Song Review: Jimmie Allen & Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was A Highway”

Alternative title: “Boredom Was A Song.”

it wasn’t that long ago that I was excited about Allen’s prospects in the genre, based on his great debut single “Best Shot” to #1. Unfortunately, nothing he’s released since then (the run-of-the-mill Metro-Bro “Make Me Want To,” the mediocre Noah Cyrus collab “This Is Us”) could live up to the expectations set by his first single (in fact, “This Is Us” flopped so hard it barely cracked the top fifty on Billboard’s airplay chart), and he’s become just another country artist struggling to hold his spot in Nashville. His new release off of his Bettie James EP “Freedom Was A Highway” tries to add some star power to the mix by pairing Allen with country superstar Brad Paisley, but the duo fails to elevate a track that is nothing more than a cookie-cutter nostalgia trip that simply fails to hold the listener’s attention.

The production is the first disappointment, as all we get from the sound is a slick, spacious leftover from the Metropolitan era of the late 2010s. At the core of the sound are the same old guitars and drums that everyone else is leaning on, and despite the presence of Paisley’s musical wizardy (outside of the bridge solo, you’d never know he was here) and percussion that seems to be mostly real, there’s a strong sense of bland sameness here, as if you’ve already heard the song a million times before (and the token banjo doesn’t help matters). The spacious audio effects give the track an arena-ready feel, and the sound has enough punch to build momentum to keep the track moving at a decent clip, but the chord structure (which has a few minor chords and an unexpected number of sharp ones) and the darker instrument tones put the song in an awkward place, one that isn’t fun enough to feel nostalgic yet too energetic to feel thoughtful or reflective. It seems like the producer wasn’t really sure how to frame this song and tried to split the difference, leaving us with a mix that fails to serve either purpose.

While Allen and Paisley showcase some solid vocal chemistry, neither one does a great job selling their material to the audience. There are no technical issues present (the song doesn’t really test either man’s range or flow, and both artists apply appropriate vocal power when needed), but as they’re telling the story (or at least the story approximation the lyrics give them, but we’ll get there), they aren’t able to convince the listener to view the scene using the same rose-colored glasses. It’s like listening to someone sing behind a glass panel: You get the sense that they feel attached to the memory, but you aren’t drawn into the memory yourself. (There’s also the issue of making a unnecessarily making the song a duet: Paisley may add some marketing clout, but he’s a decade removed from the peak of his Q rating, and while the guitar is a nice touch, nothing about the vocals would change if Allen had just song the entire song himself.) The whole thing is a “meh” performance overall, and simply isn’t able to elevate the track where it’s needed.

The lyrics here are a slightly-more-palatable version of Blake Shelton’s “I Lived It”: The narrator is looking back at their teenage lifestyle and wishes they could return to those days when “freedom was a highway.” The problem is that the story feels both paint-by-numbers and half-finished, giving us a the same collections of stereotypical-yet-scattered vignettes that everyone uses: Friday nights, girls next door, loud concerts, hometown worship, and above all lots and lots of cruising (and don’t forget the “barbwire on a fence post” line, which serves no discernible purpose). While this narrator’s version of the past is more appealing than Shelton’s prescriptive/restrictive one, its attempt to drum up that old nostalgic feeling in the audience is no more convincing, and by not providing much of a present-day contrast to compare it to, the narrator doesn’t engender much sympathy either. It’s yet another song that’s reliant on the listener to fill in the blanks and tie the writing back to their own experience, and if that doesn’t work, you’re not left with much of a song.

“Freedom Was A Highway” is an uninteresting, unengaging track that’s too heavily reliant on clichés to leave any sort of impression on the listener. Everything from the sound to the writing to the performances of both Jimmie Allen and Brad Paisley just feels incredibly generic, and the song doesn’t do much to justify its existence as a result. I’m really tired of Nashville feeding us vague, hole-filled storylines like this and making us fill in the gapsinstead, give me vivid images and unique details that transport us into the scenes and really let us visualize them! Instead, we’re left with boring radio filler that isn’t likely to do much for the career of either artist, feeling nostalgic for the days when Allen’s career actually seemed to have promise.

Rating: 5/10. Don’t go out of your way to hear this one.

Song Review: Brad Paisley, “No I In Beer”

Good grief, can we think of something to do right now that’s not boozing ourselves to death?

