Cover Story – Brad Paisley

By Joan Tupponce

Brad Paisley
Brad Paisley
Country sensation Brad Paisley will take the stage during his “H20 II: Wetter & Wilder World Tour” to the screams of tens of thousands of adoring fans. But Paisley doesn’t see himself in the same awesome aura as his fans do.

“It might be that I don’t necessarily have that high of an opinion of myself. I’m not very cool,” he says. “People tell me I am, but to me it’s just such a different thing. I don’t know how in the world that could be the case or anyone’s perception.”

Paisley credits the compliments bestowed him to the power of music. “You write a song and you are an expert on something, so they think you are cool,” he says. “I guess I have pulled the wool over a lot of people’s eyes.”

The humble singer is probably the only country music lover that doesn’t see his genius on stage or understand the impact he’s made on the genre. Paisley, reigning Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year and Grand Ole Opry member, is a consummate singer, songwriter, guitarist and entertainer. He has won three Grammy Awards, 14 CMA Awards and 13 Academy of Country Music Awards and has racked up 18 No. 1 singles with the last 14 consecutive.

In 2010, Paisley’s innovative “H20 World Tour” played to more than 879,000 fans, making it the No. 1 country tour for attendance, according to Pollstar. His current album, “This Is Country Music,” hit store shelves in May and shot to No. 1 on the country sales chart its first two weeks out.

To his fans and anyone who knows him, Paisley is as sincere and genuine as they come. “Brad is probably the most standup guy I know,” says Chris DuBois, Paisley’s business partner in Sea Gayle Music, along with Frank Rogers. “He [has] loyalty and ethics businesswise and he has a heart for people and causes. I have never seen a more loyal person. People he started his career with are still there unless they left on their own and that’s not the norm.”

Paisley might not have had a career in music had it not been for his grandfather, Warren Jarvis, who gave his 8-year-old grandson a guitar. At first, Paisley was less than enthused by the gift. “The first time I played it, it was like playing calculus,” he told the women of “The View” in May during an appearance. Even though he didn’t understand the meaning of the gift at first, Paisley continued to practice in reverence to his grandfather’s love of the instrument.

Paisley writes about the importance of the guitar in his upcoming book, “The Diary of a Player,” scheduled for release this fall. “The book was the idea of my co-writer, David [Wild, an Emmy-nominated television writer and producer], who is a good friend,” Paisley explains. “He is a massive fan of guitar music. He’s fascinated at how the instrument shapes a life.”

Paisley was immediately intrigued by the idea when it was presented to him. “The guitar was the thing that got me through everything,” he says. Much of the message of the book is captured in the liner notes that Paisley wrote for his instrumental album “Play.”

“No matter how I have changed, learned and evolved as a person, the guitar has been a major part of it and really the only constant,” he writes. “A crutch, a shrink, a friend, love interest, parachute, flying machine, soapbox, canvas, liability, investment, jackpot, tease, a sage, a gateway, an addiction, a recovery, backstage pass, pickup line, weapon of revenge, a makeover, compass, target, icebreaker, a temptress, a church, a voice, veil, armor and lifeline. My grandpa knew it could be many of these things for me, but mostly he just wanted me to never be alone. He said if I learned to play, anything would be manageable and life would be richer. You can get through some real tough moments with that guitar on your knee. When life gets intense, there are people who drink, who seek counseling, eat, watch TV, pray, cry, sleep and so on. I play.”

In the book, Paisley explores the depth of that passion, interviewing people about their love of the guitar. “The guitar was an all-encompassing pursuit. It changes your life,” he says, adding, “It’s the reason I have anything to talk to you about today. The guitar gave birth to all of it.”

Paisley stuck with the guitar and by the age of 11 something clicked for him. He now defines himself as a guitar player first and foremost. “That came before the singing or the songwriting,” he says.

He started writing songs not too long after he picked up the guitar. One of his first was a Christmas song. At the age of 13, he was asked to sing that song on “Jamboree USA” in Wheeling, W.V. It was at that moment that Paisley learned the value of writing music. “Songwriting is another aspect of why I am a vocalist,” he says. “I don’t know why I would be doing this for a living if I didn’t write. That is what shapes everything.” Paisley’s childhood was the foundation for his music. He grew up in a small town in West Virginia with a population of around 1,200. “It was very Mayberry-like,” he recalls. “It had all those things that ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ captured.”

