Courtesy: Getty Images
Nashville-- Give most country songwriters the phrase "Southern Comfort Zone," and most of them immediately will go to whiskey.
Brad Paisley's mind works differently.
"Would that song be about hanging out around a bonfire in the middle of the country and holding a certain brand of whiskey?" wonders the singer, whose new album 'Wheelhouse' features a song by that name. "Or is that about leaving there and what you learn and how you'll never be the same? To me, the one that felt like it hadn't been written would be the one about leaving.
"That sort of set the tone for where things were going" for Paisley's new album, out Tuesday.
Throughout his 14-year recording career, Paisley, 40, has built a reputation for having a singular perspective: offering humorous takes on pop culture in "Online" and "Celebrity"; turning "Whiskey Lullaby," a song about two suicides, into a massive hit; and, most presciently, celebrating technology, globalization and civil rights in his 2009 single Welcome to the Future.
That's a markedly different approach from the norm for male country singers, whose songs are more likely to defensively celebrate and elevate a "country" lifestyle.
Paisley's not above that, as "Outstanding In Our Field," a song he performed with Dierks Bentley and Hunter Hayes at Sunday night's Academy of Country Music Awards, proves. But even that song uses sampling, a technique more often associated with hip-hop than country, as Paisley starts the track with a snippet of Roger Miller's 1964 crossover smash "Dang Me."
"As far as what's my wheelhouse, what's my comfort zone, that's growing a little bit" on the new album, Paisley says. "If things that are way outside of it enhanced my telling a story or being interesting and unexpected, that's what I wanted to do."
Paisley credits his wife of 10 years, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, with helping him get out of his wheelhouse on a personal level. Things he once vowed he'd never do, he says, he's done because of her influence - including having children.
"I wouldn't have sworn I would never do that, but it definitely wasn't something I was thinking about doing," he says. "Same with trips that we take - trips to Europe. Parties in Hollywood. Whatever. You name it."
The most interesting songs on "Wheelhouse" make an attempt to broaden perspectives, both Paisley's and his audience's. A trip to Paris with Williams-Paisley inspired an unconventional love song, "The Mona Lisa." In "Karate," which features a spoken-word segment from Charlie Daniels, a woman in an abuse-filled marriage chooses to level the playing field by taking months of secret martial arts classes. "Those Crazy Christians" can be seen as an effort to explain the behavior of a significant part of his fan base to those who don't share their beliefs.
"I'm really proud of that song," says Paisley, who considers 'Those Crazy Christians' a gospel song written from the perspective of a non-believer. "It makes a better case than most that are completely glossy and positive. Those are songs for the choir."
However, he adds, "I still think there will be people who misunderstand what I'm saying, but welcome to the Internet. But that is the job of art, to promote discussion."
Surely no song on "Wheelhouse" will promote more discussion than "Accidental Racist," which is, at its heart, a discussion itself. When an unauthorized version of the song was posted Monday on YouTube, the backlash came almost immediately from several websites, including Gawker, which called it a "real, horrible song" and accused Paisley of "passive-aggressively defend(ing) the South."
Written with Lee Thomas Miller and rapper LL Cool J, the song begins as an embarrassed apology to a Starbucks barista for wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt featuring a Confederate flag without realizing how others might interpret the symbol.
Paisley says the song grew out of a similar experience, where he wore a shirt with the rebel flag within its design on national television. Afterward, he says, "I saw a few posts online calling me a racist. I thought, 'Wow, so that's all it takes, is to accidentally do that, or to accidentally make a statement you're not meaning to make.'"
In the song, Paisley sings about being "a white man coming to you from the South land/Trying to understand what it's like not to be." To that end, he got mutual friend David Wild, who writes both the Country Music Association Awards and the Grammy Awards shows, to facilitate an introduction.
In December, when LL Cool J came to Nashville to co-host "The Grammy Nominations Concert Live !!," Paisley took LL Cool J on a tour of the historic Ryman Auditorium, with its "Confederate Gallery" balcony built for a reunion of Southern Civil War veterans in 1897. Afterward, he played the rapper his song.
"I thought it was bold and courageous for a guy in his genre to want to address that topic," LL Cool J says. "If he's willing to take that bold step to bring about some healing, bring about some dialogue, get people to talk, especially at this time in America, I'm with it 100%.
"It's one of those songs that teaches people about themselves. If you listen to it and you find yourself getting irritated, that means there's some things you've got to address. If you listen to it and you find yourself understanding it and relating to it, then that's something you probably should express."
Paisley, who also sings and plays on a track from LL Cool J's April 30 album "Authentic," realizes that opening what attempts to be a delicate dialogue in public leaves him vulnerable to criticism.
"I'm not proud that people's ancestors were beaten and held in bondage," he says. "But I am sure as heck proud of the farm I live on and the Confederate soldier buried there. I don't know whether we reached an answer, but it's real interesting to hear LL say, let's let bygones be bygones and the past is the past."
Though the two entertainers met just prior to recording, "we have a bond that comes from being honest together," Paisley says. "That is the kind of thing that I would like to see happen everywhere, a bond that comes from people being honest and exploring questions.
"I'll tell you, asking the questions feels good."