A 35-year-old West Virginian, Brad Paisley is already a country-music standard bearer. As a multi-threat guitarist/songwriter/performer, he's mainstream Nashville's signal male talent (rivaled on the female side only by Miranda Lambert), taking the mantle from Alan Jackson that Jackson once took from '80s neotrads such as Randy Travis and George Strait, and so on.
Paisley's persona is captured neatly by a stray lyric from "You Need a Man Around Here," a self-deprecating gender study from his best album, 2005's Time Well Wasted. Checking out a new girlfriend's home, Paisley notes, worryingly, "Thumbing through your stack of magazines/I don't see a Maxim or Field & Stream." And that juxtaposition of reading materials tells you everything: Paisley is a down-home guy in an updated world.
Paisley can be sober and serious, usually on a duet, like "Whiskey Lullaby" with Alison Krauss or "When I Get to Where I'm Going" with Dolly Parton or "Oh Love" with Carrie Underwood. But his true personality comes out in a duet with another dude: Tag-teaming Guy Clark's "Out in the Parking Lot" with Jackson, where the pair sip "Old Crow whiskey and warm 7-Up" while enjoying the altercations and interactions outside a bar.
He's a gregarious, good-humored guy by nature. And he can be a little corny, which is fine, because potential listeners who can't stomach a little corn aren't going to be country-music fans anyway. Paisley's humor — alternately wry, sly, and welcoming — falls a little flat when he takes on mainsteam pop culture too directly. Hits such as 2003's "Celebrity" and last year's "Online" are too obvious, with the latter, a mocking attack on an Internet fabulist "loser," the most mean-spirited — and worst — song Paisley's ever written.
Paisley fares better when focusing on the particulars of rural life or mining that world for metaphor — songs that acknowledge that, as much as city life has infiltrated the country, the opposite is far less true. "Mud on the Tires," the anthemic title track of Paisley's excellent 2003 album, is discernible enough for city folk: a hymn to freedom about test-driving a new truck down by the lake, "where the dirt road runs out [and] we can try out the four-wheel drive." But the clean, cool imagery of "Moonlight on a duck blind/Catfish on a trot line" might have some urban dwellers wishing for a glossary.
Paisley's 2007 hit "Ticks" — the country single of the year by most accounts — was a deal-breaker of sorts for some rock fans dipping their toes in country's muddy waters. On it, Paisley meets a cutie in a bar ("In the small there of your back/Your jeans are playing peek-a-boo/I'd like to see the other half/Of your butterfly tattoo": perfect) and comes up with a wholly original romantic strategy: Take her for a romantic walk through his hunting woods and then take her home and politely offer to check her for ticks. After all, you never know where one might be.
In truth, Paisley is rarely so novel in the relationship songs that make up the bulk of his catalog. He hardly ever upends or even tweaks country-music America's treasured gender roles. Instead, he's more likely to mine them for gentle comedy or mildly condescending heart tugging. He's generally successful with these familiar tropes because he's such a talented writer and such an engaging personality in a form that appreciates craftsmanship. And also because he brings a little bit of his own musical juice to the standard Nashville assembly-line sound.
As a guitar player, Paisley is probably the most interesting and accomplished musician of any high-profile Nashville act. He typically affords himself an instrumental showcase per album: the whiplash eclecticism of Time Well Wasted 's "Time Warp"; the spaghetti-Western fireworks of "Throttleneck," from last year's 5th Gear. But Paisley's virtuosity serves his music best when it undergirds songs that are more formulaic on the page. "The World" is a generous, empathetic romantic testament as written, but it really lifts off with Paisley's guitar-heavy groove pushing it along. "Little Moments," by contrast, threatens to bog down in condescension and cliché until Paisley pulls the song together with a lovely, ambitious, and altogether unexpected solo.
If Paisley is typically more polished and likable than inspired, that doesn't mean he isn't capable of something more. The evidence: Time Well Wasted 's "Alcohol," the greatest song Paisley will ever write. In personifying Jack Daniel's (brand, not man), Old Milwaukee, and a fine bottle of French merlot, Paisley crafts a sing-along drinking song that looks askance equally at teetotaling, boozy romanticism and drunken self-pity. The result is that rarest of things: a rousing anthem of moderation. Like "Ticks," it's a brand-new twist on a familiar form — and the kind of great art you might expect from such a regular guy.
FedExForum,Thursday, January 31st, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets $47.50 and $27.50 day of show