Life back home was fun and sweet for Paisley. Everyone knew each other in the town. “The barbershop was the best place to get the news,” he says. “The town had two traffic lights and it was very much a speed trap.”

Growing up, Paisley says he felt a sense of safety that “I maybe haven’t felt since.” During the summers, he would ride his bike to the creek or woods to play and his mom would say, “Be back by lunch.” “People don’t do that today,” he says, referring to the fact that parents keep a close eye on their children today because of concerns. “It was an amazing place to be.”

The town’s pride swelled when Paisley appeared on “Jamboree USA.” He was an instant hit, becoming a regular on that show and the youngest person ever inducted into the Jamboree Hall of Fame. Shortly after he performed his Christmas music, the show asked him to open for The Judds (Naomi and Wynonna). After hearing the news he went through his house “screaming.”

Before long he was opening for some of Nashville’s best artists, such as Vince Gill and Alabama. Now, Alabama is singing with Paisley on the album “This Is Country Music,” which pays homage to the greats of country. Alabama was an inspiration to Paisley growing up. “They were the first to really bring semi-tractor trailers down the road and have a big production,” he says.

The new album was a “labor of love” for Paisley, who co-wrote a dozen of its 15 songs. “I love it when an album title dictates what you can put on it,” he says. “It makes you go to an album that is a little different than cutting a bunch of songs and calling it an album.”

It was important to Paisley that the album not only showcase collaborations with the people who are part of country music now but also those who are responsible “for what I love about it.” In addition to Alabama, guests on the album include Carrie Underwood, Don Henley, Blake Shelton, Marty Stuart, Sheryl Crow and Carl Jackson. The guitar track “Eastwood” even features the voice of movie legend Clint Eastwood.

Paisley has made it to the pinnacle of country music. Even though his star shines bright, fame hasn’t affected him. DuBois met the singer 20 years ago when the young Belmont University student was interning at the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) in Nashville, where DuBois worked as the director of membership. “I was the youngest guy on staff and we hit it off as friends,” says DuBois, who at the time didn’t realize Paisley was a musician, singer and songwriter. When he did make that discovery, the two started writing songs together. “We cut our teeth as songwriters,” DuBois says. “We wrote a lot of early stuff together.”

As a songwriter, DuBois celebrated his 11th No. 1 song with Paisley’s “Old Alabama.” Named the Songwriter of the Year by ASCAP in 2004 and Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) in 2010, his credits include several of Paisley’s hits, such as “We Danced,” “Mud On The Tire,” “Then,” “Welcome to the Future” and “This Is Country Music.”

DuBois recalls his first impression of Paisley when the two met. “He was a great guy,” he says. “The biggest connection we had was country music. He had a deep knowledge of country music. He knew as much about it [as I did]. We shared the same passion. We instantly connected.”

In his position, DuBois listened to songs from hopefuls, most of which would never be a commercial success. But when he heard Paisley play a song he had written, it “made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.” Paisley’s melodic playing and the way he turned phrases caught DuBois’ attention. “I recognized his talent,” he says. “Brad grew up playing in front of large crowds in West Virginia. He was already seasoned as a performer. What I think I brought to the table is that I was giving him feedback and critiquing songs.”

Over the years, Paisley has gotten better and better as a writer, singer and guitar player. “He has grown,” DuBois says. “He’s come into his own.”

Paisley isn’t the same person he was when he was 20. “I feel like I am better,” he says. “I am happy with who I am. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

He understands that people have to adapt and evolve. “You have to get out into the world and realize it’s a big place,” he says. “It’s a great thing to have that foundation. I have it everywhere I go. The more you meet people and you see the world, you realize there are cool things out there.”

DuBois believes Paisley’s greatest asset is his hunger for criticism, especially in songwriting. “When he writes a song he cannot wait to play it,” he says. “He thrives on criticism. He likes playing things for people who are not connected to the music business to [see] what their passion level is. He has a brain trust of people who will be truthful.”

If Paisley can tell that a song is not getting the reaction he wants, he will go back and rewrite it. At times, he will slip a song into a show to see how the crowd responds. “He is never under the impression that he is right,” DuBois says. “It’s always up to the audience to see if the song is going right.” Paisley appreciates feedback when it comes to his live show. “He tweaks it along the way,” DuBois says. “He always knows where he wants the bar to be.”