Brad Paisley has always had a knack for producing material that was clever, fun, and topical all at the same time (think songs like “Celebrity” and “Online”), so when I heard he was dropping “a fun & light hearted song with tempo & relatable to our current situation,” I was genuinely excited: Could we get a song that winds up defining the coronavirus moment for years to come? The answer, sadly, was a definitive “no”: Instead of a timely, well-executed ode to solidarity while separated, we got a less-polished version of Thomas Rhett’s “Beer Can’t Fix” with a generic, tacked-on shoutout to the usual suspects, a song that doesn’t fit the moment any better than Rhett et al.’s “Be A Light” does. It’s not a bad song and it features some of the classic Paisley magic, but it’s hard to view this track as anything more than a colossal disappointment.

Paisley is one of the few artists left with a truly distinctive sound that you recognize the moment you hear it, but this mix blends in a little too well with everything else on the radio. The fiddle and steel guitar are still here (although the former gets very little screen time), and the electric axe that drives the song still has that classic Paisley tone (the same way Trigger always let you know that Willie Nelson was behind the mic), but the guitar and drums are really loud and overwhelm nearly everything else in the arrangement, except for *sigh* the token banjo that slow-rolls its way through the whole song. (There’s a mandolin here too, but it’s even less noticeable than the fiddle.) The overall atmosphere is bright and beachy (it’s not Luke Bryan’s “One Margarita,” but its not far off), but it doesn’t generate the energy I expected (saying this song has ‘tempo’ really oversells it), and the party-song cadence is eerily reminiscent of the Bro-Country tracks that drive us crazy in the 2010s (there’s just no groove here at all). I’m generally a fan of Paisley’s ear for production, but he whiffed badly here.

As a performer, Paisley is as charming and charismatic as they come, but after this many snake-oil salesmen roll through town touting alcohol as a miracle cure-all, you eventually start tuning them out. The song is not technically demanding and Paisley breezes through the lyrics effortlessly, and he make the narrator seem likeable enough, but after all the times I’ve heard this song and dance before, he just isn’t able to convince me to feel the good vibes and join in the fun . (I never thought I’d say this, but Bryan did a better job selling “One Margarita” than Paisley does pushing this song.) Yes, the lyrics give him almost nothing to work with here, but a) he can’t blame the writers on a song he co-wrote, and b) Paisley has set the bar so high for himself over the years (remember, this dude has dragged everything from “Mud On The Tires” to “River Bank” over the finish line) that his inability to connect with the audience on this song comes as a significant shock. After over twenty years in the business, it’s fair to ask whether Paisley has simply run out of ideas.

The most frustrating thing about the lyrics is that there are still flashes of classic Paisley wit here: For example, that “there ain’t no “U” or “I” in beer…but there’s about to be a lot of beer in you and I” might be the best line I’ve heard all freaking year. The problem is that these moments are few and far between, and we’re mostly stuck with stuff like this:

Wherever you are tonight
Whatever you’re going through
Grab a long neck bottle or a big ol’ pint
And let’s all have a few

(Editor’s Note: This is approximately where the writer fell to his knees and screamed “NOOOOOOOOO!!!” for twenty seconds.)

Everyone is pitching beer, whiskey and wine as a miracle cure for all the world’s ills (I’m surprised President Trump isn’t pushing alcohol alongside hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 cure), but as I pointed out three months ago in my “Beer Can’t Fix” review:

“Alcohol doesn’t “fix” anything: Not only is it a temporary respite from problems that will be patiently waiting for you when you sober up, it can often make things worse rather than better.

What makes things worse is the final verse, in which Paisley tries to shoehorn a belated salute to the heroes of the current pandemic, “the farmers and the first responders…the truck drivers shiftin’ gears, every nurse that needs a break.” However, because he spent the rest of the song featuring generic, overused imagery (the heartbroken slob, the crushed sports fan that feels stolen from “Beer Can’t Fix”) without mentioning anything even remotely pandemic-specific, this feels like a cheap, bolted-on attempt to tie the current crisis to a song that was written two years before it happened. Even for a guy who’s subjected us to “Country Nation” and “Heaven South” over the last five years, this move feels beneath Paisley’s dignity. (The fact that the “nurse” line is so long and was crammed into the song so tightly that I had to look up the lyrics to figure out what he was saying doesn’t help matters.)

