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Brad Paisley on being a little bit rock & roll

Online-only Q&A: Country singer Brad Paisley talks about his admiration for Pink Floyd, exploring new guitar sounds, getting racy in his lyrics, and more

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Tim Mosenfelder/Corbis

Country star Brad Paisley is wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt when we meet him at his 85-acre spread just outside of Nashville. If that seems at all incongruous, there is a connection of sorts, as he will shortly point out. Pink Floyd are considered by many as the ultimate ”album artist” in rock — and Paisley, for all his No. 1 singles, probably puts more effort into trying to make each album a complete experience than anyone else in mainstream country. His fifth regular studio release, 5th Gear, is no exception. It’s not that he’s making concept albums, but that he tries to structure his unusually lengthy CDs much as he would a concert, beginning and ending on an energized, guitar-driven high, dipping into reflective ballads and even gospel material as stops along the way. In an age when nearly everyone else in country sticks to an 11-song-per-disc limit (and seems to struggle to come up with even that much good material), Paisley’s typically 16-track albums always leave fans happily sated.

Paisley, 34, sat down with EW for an article that appears in the Spotlight section of this week’s issue. Here’s more from that conversation.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How is this year’s tour comparing to past years’, as far as turnout?
Usually I can’t really tell these sorts of things, but this year I can. In some of the Northern California markets, we tripled what we had done there before, and when you see that, you notice the difference. I guess it’s a snowball effect of a lot of things clicking. I’ve always said the higher you can get, the longer your descent will be. It’s kind of like altitude — it takes a lot longer to get down from 47,000 feet than it does from 35,000 feet.

So you’re already thinking about your retirement plan?
Oh, absolutely. You’ve got to in this business. Your retirement starts when you’re younger than most ballplayers.

But that seems like it would be a good ways off. Your Time Well Wasted has sold 2 million and is the only album that’s been on Billboard‘s top 200 chart for more than two years. And your new one, 5th Gear, is off to a good start, even though these are tough times for everybody who’s trying to sell records.
It’s weird right now, though. It’s such a strange climate. I’m really thankful that I’ve got a good tour business. If album sales went completely in the toilet, I’d still make a living. But my record label and these other labels, they’re scrambling — they’ve gotta figure this out. And I think they will. It’s just gonna take some creativity. Because there’s just so many other things that are vying for people’s attention. And you’ve got the iTunes where people can go listen to pieces of the album and buy three out of 16 songs if they want to. I like it when they buy the whole thing, because when you work on the whole thing, you want ’em to hear it all. To me, an album is a collection of photographs, and you want to see a bunch of different looks. I try my best every time to make sure there are the highs and lows — though this time, we focused more on the highs. But I always strive for balance on these records. That’s why I hope the album as an artform stays around. I don’t ever want to just cut singles. That’s not fun. What’s fun about an album is, for every uptempo or every ballad that I write or find, I try to find that thing that will offset it and make it all weave through. To just be looking for one great song, that would be a little too…unromantic. I was a big fan of artists like the Beatles and Pink Floyd and people that you just didn’t know what was going to be next on any one of their records, let alone from one record to the next.

I’ve heard you talk about country music as an envelope that you stay partly but not entirely inside of. I was curious what you meant by that. Are there some boundaries you want to push against and others you don’t?
Any of the venturing outside of what people might have expected in the beginning for me usually has roots in guitar-based music and a search for guitar tones. And as I buy things, like a new wah pedal, I think to myself, ”Well, how can I use that? I’m gonna need a song that’ll fit on. I can’t necessarily put that on this kind of song….” Like with ”Ticks,” I had it in my head to have that sort of Dire Straits, ”Money for Nothing” feel to the guitar thing in the verses. When you’ve got a song like that, you have a venue maybe to play some of these things that you couldn’t have gotten away with in a [straight ballad] like ”We Danced.” And that’s where my envelope expands, through the instrument that I play, because you’re able to envision things that maybe you couldn’t otherwise. But I always like to have one foot standing within that envelope. You should always, with one of my records, if it came on a pop station, be able to think, ”That sounds pretty country.” Even though it may not be your grandfather’s country.

”The World” was a hit off your last album last year that pushed the boundaries a little. That probably has the most serious electric guitar playing on a country single in years, and I wondered if it might be a little too intense for country radio.
That’s funny to think about now, isn’t it? It spent three weeks at No. 1, and I remember having to fight for that at the label a little bit, because they were wanting to put out a ballad. But it had been a while since I had a guitar-driven song out. I wanted that sort of ”Lay Down Sally” groove. And I went to the label and asked ’em — begged ’em, basically — and they did it.

I’m not much into the ringtone phenomenon, but I had ”The World” as a ringtone on my phone for a while. Because it’s such a happy song. I figure that a lot of the time, when the phone rings, it’s bad news, or somebody wants something from you. So I like the idea of a ringtone that makes you feel good for a few seconds to counteract whatever dread you might have about answering the phone.
Yeah, exactly. That’s a good lesson. Like, I had ”Folsom Prison Blues” as a ringtone for a while. That’s not necessarily a good one.

