Brad Paisley doesn't possess the most distinctive voice in country music, and his guitar solos exude a lot of arena-friendly rock 'n' roll flashiness. But he's become a huge country star on the basis of just this combination of aw-shucks ordinariness and ostentatious skill.
In the title song of This Is Country Music, Paisley recites country-music clichés and then injects them with value by reminding us that many clichés are truths. Over a tight little melody that deliberately avoids pumping itself up with hot airiness, he boldly asserts the obvious: that some of these images (trucks and tractors, the American flag and senior citizens) are not hip, and they sometimes get politicized. But they still exist in pure forms unto themselves, certainly not in the pop culture of the young, but in the small towns he also salutes. In a similar way, Paisley small-scales the important stuff in "Toothbrush," about the little moments in everyday life that resonate emotionally.
This Is Country Music is Paisley's follow-up to his best album, American Saturday Night, from 2009. That record was an unusually direct and provocative collection that included "Welcome to the Future," a song celebrating the election of Barack Obama — and, as you might imagine, was a bit polarizing for Paisley's audience.
Paisley recently told The New York Times, "American Saturday Night was sort of was my 'The Times They Are A-Changin' album. It was, you know, telling the choir to think outside the box." Then, he added, "But it didn't feel right to do that again," and, referring to the new record, "We're not asking people to go places where it's not comfortable — 'cause at some point, the choir's gonna go to another church."
In other words, This Is Country Music is consciously a more conservative effort, an album meant to reassure rather than challenge. In a different way, however, it's just as interesting, because Brad Paisley's way of treading water still stirs up waves. In "One of Those Lives," for example, he hits hard on the subject of cancer in a way that other songwriters might have touched upon lightly, lest the listener become uneasy.
There's a generous 15 songs on This Is Country Music, and rather than offering filler, the album is programming in a shrewd way. It's front-loaded with the most commercial, pop-catchy tunes, such as the title track, Paisley's salute to the '80s country group Alabama, and a duet with former American Idol winner Carrie Underwood.
As the album proceeds, however, it becomes more hardcore country. There's gospel bluegrass with guest star Marty Stuart, an eccentric salute to Clint Eastwood called "Eastwood," and what's probably the best song on the album, "Don't Drink the Water," a duet with Blake Shelton that's some fiddle- and steel-guitar-infused honky-tonk.
This Is Country Music contains a few of Paisley's characteristic novelty songs, like "Working on a Tan" and "Be the Lake" — which I only wish was as Zen-like as the title sounds — while allowing guest appearances by Don Henley and Sheryl Crow provides a safe haven for middle-aged rockers searching for where their middle-aged audiences went. Turns out, like almost everyone else who's actually buying music instead of plucking it off the Internet for free, those folks are, either full- or part-time, listening to some form of country music, and Brad Paisley has made himself the red-hot center of this commercial universe.