Instead of the being the perfect song for the moment, “No I In Beer” feels like a track that should have been left on the cutting room floor. No one brought their A game to this mess: Not the producer, not Brad Paisley, and certainly not the writers of this frustrating mess. I never thought I’d ever say this, but Brad Paisley stepped to Rhett and Jon Pardi with this track, and he wound up the loser: Despite covering the same topic with the same flaws, “Beer Can’t Fix” is a far superior song on balance. It’s true that there’s no “I” in beer, but if Paisley persists in foisting mediocre mush like this onto the radio, there’ll be no Paisley in country music before long.

Rating: 5/10. Feel free to leave this off your playlist.

I’m Gonna Miss Him: What Happened To Brad Paisley?

One of the more overlooked storylines this week was the death of Brad Paisley’s most-recent single “My Miracle,” which was finally put out of its misery after failing to crack the Top 40 after four months at radio. After going three years and four singles without making much of an impression of the radio, it appears that the end of Paisley’s mainstream career is upon us.

On some level, this was to be expected: Paisley is 46 and has been in the business for twenty years now, and Nashville has no qualms about putting its aging stars out to pasture in favor of “the next big thing.” Still, something about this explanation doesn’t add up: Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, and Keith Urban still seem to be making headway on the charts despite being on the backside of fifty, and a 67-year-old George Strait managed to maintain a holding pattern in the low teens with “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar” earlier this year. Heck, at 42, 43, and 43 respectively, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Blake Shelton remain some of the genre’s biggest stars (and in my opinion, Paisley runs circles around all three of them as an artist). What do all these folks have that Paisley doesn’t?

To find the answer, I decided to bring back a feature that has been on hiatus for almost three years. Hold on tight, because it’s time for a deep dive!

An “Accidental” Misstep

To avoid cutting ourselves on Occam’s Razor, let’s consider the obvious angle first. If you ask your average country music listener “What did Brad Paisley do wrong?” most of them will point to this track:

While I believe that Paisley and LL Cool J put this together with the best of intentions, ultimately this was not a good song, and it was not well-received. The pair was lampooned and pilloried over the song, and it’s fair to ask whether Paisley’s reputation has ever recovered. It’s also hard not to notice the sharp divide between Paisley’s track record before and after Wheelhouse (which contained “Accidental Racist”) came out in 2013:

Before Wheelhouse After Wheelhouse
Single Releases* 33 12
#1 Singles** 18 1 (“Perfect Storm”)
Top Ten Singles 30 4
Singles Peaking Below #15 1 (“Me Neither”) 7

*Wheelhouse is split across this divide: “Southern Comfort Zone” and “Beat This Summer” came out before the album’s official release, while “I Can’t Change The World” and “The Mona Lisa” came out afterwards.
**All single rankings are based on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, and all data comes from Wikipedia.

So was “Accidental Racist” the anchor that eventually dragged Paisley’s career down to Davy Jones’s locker? It certainly didn’t help matters, but I’d argue that it only hastened a process that was already underway. For example, if we look at the RIAA certifications for Paisley’s “regular” albums (i.e., we’re setting aside Play, Hits Alive, and Brad Paisley Christmas), the downward trend predates Wheelhouse by several years:

Album (Year) Certification
Who Needs Pictures (1999) Platinum (1 million+ sold)
Part II (2001) Platinum
Mud On The Tires (2003) Platinum
Time Well Wasted (2005) Platinum
5th Gear (2007) Platinum
American Saturday Night (2009) Gold (500K+ sold)
This Is Country Music (2011) Gold
Wheelhouse (2013) None
Moonshine In The Trunk (2014) None
Love And War (2017) None

An examination of Paisley’s award show performances show a similar drop-off:

Award (data found here) Total Won Last Won In
ACM Male Vocalist Of The Year 5 2011
CMA Male Vocalist Of The Year 3 2009
CMA Entertainer Of The Year 1 2010

These numbers indicate that the ball was already starting to roll downhill when Wheelhouse came along. What other factors could have been at play?

Well, my old Josh Turner deep dive might have an answer:

Beats, Beauties, and Bros

In 2012, Florida-Georgia Line released “Cruise,” a party jam that went on to become the biggest hit in country music history. The track signaled the rise of Bro-Country, in which young men half-sang, half-rapped about drinking, partying, and hooking up with hotties in the back of a pickup truck at midnight in the middle of a field. Lyrics were shallow, women were objectified (and summarily booted off the radio), and fiddles and steel guitars were exchanged for screaming guitars and drum machines.

