Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Album Review: Brad Paisley, "This Is Country Music"

I'm really hoping that Matthew will eventually review this album, but I wanted to put down my thoughts as well.

One of the most complicated issues for any serious artist is the relationship between individualism and tradition. Any worthwhile art must have something original about it, but audiences usually also expect artists to work within some sort of recognizable tradition. There is no perfect answer to how one balances being original and belonging to a tradition -- to a large extent, the answer depends on what you are trying to do.

Nevertheless, in the world of popular music, we can see varying approaches in different fields. Rock music, for example, has a long and proud history of artists writing and performing their own songs, so that type of music tends to place more emphasis on individuality. Country music, on the other hand, has a much more rigid sense of history and tradition. A rock act that comes up with a totally new sound may be acclaimed as a genius. A country act that does the same thing risks being described as "not really country." Significantly, and painfully, the two most dynamic country acts of the last 20 years -- Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks -- were apparently unable to deal with the restrictions of being a country artist, and each effectively left the field.

Brad Paisley, on the other hand, still definitely counts as a country music star. In fact, he is the 2010 CMA Entertainer of the Year. But although Paisley grew up in West Virginia, he is very much aware of the world outside of country music. He loves to appear on David Letterman. His videos reference Seinfeld and Star Trek. He worked a favorable reference to President Obama into his last album -- and did a concert for Obama in the White House. Furthermore, if anyone could legitimately claim to be burned out by the formulas of country music, Paisley could do so. He has recorded seven studio albums -- the last five of which went to number 1 on the country charts. That's a lot of songs about trucks, and fishing, and Jesus. At the age of 38, Paisley could legitimately conclude that he has done all that he can with country music.

Instead, he has decided to double down on his identity as a country singer. The title of his new album, This Is Country Music, is also meant to be a description of the album's contents. The title track opens with a provocative defense of his chosen form:

You're not supposed to say the word "cancer" in a song.
And tellin' folks Jesus is the answer can rub 'em wrong.
It ain't hip to sing about tractors, trucks, little towns, and Mama.
Yeah, that might be true.
But this is country music, and we do.

Paisley never backs off of this pledge. Each of the 15 tracks on the album fits into a country music stereotype. Song with a country legend? "Old Alabama," done with the group Alabama. Romantic duet? "Remind Me," with Carrie Underwood. Song about cancer? "One of those Lives." Song celebrating the redneck high life? "Camouflage." Song about a guy who lost his wife? "I Do Now." Gospel song? "Life's Railway to Heaven." He even works in a western-style instrumental featuring a cameo from Clint Eastwood. You get the idea.

In short, This Is Country Music is Paisley's response to everyone who claims that working in the field of country music stifles your creativity. Paisley's point is that country music allows songwriters to cover a much wider range of material than other genres. It's a compelling argument. Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney were (and are) geniuses, but they never figured out how to write songs about life after 30, much less life after 40.

I think it's also significant that Paisley's characters -- unlike the traditional protagonists of country music songs -- tend to have white-collar jobs. Paisley's generation includes a lot of folks who grew up in little Southern towns, but who now work as lawyers, accountants, or executives in places like Northern Virginia, the Research Triangle, New York, and St. Louis. Can you still be country if you wear a tie every day? Or if you speak multiple languages? Or if you like Chinese food? Or if you send your kids to private schools? Paisley's answer is yes -- he grounds country music in an attitude, not a place. Even white collar workers in big cities can worry about cancer, love their mammas, take pride in their country, and read their Bibles.

Of course, none of this would matter if the songs themselves weren't good. Paisley doesn't have the unworldly vocal skills of someone like Garth Brooks or Natalie Maines, but he is a master at putting together songs that work for him, and his lyrics are the best in country music. "This Is Country Music" and "Old Alabama" are certain to be big hits, and my guess is that there are at least two or three other top-10 songs on this album. The songs are somewhat formulaic -- but after all, that is the whole point. If you like country music, you will like this album. If not, then you can at least be pleased that someone is taking it so seriously.

I would give this album 4 stars out of 5.

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