Song Review: Brad Paisley, “Heaven South”

I hope Brad Paisley has a defibrillator handy, because his career looks like it’s about to flatline.

After “Today” became a Mediabase #1 and peaked at #3 on Billboard’s airplay chart, I was confident that Paisley had finally regained his radio footing after a series of underwhelming singles (“Crushin’ It” only made it to #9, “Country Nation” stalled at #12, and “Without A Fight” only made it to #16). I was wrong: “Last Time For Everything,” an excellent song that I thought had a ton of potential, struggled to a #19 peak before Sony pulled the plug (which felt a bit premature, to be honest). In its wake, “Heaven South” became the third single released from Paisley’s Love & War album, and frankly, it’s the worst possible choice they could have made. It’s a lazy, pandering tune (think “Country Nation” without all the college football references) that completely destroys my optimism about Paisley’s future in mainstream country music.

The best thing I can say about “Heaven South” is that Paisley still has a great ear for production. As you might expect, the melody is primarily guitar-driven (both acoustic and electric), but a large assortment of classic country instruments are mixed in and given a chance to shine (banjo, mandolin, steel guitar…no fiddle, sadly). The percussion starts out with some synthetic hand claps, but they’re so low and unobtrusive that they blend it naturally with the mix (you only really notice during them the quieter moments of the song), and a real drum set jumps whenever the producer wants to add some punch to the track. The result is a very organic, almost rustic sound that sets a relaxed and cheerful tone for the tune. Of course, the track is topped off by Paisley’s signature guitar work—his solo isn’t as complex or energetic as in other tunes, but it’s well-executed and fits the song’s mood perfectly.

Paisley delivers his usual vocal performance here, even though the song isn’t much of a test of his technical abilities (the range is constrained, and the flow is relaxed). Instead, the song is a charisma-driven tune that requires the singer to forge a strong connection with his listeners, and Paisley’s smooth, earnest delivery is more than up to the task. Paisley’s voice has the kind of honest, believable tone that could sell a space heater to Satan, and while the song itself keeps him from reaching a broad audience (more on that later), Paisley does the best he can given the circumstances.

So if the production is great and vocals are good, why does this song irritate me so much? The problem lies within the writing and theme:

  • The song itself is an ode to the mythical Mayberry-eqsue towns of the South, celebrating the sights, sounds, and people of the region. Songs like this have always been a personal pet peeve of mine: The South may be the primary market for country music, but it’s far from the only one, and focusing on a single region like this artificially restricts the song’s target audience and limits its appeal. Paisley is at his best when he challenges his audience to expand their perspective (think “Southern Comfort Zone”), and songs that purposefully limit their reach like “Heaven South” leave listeners like me out in the cold.
  • Despite the above point, songs like that can still work if they’re well-constructed—for example, I enjoyed the historical perspective and story of Alabama’s “Song Of The South.” “Heaven South,” however, just feels lazy to me, as its premise is completely unoriginal, its imagery is generic and boring, and it resorts to reciting a laundry list of terms at several points in the hope that somethinganything resonates with the listener. (Spoiler alert: Nothing did.)

I really wanted to like “Heaven South.” Brad Paisley is one of my favorite artists, and the song features the top-notch production and strong vocals that I’ve come to expect. In the end, however, this song comes across as a poorly-written attempt to pander to a subset of Paisley’s fanbase at the expense of everyone else, and I’m left feeling ambivalent about the whole thing when it’s over. Paisley’s career cheated death with “Today,” but he’d better come up with some better single choices fast, because I don’t think he’ll be able to resuscitate it again.

Rating: 5/10. This one isn’t worth your time.