Bro-Country, as well as the Metropolitan R&B craze that followed, hit country music like a tidal wave, and as new artists like FGL and Sam Hunt rode the wave to fame and fortune, singers that predated the craze were faced with a gut-wrenching decision: Conform or die. Most singers swallowed their pride and chose the former.

When the Bro-Country monster came for Paisley’s soul, however, he chose door number three: He would eventually conform, but he would do slowly, reluctantly, and on his own terms. While his aging contemporaries happily hopped aboard the trend (McGraw’s “Truck Yeah,” Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here,” Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem,” Bryan’s “That’s My Kind Of Night,” etc.), Paisley stuck to his guns with This Is Country Music and Wheelhouse, and while both experimented with different sounds (the latter much more so), they mostly avoided the Bro-Country trend. Even when he seemingly waved the white flag with Moonshine In The Trunk, the fact that it was the first one to break Paisley’s every-two-years rhythm suggested that the orders came from above his head, and the album was not so much a concession to the trend as it was an attempted fusion of Paisley’s usual style with the electronic beats and party anthems that were in vogue (the fiddle and steel guitar remained omnipresent throughout the disc).

The story was much the same for the Metropolitan era: Both his Demi Lovato collaboration “Without A Fight” and his eventual Love And War album eschewed the slick, pop-tinged elements the rest of the genre was leaning on⁠—in fact, it seemed to touch on every faction of the genre except that, running the gamut from rock n’ roll to bluegrass. (Even the Timbaland collaborations sounded surprisingly conventional by Paisley’s standards.)

Unfortunately for Paisley, trends are trends for a reason, and while traditionalist might argue that Paisley’s stance bolstered his country cred, they didn’t help his popularity or his bottom line, and ultimately left him stuck far behind his peers.

And yet…could there be more to this story? Paisley certainly got shafted when the genre shifted under his feet, but the genre wasn’t the only thing that was shifting at the time.

From Hope To Hate

Let’s take a trip back to 2009 for a moment. Barack Obama had just recently become the first African-American to win the US presidency, striking a chord with his message of hope and optimism (remember “Yes we can”?). Despite coming off the nastiest recession since the Great Depression, people were bullish on the future of the country.

This optimism and open-mindedness were reflected in Paisley’s American Saturday Night, as “Welcome To The Future” and the title track celebrated the nation’s inclusivity and promise. This was the first time Paisley’s work had explicitly addressed these ideals, and it wouldn’t be the last: Wheelhouse‘s “Southern Comfort Zone” nudged people to step outside their bubbles and experience everything the world had to offer, and Moonshine In The Trunk‘s “American Flag On The Moon” referenced the country’s past accomplishments to proclaim that it had the power to move past petty divisions and reach new heights in the future.

Fast forward to 2017, and the national mood has done a complete 180. Donald Trump had won the presidency by tapping into the anxieties and biases of the population, and hope and optimism had given way to cynicism and a dot-eat-dog, us-vs.-them mentality. Tribalism had usurped diversity, and the hopeful vision of the future had given way to a bleak dystopian nightmare. (At one point, only 24% of Americans thought the country was going in the right direction.) In other words, this was not a great time to ask people to venture out of their comfort zones.

In the face of this mood swing, Paisley’s message became a bit more muddled. Singles like “Today” and “Heaven South” encouraged folks to live in the moment and find happiness in the people around them, but inclusion and long-term vision were no longer emphasized. He tried to make a plea for understanding in “The Devil Is Alive And Well,” but this time the message never made it to the airwaves, likely because no one wanted to hear it. Paisley still projected optimism, but now he was in the minority.

So how does this fit into our pattern from before? Well, the pessimism and resentment that bubbled to the surface in 2016 didn’t appear overnight⁠—these issues had been present all along, and had just been swept under the rug and ignored. (I’ll be honest: I had no idea how many people were angry over Obama’s election until Trump took office.) Country music is generally consider a conservative format (for example, consider its continued allergy to playing female artists), and I’m starting to think that when Paisley started pushing people to open their minds back in 2009, they started pushing back in the form of not buying what he was selling. He didn’t get blackballed like the Dixie Chicks, but he took a loss nonetheless.

So What Actually Happened?

Put it all together, and a potential narrative begins to form.

  • Paisley lost one side of the country because they didn’t agree with his assessment of the world and didn’t appreciate him lecturing them about what they should do.
  • Paisley lost the other side of the country by sticking his foot in his mouth with “Accidental Racist.”
  • Paisley lost radio support because he stuck to his musical guns instead of compromising to keep up with the times. By the time he half-conceded, the damage was done.

