The best Brad Paisley songs are like the best Hallmark cards you’ve ever received. They are poignant, they might make you chuckle, or they might even blindside you and make your eyes misty. They speak to specific moments in time, in a way that is (almost) never saccharine or exploitative. That moment when you’re looking at your family, wondering where time went. That moment when you remember your life’s goals used to be as simple as securing a used Honda. That beer-induced contemplation of all the different ways your life might have turned. When you quietly realize that your love life is a tumultuous plane ride at risk of crashing.
He came up in a period that country music partisans agree was one of the genre’s most fallow, when it was dominated by jingoistic pledges to put boots in asses and when stringing up the Dixie Chicks was treated like a sport. But Paisley might be his generation’s most staunch traditionalist, who simultaneously is able to stay current on the charts. He’s able to walk a fine line between being of the past, and being of the present. He’s able to sound like both Buck Owens and Don Rich rolled into one, a man who can work his voice and his Telecaster into overdrive serving as his own ace guitarist, but who will also record with LL Cool J. He’s like Merle, a man’s man (or should it be Guy’s Guy, given a song here?) who is unabashed in loving a cold beer, having dirty nails and being misinterpreted and misrepresented by people of every political vallance, but he can also host the CMAs and do cornpone humor with Carrie Underwood as his comedy partner. He’s married to a Hollywood actress, but writes songs about using ticks as a pretense for getting naked. He’s a technically impressive guitarist who has televised solo competitions with Keith Urban, who can also credibly quote Cartman from South Park in song.
Paisley hit his tallest peak — which he hasn’t even really begun to descend, 15 years later — with his best-selling and beloved LP 5th Gear. It’s a bursting-at-the-seams album with 19 songs and 73 minutes, nearly testing the bounds of the CD format and now appearing on vinyl for the first time. But that length allows the breadth of Paisley’s talent to truly flourish; 5th Gear is his most complete album, one that captures him in all of his modes: from god-fearing Christian man who loves Vince Gill to someone who can take the perspective of a catfisher who defines a threesome as chatting with two women at the same time on MySpace. It has as many guitar solos as an AC/DC record, and has as many songs that mention the mall as an ’80s teen movie. That the tour behind this record featured Taylor Swift as one of its opening acts somehow makes complete sense. 5th Gear is Paisley uncut, straight from the still, unfiltered and fully himself.
Paisley grew up far from the typical places where most star country performers come from: He was born and raised in Glen Dale, West Virginia, a town of 1,500 on the border of Ohio that is closer to Pittsburgh than it is to the state capitol in Charleston. Thanks to his grandpa, he grew up obsessed with country music and performed often in his youth. Because he grew up so far from any of the epicenters of the music business, Paisley took an unlikely path to musical stardom: He went to Belmont University in Nashville and majored in music business, meeting folks who’d become his producers, songwriting partners and friends. (It’s worth noting that artists as diverse as indie rocker Torres and Bro Country megaliths Florida Georgia Line also went to Belmont and majored in the same program.)
Two years after graduation, after signing a publishing deal with EMI — a first step to country stardom for many talented songwriters — Paisley notched his first hit: David Kersh’s rendition of “Another You.” You can hear, beneath the country-pop balladry of the mid-’90s, Paisley’s poignant songwriting emerging, as the song finds the narrator worrying about finding another woman like the one who left him; it’s as old a trope in country music that exists, but one that Paisley updated with sly turns of phrase. In 1999, after Kersh’s version of Paisley’s song hit Top 5, Paisley was signed as a solo artist to Arista Records and delivered his debut LP, Who Needs Pictures, which would find him nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammys.
Paisley very quickly showed off his incredible work ethic and found commercial success. For the first 15 years of his career, he never went more than two years in between records, and at one point, across multiple albums and years, had 10 straight No. 1 country singles in a row. In the middle of that impressive run came his fifth album, the punnily titled 5th Gear. Produced by Belmont University friend and longtime producer Frank Rogers, and recorded both in Nashville and Franklin, Tennessee, it would debut at No. 1 on the Country charts. And, in a week when T-Pain’s masterpiece Epiphany was the No. 1 album in America, Brad Paisley’s 5th Gear was No. 3. It was an era when country was duking it out with rap and R&B on the charts each week — 2007 had No. 1 albums from Reba McEntire and Kanye West, UGK and Rascal Flatts, Omarion and Tim McGraw — and Brad Paisley was one of country’s biggest chart behemoths.
Paisley’s universal capital-F Feelings are what make him so indelible on 5th Gear, and now. The album opens with “All I Wanted Was A Car,” a song with a crunchy guitar riff that has Paisley remembering how simple his dreams were, compared to the kids he knew in school who wanted to be scholars or pro football players, when all he wanted was the freedom that came with driving. He remembers his crappy job at the mall and all the chores he’d do to pick up loose change, and in the third verse, ends up shocked that he’s an adult who owns multiple cars now.
All four of the next four songs on the album were No. 1 country songs. “Ticks” is second on the album, the lodestar of 5th Gear, the greatest song ever about using Lyme disease prevention as a pickup line, and it features some guitar work that wouldn’t sound out of place on a ZZ Top record. The album’s next and funniest song, “Online,” was prescient in a way Paisley could never have imagined in 2006; it predates the term “catfishing,” but finds a hapless dork recounting the ways he romances women via IM, with a music video that featured Jason Alexander (best known as Seinfeld’s George Costanza) using Paisley’s photos to get online dates, while Paisley solos in front of the source code for the Matrix (2006 was incredible). “Letter to Me” imagines Paisley writing a letter to himself as a teen, something we’ve all wished we could do at some point or another, but the variety of advice he’d pass himself is what makes the song land emotionally: from thanking a teacher, to taking a dive in arguments with his dad, to hugging his aunt when he gets the chance. Country music is at its best when it is open and naked with its emotion the way Paisley is here. The subsequent single, “I’m Still a Guy” opens with a glockenspiel, and is a ballad that might as well be counter programming to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, for better or worse.
But as we mentioned up top, 5th Gear pushed the boundaries of the CD format, so the album goes much deeper than its singles suggest. There’s “Mr. Policeman,” an old school rave-up that wouldn’t be out of place on a Duane Eddy album, and quotes liberally from “In The Jailhouse Now” and South Park in equal measures. There’s the instrumental soundscape, “Throttleneck,” which would prove Paisley’s guitar bona fides as much as “Waitin’ On A Woman” proved his ballad talent. There’s “If Love Was A Plane,” a song that imagines the stages of love through the lens of a plane ride no one would take if they knew the odds of surviving. There’s the fun old-school honky-tonk jam session between Paisley, Vince Gill, “Whisperin’” Bill Anderson and Jimmy Dickens that finds the four men knowing that they’ve done wrong in their lives, but surely the devil has worse people to punish. A duet with Carrie Underwood — the sobby “Oh Love” — kicked off more than a decade of collaborations between the two artists.
In the end, 5th Gear was a bellwether for where country music albums were headed. The albums got bigger, and needed to feature the performer in more modes. They got looser, less “all-killer-no-filler” and more “We can get Vince Gill on a track for fun here.” Country albums were routinely the best-selling, and the genre’s stars the most radio-dominant, as the internet allowed country music fans around the globe to coalesce into something resembling a community. Country performers needed to be modern, but traditional. Respectful, but rebellious. No performer of the era walked the line, as the Man in Black once said, better than Brad Paisley.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.