At the moment, country music has no shortage of cornball male stars. The most popular song on the radio was recorded by the reformed frontman of Hootie and the Blowfish, number two is called “Sure Be Cool If You Did and was recorded by a reality show host who spends his days tweeting zingers at other artists and jokes like “#nowplaying with myself”, and number nine is by Kenny Chesney and it’s called “Pirate Flag.” Brad Paisley, though, remains the corniest. You don’t even have to listen to his music to pick this up— just look at the some of the song titles (e.g. “Cornography,” “Cluster Pluck,” “Ticks” [as in, “I’d like to search you for…”]) and trust me when I tell you that he not only programs the lasers he that serve as the backdrop for his live shows but that he programs them really well.
Still, it’s the music we’re here to talk about. Puja (whose favorite song in the Paisley ouvre, if i remember correctly, is “I’m Gonna Miss Her,” the one where the singer’s wife makes him choose between her and fishing only to find that it’s not really much of a choice) describes it as ‘Raffi for adults,’ which I think is apt except for the occasions when he just makes regular Raffi for kids, as he did on his contribution to the Cars OST, “Find Yourself,” a song that I have to admit I find genuinely moving. And that’s one thing about Brad Paisley’s music: A lot of country singers can you feel gooey, a few can even make you laugh, but no one is as a good as Brad when it comes to making you do both in the same song. Take “Waitin’ on a Woman,” in which our hero strikes up a conversation with Andy Griffith while the two sit on a bench waiting for for their respective wives to get ready. In verses uno and dos, Griffith tells Paisley not to sweat it, as he’s been waiting on his woman since their first date in 1952, even managing to crack a gross old man joke how the honeymoon was “worth it,” then verse three goes back to Brad, who offers this reflection:
I’ve read somewhere statistics show
The man’s always the first to go
And that makes sense ‘cause I know
She won’t be ready
Funny, right? A nice, skillfully delivered middle-aged man joke. But then:
So when it finally comes my time
And I get to the other side
I’ll find myself a bench
If they’ve got any
Maybe it doesn’t come across on tumblr, but it’s the perfect ending, moving the song forward while bringing it back to bench of line one.
As you can see, Paisley the songwriter is a master of the three verse structure of most narrative country songs take, a form that is probably deserving of a its own essay, particularly something on how it facilitates the 'reproductive futurism' that is at the heart of country music today. Take above George Strait chart-topper about a father and son: In verse 1 the son is a boy having ‘the best day’ going camping with his pop, in verse 2 he is on the verge of manhood and has ‘the best day’ driving the car his dad gave him, and in verse 3 he is fully grown and the best day is his wedding day, starting the cycle anew.
Paisley does this often and effectively. “Toothbrush” is one of the most obvious, endearing, and (of course) corny examples, opening with the singer brushing his teeth before a big first date and closing with the singer brushing his son’s teeth before bed. The chorus (so Raffi):
Everything that’s anything
Starts out as a little thing
Just needs a little time and room to grow
I’m worried now that this post is going to negative. There’s an interesting divide between country writers, who go out of their way to characterize Paisley as a subversive, justifying his more conservative records as lesser material recorded only to appease conservative fans, and people outside of country, who just, I don’t know, figure that he’s full of shit. If you know me, you probably know that I’m going to be a pain in the ass and suggest that neither gets it right.
2. little moments
Brad Paisley is definitely one of the more liberal country artists. I supposed this is a good thing, but that fact is certainly not the reason why he matters and has little to do with what makes him great. American Saturday Night, the post-Obama liberal favorite, is not his best album and it’s not very close. (Mud on the Tires, y’all) But he’s also not full of shit. At least not totally.
As “Waitin’ on a Woman” and “Toothbrush” begin to suggest, Paisley is at his best as a chronicler of day-to-day domestic life. That’s not to say he doesn’t have range (there are story songs, instrumental jams, country music tributes, and “Whiskey Lullaby,” probably his best known) but that’s the core his persona, the good-natured and senstive Southerner who sings things like “It’s not who wears the pants, it’s who wears the skirt” but at the end of the day is, alas, still a guy.
No song gets to this more precisely than “Little Moments,” another three verser, each one ending with the line “Yeah, I live for little moments like that.” eg:
When she’s laying on my shoulder
On the sofa in the dark
And about the time she falls asleep
So does my right arm
And I want so bad to move it
Cause it’s tingling and it’s number
But she looks so much like an angel
That I don’t want to wake her up.
Yeah I live for little moments like that.
It’s a wonderful song, and its 2003 parent album (the aforementioned Mud) was a breakthrough for Paisley his first to go number one. As much as I love this music, I have to admit that it felt like a retreat, the softer side of Toby Keith’s “shock’n y’all” campaign for American exceptionalism. We hear a variation of this on 2005’s “The World,” in which the the family is held up as the last stand against our reified day-to-day existences, and it’s made even clearer on his new “I Can’t Change the World,” where he reconciles himself to the fact that he can change the world, but only for the girl to whom he sings. This one of the many reason’s my Miranda Lambert’s Kerosene is probably my favorite album of the decade, emerging from this context with her guns literally blazing, tired of “livin’ like some country song” and burning her old life to the ground, but that’s another blog post.
