The Melting Pot: Revisiting Brad Paisley’s ‘Wheelhouse’

The Melting Pot is a recurring feature where I cover miscellaneous topics related to country music.

Wheelhouse cover

As of this writing, Brad Paisley’s “No I In Beer” is up to No. 34 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart (up from No. 38 last week), grabbing 17 new radio adds, too; it’s his best showing for a single in years. A decade ago, this wouldn’t have been uncommon for Paisley, but we’ve steadily seen his influence fade over the 2010s. The reasoning amounts to several factors, and as I said in my initial review of the song, I don’t want to begrudge anyone who finds some speck of joy from “No I In Beer,” especially now.

For the record, while I don’t particularly care for it, I am happy to see Paisley regain his momentum. He was one of the artists who shaped my childhood love for country music, after all. With that said, I think it’s fair to point out that it’s a lazy attempt at pandering, too, and while, again, one can attribute several factors to Paisley’s decline over the past decade, I think his lack of edge is an important one to note.

The thing is, when I say “lack of edge,” I think it’s been an intentional factor for several years. “My Miracle” and “Perfect Storm” are perfectly inoffensive, but they both scan as tired rewrites of “She’s Everything,” “Then” and “The World” (among others). “Today” is a song I quite like, but it also offers as much insight as a Hallmark greeting card. “Crushin’ It” and “Country Nation” stand as examples of Paisley’s goofier, more playful side, but are too corny even for him.

Now, it’s one thing to take a swing and miss, but I don’t think Paisley is even trying to tap into his creative genius anymore. I blame the Wheelhouse album for that.

Every writer imaginable has delivered a better rant of “Accidental Racist” than I ever could (a song off Wheelhouse, in case you only discovered country music a few years ago and didn’t know that), and I believe the criticisms Paisley faced from that song have made him afraid to experiment ever since. Even he said about the song, “I read the serious criticism – the stuff that was legit. Some of it I understood; some of it I didn’t. I’m eager to read more. This is a learning experience for me … The whole thing took me by surprise in this sense: This was a deep album cut on a country record. I didn’t know it was possible for an album cut to make the news, let alone be headline news.”

Granted, while I agree with said criticisms, I’m not here to talk only about that song. Paisley may have had good intentions with it, but it came across as too uninformed (even if Paisley sees his Lynyrd Skynyrd shirt solely as what it is, there’s no way he doesn’t understand what the Confederate flag behind it means to other people, especially when he grew up in the South).

Perhaps the most confusing part of the song on that album, however, is that, for as much as Paisley claims he’s just a “son of the South” on that song, on Wheelhouse he was anything but. Lead single “Southern Comfort Zone” was quite literally about him feeling like an outsider in other parts of the world as a southerner. And with his attempt at understanding other cultures, without “Accidental Racist,” Wheelhouse would scan as one of his most forward-thinking projects ever.

It still is, and the points I just made both are and aren’t part of the larger picture of that album. Paisley’s jokes were still corny; his guitar work was still excellent; he still attempted to take his music where other mainstream country artists (especially his male contemporaries) would dare not go in fear of the possible repercussions. What changed, with Wheelhouse, was how far he was willing to go with the project’s overall scope. In some ways, it’s his most pop-leaning album – there’s drum machines, synthetic elements, tinges of reverb, and huge choruses and hooks. Now, a fair criticism is that it’s all too far out of Paisley’s wheelhouse; part of his charm is his understated “aw, shucks” attitude, so amplifying all of it may seem counterintuitive.

But I’ll be damned if a lot of it didn’t really work for me: “Southern Comfort Zone” is a monster of a track that, great message aside, also works for the phenomenal guitar work excelling off of the atmospheric production; “Outstanding In Our Field” would have fit on just about any other Paisley project, but there’s something about that Roger Miller interpolation that puts in a weird class of fun; “Karate” is an uncomfortable cut to enjoy, mostly because it’s a cheery take on domestic abuse that kinda-sorta skirts over the larger issue … but then ends with the woman kicking her abuser’s ass, all while Charlie Daniels (of all people) narrates the event in question.

On that note, “Those Crazy Christians” may have gotten more attention had “Accidental Racist” not, as it’s one of the most brutal observations of Christian hypocrisy I’ve ever heard, and, unlike that other song, actually makes a coherent point. And that comes after the nastier “Runaway Train,” in which Paisley defies his mother’s wishes to settle down with a good Christian woman in favor of someone she most certainly wouldn’t approve of. Even “Officially Alive” carries the underlying sentiment that Paisley is OK with ruffling some feathers … even if he wasn’t aware of what that would quite mean at the time.

Now, it’s not completely great, even without considering “Accidental Racist.” The single choices were among the weakest, safest cuts on the album, with “I Can’t Change The World” scanning more like an odd demo with Paisley’s voice pushed way too close to the front of the mix. And both “Death Of A Married Man” and “Death Of A Single Man” retread the somewhat sexist punchlines he used before on tracks like “I’m Still A Guy.” Aside from all that, too, at 17 tracks and over an hour long, Paisley and his team should have cut a good five or so songs from here.

In spite of its flaws, though, at least Paisley attempted to step out of his wheelhouse, if only for a little bit. With bro-country invading the airwaves that same year (and dominating them until around 2015) and Paisley’s diminished returns from that album, it’s not surprising that his next single was “River Bank,” a song about enjoying a day of fun, beer and laughing all the way … to the river bank. Get it?

To be fair, the larger point of this piece is that Paisley is choosing to mostly play it safe now, at least from his singles and promotional cuts. He still records thoughtful material. Even on his next album, Moonshine In The Trunk, there was an incredibly earnest sense of hopefulness to something like “American Flag On The Moon.” It’s just that it was balanced out with pandering cuts like “Country Nation,” although if Paisley did have to concede to dabbling in the bro-country trend a bit, at least something like the title track from that album was infused with a seedier outlaw swagger. Even a standalone single from two years ago, “Bucked Off,” brilliantly worked as somewhat of a parody of George Strait’s “The Cowboy Rides Away.” It’s telling that another one of his more adventurous cuts, “Without A Fight” (with Demi Lovato) failed to make it onto any album … which then led to the safer aforementioned “Today.”

I guess what I’m saying is, for as much as Paisley got some deserved criticism for that song all those years ago, there’s a part of me that wishes he’d understand it’s OK to learn from those mistakes and be unafraid to take more risks again. Because for as much as those experiments sometimes don’t work out, there’s many more underrated moments in his discography that do: “Southern Comfort Zone,” “Officially Alive,” “Dying To See Her,” “Karate,” “Bucked Off” … they’re all a hell of a lot better than “No I In Beer,” and for as happy as I am to see Paisley attain another hit after so long, one has to wonder if it will carry any impact for him beyond an easy hit for an unprecedented time. As a whole, I think it’s only going to further pigeonhole him as the quirky, goofy performer who should just stick to that material since he can’t do anything else right. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.

One thought on “The Melting Pot: Revisiting Brad Paisley’s ‘Wheelhouse’

  1. I really do think that Accidental Racist and the criticisms that it received (which was pretty deserved, I’ll admit) was what killed Brad’s career.

    Liked by 1 person

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