Of course, this is not to say that Paisley is completely blameless in the matter. For one thing, the writing on his post-Wheelhouse albums does not seem as sharp as his earlier work: Songs like “4WD” and “Gone Green” were so unclear about the narrator’s point of view that it was hard to say what they were for or against, and his attempts to critique and comment on pop culture on songs like “selfie#theinternetisforever” and “Love And War” felt incomplete and unconvincing. On top of everything else, it’s also plausible that after fifteen years, Paisley (who mostly writes his own material) simply ran out of gas. (As someone who can no longer think of a good Super Mario Maker 2 level concept after making 30+ courses in the original game, I can sympathize with that.)

Regardless of the “how,” however, the fact is that Brad Paisley will likely no longer be a factor on mainstream country radio, and the genre is worse off for it. Still, don’t cry too much for Paisley: He remains a major draw on the road, he’s becoming a television fixture by judging talent shows and hanging out with Peyton Manning, and the dude seems to have a happy family life. His place in country music history is secure, even if his run feels like it’s ending prematurely.

Song Review: Brad Paisley, “My Miracle”

Sorry Brad, but this song isn’t the miracle you’re looking for.

After twenty years in the mainstream spotlight, even maestros like Brad Paisley can struggle with keeping their material fresh, and country radio is signaling that they’re just not that into him anymore. “Last Time For Everything” peaked at a mediocre #19 on Billboard’s airplay chart,  “Heaven South” barely made it into the top fifty, and Paisley’s most-recent single “Bucked Off,” despite its interesting take on romance, subtle name-dropping technique, and being good enough to make my year-end Top 10 list, spent most of its time in the forties on the Mediabase chart after a splashy debut (officially its Billboard peak is #24, but that stemmed from a big rollout push that never found traction). In the chess game that is Nashville, Father Time has Paisley’s career in check, and the plucky guitar wizard appears to be running our of moves. His latest single “My Miracle” is the sonic equivalent of castling, smashing together several current trends to produce a simple “my girl is so awesome” track that feels both forgettable and recycled (in a world where “She’s Everything” also exists, this track doesn’t really serve much of a purpose). A song this “meh” doesn’t strike me as the one to lead Paisley back to the promised land.

In “Bucked Off,” Paisley struck a delicate balance between traditional and modern production values, but despite its expert execution, the bet didn’t pay off in the end. While “My Miracle” is not the concession to time and modernity that Moonshine In The Trunk was, the balance has definitely shifted in the modern direction: The guitars and drums are the driving forces here (especially Paisley’s signature electric axe), with the steel guitar and keyboard relegated to background atmosphere and the fiddle omitted entirely. While Paisley’s guitar work remains strong and definitely helps distinguish his work from the rest of the field, it’s starting to get lost in the fog of his own discography, and you can’t listen to the song without thinking you’ve heard all of this somewhere before (seriously, the steel guitar riff just before the bridge is the same one he used in the same place on “Who Needs Pictures” twenty years ago). The slower tempo, serious vibe, and simple, methodical arrangement ends up making the song drag, and not even Paisley’s wizardry can inject any energy into the mix. I’m really struck by how boring this song feels, and how often I was checking the clock waiting for it to end.

I wouldn’t call Paisley part of the problem on this song, but he isn’t part of the solution either. From both a technical and emotional perspective, this is the same guy we’ve been listening to for years: Solid range, smooth flow, and more charisma and earnestness than he knows what to do with. Something’s missing this time, however: I totally believe Paisley in the narrator’s role, but he can’t seem to transmit the good vibes he’s feeling to the audience this time around. Much like Carrie Underwood on “Cry Pretty” or me trying to use a sniper rifle in Splatoon 2, Paisley just doesn’t seem to hit the mark here despite his best efforts, and I’m at a loss to describe what makes this performance different from, say, “She’s Everything” or “Perfect Storm.” Regardless of why things don’t add up here, however, the fact remains that there’s a deficit, and it leaves the listener shrugging and saying “That’s cool, I guess,” rather than getting swept up in the story.

