But then things got complicated, as things tend to do.
First it was the country detours by some of my favorite artists — Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue, for example. It was tempting to dismiss those albums as ill-advised experiments, but tickling the back of my brain was the complicating knowledge that ‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You’ and ‘A Good Year For the Roses’ are really good songs.
Then came Lyle Lovett. And hot on his heels, though not as well-represented in my CD collection, came k.d. lang. These were country artists, no question about it, but I justified my appreciation of their work by focusing on everything they did that wasn’t country. Lovett had his big band. Lang had her torch songs. But it was hard to deny that The Road to Ensenada and Absolute Torch and Twang — two of the finest records I own — are country albums.
Over the years a host of artists who could reasonably be considered country found their way into my rotation — people such as Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams, Tift Merritt, Shelby Lynne, Wilco and Neko Case. Most of them toed the line between alternative rock and country, but I no longer shied away from the tracks that carried the stamp of the south.
And I suppose all those songs and albums served as a gateway drug because years later it was Dixie Chicks and Tim McGraw who made it through the barrier, despite my adamant objections to both of them at first. My wife introduced me to Taking the Long Way and The Dancehall Doctors — country albums through and through — and once I let my defenses down I came to treasure them.
Sugarland came next, with their fantastic album Love on the Inside, and they mark a milestone because they’re a country act I sought out and came to love all on my own.
And so it was that by 2008 the hipster indie rock guy had become at least a casual fan of country music.
I’m recapping this evolution as a preface to my review of Brad Paisley’s American Saturday Night because listening to this album felt like the final step in a process that started decades ago. Here is an album that I have come to love not despite its genre but because of it… Paisley has helped me understand exactly why people go nuts over country music.
Being a newcomer to the genre, I don’t know if Brad Paisley is a typical singer-songwriter or the very best country has to offer. I’m inclined to believe the latter because I can’t imagine artists of this quality are a dime a dozen. If they are, I have a lot of catching up to do. I’m already planning to snatch up Paisley’s previous work and it would be daunting to hear he’s just the tip of the iceberg.
No fewer than five songs on American Saturday Night have choked me up to near tears… not because they’re sad but because they’re so touching. Paisley is as sensitive and genuine a writer and singer as I’ve ever heard. He has songs on this album about his son, his wife, his grandpa and his country that are intimate, funny and profound all at once.
Take ‘Welcome to the Future,’ a song about American progress. It starts out funny:
I remember thinkin’ how cool it would be
When we were goin’ on an eight hour drive
If I could just watch T.V.
And I’d have given anything
To have my own Pac Man game at home
I used to have to get a ride down to the arcade
Now I’ve got it on my phone
But by the final verse he’s talking about race relations and, though he never mentions the name, this feels like the first country song to capture the meaning of a president named Obama:
Running-back on a football team
They burned a cross in his front yard
For asking out the home-coming queen
I thought about him today
Everybody who’s seen what he’s seen
From a woman on a bus
To a man with a dream
Where Paisley really shines is in his unabashed romanticism — this man can make husbands all over the world feel woefully inadequate. On the album’s first single, ‘Then,’ which charted at #1 and was apparently featured on American Idol, he sings about the deepening of love over time. Recapping pivotal moments in the relationship, he marvels: “And I thought I loved you then.”
The bridge is a killer:
I can just see you, when your hair is turning gray
What I can’t see is how I’m ever gonna love you more
…but I’ve said that before
Jeez, I want to marry this guy.
Paisley’s wife is actress Kimberly Williams, best known as the daughter in Father of the Bride — a fact he alludes to in the short but sweet reprise to ‘Welcome to the Future’:
With a girl back home
We broke up before the sequel
So I went to that one all alone
I wondered who I’d wind up with
And what would our kids look like
Well I guess I got my answer
As I tuck them in at night
Hey, I don’t think dreams come any truer
Boys, welcome to the future
Turning his attention to his 2-year-old son, the song ‘Anything Like Me’ is another one that plays sweet and funny before striking a bittersweet tone at the end (it just hit me, Brad Paisley is the Wonder Years of musicians):
End up every summer wearin’ something in a cast
He’s gonna throw a ball and break some glass in a window down the street
He’s gonna get in trouble, oh he’s gonna get in fights
I’m gonna lose my temper and some sleep
It’s safe to say that I’m gonna get my payback
If he’s anything like me
He’s gonna love me and hate me along the way
Years are gonna fly by, I already dread the day
He’s gonna hug his momma, he’s gonna shake my hand
He’s gonna act like he can’t wait to leave
But as he drives out, he’ll cry hes eyes out
If he’s anything like me
A little more than half the album mines similar sentimental territory, and every one of those songs is gold. But the rest are excellent, too, from the title song (which celebrates the American melting pot where a Greek fraternity puts Canadian bacon on their pizza while a girl in Brazilian boots in a German car listens to The Beatles singing ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’) to ‘Catch All the Fish’ (in which Paisley and his buddies vow to do just that, as well as “drink all the beer.”)
I was singing the praises of that song, a glorious bluegrass jam, to my wife when she chuckled and said “You can really relate to that, huh?” Having never gone fishing and never drunk a beer, I laughed along with her. But feeling an affinity for a man with whom I have very little in common — at least on the surface — is part of the appeal.
Take the song ‘No,’ which uses that old cliché about God answering all prayers only sometimes answering ‘No’ as the actual chorus. That’s the sort of thing that could cause eye damage in a cynical atheist like me, so far back into my head would they roll. But damn it if I wasn’t choked up at the end of even that song, which turns into a remembrance of Paisley’s late grandfather.
I’m working on a theory of music and movie equivalence, in which pop songs line up with comedies, heavy metal with horror, indie rock with indie cinema, and so on. Under this theory, good country music parallels movies like The Blind Side… solid, crowd-pleasing entertainment with a sense of humor and the courage to wear its heart on its sleeve. Both can be corny and easy to shoot down. But when they get you, they really get you.
American Saturday Night really got me.