These are country music’s postmilitarization years. A decade ago, there were songs about strong soldiers and a just war, weeping soldiers and unimpeachable ideology — the genre latched onto the political moment and held fast like a remora.
But we’re in a drawdown phase now, and regret hangs palpably in the air. What’s arriving are dissenters: those who tear back the mask of the rural experience, those who are comfortable seeing kinship with outsiders, those who wish only to drink away all the pain and forget.
In a sense, they’re all just following Brad Paisley.
From a distance, Paisley has been a stylistically conservative stalwart of the genre for the past decade, a gentleman traditionalist in a bright white hat. But his songs have shown intellectual and social range. He’s been a country star not scared to seem as if he might own a computer, delivering bits of open-mindedness with an aw-shucks demeanor and sly humor.
“Wheelhouse” (Arista Nashville) is his ninth studio album and the one on which he tackles a host of country pieties out in the open, as if sensing the moment might finally be right to hear country songs about difference.
Paisley isn’t pushing musical boundaries, but that’s by design: The messages would matter less if they were coming from someone other than a country insider.
Still, no matter what Paisley does in his career, he will always be the person who made a song called “Accidental Racist.” You could call it liberal if it weren’t so conservative. It’s a conversation about race and history between a white man and a black man — that part is rapped by LL Cool J — and it comes by its intellectual undercookedness honestly.
Paisley sings from the perspective of a man facing his conscience and his privilege but only newly understanding that he is in possession of either of those things: “To the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main, I hope you understand/When I put on that T-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan.”
But that T-shirt, with its Confederate flag, has meaning too deep for Paisley to parse. The song also implies a shared burden of duty, as if both sides had to do equal work toward reconciliation, ignoring centuries of privilege and imbalance.
This being country music, internally hidebound and externally perceived as even more so, this veering from script has attracted an unusual amount of attention and sneering. But those critics are asking the wrong questions.
Might this song have been better with a rapper — say, Killer Mike — from the South? Yes, of course. And might it have been better if it weren’t just middle-age rural liberal reckoning? Yes too. Good intentions alone do not a political transformation make. Nor do lyrics of gobsmacking simplicity. “If you don’t judge my gold chains/I’ll forget the iron chains,” LL Cool J says, then continues, stupefyingly, “R.I.P. Robert E. Lee, but I’ve got to thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean?”
But what Paisley is really aiming for is to introduce a suite of progressive ideas, using his celebrity as cover. “Southern Comfort Zone,” the first single from this album, preaches the value of travel while masking it in a wistfulness for the familiarity of home. “Not everybody drives a truck/not everybody drinks sweet tea/not everybody owns a gun,” he sings, pitching it as a positive thing.
Later, he talks about discomfort: “I know what it’s like to be the only one like me/to take a good hard look around,/And be in the minority now.” That’s a rare discussion — in any genre — of the cloak of invincibility that white privilege affords.
Equally striking is “Karate,” a song about a woman learning martial arts to fight back against a domestic abuser. It’s in the tradition of Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” and Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder & Lead,” and Paisley might be the first male singer to approach the subject with such a honed sense of justice and also glee: “The way she figures it about July/She’ll finally have the belt to match her eye.” (Most of the envelope-pushing songs here are written by Paisley with his longtime associates Chris DuBois and Kelley Lovelace.)
The parts of this album that don’t have a message barely register at all. Paisley has a clean, burrless voice, and he’s not a power singer (although, as ever, he’s an inspiring guitar player). “I Can’t Change the World” is a smartly written love song that he doesn’t quite have the pathos to deliver. Historically, he’s achieved a lot with nuance and innuendo, but this album largely forsakes them in favor of direct sentiment.