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With Mr. Faith Hill striving to put a little extra twang into his voice for his arena-show videos and the feminist, acoustic-identified Dixie Chicks managing to stay one of the biggest acts in country music after dressing down the commander in chief, it’s getting a little hard to tell the traditionalists from the nouveau types these days. One thing’s for sure, though: Some kind of corner was turned last year with Kenny Chesney’s “The Good Stuff.”

Typical honky-tonk setup: After a couple’s “first big fight,” a feller is drawn like a moth to the neon lights of the local watering hole, where he orders up a tall glass of the titular specialty. What he gets, though, would’ve stunned Faron Young sober: a tumbler of moo juice and an avuncular lecture from the bartender about What Really Matters. After a brisk family-scrapbook verbal montage from a guy who’s seen it all and is keeping it together out of respect for his dead wife, our hero comes home with lovin’ on his mind—and by “lovin’,” I mean apologizin’. I know cutting-edge social trends are often delayed by rural delivery, but it looks as if the Sensitive New Age Guy showed up in the sticks about 15 years late.

And it seems he’s right on time. The same audience that made Chesney’s chastening one of the biggest singles of last year has kicked Mud on the Tires, the third album by trad-country torchbearer and all-around nice guy Brad Paisley, to the No. 1 slot the week of its debut. Leave it to Toby Keith to keep the spirit of Lefty Frizzell alive by turning “If you’ve got the money, honey, I’ve got the time” into the hick-pimpin’ “I got the money if you got the honey”; Paisley’s sending a love letter to the Wal-Mart moms. For the clean-cut, strong-and-steady, settling-down-and-loving-it heartthrob—one of People magazine’s sexiest men of 2001—traditional country will always have to fall in behind traditional values: a good man, a devoted woman, a batch of young’uns, and a vehicle to tote ’em to church in.

It bears noting, however, how far apart those two traditions have traditionally been. The country stars of yore were actually ahead of the curve when it came to the disintegration of the nuclear family. In 1968, when Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” was a hit, the big D still wasn’t a topic of polite conversation in much of the South. In the songs of Wynette’s onetime husband, George Jones—the structurally bold and majestically sad “Grand Tour,” for instance—domestic concord was an unsustainable memory. And in Wynette’s own, it was a fantasy, a children’s game that couldn’t be made to jibe with the wayward desires of the heart or the grinding worries of workaday life.

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As part of the post-divorce generation, Paisley views a stable family life as something between an act of will, a work of fate, and an outright miracle. His first chart-topper, 1999’s “He Didn’t Have to Be,” is an ode of gratitude from a young father to the stepdad who came into his life when he was just a year older than Wynette’s little J-O-E. Already spoken of as a “career record,” the song resonated so deeply that Paisley and songwriting partner Kelley Lovelace threw together a gift book based on it to capitalize on the blended-family Father’s Day market.

Though “He Didn’t Have to Be” exudes an air of autobiography, it turns out to have more to do with Lovelace’s life as a stepfather than with Paisley’s real-life situation of being single and tired of it. When Paisley was putting together Who Needs Pictures, the debut album that yielded the track, the label biographer pointed out how many of his songs were about dating. And sure enough, there weren’t any cheating songs, but there were loads of it-just-didn’t-work-out songs. At age 26, Paisley was clearly the marrying kind; he just hadn’t found anybody to marry.

Keeping his eyes on the prize, Paisley developed a sideline in proposal songs, producing two of his biggest hits, “We Danced” and “Wrapped Around.” In the former, a barroom, once the preferred setting for quickie pickups and all-night drinking bouts, becomes the stage for true love when a woman forgets her purse and falls for the tapster who returns it to her in exchange for a turn on the dance floor. In the latter, from 2001’s Part II, the singer anxiously announces his plans to ask his girlfriend’s father for her daughter’s hand. With a tag line of “I think it’s time to put a ring on the finger I’m wrapped around,” the song establishes the romantic persona of a guy who does things the old-fashioned way but isn’t so much of a man’s man that he won’t admit to being a little bit whipped.

Virtually a Chevy commercial for the 4×4-loving family man, Mud on the Tires’ banjo-and-steel-accompanied title track continues in that vein, being a tale of off-road romance that takes the bumps real slow and softens the macho stuff with a flash of goo-goo eyes. Today’s female country fan has learned that the bad boys are the ones who’ll leave you high and dry with a couple of kids to go court waitresses and their best friends’ wives—what the Oxygen-watching, middle-class exurban woman needs is a dependable man who can fake the dangerous stuff and maybe forget to shave once in a while. If Paisley has any kind of image problem, it’s that his loverboy schtick is a little too tidy, so the album cover has him uncomfortably plopped in a mucky heap, his pristine white duds and boutique Tele copy carefully soiled for the shoot. Hey, keep that crud off the bridge, will you? It’ll never clean up right.

