By Parade Magazine
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Brad Paisley needs his morning jolt. He waits patiently in line at the Frothy Monkey, his favorite caffeinated haunt, housed in an old parsonage near his farm in Franklin, Tenn. Though the Monkey is teeming, Paisley doesn’t attract much fanfare. Dressed in tight black jeans, a black sweatshirt, and motorcycle boots, he’s missing his trademark white Stetson, which tacks a good six inches onto his height. Greeting the baristas by name, he smiles and orders his regular cappuccino.
He sips it carefully, seeming to savor every drop. “There’s something about getting the foam and the cream just right,” Paisley says. “That’s a real art.” He became a coffee devotee during a soul-expanding 2001 trip to Italy, the idea of his then girlfriend (now wife), actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley. “She really pushed me to go somewhere where they don’t speak English, where the food is amazing and you’re completely out of your element,” he says later, guiding his black Chevy Tahoe through Franklin, 20 minutes south of Nashville. “That’s kind of the thing that started me on the path to making this album. I was the last person to say ‘open your mind’ back then. But not anymore.”
The album Paisley is referring to is Wheelhouse, due April 9. It’s his eighth studio effort and a pinnacle in his career, a work he’s laid the foundation for over the past 14 years. Paisley, 40, occupies a rarefied position: He’s a country superstar who writes wry songs about picking up girls (the 2007 smash “Ticks”) but also thoughtful, observant lyrics that tackle heady topics. On Wheelhouse, he makes his boldest statements yet, with a few tracks that could raise the eyebrows of fans who prefer their country music without controversy.
|“There’s a warmth to people in Nashville,” says Paisley (above, at the Frothy Monkey). “It’s a great place to live.”|
Paisley says he isn’t too worried if the edgier material on Wheelhouse doesn’t click with all his fans. “Maybe I’m naive, but I give them a lot of credit for having been with me a long time and knowing me really well. So it’s not like with one album I’m a whole new guy. I’ve had a great career, and if I don’t have one after this …”—he chuckles—“… then so be it.”
He turns his suv into the parking lot of artisan Guitars, his go-to shop in Franklin. A temple to the guitar gods, it has hundreds of gorgeous acoustic models, some priced well into the five figures, glistening in the semi-humid, climate-controlled air. Paisley is here to get a new Martin acoustic, and right after the clerk hands it to him, he starts picking with lightning speed. Revered by many as one of the best guitarists in music today, he’s been collecting the instruments since receiving his first one, a Sears Danelectro Silvertone, from his grandfather when he was 8. When Paisley’s in town, he’ll stop by Artisan a couple times a week just to hang, try out some new gear, and needle the staff. “He gave me such grief when my only child left for college,” says Artisan’s cofounder Ellie Warmoth. “He’s got such a wicked—almost sadistic—sense of humor; he’d just sit there with that grin and say, ‘Ellie, what are you going to do now? Are you lonely?’ I wanted to kill him, but he’ll find out what that’s like someday.”
|With his wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, last year.|
Whatever his intentions, the connection was
strong. They married in 2003, and Williams-Paisley relocated to Nashville, where they moved into a custom-made log cabin built on a 100-acre spread. Their homestead is a farm with horses and some heavy equipment that is ostensibly for work purposes, but when Paisley is with his boys, the machines become giant playground toys. During a rare day off, Paisley says, they may motor around in a bulldozer and ride horses before visiting the Nashville zoo or watching episodes of the original Battlestar Galactica (circa 1978) or Star Wars. Paisley is a huge science fiction junkie, naming The Empire Strikes Back as one of his favorite movies—just after It’s a Wonderful Life—and he gets as fired up as a lightsaber over the recent announcement of new Star Wars films. “I couldn’t be more excited,” he says. “They’re going to do it right.”
Though Williams-Paisley cut back on acting during their sons’ early years, she now has a role on ABC’s musical drama Nashville. Paisley is proud of his wife, but don’t expect him to cameo on the show (“They’ve asked, but it’s a little odd, having Kim on there playing somebody else”), or even tune in. “I can’t watch it,” he says. “It is really good, but it’s disturbing to me, too close to what I do. It’s like if I was in the CIA, I don’t know if I’d watch Homeland. But I’m not, so I do.” In fact, Paisley, who says spying could have been his fallback career, notes that he and his wife celebrated Valentine’s Day by binge-viewing that Emmy-winning drama’s second season.
Ask how his wife would describe him in three words and without hesitation he says, “Work. A. Holic.” Paisley averages nearly one album and 70 tour dates annually, garners raves as cohost of the annual Country Music Association Awards, and still makes time for a hobby: drawing and painting. “I like the weird stuff,” he says, citing Salvador Dalí as his favorite artist. He admits that he struggles with work-life balance. “It is tough and frustrating sometimes. When you’re a creative person, there are just times when you’re not listening. You know, I could be looking right at you and thinking about something else.”
Right now, Paisley is looking at the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville’s east side and recalling the 2010 flood that left the main building under four feet of water. A friend points to a red-brick flood wall built to protect the Opry theater. “It better work,” says Paisley, “or that’s a lot of money wasted.” He walks in through the backstage door, stopping to glance at the completely rebuilt stage. Paisley first played the Opry in 1999, and he became a fixture on the weekly Saturday night radio broadcasts. “They always tell you to ‘come back anytime,’ but they never think anyone will take them up on it,” he says, laughing. “I did. About 50 times that first year.”
Paisley still drops by when he can for the Saturday pick-fest, and while he quickly acknowledges Buck Owens and Merle Haggard as his primary influences, he also feels compelled to push country music—and his fans—into more challenging territory. “If I was a new artist, I don’t know that I could have made this album,” he says of Wheelhouse, recognizing the currency he’s accumulated. When Paisley was working on the song “Accidental Racist,” LL Cool J visited him in Nashville and asked to see the Ryman Auditorium, the hallowed hall of country music that the Opry called home until 1974 (and where it still hosts occasional performances). Told that the Ryman was built in part by Confederate soldiers, LL Cool J was overwhelmed by the wash of history: “What kind of country do we live in,” he asked Paisley, “that you and I can stand here after all this?” Paisley will return the guest-vocalist favor by contributing to his friend’s forthcoming album, on a track called “Live for You.” “He’s not doing anything crazy,” says LL Cool J. “It’s Brad being Brad. But he loves to challenge himself.”
Paisley knows that as he experiments, “I’m not answering questions with my songs,” he says. “I don’t have the answers. But I am asking the questions, and that’s the fun part. I’m like the kid in class with his hand up, going, ‘Um …’ I think that’s a powerful place to create from.”
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