A slick Nashville pro whose charming humor is outdone only by his guitar prowess, Brad Paisley has been my favorite country mega star since releasing his 2009 masterwork American Saturday Night, a colorful celebration of multiculturalism that praises fair food, fishing, spring break and bashes stale machismo and racism.
Bored with the beer-and-truck clichés too many of his macho country peers rely on, Paisley has ditched the thrill of radio singles (of which he claims 16 number ones) and refocused his talents on engrossing, statement-making albums which see a life beyond the conventions of his chosen genre.
Not to say his efforts have been unquestionably lauded, see the well-meaning, if ill-conceived, "Accidental Racist," a messy collaboration with LL Cool J in which the two performers find themselves working out their differences over bad analogies, do-rags and Lynard Skynard t-shirts. But the true crime against taste wasn't Paisley's idealism, but rather those who made baseless claims of the country vet being an apologist for the Confederacy.
Paisley put such notions to bed from the get-go Friday night at Klipsch Music Center, setting the tone by opening with "Southern Comfort Zone," a cosmopolitan single from his latest album, Wheelhouse. Name checking Paris, Rome, Hollywood, NASCAR and lemon merengue pie, the West Virginian let it be known he was a proud son of the south, but still mindful of other places on the map where "not everybody owns a gun" or "knows the words to 'Ring of Fire.'" And so went the entirety of the night's 20-song set; a display of progressive traditionalism with one foot in familiar surroundings, the other in new turf.
But even when performing songs which cozied up to his core audience, Paisley's distinguishable wit and wordplay made such moments more than just rote exercises, like the double entendre of "Outstanding in Our Field," a send up of bonfires and corn liquor ("We drive out in the country / Set something on fire.").
Aside from the jokes, however, came moments of genuine, and heartfelt, tribute for the rich tradition of honky-tonk history which precedes him. An honorary video montage showing footage of Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and the late George Jones aired during "This is Country Music," the salutary first track from his 2011 album of the same name. He then went virtual for the duet "Remind Me," bringing in a Carrie Underwood avatar, and doing so again with Charlie Daniels on "Karate," a song where domestic abuse is disabused.
Yet, always dwelling on the big picture, Paisley peppered much of his set with an amalgam of cultural references and musical inspirations - from the recent screaming goat meme, which was injected sporadically on the Hollywood-skewering "Celebrity," to the current single "Beat This Summer," which employed loops and backing tapes. The cascading chorus of "whoas" in "The Mona Lisa," were befitting of a Japandroids record, and the six string maestro tore through a cover of Val Halen's "Hot for Teacher." Paisley was many things to many people Friday night. You'd swear he acted like a pop star, probably because he is one. .