A rock provides a major clue to the heartbeat of Brad Paisley’s Wheelhouse.
The piece, a silhouette of Paisley’s homestate West Virginia, is embedded in one of two stone walls of the drum room in his converted home studio. The state represents the place where he first acquired the skills that coalesced into one of contemporary country’s most important careers. The studio itself is where he essentially started over, producing himself for the first time and figuratively rebooting a career that was already the envy of most of Paisley’s peers.
The rock reminder of West Virginia definitely belongs on the Middle Tennessee property. Paisley can’t escape his past – nor would he want to. The 21 #1s, the three awards from ASCAP as the Country Songwriter/Artist of the Year, the 14 Country Music Association awards (including a win as Entertainer of the Year) and the 14 Academy of Country Music awards provide evidence that he has figured out how to connect in a big way with both the public and the country music business.
But as much as his past informs who he is, Paisley was inspired in this album to take a flying leap off a creative cliff. The album is called Wheelhouse, in part, because of the first line in the first song, “Southern Comfort Zone.” The studio is now christened the Wheelhouse because Paisley changed his own comfort zone while recording the album.
“Whatever we do here,” Paisley says in the studio’s piano room, “whatever ends up coming out of here on an album, must end up eventually being in my wheelhouse. Because I’ve done it.”
Much of what ended up among the 17 tracks on Wheelhouse was a result of Paisley’s dedication to challenge. He’d never been his own producer, never commissioned a studio, never recorded an album without falling back on some of Nashville’s studio musicians and never tackled some of the difficult themes that are present in the album. Certainly not in the way that he approached them on Wheelhouse.
“Every song was meant to incorporate something new for me, and to take some sort of twist you don’t expect,” Paisley explains. “Whether that be the lyric or the loop or the guest, or a different format like rap, or getting a comedian like Eric Idle, it needed to spin your head around somewhere.
“It’s like my dog when you say his name followed by a command he doesn’t understand. He’s like, “Huh?” And he turns his head a little sideways. That’s what I wanted every song to do, in one way or another.”
Paisley did that in a big way with the album’s first song and lead single, “Southern Comfort Zone,” which incorporated a bevy of unpredictable elements – the voice of his late friend, Andy Griffith; pieces of the Southern folk standard “Dixieland”; and the Brentwood Baptist Church Choir. All of that was paired with Paisley’s familiar voice and stunning guitar shredding while he challenged listeners to get out of their own comfort zones by seeing as much of the world as possible.
Embracing the song was not a challenge. “Southern Comfort Zone” became just his latest #1 single even while Paisley continued an 11-month sojourn with the album, which he wrapped in January 2013, just weeks before it was due to ship.
“I wrote a bunch of songs that aren’t comfortable,” he says. “And that was the point, really – for them to be vocally, musically, lyrically, thematically uncomfortable – or at least new enough to me that I think I had to stretch.”
He did that in the songwriting process, writing to a pre-existing loop for the first time when he penned “Beat That Summer,” the album’s second single, with frequent collaborator Chris DuBois (“Welcome To The Future,” “Old Alabama”) and in-demand songwriter Luke Laird (“Pontoon,” “Undo It”). Paisley took another fresh approach in sampling a classic country song, incorporating Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” in “Outstanding In Our Field.” And Paisley challenged himself yet again by threading Monty Python icon Eric Idle into the tongue-in-cheek marital commentary of “Harvey Bodine,” the story of a henpecked husband who finds new life by dying.
You want more challenges? How about incorporating rap for the first time with the recitations of AAA singer/songwriter Mat Kearney, Grand Ole Opry member Charlie Daniels and iconic rapper LL Cool J?
But the biggest challenges might have come in Paisley’s songwriting. The wit and thoughtfulness that have always been part of his work continue in Wheelhouse, but he pushes them to new extremes. The humor is particularly evident in “Death Of A Single Man” and the twisted “Karate,” which manages to lighten two very heavy topics: domestic violence and karma. Even more challenging is Paisley’s willingness to explore religious contradiction in “Those Crazy Christians” and the tragedy of discrimination in “Accidental Racist.”
That song went through several incarnations before it finally found its properly sensitive voice. Paisley enlisted LL Cool J to write and deliver the song’s counterpoint, sealing the deal as both of them stood on the stage of Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, gazing at the balcony, ironically named the Confederate Gallery.
