Brad Paisley: Country superstar, Accidental Racist
Country superstar Brad Paisley doesn't exactly regret Accidental Racist, the off-the-scales controversial duet he recorded with rapper LL Cool J (yes!) last year. But would he do things differently given his time over? He needs to think about that one, if you don't mind.
"The minute people heard the title they were ready to pounce," he says. "In hindsight I realise I was talking about a subject that can't be contained in a four minute song. It is going to be larger than that, no matter what."
Thoughtful and well-spoken, Paisley comes across as a decent chap. It's clear he intended for Accidental Racist to bring strangers together, rather than go off like a clusterbomb in the culture. Still, even by the clunky standards of country music – where cliche is celebrated instead of shunned – the tune provided an instructive lesson in shooting yourself in the foot. Twelve months on, the whiff of gunsmoke lingers.
You could devote pages to the ways in which Accidental Racist touches the wrong chords. Singing in that creamy twang that has made him the biggest male country star since Garth Brooks, Paisley playfully invokes the Confederate Flag, implying it is a symbol of southern United States identity rather than of slavery. Meanwhile, LL, addressing Paisley's redneck narrator, throws out the line "If you don't judge my gold chains, I'll forget the iron chains", thus equating hip-hop street fashion with – ouch – the systemic enslavement of generations of African-Americans.
With race relations THE hot button issue in America, the furore came as a surprise to nobody – apart from Paisley, it appears.
"We had the idea to play characters in the song," he says, happy to address the subject. "I was, what you would consider, an innocent southerner asking a question – LL Cool J is a northerner who says 'this is how I feel'".
He is, he believes, a victim of the feeding frenzy tendencies of the modern news cycle. In a more innocent era, the kindly intentions of Accidental Racist would have shone through and nobody would have taken offence. Nowadays, we have cable news and the internet – the ultimate echo chambers and truth-distorters.
"The era I grew up listening to music in – the 80s and 90s – were entirely different. This song would never have made any headlines. There was no outlet for that. Today, the internet allows stuff to go viral. And you have the 24 hour news cycle, where they are always looking for topics to talk about."
A cynic might wonder if the controversy wasn't a calculated attempt to draw attention to Paisley's latest album, Wheelhouse (the artist's ninth, and the seventh to place top ten in the US). He pleads convincingly this was not the case. The last thing he wanted was to have to go on talk shows and cable news – as he was required to – and defend his song. A multiple chart-topper, he isn't exactly adverse to the spotlight but this sort of publicity made him squirm.
"I wasn't ready for the attention. It's weird – especially if you are aren't courting the exposure. You are being artistic, trying to make a statement. It's strange to stir feelings up when you didn't mean to. That said, if I think about it, no, I wouldn't change my actions. You go through an experience like that as a person and you come out thinking – 'hey, I'm stronger for this'."
Country musicians tend to be polite and considered in their thoughts and Paisley cleaves 100 pc to the stereotype. He's just come from a 60,000 capacity concert in Houston – a pre-show selfie with former President George H W Bush has predictably gone viral – yet does not carry himself with any airs. He seems mildly baffled by his success – the best response, surely, to stardom at his level (in America he's carved out a mainstream niche between Taylor Swift and John Bon Jovi – he's country, with an every-dude touch).
Born in 1972, Paisley grew up in small town West Virginia. By the time he graduated from college, he was working as a songwriter for several major Nashville producers. He released his first single at the relatively late age of 27 but, achieving his first number one just a year later, quickly made up for lost time.
Since then, his trajectory has been in only one direction. He has notched up 32 American top ten singles, sold 20 million records and, in January, dueted with Pharrell at the Grammys on a cover of The Beatles' Here Comes The Sun. When he headlines Dublin's 14,000 capacity O2 tomorrow, it will probably feel like an intimate gig in front of a few close friends.
"From 12, 13 I knew I wanted to do this," he says. "I would be happy having any place in music – glad to play guitar for someone in a band. So long as I didn't have to work a real job. It happens that nowadays I get to be the boss."
That isn't to say there weren't moments of struggle. Through his 20s, there were days he wondered if his career would take off. Rather than despair, he doubled down on that most American of credos – work harder.
Is there a downside to his level of popularity? He nods. "You travel a lot. At times, you have intense pressure. There is also the question of your family – when you have kids [married to actress Kimberley Williams, he has two sons] that grow up around this, just what do you do? Time will tell [how it all works out]."
In America, the battle lines between Paisley's commercial brand of country music and 'high' culture – as its exponents see it anyway – are deeply drawn. So far as tastemakers are concerned, the Nashville sound is for hicks and rednecks – the terminally unreconstructed. Similar views pertain in Ireland, Day & Night tells Paisley, outlining the canned astonishment/outrage over the stampede to see Garth Brooks at Croke Park in July.
"Well, I guess we are having the last laugh," he says. "People are starting to figure out that there is a lot going on in country – no matter where [in the world] you are from. I don't feel [angry about the snobbery] these days. It's all good."
- Brad Paisley headlines the second night of the 'Country To Country' Festival at the O2, Dublin tomorrow.
LYRICS IN THE FIRING LINE...
Accidental Racist kicked up quite a controversy in 2013 — but it was far from the only contentious song during the year.
Blurred Lines The summer anthem started a debate about sexualised lyrics — and whether Robin Thicke truly was as gross as he came across on the track.
Midnight Memories It's hard to imagine anyone being actively offended by One Direction (unless suffering from a Brylcreem phobia). Still, their single Midnight Memories raised eyebrows with many discerning a similarity with Def Leppard's Pour Some Sugar On Me (the 80s rockers have let it be known they won't be suing).
Villuminati J Cole's chart-topper stirred a heated discussion about homophobia in hip-hop through its gratuitous deployment of the 'f' word.
We Can't Stop Produced by Pharrell Williams, Miley Cyrus' comeback single saw the former teen star accused of cynically appropriating hip-hop culture, though the dust-up was soon eclipsed by 'Twerk-gate'.
Day & Night