Way back in 1999 a new artist released ‘Who Needs Pictures’ his debut album, across its 13 tracks it displayed the virtuoso talents of Brad Paisley. In an increasingly crowded marketplace it came as no surprise to see Paisley stand out from the pack and achieve success, this young man was the real deal. Not only were his vocals impressive but, having written all bar one of the tracks on his debut release, he backed this up with some of the freshest & inventive song-writing heard in years. Not to mention that taking on lead guitar duties on the record allowed Paisley to prove that he was one hell of a picker. The 15 years that have followed have seen the now forty-something artist become one of the most established and successful Country artists of his generation.
The 8 studio albums that have been released since that first offering have proved that the platinum sales and 2 number one singles it garnered were no fluke. In fact Paisley has, to date, hit the top of the Country charts on 18 occasions and sold in excess of 10 million albums in the US alone. In my mind the career so far of one of the most affable men in Nashville is measured in a different way to many of his peers. He has become the ultimate ambassador for modern Country music, perfectly blending the tradition and style of the musical influences that preceded him with new, innovative sounds to ensure that the genre continues to thrive in 2014. Pair that with his consummately professional and hilarious co-hosting appearances at events such as the CMA Awards and you have an all-round entertainer that comes along on an increasingly rare basis. The UK has embraced Paisley like few other US acts, his amazing headlining set at this years’ Country To Country festival clearly showed the affection with which we hold Brad on these shores.
With that in mind, a new Brad Paisley album is a landmark event in the Country music calendar and a release that comes with high levels of expectation. Last years’ ‘Wheelhouse’ was a curate’s egg of an album, a somewhat experimental piece of work that some felt lost its’ way in places and meandered too far from what the artist does best. Quite possibly the majority of the record-buying in public in the US shared the same opinion as it failed to live up to the success of its predecessors. This week sees the release of ‘Moonshine In The Trunk’ and with it a welcome return to top form, with Paisley delivering one of his best collections in years.
The weeks leading up to the new album hitting record stores has seen an hilarious PR campaign, with social media in an excited frenzy over #leakingmoonshine. The artist has taken it upon himself to leak new tracks to his fans, in increasingly inventive ways, whilst keeping us up to date with all of the ‘trouble’ that he been getting in to with the ‘suits’ at his record label. Kudos to Sony Nashville for this original approach and also to Paisley himself who has kept us laughing throughout. The official introduction to the album was ‘River Bank’, its lead single, which provides a killer one-two on the opening of the album along with ‘Crushin’ It’. Both are good-time party anthems, delivered with Brad’s trademark tongue-in-cheek humour and lyrical wordplay. Packed with energy, the two tracks share all the elements of traditional Country (steel and fiddle aplenty) but with that modern sensibility. ‘Crushin’ It’ has the edge for this listener, offering a little more originality along with the fantastic ‘every week has a weekend‘ refrain.
‘Perfect Storm’ is set to be the follow-up single and is a complete change of pace. A glorious ballad which finds the singer describing everything that makes him love the woman who stirs up the emotional storm of the title. Featuring a superb Paisley guitar solo and standout vocals the track could provide a huge hit at radio, as well as the opportunity to get the audience’s goose-bumps going at live shows. ‘High Life’ and its tale of simple living folk who became ‘thousandaires’ is huge fun, featuring stunning fiddle work and also guest vocals from Carrie Underwood. Featured in the lyrics of the song, Underwood provides not only trademark big BGV’s but also shares an enjoyably playful conversation with Paisley as the track fades.
Title track ‘Moonshine In The Trunk’ sees Brad rocking harder than he has in years. Sawing fiddle and a driving guitar riff fuel this tale of a couple of lovers going nowhere, but going fast. Add in some strong banjo picking and a furious guitar solo to provide the listener with a barnstorming song to get the pulse racing. The variation in material on the album and the way Paisley handles all of it with consummate ease is displayed again as the next track ‘Shattered Glass’ sees the foot come off of the gas completely for a touching ballad. Fairly brave subject matter for a male artist to take on, Brad adds his support for equal gender opportunities and skilfully manages to avoid drifting in to patronising territory. An inspirational track, boasting a powerful chorus but also some delightful mandolin licks in its quieter moments.
‘Limes’ finds us back in the party we left after the first two tracks, although there is no hiding this later visit is an inferior effort. It has some fun moments but feels a little derivative and tired, relying on some sing-along background vocals to inject some much-needed life. Just about the only skippable (not a word but stick with us!) tune on the album. Much stronger are the mid-tempo ‘You Shouldn’t Have To’, with its laidback catchy groove, and slow-burning chugger ‘4WP’ featuring a tale of lovers set to get a little hot under the collar, along with some more exemplary guitar work from Paisley.
‘Cover Girl’ shares much of the musical & lyrical DNA with Brad’s hit ‘Celebrity’ from 2003 and is just as satisfying. Slower paced but equally catchy, this snapshot of living life in the spotlight of fame seems to offer itself up a potential future single, complete with a cameo-heavy video. Fans of traditional Country music will adore the spritely ‘Gone Green’, featuring a stripped down production with fiddle, banjo, mandolin and harmonica to the fore. A cautionary environmental message manages not to be heavy-handed as Paisley informs us that his ‘redneck world has done gone green‘, whilst the wonderful Emmylou Harris is on hand to provide strong harmonies.
Mini-track ‘JFK 1962’ which sets a stirring speech from the former US President to music serves as the introduction to ‘American Flag On The Moon’. Challenging the listener to achieve anything that you can dream of because ‘after all, there’s an American flag on the moon‘ this gentle piano-led track is a beauty. Featuring a tremendous sweeping chorus that allows Paisley to test the higher reaches of his vocal register the song really does provide you with food for thought. Personally I could have foregone the added vocals towards the end of the track from a children’s choir, which border on schmaltz, but that may just be me being overly cynical.
‘Country Nation’ is the blue-collar anthem at which Paisley excels, a mid-tempo track packed full of lyrics painting familiar scenes of US small-town life. Therein lies a huge part of Brad’s appeal, a huge Nashville star he may be, but in his heart he’s still a good old Country boy. This track which was set to be the album closer would have seen the 14-time CMA & ACM award winner sign off in formidable style. Instead extra special bonus track ‘Me And Jesus’ closes the record. The song features just Brad and his guitar reciting the story of a man who ‘once was a sinner‘ but went on to develop his own personal relationship with his faith. As refreshing to hear the singer unplugged as it is a moving piece, ‘Me And Jesus’ was more than worthy of a late addition to the track-listing.
15 years on from that debut record and Brad Paisley is still producing Country music as expertly as he ever has. As previously mentioned, ‘Moonshine On The Trunk’ is undoubtedly one of the finest albums of his career to date and a collection of songs that will stand the test of time. It feels strange to make the comment regarding an artist such as Paisley but this is also his most Country album in a long time. Never pandering to crossover markets or reverting to bro-Country the singer has always respected the history of the genre, but the sheer amount of fiddle, steel, banjo etc. way up in the mix on ‘Moonshine In The Trunk’ is an absolute delight.
Brad had a hand in writing all but one of the tracks here (‘Gone Green’ is the exception) and continues to show an exceptional knack for matching remarkably inventive & humorous lyrics with instantly memorable hooks. Slowing things down he knows how to pack an emotional punch in to the ballads which showcase that the party guy has a real sensitive side. If your confidence wobbled a little with ‘Wheelhouse’ it will be unequivocally restored with ‘Moonshine In The Trunk’, a superb album from one of Country music’s leading lights.