“‘Accidental Racist’ needed to be collaborative because I have no authority in terms of the other perspective,” Paisley says. “I can only speak as a white Southerner. One of the greatest moments of my songwriting life was taking him for a ride around town after touring the Ryman. I’m playing the song, and he’s banging on the dashboard and saying, ‘This is important. I’m in.’ Then he wrote his entire part himself. And I told him, ‘You can say whatever you want. You want to tell me I’m crazy? Tell me I’m crazy. There’s nothing off limits for you. Whatever you want to say in this song, you say it.’ And he did.”
It is the single most uncomfortable topic on the album. And it’s exactly why Paisley was adamant that it belonged on Wheelhouse.
“What kind of an artist am I if I let the fear of consequences for art be take away my willingness to speak about what I believe in?” he asks rhetorically. “I couldn’t look myself in the eye in the mirror if I was willing to just say, ‘I think it’s important and people need to hear it, but that scares me because I don’t know what that’ll do to my career, so I just won’t put it on there.’ I couldn’t do that.”
The Wheelhouse, the site for all of Paisley’s self-challenge, was borne of his personal past. The studio was built in the home he and his wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, occupied for several years at the beginning of their marriage. Once they built a new place, it became a guest house, but Paisley began to envision it as more of a creative space. His old bedroom had odd angles in its ceiling and closets that created perfect acoustics for a studio environment. He turned the living room into an expansive location for the piano, and used a tiled downstairs bathroom as an echo chamber. He built the drum room – with its rock walls and dynamic sound – in just a couple weeks before recording commenced in the spring of 2012.
Paisley employed his road band as his studio ensemble, a rare move in mainstream country, and they typically worked after dark on the project, sometimes finishing a session at 4:30 or 5 a.m., just in time to catch the tour bus for a ride to a concert date.
Part of the challenge of Wheelhouse was to embrace the humanity of the musicians. Technology was embraced for capturing sound or enhancing it. But it was limited if the intent was to slice every imperfection out of the recordings.
“We didn’t fix much on this whole album,” Paisley notes. “When you hear the band, it’s essentially them playing the best they can, it’s not an engineer fixing anything. That was my rule. We could fix something if there was something glaringly bad, but as far as fixes for the sake of perfection or whatever, they are not there. We didn’t do any of that.”
Nor did Paisley do that with his vocals. Recording on his own property gave him the freedom to write and re-write new lyrics to his songs at the last minute, and to do his vocal tracks on days when he was particularly inspired. Some of the songs represent him singing a line for the very first time.
Because he took a leap in producing, he was forced to take even greater command as a singer. Over time, the process increased his confidence and his strength as a vocalist, evident in the elongated notes in “I Can’t Change The World” and “Officially Alive,” and in the expressiveness of “Tin Can On A String,” sung in a vocal booth that was formerly his closet.
“It was a different feeling,” Paisley says of the process. “When I hadn’t produced my records, I always really leaned on Frank Rogers to get things out of me. It’s almost like he would have to crack a whip and make me sing. But when you’re doing it yourself, for me, I had so much to prove and say, it was really up to me to step up to the plate.”
Paisley challenged himself in one other important way. The sampled sound of a human heartbeat is introduced in “Tin Can,” the 11th of the 17 tracks, and it continues pulsing underneath the remainder of Wheelhouse through the end of the finale, “Officially Alive,” which Paisley wrote on his own as a summation.
As he experienced a creative rebirth on Wheelhouse, he began to ponder: When does one truly start living? He realized one experiences life most in the midst of personal challenge.
“You’re alive when that girl you thought you’d marry is driving away in the limousine with someone else,” he says. “And you’re alive when you’re standing in Paris looking at the Eiffel Tower, and you know when you go back to Nashville, you’ll never be the same. And you’re alive when you stand up for something you believe in and aren’t afraid to do that. And you’re alive when your first child is born, and that love you feel is so much larger than you ever imagined possible. That’s why I wrote that. That song was meant to be the exclamation point.”
It’s the final piece of his transition as Paisley moves into the next phase of his career. He cannot – and will not – let go of his past. But he’s also excited about the uncertainty of the future. The West Virginia stone is a reminder of where he’s been. The Wheelhouse and its namesake album are the starting point for the rest of Brad Paisley’s creative journey.