Brad Paisley’s Socially Conscious Songs and Why They Are Important (2013)

Originally published in the Sept. 2, 2013 issue of Country Weekly magazine, featuring Brad on the cover.

Brad Paisley has a lot on his mind these days, and what’s occupying his thoughts relates to the world around us. “It’s really wild,” he says, calling from his home in California during a precious day off from the road. “When I was growing up as a kid, it was rare that I ever heard about a disaster. In fact, I don’t remember having anything to worry about as a child of the ’80s. And now, I think kids today are inundated with this 24-hour news cycle, and it seems like there’s a disaster du jour.”

That last comment elicits a laugh, but it’s one of resignation. Though he’s an avid supporter and user of social media, especially fond of Twitter, he finds a downside to the onslaught of information that technology presents. “It puts people under too much pressure and makes them worry,” Brad theorizes. It’s a subject he addresses in his latest single, “I Can’t Change the World,” from his newest album, Wheelhouse. Brad wrote the song with two of his frequent collaborators, Chris DuBois and Kelley Lovelace. A gun goes off in a far-off city / A siren wails right here at home, begins the first verse. The song goes on to point out that, while it’s true that one person can’t change the world, you have the opportunity to change the life of someone else. 

Accidental Controversy

“This is something that has sort of dominated my thought process,” Brad says, after an appropriately thoughtful pause. “The song was one of the first that was cut for the album, but it was up-tempo and actually not a ballad. It didn’t have much magic that way. It had power, but no magic.” What he means, essentially, is that the melody did not fit the message. Listeners would have felt a disconnect somewhere, even if they couldn’t articulate it.

“To me, this is a philosophy of life,” Brad explains. “It’s something we all need to hear, in my opinion. What it’s saying, or what I hope anyway, is that as messed up as this world feels, changing one person’s life makes yours worthwhile. That’s why it didn’t work as an up-tempo [song] because that’s a heavy thing to say in a song. One of my favorite lines is, So let Jesus look down on this mess / And let the powers that be just fuss and fight. That’s kind of how I feel.” 

“I Can’t Change the World” serves as only one example of the weightier themes explored in Wheelhouse. Different tunes, of course, provoke different reactions. Brad points out that most fans appear to be on board with the non-threatening “World” message, even if they may not practice it in their daily lives. The album cut “Accidental Racist” is another story. Brad’s intent to stimulate dialogue on race relations proved a bit polarizing, although the majority supported Brad’s attempt, if not the overall execution. The story, to recap in a nutshell, revolves around a young white man who sports a Confederate flag T-shirt as he walks into a coffee shop, unaware that he has offended the African-American shop employee in the process. The song featured a spoken-word guest appearance from rapper LL Cool J, who wrote part of the song and essentially gives voice to the offended party. Listeners latched onto it, launching “Accidental Racist” into a national discussion. Some controversy ensued. Brad was stunned by the reaction.

“I was surprised on one hand,” he confesses. “I mean, it’s an album cut. I’ve never had people notice an album cut before, and I wish they would have paid that much attention to other album cuts I’ve had. I never thought they would grab onto it to that degree. But it’s obvious that people wanted to talk about it.”

Brad insists that his point in writing the song was to inspire discussion. “That is pure and simply two people attempting to have a conversation as strangers,” he says. “It’s meant to be a song of empathy. Let’s agree to not judge a book by the cover is all it’s trying to say. I knew there would be people who would absolutely miss the point because we were dealing with delicate things here. But my attitude was if everybody starts talking about it, then we have an incredible victory.” 

Brad reveals that “Accidental Racist” was written in the same time frame as “I Can’t Change the World” and another tune from Wheelhouse, “Those Crazy Christians,” a tongue-in-cheek look at religion. “Most people got that one, which kind of surprised me, too,” says Brad of the latter song. “I did get some mail about how ‘atheists like me’ were ruining everything. You wondered if they really listened to the song. But this album was all about getting out of the comfort zone. These were things I really wanted to say.”

Tours, Videos and . . . Goats?

The past year hasn’t been all controversy and weighty discussions on the plight of the modern world. Brad has also been having considerable fun on his Beat This Summer Tour presented by Cracker Barrel Old Country Store. The first half of the tour recently wrapped up and played to more than 400,000 fans. He’s about to resume the fall leg of the series in September, heading to Canada as well as a good portion of the U.S.

“It was really fun,” Brad says. “I don’t think it would be summer for me without some kind of a tour. That’s one thing I realized this year, that I’ve pretty much spent every summer since 1999 [his debut year] looking at people in arenas and auditoriums. When I walk out there and see their faces,” adds Brad wistfully, “even if it’s May, it’s summer for me.” 

No doubt, Brad’s summer shows draw plenty of repeat customers who look forward to the tour as excitedly as he does. “I have a hunch at this point that there is a large percentage of fans who are seeing their second or third one,” Brad surmises. “That’s why we change it up so much each time. You don’t want somebody seeing the same gag each year,” he says, laughing.

For the current tour, Brad cooked up a visual gag that had fans howling with laughter. “This year, we had some fun with these goat videos,” he says, referencing a string of Internet videos that insert shrieking goats into music videos. “The goat takes over lines from me during the performance of ‘Celebrity.’ That is so funny when it’s live.”

But there’s nothing new up his sleeve for the fall shows. “Those will be similar because they are markets that we haven’t played yet this year,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean I might not change something. I don’t ever stop tweaking,” he adds, citing his perfectionist nature. “At the end of a tour, I sometimes feel bad for the fans from the first couple of tour dates. It’s like, ‘Oh, you guys didn’t get to see this,’ because we didn’t have it worked out yet. But the fans always tell us that they had a great time, no matter how far into the tour they saw us.” 

Brad constantly studies new technology and tries to find ways to enhance the live shows. He makes functional use of effects like video walls and interactive displays, capturing fans’ attention without upstaging the performance. “It’s literally become a hobby, reading about technology and learning new programs and dabbling in animation. It’s something that’s useful. It’s a way better use of my time than playing Xbox or something,” he says with a laugh.

Brad’s also further branching out into the visual medium. “I’m working on a screenplay based on ‘I Can’t Change the World’ that will kind of expand the message of the song,” he reveals. “I’ll be in it but not as the main character. I’ve had this in the back of my mind for some time. I’m taking off part of September to begin filming some preliminary stuff. It’s a really unique sort of project and we’re hoping to get a green light to go ahead and complete it. But we’ll know more soon.” 

For certain, we can expect something grand-scale and powerful. After all, that’s Brad’s world. 

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