Song of the Day #1,128: ‘Letter to Me’ – Brad Paisley

In 2007, Brad Paisley released his fifth album, 5th Gear. This album has the same structure and sensibility as his previous two but it doesn’t quite live up to their standard. If I were ranking his albums best to worst, 5th Gear would come in fifth (appropriately), ahead of his first two more cautious efforts but behind the string of stellar LPs he kicked off with Mud On the Tires.

Earlier this week I wrote about how Miranda Lambert hooked me right out of the gate. Paisley wouldn’t have. If his first two albums were my introduction to him, I would have recognized the talent but not been grabbed the way I was when I heard American Saturday Night and Mud On the Tires. He’s one of those artists who keeps getting better with each release.

It seems excessive to call 5th Gear an exception to that rule — this is a fine record — but it is bookended by the man’s best work.

That said, this album does feature one of my very favorite Brad Paisley songs, and perhaps his most personal: ‘Letter to Me.’

Written as a message to his 17-year-old self, ‘Letter to Me’ covers the anxieties and dramas of high school life, from failed romances that feel like the end of the world to bad test scores that… feel like the end of the world. He sums it up in the final verse, singing “have no fear, these are nowhere near the best years of your life.”

I love the shout-out to “Mrs. Brinkman,” Paisley’s real-life speech teacher who he credits with giving him the confidence to go onstage and showcase his talents to an audience. I get choked up at the lines “it’s like she sees the diamond underneath and she’s polishin’ you ’til you shine.” The idea that a small-town teacher helped churn out a Brad Paisley is lovely. She and her students must have gotten a real thrill out of hearing this song.

If I could write a letter to me
And send it back in time to myself at 17
First I’d prove it’s me by saying look under your bed
There’s a Skoal can and a Playboy no one else would know you hid
And then I’d say I know it’s tough
When you break up after seven months
And yeah I know you really liked her and it just don’t seem fair
All I can say is pain like that is fast and it’s rare

And oh you got so much going for you going right
But I know at 17 it’s hard to see past Friday night
She wasn’t right for you
And still you feel like there’s a knife sticking out of your back
And you’re wondering if you’ll survive
You’ll make it through this and you’ll see
You’re still around to write this letter to me

At the stop sign at Tomlinson and Eighth
Always stop completely don’t just tap your breaks
And when you get a date with Bridgett make sure the tank is full
On second thought forget it that one turns out kinda cool
Each and every time you have a fight
Just assume you’re wrong and dad is right
And you should really thank Mrs. Brinkman
She spent so much extra time
It’s like she sees the diamond underneath
And she’s polishin’ you ’til you shine

And oh you got so much going for you going right
But I know at 17 it’s hard to see past Friday night
Tonight’s the bonfire rally
But you’re staying home instead because if you fail Algebra
Mom and dad will kill you dead
Trust me you’ll squeak by and get a C
And you’re still around to write this letter to me

You’ve got so much up ahead
You’ll make new friends
You should see your kids and wife
And I’d end by saying have no fear
These are nowhere near the best years of your life

I guess I’ll see you in the mirror
When you’re a grown man
P.S. go hug Aunt Rita every chance you can

And oh you got so much going for you going right
But I know at 17 it’s hard to see past Friday night
I wish you’d study Spanish
I wish you’d take a typing class
I wish you wouldn’t worry, let it be
I’d say have a little faith and you’ll see

If I could write a letter to me
To me

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11 thoughts on “Song of the Day #1,128: ‘Letter to Me’ – Brad Paisley

  1. Amy says:

    Before reading your post, I listened to the song and read the lyrics. And sure enough I got choked up and teary at the mention of Mrs. Brinkman.

    This song kicks in for me in the third verse. The first two seem a bit too corny and predictable, but once he cautions his 17 year old self to be more cautious about stopping at a very particular intersection, I’m hooked. That line moves the song past trite. It’s funny how the more particular an artist is the more universal his work often becomes.

    As a teacher of teenagers for the past 20 years, and a mother of one for the past 3, I can very much appreciate the adult Brad’s desire to send a letter that says “don’t worry,” “have a little faith,” “these are nowhere near the best years of your life.” I’m sure that Mrs. Brinkman and I share our appreciation that he took the time to write the letter, even if his 17 year old self, and his many peers, are unlikely to be able to listen or “get” the message until they, too, have moved past this chapter in their own lives.

  2. Dana says:

    This is a lovely song with a wonderful sentiment. And I agree with Amy that it picks up steam and impact with the more specific and personal references.

    Now, you didn’t think I could really just stop without some criticism of Paisley, did you? So, here it is…his music still remains often predictable and uninspiring. While the lyrics here are very good, the music just doesn’t measure up. When listening to this song, my mind immediately went to Taylor Swift’s remarkable “15.” There is an example of a similar lyrical theme, though perhaps even more personal and insightful than what Paisley did here, but what truly makes the song swell is the music and, in particular, the chorus. And when you consider that Swift wrote it when she wasn’t that much older than 15, it is all the more remarkable.

    So, for those of you who may wish to compare, here you go:

  3. Clay says:

    Well, I like both of these songs, but I think you’re crazy to suggest that the chorus of ‘Letter To Me’ doesn’t “swell” or move.

