Brad Paisley On 'Love And War,' Dialogue And Protest

Apr 24, 2017
Originally published on April 24, 2017 7:08 am

Brad Paisley is a country megastar: Since his debut in 1999, he's sold 12 million records and had 23 No. 1 hits. He's a great singer and a monster guitar player who's always had a way with lyrics and timing. That's evident throughout his new album, Love And War, which has its fair share of fun, witty moments.

But the title track is dead serious. It's a collaboration with Creedence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty, who wrote one of the most potent protest songs of the Vietnam era.

"He's a huge influence on me," Paisley says, "and, I think, the voice of a generation. And so one time, we sat down and I said, 'Why don't you come to Tennessee for a couple of days, and we'll do this right.' And I have this thing I want to say, and that's that I think we are really letting our veterans down."

Fogerty, it turns out, was game.

"I said, 'I know you went there back in the Vietnam era — do you want to go there again?' " Paisley remembers. "And he said, 'Yeah, I do.' "

The result, "Love And War," is a song about two generations of veterans, both treated unjustly by the country they fought for.

"It's an interesting dichotomy, in that it's a protest song," Paisley says. "But we're protesting something I think everyone can agree on."

Throughout his career, Paisley has broached sensitive subjects, often taking atypically progressive stances for mainstream country music. Usually, it goes over pretty well — but he got a lot of heat for the 2013 song "Accidental Racist," a collaboration with LL Cool J, which tried to reconcile Southern pride with the region's legacy of racism through a dialogue between the two artists. Many critics found it flat-footed, if well-intentioned, and Paisley says he learned from the incident.

"I was very naïve in thinking that we could write something that would feel the same way that other topics feel when you discuss them," he says. "When you discuss racism, it's almost a no-win scenario — but I don't think that means we shouldn't be discussing it."

Paisley says the backlash to "Accidental Racist" was fair, in a sense. He likens it to something a co-writer once said to him.

"[He] told me early on, when I would get really mad about a line that he didn't like, 'Well, you can tell me all you want that I'm wrong, but I'm not. I don't like it,' " Paisley says. In the same way: "Any true feelings of dislike are warranted, and they need to be explored."

And Paisley has kept pushing boundaries. Two songs on Love And War feature the hip-hop producer Timbaland, who's better known for his work with artists like Justin Timberlake.

"When I sat down with [Timbaland], he said, 'I wanna do something country, but I mean country,' " Paisley says. "He's like, 'I think where our worlds meet the best — in the coolest spot — is bluegrass.' ... I knew exactly what he meant."

You can hear just what he meant in "Grey Goose Chase," which opens with what Paisley describes as a "jug-band, front-porch sound."

"What that is, is Timbaland beating on the banjo base with his hands and hootin' and hollerin' in the background," he says. "When you see 'produced by Timbaland,' that's not what you thought you'd hear — and I love that."

Hear Paisley's conversation with NPR's David Greene at the audio link.

Radio producer Maddalena Richards and web editor Rachel Horn contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

David Greene is not here with us today, but here's a little secret. David really likes country music. So it wasn't exactly a hardship when he sat down to talk with Brad Paisley.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Yeah, Paisley is a country megastar. And since his debut in 1999, he's had 12 million records, 23 number-one hits. He's a great singer, monster guitar player and also a guy who has a way with lyrics and timing. This 2002 hit was about a guy whose girlfriend thinks he spends too much time fishing, and she gives him an ultimatum.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GONNA MISS HER")

BRAD PAISLEY: (Singing) If I hit that fishing hole today, she'd be packing all her things. And she would be gone by noon. Well, I'm gonna miss her.

GREENE: Yeah, and there are a bunch of fun moments like this on Brad Paisley's new album. The title track though, "Love And War," is dead serious. He collaborated with an artist who wrote one of the most potent protest songs of the Vietnam era.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORTUNATE MAN")

CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL: (Singing) Some folks are born made to wave the flag, oh, that red, white and blue.

GREENE: That's John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. And I asked Paisley how he brought Fogerty on board to co-write a song about two generations of veterans.

PAISLEY: I've known John for a while, and he's a huge influence on me and I think the voice of a generation. And so one time we sat down, and I said, why don't you come to Tennessee for a couple of days and we'll do this right? And, you know, I have this thing I want to say and that's that I think we are really letting our veterans down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE AND WAR")

PAISLEY: (Singing) He was 19 when he landed at Baghran, scared and all alone. He lost a leg and a girlfriend before he got home.

The idea of it is that it's really not fair, and we'll talk about that if you're willing. I said, I know you went there back in Vietnam era. Do you want to go there again? And he said yeah, I do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE AND WAR")

JOHN FOGERTY: (Singing) He was 19 in '68. After all this time, that broken boy is now a broken man waiting in the VA line.

PAISLEY: You know, I don't like to necessarily make political statements speaking necessarily as much as I would rather write something that makes you feel something because I think that's always more effective. And in the case of this, I could say that all day long, but a lot of people are saying it, but no one's singing it.

