Brad Paisley certainly has made his presence known since his 1999 debut with hit singles “Who Needs Pictures” and “He Didn’t Have to Be”, the latter of which having become the No. 1 song that put his face on the map. From there, his journey through the realm of country super stardom thus far has been a wildly expansive one, with ten best-selling albums and over forty music awards under his wide-brimmed hat. He’s also co-hosted the CMA Awards with fellow popular country artist Carrie Underwood since 2008, and has even duetted with her on the mid-tempo love song “Remind Me”. He’s also collaborated with multiple other artists in the industry, including bluegrass star Allison Kraus, “American Idol” judge and multiple-award winning Australian recording artist Keith Urban, and the world-famous pure country firecracker Dolly Parton, making history with some of the most well-known collaborations in the modern world of music.
Naturally “Wheelhouse” has its own fair share of special guest artists all of its own, but it’s the names of some of those collaborators who will have fans of virtually all of Paisley’s past work making a double-take in the direction of the album’s track-list. “Accidental Racist” is one such track. Its focus on a truly controversial subject concerning unintentional racial ignorance in the South and a plea to realize the whole world for what it really is is a gutsy move to take for any country artist regardless of how established they are, and that alone would be enough to draw heavy attention with its blunt, eye-opening message. However, it’s the fact that this song is actually a collaboration with hip-hop artist LL Cool J of recent “NCIS: LA” fame that will draw most of the initial attention to “Accidental Racist”. While it’s understandable to some that it may come across as a gimmick for a country artist to incorporate a rapper onto their album, the inclusion here makes sense. LL Cool J, as someone who grew into the industry from equally as normal beginnings as any homegrown country boy might, but under incredibly different circumstances, is able to offer his own perspective as someone brought into the music world from out of the hood of New York. It’s truly an attention-grabber and, like many of Paisley’s songs off of “Wheelhouse”, such as “Those Crazy Christians”, in which Paisley daringly takes on the role of an agnostic viewing those devout in Christianity from their eyes, delivers a much-needed message for modern society to grasp.
“Wheelhouse” also includes collaborations with folk-rocker Mat Kearney on “Pressing On a Bruise” and fellow country stars Dierks Bentley and Hunter Hayes on “Outstanding in Our Field”. The curious thing about the aforementioned bluesy pop-country track is its inclusion of none other than famous (and deceased) honky-tonk artist Roger Miller. Miller, whom the equally as clever and arguably revolutionary Paisley is often compared to, only adds in some choice ad libs throughout of the track, but for one reason or another, that alone adds much to the overall authenticity of the song as a collaboration between four Southern superstars of various generations. Paisley also collaborates with, believe it or not, English comedian Eric Idle on a 47 second-long track entitled “Death of a Married Man”, which serves as the interlude between the electric and wonderfully cheeky, if not somewhat too back-and-forth “Karate” featuring Southern rock powerhouse Charlie Daniels and the melodically infectiously comical (and tuba-friendly) “Harvey Bodine”, which depicts the story of a miserable man who returns from the dead after a visit to Heaven. It also carries direct similarities to the traditional country kicker, “Death of a Single Man”, affirming that the album certainly interconnects itself quite nicely.
Other songs on the album worthy of note include both singles from off of it thus far: the ambitious, world-traveling, and Andy Griffith-referencing “Southern Comfort Zone” and more traditional summer radio hit in the making, “Beat This Summer”. “幽 女” (“Quiet Lady”) is also quite the instrumental interlude, featuring a lush, East Asian-inspired melody and a bevy of Southern country instruments to play it through, while there’s enough of the familiar in heartfelt songs like “Tin Can On a String” for those who prefer a more “real” country sound from Paisley to keep them listening. “Officially Alive”, which tries to get listeners to realize that they all have a higher purpose that they can hone-in on, provides an excellent, rocking way to wrap up the album in style, congratulating them for the effort.
To nitpick at any little thing that could have been pulled off perhaps a tiny bit better when an album is as inspirationally and successfully ambitious as “Wheelhouse” is is just a shame and a half. What Brad Paisley has managed to do beyond just pushing outside of the Southern box from a musical arrangement standpoint is revolutionize the world of country music ten times over by being genuine and brave enough to tackle issues such as religious, racial, and social ignorance and do it in a way that isn’t overly-critical or in your face, but in a way that is kind to and makes an effort to understand virtually everyone under the sun, just as it is intended for appreciators of all such pieces of Paisley’s art to accept, appreciate, and become. In between such revolutionary pieces are enough radio-ready hits to fit the award-winning CMA host with for years, at that. What he’s got here is a master-craft album from top to bottom, and he shouldn’t be any less proud of standing by what he wanted to do with “Wheelhouse” and really bringing it home in the way that he has managed to achieve. It isn’t anything like what people could have ever expected and, in this case, it’s a good thing. Brad continues to expand upon the world of country music in ways people could never expect, and that’s what’s going to keep him continuously relevant.
Top 5 Tracks:
1. “Accidental Racist” featuring LL Cool J
2. “Harvey Bodine”
3. “Outstanding in Our Field” featuring Dierks Bentley, Roger Miller, and Hunter Hayes
4. “Southern Comfort Zone”
5. “Death of a Single Man”