There is an unspoken idea that country music artists can’t be relevant or aware in music’s often self-indulgent meta-isms of today. That someone wearing cowboy boots or a stetson is somehow unqualified to talk about pop culture and the ‘in and now’ the way someone in shades and a designer leather jacket is. Somewhere along the line, our trust in understanding the world through music shifted from the endless plains to urban hooliganism and hipster clubs. While some country music can be hokey, the bad kind is not any less irrelevant than “musicians” who use computer programs instead of guitars.
Brad Paisley, now on his ninth studio album, is as relevant and eloquent as any musician who uses their music to express the world’s trials and tribulations through notes and lyrics. Wheelhouse, 17 tracks in all, is a lesson on how country music can be as smartly written and urgent as anything written from the underbelly of London or New York. While strongly rooted in Southern traditions, the album makes it a priority to stretch far past the borders of Nashville. The album’s first single “Southern Comfort Zone”, sets this tone early on, making the earnest concern that country stereotypes are just as poorly formed as any other. It waxes lyrical about how you don’t have to be country to be country, set to the backdrop of uptempo guitar-driven country rock and easy-to-digest lines; “Not everybody goes to church or watches every NASCAR race / Not everybody knows the words to “Ring Of Fire” or “Amazing Grace””. It’s perfect for the radio- any radio- replete with just the right amount of melodic resonance. The song’s message is something that permeates through the rest of the album too, that a good ol’ Southern country boy can be as worldly as just about anyone else.
In “Pressing On A Bruise”, Paisley shares the song with singer/songwriter Mat Kearney, resulting in the album’s most alterna-ready tune. Kearney’s vocal imposition and contrasting beat leaves the song somewhere between Paisley’s more traditional numbers and Third Eye Blind. The song’s accessible nature isn’t far from opening credit music for everything that was on the old WB channel (ie. Teen dramas and young adult shows).
The distinctly country-heavy tunes of the album, “Harvey Bodine” and “Outstanding in the Field”, bounce with enough country fervor but avoid the hokey Billy Ray Cyrus-ness trap. Interestingly, some of the album’s most memorable songs are when Paisley slows down the tempo- like the quietly somber “I Can’t Change The World”. In it, Paisley’s melancholic tone is a little defeatist, surrendering to the idea that we cannot affect change on a grand scale, but when it comes to the matters of the heart, we are in fact in control of that destiny; “I can’t change the world / maybe that’s for sure / but if you let me girl / I can change yours”.
He tightropes blasphemy (in the piano-clad “Those Crazy Christians”) with humor and aplomb, while doing the old-fashioned romance with style (“Beat This Summer”), but the one time Wheelhouse stumbles, is in the LL Cool J featuring “Accidental Racist”. It’s a well meaning song, about Paisley’s awareness of the sometimes ugly side of being Southern, but the LL rap verse/bridge come off as clunky. It’s not that LL can’t do his thing, it’s just that on here, he comes across as “rap for mainstream country folk” (LL actually uses the lines “I wish you understood what the world is like livin’ in the hood / just because my pants are saggin’ it doesn’t mean I’m up to no good”).
The album however, ends on a terrific note. The closer, “Officially Alive”, is everything great about Wheelhouse. Guitar soaked, upbeat and uptempo, it is a song about feeling alive while being aware that you’re alive- spreading the gospel of being happy, being in love, and being aware of impending mortality. It’s all parts Southern soul coated with the shine of radio friendly country rock and good time vibes.
It is unfortunate that country, great country especially, isn’t perceived to be as culturally relevant and/or powerful as something written by Jay-Z or Thom Yorke or whatever it is that is being pushed as the new wave of significance. The truth is, like his country contemporaries, Paisley is as in-tune with the world around him as he is the world in which he calls home. It just seems that the majority of country artists aren’t always concerned with reminding us constantly. Tastemakers are quick to push country aside, away from the lens of indie trends, flashy hip hop and schizophrenic dance music. It’s too bad because Wheelhouse is modern reflection with great conviction; clarity amongst the distortion and noise found in our current surrounds.