GREENE: But when I think of country music and war and patriotism, I mean, I think sometimes you expect to hear, like, Toby Keith singing about sticking a boot in another country. I mean, this feels like...

PAISLEY: Well, that's...

GREENE: ...You're doing some different.

PAISLEY: I definitely think this is different in that it's an interesting dichotomy in that it's a protest song but we're protesting something everyone, I think, can agree on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE AND WAR")

PAISLEY: (Singing) They call them decorated heroes.

FOGERTY: (Singing) And pin some medals on their chest.

PAISLEY: (Singing) Give them a tiny little pension. Could we do much less?

GREENE: Throughout his career, Brad Paisley has broached sensitive subjects. He often takes unusually progressive stances for country. Usually, it goes over pretty well but he got a lot of heat for a track he did in 2013.

"Accidental Racist" was a collaboration with the rapper LL Cool J. It tried to reconcile southern pride with the region's legacy of racism through a dialogue between the two artists. Many critics found it flat-footed, if well-intentioned.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ACCIDENTAL RACIST")

PAISLEY: (Singing) I'm proud of where I'm from...

LL COOL J: (Rapping) If you don't judge my gold chains...

PAISLEY: (Singing) ...But not everything we've done.

LL COOL J: (Rapping) ...I'll forget the iron chains.

PAISLEY: (Singing) And it ain't like you and me can rewrite history.

I quickly learned, (laughter) as you can imagine, about this third rail. And I was very naive in thinking that we could write something that would feel the same way that other topics feel when you discuss them. When you discuss racism, it's almost a no-win scenario but I don't think that means we shouldn't be discussing it. Does that make sense?

GREENE: Do you think the backlash was fair?

PAISLEY: Well, it depends. I mean, fair in the sense that if you - one of my brilliant co-writers told me early on when I would get really mad about a line that he didn't like, he'd - like, well, you can tell me all you want that I'm wrong but I'm not. I don't like it (laughter). Any true feelings of dislike are warranted and they need to be explored.

GREENE: And Brad Paisley has kept pushing boundaries. His new album has two songs with a producer better known for his work with artists like Justin Timberlake. It's the hip-hop producer Timbaland.

PAISLEY: When I sat down with Tim, he said, I want to do something country but I mean country. He's, like, I think where our worlds meet the best and the coolest spot is bluegrass.

GREENE: And you said yeah, I agree, or you were like, what the hell are you talking about?

PAISLEY: I knew exactly what he meant.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREY GOOSE CHASE")

PAISLEY: You can hear a little bit of this before the song "Grey Goose Chase," where you hear that sort of jug-band-front-porch sound. But what that is is Timbaland beating on the banjo bass with his hands and hooting and hollering in the background. When you see produced by Timbaland, that's not what you thought you'd hear and I love that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREY GOOSE CHASE")

PAISLEY: (Singing) Oh, Annabelle, since you been gone, I've been going through hell on my own.

GREENE: Another song on this album, like, "Theinternetisforever" (ph).

PAISLEY: Yeah. Yeah, the selfie.

GREENE: You ought to be ashamed of your selfie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SELFIE#THEINTERNETISFOREVER")

PAISLEY: (Singing) Your grandmother's in an open casket. You're in a suit and shades. You take your iPhone out and you snap it, hashtag sad day. You ought to be ashamed.

GREENE: Are you trying to make sure that country is not just like front porches and pickup trucks, like, it really is relevant to today and...

PAISLEY: Yeah, exactly. Think about it, like, it used to be, you know, the phone rang on the wall. You know what I mean? (Singing) And that phone rings on the wall.

You could hear that line for years. Now you do that and some kid's like what?

GREENE: What wall? Why is a phone on a wall?

PAISLEY: (Laughter) Yeah. And so I think country music, there's nothing wrong with looking at one time it was you took a train, now it's a subway.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SELFIE#THEINTERNETISFOREVER")

PAISLEY: (Singing) Now why you got to go and tweet it when you really ought to just delete it? Now we all want to unsee (ph) it.

GREENE: Funny, that Brad Paisley. In fact, he has been trying his hand at stand-up recently. And the day after we did this interview, he taped a comedy special for Netflix.

Wow, this is taking your stand-up to a new level.

PAISLEY: Or not.

GREENE: Or not.

(LAUGHTER)

PAISLEY: Or just - it's going to preserve it, and you get...

GREENE: Right (laughter).

PAISLEY: ...To see how badly it went.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SELFIE#THEINTERNETISFOREVER")

PAISLEY: (Singing) You ought to be ashamed.

GREENE: Well, Brad Paisley, it's been a real pleasure. Best of luck with the new album, and I hope to bring you back on our show sometime real soon.

PAISLEY: Thank you, buddy.

GREENE: His new album is called "Love And War."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SELFIE#THEINTERNETISFOREVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.