Country star Brad Paisley is in the very model of a mixed showbiz marriage. Since he wed actress Kimberly Williams (Father of the Bride) four years ago, their seemingly blissful union has been sheer Teflon to the tabloids. Secret No. 1: Accept without jealousy that your partner will inspire fan lust. That mutual understanding ”is one of the reasons that [celebrity marriages] work,” he says. (Except, of course, when they don’t.) Secret No. 2: Full comprehension of each other’s worlds is overrated.
”She had the bigger learning curve because she didn’t know anything about my world,” admits Paisley, 34. ”I remember when we first met, I said, ‘Yeah, Vince Gill one time said…’ She said, ‘Who’s Vince Gill?’ ‘You don’t know who Vince Gill is? He’s won more CMA Awards than anybody in history!’ She said, ‘What’s a CMA Award?”’ Their romance survived that initial bout of awkward shoptalk, and since then, ”we learn by osmosis, but it’s still two separate worlds,” he explains.
Separate, but close enough to equal for comfort. Her ABC sitcom, According to Jim, has been renewed for its seventh season, and Paisley’s career is in no danger of being canceled either. His 2005 release Time Well Wasted has been on Billboard‘s top 200 for more than 100 weeks; it even won one of those whatchamacallit — Country Music Association Awards! — last fall for Best Album. Joining it on the charts this summer was 5th Gear, his fifth winner in a row, which further establishes him as a sensitive balladeer, rocking humorist, and Fender freak, who might be the best country entertainer we’ve got.
When EW last checked in on Paisley, as his single ”Ticks” was being released in March, he was anticipating fan reaction to the song, which advocates mutual nakedness in the woods as a preventative health measure. As it turns out, his ode to parasite-free love did rub country’s family-values wing the wrong way…on the way to hitting No. 1. ”I think it’s been about the most polarizing thing I’ve ever done,” he says. ”But not horribly polarizing. It’s not a Dixie Chicks kind of polarization, you know?” he laughs. ”Ticket sales have gone up.” (His 78-city tour continues through November.)
When Paisley’s not on tour, he — along with his wife and 6-month-old son, William Huckleberry — is bicoastal, ”if you consider the Cumberland River a coast.” The family splits their time between oceanside Pacific Palisades and their beloved 85-acre spread outside of Nashville. It’s on these Tennessee grounds, inside a century-old farmhouse-turned-office, where the star is taking a break from a thunderstorm. Here, he’s got a temperature-controlled cigar humidor, a Darth Vader figurine (another of the singer’s sci-fi faves is Battlestar Galactica), a painting of the West Virginia music hall where he got his start as a child prodigy — and, on his bookshelf, side by side, a family Bible and The Friars Club Encyclopedia of Jokes. That’s a telling juxtaposition for a musician who includes a gospel song on every album, but whose new single ”Online” celebrates a geek pretending to be a stud on MySpace (with a video directed by and starring Jason Alexander). Of his celebrated wit — he’s had more successfully comic songs than anyone in country since the 1970s — Paisley says, ”I think levity is very necessary in our modern world. [With me] it probably comes from a love of the old country music, because this was such a big part of our format at one time. Think of all those Roger Miller songs, like ‘Dang Me,’ and even the Man in Black had ‘One Piece at a Time’ and ‘A Boy Named Sue.’ But I don’t feel like many of my songs are that funny. ‘Alcohol’ [a top 5 hit in 2005], yeah, there’s some funny lines, but that was, for me, a serious song — a thesis in balancing the negative and the positive.”
Some of his more wry songs play off the Venus-and-Mars divide, including a man who chooses fishing lures over a woman’s allure in ”I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song).” The song also echoes his own obsession with the rod and reel, which is in full effect right now. Rain is coming down in torrential buckets, and Paisley couldn’t be more pleased; with Tennessee in a drought, he has two large ponds on the property, both of which need a higher water level to be stocked as fishing holes. Maybe it’s possible that when he recorded ”Fishin’ Song” back in 2001, he was imagining a day when stardom might allow him to avoid choosing between girls and gills? ”To be honest, I was, kind of…” he laughs. ”I was thinking, Yeah, there wouldn’t have to be a problem if I could build my own little pond right by the house.” Dang him, then, for having it all.
The tunes that informed Brad Paisley’s signature sound
Paisley grew up in West Virginia immersed in his grandparents’ country oldies. (First memory: dancing to Buck Owens’ ”I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail.”) Eventually it dawned on him that he wasn’t like the other children. ”I had to do the opposite of any other kid: I had to go study rock & roll. I’d go, ‘Oh yeah, I love AC/DC’ — and then I would go buy it,” he laughs, ”and then learn to play ‘Back in Black.’ I could have played you every one of Buck’s songs, but if you’d said, ‘Can you play me a U2 song?’ I’d have said, ‘Give me a minute and let me listen to it.’ But then I did get into that, and it did influence me later.” The Garth Brooks explosion in the early 1990s ended his days as a musical misfit. ”All of a sudden, I was the kid at the party who knew how to play ‘Friends in Low Places.’ It was deliverance.” He pauses. ”Not the movie Deliverance. That’s a whole different thing.”