Ambition got the better of Brad Paisley on 2013's Wheelhouse, coaxing him into the briar patch that was "Accidental Racist" -- an ill-conceived cross-cultural duet with LLCool J which generated a flurry of headlines that camouflaged how the album straight-up flopped on country radio. Wheelhouse was Paisley's first record since Play not to go gold, and even that is misleading because that 2008 effort was an instrumental album and those never sell in large numbers; subtract that from his stats and the 2013 record achieves the ignoble status of his first-ever album not to reach gold and, perhaps more importantly, his first not to generate a number one single. Paisley slyly alludes to this slump, singing "I guess I've been in a dry spell, but that's about to change" on "Crushin' It," the opening track of his 2014 album Moonshine in the Trunk, a phrasing that suggests his dip in sales lasted longer than a year -- which, in a way, it has.
Brad Paisley has long been one of Nashville's most thoughtful and progressive songwriters, a guy whose catchy, clever hits have celebrated America's melting pot and tipped a Stetson to Obama. But good sense abandoned him on "Accidental Racist," his 2013 duet with LL Cool J. It was audacious – a six-minute power ballad that tackled Paisley's mixed feelings about his Southern roots – but also clumsy, overwrought and, to some pundits, offensive.
One gets the sense that, out of all today's country superstars, Brad Paisley is the one who churns out pop-country—or nü-country, or bro-country, or “bad rock with a fiddle” (Tom Petty's words, not mine), or whatever we're calling it these days—not because he wants to, but because he has to. Yes, he's released plenty of slick radio fodder in his career; when most of his fanbase eats up dumbed-down light-beer-and-pickup-trucks drivel, giving the people what they want is just good business sense. But there's also the other side of Paisley: the world-class guitar slinger, the guy who writes legitimately clever, rootsy songs like “Alcohol” and “I'm Gonna Miss Her.
Brad Paisley’s 10th studio album begins with the sound of a beer can opening and ends with a song about Jesus. In between are songs about float trips, drinking beer, drinking margaritas, lovers driving in escape mode like the Dukes of Hazzard, lovers parking their pick-up truck somewhere down a dirt road and country folk coming into money a la the Beverly Hillbillies. There are product-placement-style references to Bud Light and Chevrolet.
In the video for “River Bank,” we join a good ol’ waterfront party replete with tequila shots, cold ones, and happy white folks in cut-off jorts and bikini tops. The camera catches flares from the bright summer sun and splashes of river water. We’re with Brad Paisley strumming and smiling in the back of a speedboat painted metal-flake-red like the pure and simple album cover (where his barely-there reflection is a soul buried in the gloss).
Fifteen years into his career, Brad Paisley is among country music’s most low-key superstars. The West Virginia native has built a devoted fanbase with his catalog of both traditional and contemporary tunes, his clever wit — on display annually as cohost of the CMA Awards — his skillful guitar playing, curiosity about human interaction, and his nice guy affability. All of those elements are in place for his latest effort, “Moonshine in the Trunk.
When the nation last took the measure of Brad Paisley — let’s charitably ignore his role on the ABC show “Rising Star,” which just limped to the end of a first season — it was for “Accidental Racist,” a ham-fisted message song featuring the rapper LL Cool J. After it brought him every kind of ridicule, Mr. Paisley suggested that he’d merely been aiming for a teachable moment.