This spring, Paisley spent several weeks of rehearsal getting ready for his “H2O II: Wetter & Wilder World Tour.” The intricate show requires a lot of video integration. “We have some pretty cool set pieces that go 50 to 60 feet into the audience,” he says. “We also have a secondary stage way out where people don’t expect you to be. We have to rehearse a lot. All the video has to be coordinated.”

Even though Paisley has the last say in anything related to the tour, the production is a team effort. “It’s a lot of fun,” he says. On the song “Working on a Tan,” for example, Paisley shot a fake Beach Blanket Bingo ’60s-like video for the show. “We go the extra mile,” he says. “People come to see something different. They don’t just come to hear the songs. We want to continue to give them more than they expect.”

Unlike some entertainers, Paisley doesn’t bring his family – his wife, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, and his sons, 2-year-old Jasper and 4-year-old Huck – with him while he’s on tour. “I find ways to get home enough,” he says. “I’m home a lot more than people would know.”

Taking the family on the road is difficult, he adds. “It’s not easy for the kids. They need a routine. They do come out now and then.”

Paisley is very much a family man. “He’s a dad and a husband,” says DuBois. “He has a very private, personal life. When he’s off the road, he’s off the road.”

He is deeply devoted to family and community, both his and others that reach out for help. He recalls the night in 2010 that tornadoes and historic flooding hit Nashville. “I was cowered in my basement with my family,” he says. “We heard the tornado sirens and watched the hillside slide into the pond. It felt like the world was falling down.”

He wondered how people would recover from the devastation. Just days after the flood, Paisley was scheduled to head out on tour but his equipment was impacted by the massive waters covering the city. He worried about the tour but says in the process he “felt very selfish. I saw what people were going through. It was so much worse than what I was going through.”

After the flooding, requests started pouring in from news outlets. “They realized we had a caring celebrity base to get the word out about what needed to be done in our town,” says Paisley, who even fielded a call from President Obama when he was checking on the Grand Ole Opry. “I really felt like it was my responsibility [to help]. One thing I have found is if you cheer someone else up, you will end up making yourself feel better. The more I was called on to do, the better I felt about a bad situation for all of us. I was at the right place in my career at the right time to help my town.”

Paisley credits other country greats such as Kenny Chesney, Taylor Swift and Keith Urban with doing their part to help as well. He says he learned something about himself during the process. “I found out I could be useful. I don’t think I can shy away from that the rest of my life. I crave feeling this.”

The urge to give back is in Paisley’s genes. His father was the president of the volunteer fire department and an EMT. “He helped everybody he could,” he says. “I felt like I was carrying on what he does.”

This June, Paisley joined other artists at Alabama’s BAMA Rising benefit concert to help the victims of the recent tornado in their home state. “Brad gives when he can,” DuBois says. “He has a heart for giving back.”

He also has a soft spot for fans. When DuBois and Paisley go to lunch or dinner, Paisley always has people coming up and talking to him. “I have never seen him get frustrated with them,” DuBois says. “He always takes the time [for fans]. This is what he was meant to do. He has the heart for the business he is in.” Paisley’s heart is matched by his quick wit. Many of his songs have a fun aspect to them. “He’s one of the few artists that can pull that off: a song that has the sole purpose of being funny,” DuBois says. “He can do it consistently and effectively. It’s part of his personality.”

Paisley’s sense of humor is evident when he co-hosts the CMA Awards with Carrie Underwood, something he’s done for the past three years. “Brad takes his hosting job very seriously,” DuBois says. Paisley is always trying to come up with a clever angle to guide people through the show, writing most of the jokes he delivers. “I have more fun doing that than going to any award show,” Paisley says, noting that award shows tend to be very long for the nominees. “When I host, I have the opposite experience. I’m never off the clock. I’m always doing something. I love it.”

It’s evident that Paisley’s talents spill over into other areas. If he wasn’t an entertainer, DuBois believes he would still excel in the creative arts. “He’s a great painter. He has a passion for that,” DuBois says. “He also works on scripts with his wife, Kimberly. That’s Brad’s biggest asset: to be creative.”