I’m afraid overemphasizing the conservatism again, so I’ll jump to the earlier “All You Really Need Is Love,” a marriage song with a satisfyingly deceptive title. Here, each verse contains the standard platitudes and ends with title line, then jumps into a pair of double time choruses containing addenda like “And a license and a blood test and a bunch of invitations / A minister a white dress and of course a congregation / And flowers and music and candles and cake / And a bunch of rice for folks to throw as you drive away.”
Paisley has always had fun poking out or through the bureaucracy (or to be more specific i/r/t “All You Really Need,” the seemingly arbitrary customs) that structure so much of our lives. A better example might be “The Cigar Song,” the one where Paisley’s narrator is a sucker who loves smoking Cubans can never afford ‘em, so he buys a box and just in case he insures ‘em. Naturally, he cant help but smoke the cigars, but after he does so he calls the insurance company and—perhaps you’ve figured out where he’s going but if not i suggest you swallow whatever youre drinking before —claims that they were destroyed in a series of small fires and thus need to be replaced free of charge. Boo-ya. Until the third verse where he ends sent to jail for arson.
The “Cigar Song” on Wheelhouse is “Death of a Married Man/Harvey Bodine,” which starts good and just keeps getting better. In the prelude, a man named Harvey Bodine (voiced by Eric Idle) suffers a heart attack in the middle of a charades game, and instead of calling an ambulance his family just yells out “heart attack!” Too late. “Harvey Bodine” picks up with our man in the hospital, where the doctors restart his heart and bring him back to life, only poor Harvey released that for those five minutes he had been in heaven—not actual heaven, but heaven in the sense that anywhere without his miserable wife is kind of like heaven. Very Mad Men season premiere, now that I think about it. Anyways, Harvey things about it for a verse than in spends the bridge calling his doctor and his lawyer and escape on a technicality: His wedding vows only promised ‘til death do us part.’ He’s now a free man and (even better) he got the system to work for him, sort of like Johnny Cash’s “One Piece at a Time” but without the surplus value allegory.
What else.. There’s the lead single, “Southern Comfort Zone,” which I talked about a little here, and “Death of a Single Man,” the “Married Man” counterpart that narrates a wedding from the perspective of the groom’s friends who don’t understand “Why with champagne and cake we celebrate / the death of a single man,” and there’s “Those Crazy Christians,” an ambivalent tune about knocking evangelicals for things like how they "get their weekly dose of guilt before they head to Applebee’s" but turning to acknowledge that "If I ever really needed help, well you know who I’d call / Is those crazy Christians.”
Ok, so “Accidental Racist.” You can say a lot about this song but you cant say that it’s a retreat. I think it might be best to first talk about the song in relation to “Welcome to the Future” and “American Saturday Night,” the second and third singles from that album that (in case you jumped to this point in the post) was one of the two three most critically acclaimed country albums in recent memory. I keep seeing people knocking “Accidental Racist” as some self-congratulatory post-racial BS, which keeps striking me as odd because that’s always how I’ve felt about those much lauded ASN tracks. “Welcome to the Future” begins with the narrator remembering how when he was a kid he thought that it would be dope to play video games in his house and ends (though he’s not named) on the day of Obama’s election, when our narrator remembers the time racist townies burned a cross on one of his friends’ front yard, but now “Wake up Martin Luther / Welcome to future. (When Paisley plays this live he projects civil rights B roll [as well as some very cool laser patterns] on the screen behind him) “American Saturday Night,” meanwhile, is a celebration of our supposed culture melting pot—“There’s a big toga party tonight at the Delta Chi / They got canadian bacon on their pizza pies / They got a cooler full of cold Coroners and Amstel Lights / It’s like we’re all livin’ in a big ol’ cup / Just fire up the blender and mix it all up”—that should also be considered in the context of ongoing debates over immigration.
Either way, that’s not what I hear when I listen to “Accidental Racist,” which if anything seems to acknowledge the problem of those previous songs—“an elephant in the corner of the South.” And far from selling us some more post-racial platitudes, it acknowledges race as fundamental aspect of daily life and talks about how he’ll never be able to understand what it’s like to be anything but a white dude. Still, I was skeptical until the verse where he not only talks about reconstruction but talks about reconstruction as a failed project— Even growing up in New England I didn’t hear about this sort of thing until I got to college. And the hook—”Our generation didn’t start this nation / And we’re still paying for mistakes / That a bunch of folks made long before we came / And caught between southern pride and southern blame”—this is the sort of thing that a school of German critical theorists have been wrestling with for 30 years, and if you don’t believe me I can send you some Axel Honneth essays that would have only been improved if he had opted to get some rappers into the mix.
Is the song awkward and corny? Completely, but how could it not be, given who’s involved what they’re singing about it? But it’s awkward and corny in the way that Adam Kotsko talks about in his short book on the subject, the way things are necessarily awkward and corny when two people or cultures come together and there is “the lack of a third ‘meta-norm’ governing interactions between adherents of two different norms.” It’s difficult terrain, but it’s the terrain Paisley and Cool J are attempting to navigate, and terrain that they are navigating far more thoughtfully than most people seem to be willing to give them credit for