The “most played songs” function on my off-brand MP3 player doesn’t lie, and what I’m being told these days is that I really like Brad Paisley—his latest album, 5th Gear, has been getting worked pretty hard for the past two months. I’ve been at something of a loss to explain why. I don’t have much of an affinity for contemporary country—if anything, my attitude toward Kenny Chesney and Sugarland is one of active dislike. Though I confess I became a fellow traveler during the Great Alt-Country Scare of 1997, I’m recovered now, retaining an affection only for a smallish stack of Robbie Fulks and Iris DeMent CDs.
In many ways, Paisley is no different from many of his mainstream country contemporaries—his oeuvre is built on a batch of sentimental ballads, manly roars, and nods to Jesus that help him preserve his NASCAR base. But he studiously avoids anything that smacks of political finger-pointing (there’s not a lot of red state in him) or rock concessions (he’s an Opry boy and has a Marty Stuart-grade obsession with his country forefathers). Paisley is an object lesson in the fine line between canniness and pandering, and because he straddles it effortlessly—not to mention because he’s a consummate showman and shit-hot guitarist—he’s sold seven million records. Don’t let the boyish smirk in that picture up there fool you, though. Crown’s damn heavy.
Paisley writes and sings like a man who knows he has two difficult tasks, each of which he takes deathly seriously (even though being funny is part of doing the job right): He has to please both men and women, and has to sound current and vintage simultaneously. When he botches it, he winds up with hokum like “Online,” a tune about those crazy chatrooms, or “Little Moments,” a tune whose lyric reduces to “she’s dim but I love her.” But an acoustic ballad like “Letter to Me” speaks to his talent for carefully turned, detail-rich country lyric writing. (Strunk and White can teach you a lot about clarity and concision in writing. So can Tom T. Hall.) He sets up a potentially awful conceit—writing a reassuring letter to his teenage self—and while the song is full of buck-up-little-camper verities, he’s also aware of when he’s gone too far. “I wish you’d take a typing class,” he grouses two-thirds of the way through, and the line almost single-handedly reduces the song’s sugar content.
On “I’m Still a Guy” Paisley pitches a fit about metrosexuality, but in his songs he’s still pretty much a tamed man; he’s less likely to get into a drunken bar fight than to clock the dude who copped a feel from his wife at the mall. (The “country” Paisley’s songs occupy isn’t rural so much as exurban; the men in his songs dream of off-roading, but what they do is go shopping with their spouses and fight about putting the toilet seat down.) As with every male country singer from Hank Williams on down, Paisley postures as a guy who’s skeptical about romance: “If Love Was a Plane” makes much of divorce rates. But he’s unapologetic about climbing what you might call the ladder of romantic attainment. On “It Did,” the lyric moves from courtship to marriage to fatherhood—the song’s fist-pumping, hell-yeah moment comes when Paisley sings about the birth of his child.
What this makes him, then, is a poet of the American middle class—he speaks to folks who are affluent enough to have a couple of cars, who care about the schools they send their kids to, who go to church but not as much as they feel they ought to, and who keep their ambitions modest and morally restrained—yes to a hard-drinking fishing trip but no to an affair. Not that he’s especially pious about it. There’s a Jesus song on 5th Gear, “When We All Get to Heaven,” but it’s immediately preceded by “Bigger Fish to Fry,” as proud an assertion of moral relativism as you’re likely to come by. “All I Wanted Was a Car,” 5th Gear’s lead track and statement of purpose, is an essay on moderated ambitions, scrimping and saving not to become a country star, but to buy a sedan, and not for any articulated purpose. (Though he explains it helped him find his wife, and at the end of the song he has an SUV and a couple of kids.)
Sexy, huh? Emotionally, it doesn’t exactly get my heart started, either. Intellectually, though, it flicks a switch that forces me to run the song through repeated listens. I think I’ve played it a bazillion times partly because I can’t think of a popular musician today, in any genre, who’s so concerned with making class Topic A. That’s class as distinct from money, or success—I mean class as concern with where you stand in the American matrix. The only other person who springs to mind as having worked this turf with any consistency is Jackson Browne, another class-obsessed songwriter, and it’s been 25 years since he’s written a song that’s approximated relevance. If somebody stepped in to work this turf in the interim, I’d like to hear about it. (Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon both pretty much gave up on this sometime around 1985, I figure.)
I’m not a fan of Browne in the same way I’m not much of a Paisley fan, and all of this may speak more to my personal concerns and obsessions than anybody else’s: I grew up in a family of immigrants for whom assimilation didn’t happen automatically, so I like to hear people talk about struggling to pull it off. But there’s no question that Paisley’s captured the great middle, even if his interests haven’t made him a country titan—his last three albums have cracked the top ten, but 5th Gear hasn’t gone platinum. Look at the comment thread for the YouTube video of “When I Get Where I’m Going,” a plainspoken duet with Dolly Parton, a you’ll get a sense of Paisley as the great leveler—he’s the man behind America’s new funeral anthem. There’s a play at Americans’ emotions in there, but I can’t hear it as pandering, and anybody who can wipe “Wind Beneath My Wings” off the map is truly doing God’s work.