Of course, part of the problem here is that we’ve heard the same darn story so many times over the last year or so that we’ve grown immune to whole idea. Lyrically, “My Miracle” is only slightly less generic and boilerplate than “Heaven South,” as it leaps onto the twin genre tropes of a) deifying the narrator’s significant other, and b) leaning heavily on religious imagery to convey the depth of their feelings. There are slivers of classic Paisley is here (for example, he dives far deeper into the spiritual thesaurus than other artists do), but it lacks the wit and the detail that I’ve come to expect from Paisley at this point. It’s the sort of song that could have been written and performed by anyone, and it doesn’t measure up to Paisley’s previous expressions of love (“Little Moments,” “The World,” etc.). I’m tempted to say there aren’t a lot of hooks here for the artists to latch on to and use to elevate the track, because if Brad freaking Paisley can’t sell your song, no one can. (Of course, Paisley’s also a co-writer here, so he bears some responsibility here no matter how you slice it.)

In truth, “My Miracle” isn’t a bad song—in truth, I’d take it over a fair bit of what’s currently on the radio. However, Brad Paisley is one of those artists that I have higher expectations for, much like I do for Easton Corbin or Thomas Rhett, and when I get a song like “Somebody’s Gotta Be Country” or “Look What God Gave Her” or this one, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. The flat production, run-of-the-mill writing, and Paisley’s inability to connect with his audience leaves me both confused and unimpressed, and while Paisley claims he’s found his miracle, he’s going to need another one to stay on the radio much longer.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a spin or two, but you’ll quickly end up going back to Paisley’s classics instead of sticking with this one.

Song Review: Brad Paisley, “Bucked Off”

Take heed, country music: Brad Paisley’s career isn’t over until Paisley says it is.

Back in the 2000s, you could set a watch by Paisley’s output: One “regular” album every two years (excluding Christmas and instrumental discs), four single releases per album, and nearly everything he touched went to #1. His ride, however, has been a lot rougher in the 2010s: Wheelhouse‘s poor showing in 2013 led to an expedited Moonshine In The Trunk in 2014, the lukewarm reception to his Demi Lovato collaboration “Without A Fight” delayed Love And War an extra year to 2017, and after “Heaven South” crashed and burned at #48 on Billboard’s airplay chart, Love and War was abandoned after just three singles. It looked like the clock had run out on Paisley’s mainstream career, but as Rodney Atkins and David Lee Murphy have demonstrated recently, older artists never go quietly into the darkness. With the CMA Awards looming, Paisley suddenly re-emerged with the surprise release of “Bucked Off,” ostensibly the leadoff single for an upcoming 2019 album. It’s a nice return to form from Paisley after the pandering disaster that was “Heaven South,” and indicates that reports of his career’s death may have been greatly exaggerated.

The production here is an intriguing compromise between Paisley’s usual sound and that of the modern genre. On one hand, Paisley, perhaps the last bastion of the fiddle-and-steel sound, serves up a conventional guitar-and-drum-dominated mix here, pushing the steel guitar to a smaller supporting role and the fiddle deep into the background. On the other hand, labeling this a “conventional guitar-and-drum mix” is a gross oversimplification: Despite their reduced roles, the fiddle and steel are still more noticeable here than on anything else you’ll hear on the radio, and Paisley’s signature guitar wizardry remains as sharp and distinctive as ever (especially since Keith Urban doesn’t do much axe work on his singles anymore). From the opening riff to the fiddle’s closing hat-tip to “Amarillo By Morning,” this is a bright, bouncy tune that underlines the writing’s message of romantic optimism and perseverance in the face of rejection. While it doesn’t quite pass the context test (with all the rodeo references, I’d expect to hear a bit more of Chris Ledoux’s influence in the mix), it’s as close as you’ll get to a neotraditional sound on today’s radio, and it does just enough to placate traditionalist listeners while also catching the ear of those who are drawn to a more-modern sound.

Vocally, Paisley has lost nothing off his fastball, and remains one of the most earnest, charismatic singers in the business. The song is a good fit for Paisley’s range and flow (although admittedly it doesn’t really test either), and despite being happily married for over fifteen years in real life, the narrator’s role of an unlucky serial dater seems to fit him like a glove. (He’s also one of the few singers with enough gravitas to drop George Strait references and make them feel like a sincere tribute instead of a token gesture of “countriness.”) With all its rodeo allusions and classic country easter eggs (more on these later), this is the sort of song that only a time-tested hat act could pull of credibly, and Paisley uses it to remind Nashville that he hasn’t gone anywhere and doesn’t plan to anytime soon.