  4. Amy says:

    I’ve long said (well as long as she’s been around and on my radar) that Taylor Swift is some sort of crazy songwriting savant, so I hardly think it’s fair to compare her prodigious gifts to those of mere mortal songwriters.

    I do agree with Dana that it is particularly remarkable that she wrote this song (and so many of her other, equally insightful, specific, personal songs she has written) at such a tender age. She is truly gifted.

    That said, I think Dana is too hard on Paisley. While I certainly couldn’t meet his challenge (that he made in person, not in his comment) to sing back the chorus after having listened to it just once, now that I’m listening to it again, I do believe that the song is memorable and that it “swells” (though I don’t know if that’s the word I’d use), even if it’s not in the same league as Taylor Swift.

    I like the song for what it is, not what it’s not. A wise man recently reminded me not to dwell on something missing but rather to rejoice in something found, and I’m pleased to have “found” this lovely song.

  5. Dana says:

    I don’t find the chorus, or really anything musically about this song particularly memorable (or swelling).

    The first time I heard “15” was when Swift performed it with Miley Cyrus at the Grammy’s. I knew little to nothing about Swift at that time, and had never heard the song before, but I was instantly hooked. It was simultaneously wholly fresh yet completely comfortable and familiar. I could sing back that chorus after one listen and I dare say one could not say the same for today’s SOTD.

    Paisely, in my view, is a good, but not great songwriter, while, as Amy suggested, Swift’s songwriting is simply on a different level, as is “15” compared to today’s song..

  6. Amy says:

    Dana, while I don’t doubt your sincerity when you say that you could recall the chorus of “Fifteen” after a single listen, the fact is you’ve listened to that song 50+ times, while you’ve heard today’s SOTD exactly twice.

    I’m willing to guess that Clay has heard today’s SOTD far more times which is why the chorus is so familiar to him. After several dozen more listens, I’m sure you’d start to appreciate the qualities Clay finds in the song.

  7. Clay says:

    I think Swift is a very good songwriter, but I do hear a sameness in a lot of her songs (which might have something to do with the way she sings them). Paisley has written a far wider variety of song styles, probably because he’s the far better musician of the two.

    Funny Dana should mention the “sing along after one listen” thing, because one thing I’ve said about Paisley’s music is that I always seem to KNOW it after hearing it just once.

    But I actually think that argues against Dana’s point, because that quality, while nice, probably speaks to the simplicity of the songs, not the complexity (and I know Dana likes to equate quality with complexity when it comes to songwriting).

    Ultimately, I don’t rank either of these two in my top tier of songwriters.

  8. Amy says:

    We’ve just had a spirited and interesting discussion with Maddie, who tells us that she agrees with everything Clay has said (with the exception that Taylor Swift would be in her top tier of songwriters). Having attempted to play on her guitar songs by both Swift and Paisley, she assures us that Paisley is the far more complex songwriter, musically speaking, than Swift, who uses the same four chords in pretty much every one of her songs.

    Dana now wants to officially disabuse us all of the notion that he equates complex music or musicianship with great songwriting. It’s the way the verse moves into the chorus, the bridge flows from the verse, that most impresses him. While Bruce Horsby can play circles around Randy Newman when it comes to piano playing, Dana believes that Randy Newman is one of the finest songwriters around.

    So…. yeah… I still think that Swift is a superior songwriter, but I don’t think she is a more complex songwriter. And while some songs might have a similarity (because of her age, their theme, and her pop country style), the fact that she is 21 and has written songs as diverse as “Mean,” “Dear John,” “Love Story,” and “Best Day” suggests that there are all sorts of amazing songs in store for her fans in the future.

  9. Dana says:

    I endorse Amy’s last comment.

    I wish to clarify though that my comment about the movement of verse to chorus was specific to “15,” not a comment as to songwriting generally. Also, while Maddie may be correct as to the complexity of Paisley’s music and Clay may be correct about the diversity in styles, I frankly haven’t heard that complexity or diversity in the samplings over the past several weekends. Still, I would agree that Paisley is the better singer, better musician, but, in my humble opinion, Swift is the far better songwriter.

    At the end of the day, for me, it comes down to a sometimes amorphous and intangible quality of originality blended with the “hook” that brings you back as the Blues Travelers aptly put it. For me, Swift has that in spades, and so she grabs my listening attention, as does Lyle Lovett, in a genre I otherwise don’t really care for. Paisley just doesn’t capture that for me, at least not from what I have heard thus far.

  10. Clay says:

    I don’t disagree with anything you say, except that I think Paisley has that in spades as well.

    The whole “better songwriter” question is an interesting one, because on the one hand you can probably point to a lot of objective criteria about chords used and shifting time signatures and all of that, but on the other hand, if you like listening to one person’s songs more than another’s, doesn’t that mean he’s the better songwriter?

  11. Amy says:

    No, just that he (or she) is a songwriter who appeals to you. I’inm sure there are objective criteria that can separate bad from mediocre to good songwriters (just as there are such objective criteria for any art form). Of course once you have the group of good or great songwriters, novelists, artists, filmmakers, and so on, subjectivity kicks in.

    What makes me think a particular screenwriter or songwriter is “better” than another equally great screenwriter or songwriter says more about my personal tastes than the talents of the people we are comparing. So it’s a little bit of both, I’d say.

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