note of that. The songs have to be there first, when we lose sight of that is when our sales go down.”
Fans of country music have reacted as though they’ve been starving. Three summers ago, Paisley made his first Fan Fair appearance in Nashville with little, um, fanfare. Last year with a debut album on the brink of release he was a somebody. “There’s a big difference between ‘Can I have your autograph?’ and ‘Who are you? Can I have your autograph'” he said at the time. “I had by the end of the week literally met every one of the folks. And that’s when you realize the value of something like Fan Fair. Can you imagine any rock act with the patience to sit through all the autographs? It would take away from the mystique of rock & roll. But you have to be accessible in country music, which I like because my goal is to be as ordinary as possible. It’s a lot of fun to be friends with all these people.”
Fast forward one year and add No. 1 singles and an album and the picture changes. “This year was a lot different. We really couldn’t see everybody. We didn’t have the time and the lines were long and the interest was incredible,” he says before recalling another five-point player. “But everyone who gets to meet me, I try to give them a moment. I try to operate from the Joe DiMaggio standpoint. After a game, a reporter asked, ‘Man, why’d you dive for that ball? You guys were way ahead — you didn’t need to sacrifice yourself at that point in the game.’ And DiMaggio said, ‘Well there’s probably some little kid here that’s seeing me play for the first time, saved his money up to go to the game and he deserves to see me make that catch.’ You have to be that way with folks when you meet them. Give them a moment that they can remember.”
Thus Paisley continues to try and balance country music next-big-thingdom with a downhome desire to keep it down to earth. Upon his album’s release he said, “There’s a ton of fans out there who five years ago were buying country albums, but now aren’t. And that’s for a reason. Those are the folks I want to reclaim.” With another single to come and a sophomore effort due in the spring, Paisley is well on his way to making good on his promise.
“Boy things have changed a ton,” he says now. “I didn’t imagine any of this stuff would happen. But it’s nice to know that the industry seems to be embracing what I do and also from the standpoint of being out on the road, I feel like the fans, the country music fans, are really giving me their vote of approval. And that’s very important to me.”
Brad Paisley is nominated for Album of the Year (Who Needs Pictures), Male Vocalist of the Year, Video, Single and Song of the Year (“He Didn’t Have to Be”), and the Horizon Award on tonight’s CMA Awards in Nashville.