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Brad Paisley: Wheelin’ & Dealin’

Originally published in our April 15, 2013 issue featuring Brad on the cover.

While recording his new album, Wheelhouse, Brad Paisley tacked a 3-by-5-inch card up in the studio for all the musicians to see every time they entered: “This place on earth and this moment in time has never been recorded before and will never happen again.”

The words were a reminder to be fearless in their creative choices. “The point of this record was to stretch as an artist, to push, to bend genres as much as I could where it still felt comfortable for country music,” says Brad, sipping a cappuccino in his favorite coffeehouse in Southern California. “At the same time, every song was meant to take your head sideways in a good way.”

Just as first single “Southern Comfort Zone” detailed an appreciation for the growth that comes from experiencing different cultures, a number of songs on Wheelhouse bring in outside elements: there’s turntable scratching on current single “Beat This Summer”; LL Cool J raps on the thought-provoking “Accidental Racist”; the rambunctious, good-timing “Outstanding in Our Field” includes a Roger Miller loop (and features guests Dierks Bentley and Hunter Hayes); there are even human heartbeats on several tracks, and an appearance by Monty Python’s Eric Idle.

Brad calls Wheelhouse “an exploration of what makes something country and what outside influences can we bring in that won’t destroy it—because I have no interest in destroying it,” he says. “You can break down walls, but you better not break too many down or the roof comes down.” 

Finding himself at this crossroads, Brad decided to produce Wheelhouse by himself after years of working with his buddy Frank Rogers. His last album, 2011’s This Is Country Music, “capped off eight records or so of ‘This is who I am. This is who you’ve gotten to know,’” Brad says. Going forward, he thought, “I either break off from that and really challenge myself or that’s just who I’m gonna be. This, to me, is the moment for me to do that.” 

A number of times during the conversation, Brad references the beginning of his career, including calling recording Wheelhouse the “most nerve-racking” experience since he and Frank cut the four songs that landed him a record deal in the late 1990s. He gives off a palpable excitement as he starts this new chapter. 

Asked what was hardest about producing himself, Brad jokes, “The artist that I produce is a jerk. He’s difficult and he second-guesses everything. . . . He won’t leave me alone.” 

More seriously, he says, “I really just about had a nervous breakdown halfway through because it was an undertaking and a half.” Add that he was also touring during part of the recording, and it’s easy to see how he was on overload. 

As if producing and co-writing all the songs himself wasn’t challenging enough, Brad decided to make the album at a farmhouse on his property instead of a conventional recording studio. Less than three weeks after making the decision, contractors and sound engineers had finished knocking down walls and wiring the 100-year-old farmhouse to convert it into a working studio ready for him and his band, the Drama Kings, to push play.

While many of Wheelhouse’s 14 songs (there are also three short interstitials) are lighthearted, Brad’s not afraid to get topical. “Karate” will have listeners rooting for a woman who exacts payback
on an abusive husband, especially as Charlie Daniels delivers the play-by-play of what is sure to be their last fight. “[Quentin] Tarantino can take a movie like Kill Bill and you laugh out loud as [the heroine] has her revenge and that’s kind of what we try to do with this a little bit,” Brad says. 

On “Accidental Racist,” he admits the uneasiness of being “caught between Southern pride and Southern blame”—proud of where he’s from, but not always proud of parts of the South’s history. The song plays out as a conversation between Brad and a black man. We’re still picking up the pieces, walking on eggshells, fighting over yesterday, he sings. I try to put myself in your shoes and that’s a good place to begin, but it ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin. 

The race issue had been on Brad’s mind, but he also felt there has been a renewed discussion of slavery and race brought about by recent movies like Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. LL Cool J was the first person Brad considered for “Accidental Racist” and he was happy when the rapper agreed to write a rap explaining his point of view. “[LL] looked at me as he finished his words and he said, ‘This is really going to matter, isn’t it?’ I think he’s right,” Brad says. “I don’t know whether it matters now or later, but it matters to me.” 

On “Those Crazy Christians,” which Brad says may be his favorite on the album, he plays a character baffled by all the good works he sees Christians around him doing, even for people they don’t know. And while the song’s protagonist is not sure of what he believes, the character is convinced that “those crazy Christians” will be the first ones he calls when he needs help. Inspired in part by actions he witnessed, Brad says, “I am definitely baffled by some of the things that my fellow Christians do, but at the same time, I get really proud when I see the good, and so this guy’s trying to make his case against it, but he can’t. In the end, he comes around.” 

Brad’s intense work on Wheelhouse has left him little time for the other wheels he loves so much: his cars and racing. As fans know, he’s driven the pace car in the Daytona 500 and he’s such an ardent NASCAR fan that he jokes, “I’m basically sponsored by [auto racing team] Hendrick Motorsports at this point.” 

“You know what I like about racing and NASCAR in general?” Brad asks. In this complicated world often fraught with dire outcomes, he enjoys the simplicity. “For me, on a Sunday afternoon, I turn it on, I watch it, I’m friends with Jeff Gordon, friends with Rick Hendrick. I know Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. pretty well. They go around in circles and they matter to you and you’re rooting for them and at the end of the day, whoever won is whoever won, as long as nobody got hurt. It’s nice to root for something where you’re not waiting on a bill to pass Congress, you’re waiting for Jeff to pass Jimmie [Johnson].”

While Brad has yet to compete in any celebrity races himself, he admits he’s gotten up to speeds of 140 mph on race tracks, and one of his four sports cars is a ZR-1 Corvette, one of the fastest cars ever made. “I do the race instruction on what you do to get the most out of a car, and a road course is a great way to do it because it’s different than an oval,” Brad says. “A race course has twists and turns and it’s math. It’s basically, ‘Where should the car be to best angle the turn? How fast should you be going when you come out of it?’”

His passion extends to anything with wheels: he often takes his band and crew go-karting while on the road, but has learned one discomfiting truth: “The nut out there is my bus driver,” Brad says with a laugh. “He’s not fit to be on a go-kart. He’s a pretty good bus driver, but he is a terrible go-kart driver.”

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