I think I’m most impressed by the subtle depth of the song’s writing, which  allows it to serve multiple purposes depending on what you’re listening for. On the surface, it’s a Western twist on the usual lost-love song, comparing relationships to bull rides and encouraging people to get back in the saddle after either one comes to an end. While it stretches the metaphor a bit thin at times (dedicating 25% of the chorus to the “number pinned onto the back of my shirt” is a bit much), it’s an unique (and surprisingly good) comparison that accentuates Paisley’s ability to find the silver lining in a bad situation à la “Little Moments.”

On another level, however, the song is also a nifty tribute to some classic country artists. George Strait may be the obvious one here (he’s the only one explicitly named, and both the lyrics and production nod explicitly in his direction), but if we were to run the chorus through GameXplain’s analysis machine, we find some neat references to other artists as well:

This ain’t my first rodeo

Someone’s gonna get hurt

So hey bartender, give me one more shot

Considering that Paisley has highlighted some these artists in the past (covering “Is It Raining At Your House,” scoring a #1 with “Old Alabama”), I’m inclined to think these references aren’t a coincidence. Regardless, it’s a cool set of easter eggs for older country fans that are subtle enough to not get in the way of the song’s primary message.

But wait, there’s more: Like Kelsea Ballerini’s “Miss Me More,” there’s also some meta-commentary here if you read between the lines. By nearly any measure, “Heaven South” was the equivalent of Paisley getting thrown off the proverbial country music bull (his previous low airplay peak had been #22 with “I Can’t Change The World”), and it led to a lot of speculation, including by yours truly, that Paisley was being put out to pasture by the kingmakers of Nashville. As Paisley eloquently puts it, however, “the pain only lasts so long, and when you get bucked off…you get back on,” and that’s exactly what he intends to do with “Bucked Off.” For fans of a more-traditional country sound, this is music to their ears.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been playing so much Pokémon Let’s Go! Eevee lately, but it seems to me that “Bucked Off” and the recent Pokémon release are trying to do the same thing: Accommodate a new and shifting fanbase while throwing enough bones to their longtime fans to let them know that they aren’t forgotten. However, while Let’s Go! doesn’t quite achieve its goal (don’t worry, that review’s coming soon), “Bucked Off” scores a bullseye: The sound is a nice balance between classic Paisley and modern country music, the writing contains multiple messages depending on what you’re listening for, and Paisley’s vocal performance shows he’s still on top of his game after almost twenty years. Country music is better when Brad Paisley is a part of it, and I’m really looking forward to where he goes from here.

Rating: 8/10. Definitely check this one out.

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.

Song Review: Brad Paisley, “Last Time For Everything”

There’s a “Last Time For Everything,” including Brad Paisley’s run as an country superstar. That time, however, is not now.

Paisley’s chart performance has been tailing off ever since the rise of Bro-Country, and even with more-traditional sounds flooding the charts, he has struggled to regain his former glory. At this time last decade, Paisley was in the middle of an incredible 10-song Billboard No. 1 streak, but “Today,” his leadoff single from his latest album Love And War, required creative accounting just to make it to No. 1 on Mediabase, and was blocked from the top slot on Billboard by Jon freaking Pardi. (Pardi gets credit, however, for also keeping Michael Ray’s disgusting “Think A Little Less” from Billboard’s top slot.) “Last Time For Everything” is Paisley’s second single off of Love And War, and like Luke Bryan’s “Fast,” the song is a tacit acknowledgement that Paisley’s run of dominance may be ending, while also declaring that it won’t be ending right away.

Paisley has many gifts (singing, songwriting, guitar-playing), but he also has a knack for production that fits nicely into modern trends while still remaining undeniably country. His signature electric guitar is the prominent instrument here, and the melody has a distinctly 80s vibe to it that brings to mind the iconic riff from The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” Despite this, Paisley keeps the foundation of this song rooted in traditional country, using real drums, steel guitar, banjo, and even the occasional mandolin stab (why no fiddle though?) to slowly build and maintain energy throughout the song. The song also features an interesting balance of light and darkness, as the frequent use of minor chords is countered by the bright tones used on the chorus and bridge. Throw in Paisley’s usual guitar wizardry, and you’ve got an impressive-sounding track that stands out for the usual radio noise.

The vocals here are ripped from the typical Paisley playbook. He stays mostly within his comfortable range but takes a moment or two to show off (his falsetto on the “Purple Rain” part is pretty impressive), he maintains a decent pace without overextending himself, and he brings his usual earnestness and charisma to make the song believable and relatable. Paisley has a knack for connecting with listeners on an emotional level, and while I wasn’t quite feeling it on “Today,” “Last Time For Everything” roped me in quickly and never let go, despite the fact that I hadn’t experienced half the events he mentioned for the first time, let alone the last time.