After a quick shower, Paisley sets about to proving he’s got his priorities straight. Its litany of “simple pleasures” including channel-surfing, cutting the grass, and watching kids play in the sprinkler, “Ain’t Nothin’ Like” takes the laid-back epiphanies of Travis Tritt’s “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive,” junks the “lone-wolf” stuff, and mixes in a good helping of Tom T. Hall’s “I Love.” (We could have done without the li’l tykes’ vocal contribution, though.) “Little Moments” is another imagistic catalog of ordinary life, one revealing that Paisley loves his woman not despite her flaws but because of them. “That’s Love” even uses the “burnt suppers” a newlywed downs with a smile in Chesney’s “The Good Stuff” as a jumping-off point to justify the little white lies that spare feelings and cement a solid marriage. At some point it dawns on you that Paisley has it in him to write an entire concept album about what makes a guy a keeper.

In Tom Perotta’s novel Election, the source for the Reese Witherspoon flick, a character muses, “Maybe that’s what we look for in the people we love, the spark of unhappiness we think we know how to extinguish…” That spark happens to be precisely what it takes for a country hunk to ignite the longing of his female fans, so Paisley makes sure he malingers a bit for all the would-be heart-nurses. “Somebody Knows You Now” tenders a farewell to a skittish woman who’s pulling away from a lover who offers a deeper intimacy than she can stand to face. “Whiskey Lullaby,” the disc’s only real bottle-raiser, is a true bluegrass weeper, the kind of cautionary tale that ought to have Alison Krauss singing on it—and does. And on an aching rendition of Vern Gosdin’s 1990 hit “Is It Raining at Your House,” Paisley provides the album with its most shapely vocal: “Is it raining at your house like it’s raining in mine/Does it thunder and lightnin’ even when the sun shines?”

Arranged with moderation, “Is It Raining” is free of the burbling guitar licks that Paisley, a six-string virtuoso, likes to sow between the lines of his up-tempo tracks. But there are, of course, a couple of instrumental showcases: The jazzy “Make a Mistake With Me” and the jokey, skit-larded “Spaghetti Western Swing,” which features Merle Haggard sideman Redd Volkaert, are edge-of-your-seat forays into lickety-split pickin’. Replete with the self-mocking patter of George Jones, Bill Anderson, and Little Jimmy Dickens, the latter is also a reminder that, for all his skill at breaking hearts and bending strings, Paisley is one of contemporary country’s great novelty song-slingers. He has an uncanny way of using the funny stuff not merely as pace-changing throwaways, but as a means to get at the heart of who he is.

After a smooth, deadpan setup, Part II’s hilarious “I’m Gonna Miss Her” takes a hard turn and winds up in the lake, where the singer, who prefers fishing to nagging, says goodbye to his live-in love. Paisley is, in fact, rabid about the sport, and he refers to it frequently as a means of asserting his independence without drifting too far from shore—after all, it’s really the kind of hobby a woman ought to be able to put up with. In Who Needs Pictures’ “Sleepin’ on the Foldout,” he even cleans ’em himself—albeit at the expense of going to visit her folks.

Paisley’s current novelty smash cuts much closer to the bone. Mud on the Tires’ “Celebrity” unflinchingly skewers the dysfunctional behavior of the tabloid set—the public meltdowns, run-ins with the law, stints in rehab, and revolving-door romances. Of course, the two-times-platinum Paisley has himself become a boldface name. And now that his recent marriage to Father of the Bride and According to Jim actress Kimberly Williams finds him splitting his time between Tennessee and L.A., it’s a brave thing for him to put his mouth where his money is: Lines such as “I can fall in and out of love/Have marriages that barely last a month” aren’t made to be backed down from gracefully.

In planning for an ordinary life amid extraordinary circumstances, Paisley has given himself and Williams-Paisley a lot to live up to. But I wouldn’t bet against them: For all Paisley’s hat-tipping to the old guard and thanksgiving to sweet Jesus and everyone else on Music Row, and for all the hairbreadth emotional engineering of his discs, some part of him remains impervious to showbiz. Anyone who’s watched his strangely restrained performances at the Opry knows he’s got a core of integrity and reserve that won’t likely be breached. And as Mud on the Tires makes clear, no one believes in the fantasy of normality Paisley purveys more than he does. CP