”Ticks” certainly made a splash, and made a quick ascent to No. 1 on the country chart, even though it seemed a little risky — and risqué — at the time.
I was very careful with it. There were some lines that were worse that didn’t make the record. Because when you start down that path… All the things that my cowriters and I chose, I feel like, yeah, they’re racy but they’re harmless — stuff like ”I’ve got your back, and I’ve also got your front.” To me, that’s just funny. But as you can imagine, it’s sort of like guys sitting around drinking beer, playing poker, and the jokes start going, and you never know how far downward it’ll spiral. And some of the things we came up with, we’d laugh and laugh and laugh — and then go, Nope. [Laughs]

Do you dare share any examples of the lyrics that got left on the cutting-room floor?
We had a thing somewhere that was like, ”I’ll do the looking for you if you’ll do me.” And when I sang that, it was like, Oh, no no no no no. Can’t do that. Because it was awful. Just stuff like that.

NEXT PAGE: Speaking of ticks…does Paisley have the acting bug?

You and your wife [the actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley] just had your first child, and some people might expect you to suddenly start doing less fun stuff and more serious, sensitive ballads as a result of that kind of domesticity.
If it colored this album at all, it was in some of the nostalgia that goes through some of the songs, whether it’s ”All I Wanted Was a Car” or ”Letter to Me” — I don’t know that the son thing had as much to do with this album as it may later. I think the best thing that can happen from it is the depth of emotion that I’ve begun to feel, having a kid. Maybe my songs become a little more heartfelt, I don’t know. I’m sure it can have a positive effect. You’ve got to have these emotions to really write things, and hopefully I can learn the best way to harness them so that every song doesn’t wind up being ”The Cat’s in the Cradle.” [Laughs] You know what I mean? There’s nothing worse than ”the feel good family album of the year!”

One of your favorite themes seems to be gender differences.
Yeah, I guess you’re right.

One of the songs on this new album, ”I’m Still a Guy,” kind of has an anti- or non-metrosexual theme. I think the part where you define your masculinity by saying ”I’ve still got a pair” is already one of the most quoted lyrics of the year.
Who would have thought?

Venus and Mars differences have appeal to you as subject matter, then.
I guess it does. Is there anything more interesting than that ongoing struggle between men and women to understand each other?

Your attitude toward women is kind of romantic and even courtly, for the most part — except when you sing about preferring fishing to maintaining a relationship in ”I’m Gonna Miss Her.”
Yeah. Even in ”Still a Guy,” I’m not saying ”I’m leaving you.” It’s more like, ”Enough is enough. I’m not going anywhere — but I am not wearing that, I’m sorry.” [Laughs]

Sometimes I wonder how your songs would go over with some of my non-country-loving, city-folk friends. And it occurs to me when I try to imagine it through their eyes that they could listen to a song like ”Waiting on a Woman” [from Time Well Wasted], which does have that courtly thing going on, and think it’s sexist or chauvinist.
I hope not, because we still have plans for that song. It’s gonna wind up on the next record. Because it’s one of those songs that should have had a chance at radio. I almost put it on this record, again [so it could be released as a new single], but it didn’t feel right yet. You know what, the curse of being very lyrically specific in these songs is that I open myself up for critique. And with [the new single] ”Online,” somebody had critiqued and said that was an unfair picking-on-the-dork song — they’re not getting it. The guy in that song is a superhero — you know what I mean? In real life, yeah, okay, he does pizza delivery, he lives with his mom and dad in the basement. But online… It’s meant to sort of glorify him. It’s not meant to be creepy. And the same with ”Waiting on a Woman”: Yeah, you could pick on that and say that’s a little bit chauvinistic; the woman is not always late. But you’ve got to draw a few generalizations every now and then if you’re going to write a song. The stereotype of a woman being the last one ready to go out to dinner — that isn’t meant to be mean or anything. But you’re married — does that happen in your house?

In all fairness, my wife doesn’t always take longer than I do. I’m late probably more than she is. But the song is meant to be sentimental, and they use the examples to lead you to the point where the man is in heaven willing to wait one more time for her: ”Take your time.” And if those friends you’re talking about outside of middle America would look deeper into what the themes of country music are these days, I think they would find it very relatable.

You’ve done a few cameos or supporting roles on your wife’s sitcom, According to Jim. Do you have the acting bug, at all?
I’m the least interested in acting of any artist I know of. I hate it every time we have to do a music video. As much as I love the end result, I hate the process. I hate standing there having to act like something I’m not most of the time. And anytime I’ve done anything like a TV show, it’s a lot of hours for comparatively very little pay, and more than that, very little result. I mean, you can do four hours of shooing for 30 seconds. And then it’s just stand around, and they tell you what to wear, what to say, where to stand, how to look, stand up straight, now you’re on your mark — as opposed to ”Ladies and gentlemen, Brad Paisley,” and it’s my show, with my clothes, and I’m gonna stand [where I want to], and here’s what I’m gonna say next. I like that kind of control. I’d have to give up all of that to do any acting. No thanks.