On the surface, the lyrics here aren’t that impressive—in fact, you could almost call this track a checklist song, as the narrator simply lists a whole bunch of events that inevitably stop occurring. However, I would argue that this song is an upgrade over his prior single “Today” for two reasons:

  • Unlike the vague, generic wording of “Today,” Paisley dives deep into specific imagery here, and while he leans on “stock” experiences (especially from high school, like football and prom), he even throws in a few unique and interesting scenes, like haircuts before male-pattern baldness and being woken up by his kids to see what Santa left them.
  • Instead of taking the obvious route of lamenting what was and never will be again, Paisley maintains the optimism of “Today” and implores the listener to celebrate the present, because you may never get another chance. Additionally, while some of the experiences he lists are sad to see go, he even includes a few in which the situation gets better in the future (for example, the reason he can’t call a woman his fiancée anymore is because she became his wife!).

If you read between the lines a little bit, you get the sense that Paisley is starting to look back on his career and realize that his time at the top, much like his time in high school and opportunities to hang out with Little Jimmy Dickens, is not only finite, but closer to the end than the beginning. Paisley’s been in the game for eighteen years now, and the young guns are not only nipping at his heels, but (as seen with Pardi’s Billboard block) actively shoving him out of the spotlight. With “Last Time For Everything,” Paisley accepts that his mainstream career may be numbered, but also brings everything he’s got to bear to make a strong statement that he isn’t ready to walk away just yet. (That statement extends to his entire Love And War album, which I would call his best work since 2005’s Time Well Wasted.)

Overall, “Last Time For Everything” is a great song on a number of levels, and shows off everything that people love about Brad Paisley. Paisley’s days as a country A-lister may be numbered, but he’s still got some good years left in him, and I’m going to sit back and enjoy them.

Rating: 8/10. Definitely check this one out, and give Love And War a look as well.

Song Review: Brad Paisley, “Today”

Need a song for your upcoming wedding, graduation, or special event? Have no fear: Brad Paisley’s got you covered.

Looking to rebound from the underperforming closing single “Country Nation” from his album Moonshine In The Trunk, Paisley teamed up with pop superstar Demi Lovato to produce the steamy anger-love ballad “Without A Fight”…which ended up performing worse than “Country Nation” (topping out at #16 compared to “Nation”‘s #12). Having back-to-back singles stall in the teens had to be a sharp blow to Paisley, given that his average single peak up to that point was #4, so it looks like he and his team have decided to regroup and push out another single, “Today,” before releasing his next album.

Production-wise, this song is a stark departure from Moonshine In The Trunk‘s blend of synthetic and real instruments. “Today” (and “Without A Fight,” for that matter) sound 100% organic, and “Today” is especially unafraid to show it off (forget the fiddle and steel guitar for a moment—this song opens with a freaking mandolin. When was the last time you heard a mandolin on country radio?) Stylistically, this song sounds like a track off of 2007’s 5th Gear, with a little bit of “Perfect Storm” (Paisley’s last No. 1) thrown in for good measure. However, while the song does a nice job building momentum before exploding into the crescendo, it seems to lack the punch of “Storm,” mostly because the bass line is pretty limp (not even plugging in into my subwoofer-backed speakers helped).

Vocally, Paisley once again demonstrates that he’s one of the best in the business. He has no trouble climbing the ladder to reach the high notes, but has enough range to cover the low notes, all while showing enough charisma to make you believe what he’s saying.

That said, while you certainly feel that the song is moving him…it didn’t move me quite as much. The song looks to cause the listener to recall the super-special moments in their life—weddings, childbirth, long-awaited reunions—and the lyrics are intentionally left generic and vague to cover most any emotional moment it might bring to mind. It strives to hit the listener straight in the feels, but if an emotional memory doesn’t immediately spring to the listener’s mind, the song only lands a glancing blow, even after multiple playthroughs. The song can’t quite stand out on its own—it needs a special moment to properly connect with the listener, and when it doesn’t have it, it’s just a song.

Overall, I like a lot of things about this track, but it doesn’t connect with me on a deep emotional level like it wants to.

Rating: 7/10. I recommend you close your eyes, listen to the song once and twice, and see where it takes you before deciding whether or not to purchase it.