t used to be that when a teenager decided he wanted a career in country music, he'd enroll in the school of hard knocks. After years of playing in honky-tonks and knocking on doors, maybe he'd get his big break. But one way or the other, he'd learn about the business.
The modern youngster can enroll in a real school to learn about the business. Brad Paisley is the latest graduate of the music business program at Nashville's Belmont University to make it as a country singer. (Trisha Yearwood was the first to rise to prominence.)
Paisley, whose debut "Who Needs Pictures" was just released by Arista, (the title track is already charting) had a foothold before he reached college. The West Virginia native was only 12 when he wrote a Christmas song good enough to get him on the Wheeling Jamboree. That show, broadcast over WWVA, is one of the few remaining of the mini-Oprys that were once all over the radio dial on Saturday nights.
Years of being a regular on The Jamboree didn't lessen the thrill when he debuted on the real Opry just a few weeks ago. "The Opry is a whole other thing. The Jamboree is something I did forever so I take it for granted. The Opry is the benchmark for what is really country. To be able to perform on there is like saying 'My songs are okay'." Paisley later says, "My biggest goal is to someday be an Opry member."
Someone stumbling upon Paisley's album in a record store might think 'just another hunk-in-a-hat'. "If they say 'hunk,' I'm flattered" is Paisley's response. As for the hat, "We had big discussions about how it would be perceived. I wasn't about to not do it just so people wouldn't think 'assembly-line.' When there's a perception that someone wearing a hat is just like everyone else, look deeper."
Paisley is no corporate creation. He co-wrote all of the new songs on his album - almost all with friends no more established in the business than he is. He plays all the guitar parts on it. He used his own band (mostly Belmont colleagues). The producer, Frank Rogers, (yet another schoolmate), had never produced an album before.
"I fought for that, to have my own band on there. They're great musicians, and it would have been a shame to not use them. I give the credit to (Arista head) Tim Dubois. He's done it before with some other artists. But I was brand new, and these guys had never done it before. My producer was brand new. It was a matter of faith in us."
"We wanted it to be musically interesting. We wanted to try some things that maybe someone else would not let us get away with."
For all that, the album mostly has a suitably mainstream sound, although it stays solidly country. "If you can't play it on The Opry, there's something wrong," was Paisley's guiding philosophy.
The last two tracks are a rave-up country instrumental "The Nervous Breakdown" and the hymn "In The Garden."
"I knew going in, I wanted to put a hymn on there. I used to do the Jamboree after-hours show until one in the morning, then drag myself out of bed to sing in church the next day. To me, it was always country music. I didn't think of it as gospel. We had three or four instrumental things we had demoed, and we wanted to use one. Buck Owens used to do that. Roy Clark used to. That was a conscious effort on our part."
Even though he had his heart set on a career in country music, he was slow to move to Nashville, originally enrolling at a nearby college after high school. "It was so comfortable where I was from. It's so unknown to pick up to a city like (Nashville). It's a culture shock to me. I'm from a town of 1,200 people. I had never lived away from home. But I had good people at home pushing me out of the nest."
When he finally did come to Nashville, "I knew I was moving for good, no matter what happened to me career-wise. I wanted to be a songwriter, a guitarist, anything."
Paisley had been writing songs all along. "I had a couple of hundred things I brought to Nashville. After a while, I tore them up. I looked around and saw what else was out there." says Paisley, who realized at that point he still had a long ways to go.
He progressed well, getting his songs recorded by David Ball, Tracy Byrd and David Kersh ("Another You," a Top 5 hit) before landing his own deal.
Belmont provided a way to ease into the business. "You have a chance to intern at various record companies. There's showcases. There's a chance to interact with the business community. It's a great way to avoid the pitfalls of just moving to town and knocking on doors."
But he emphasizes that a degree from there "doesn't guarantee you a job," let alone a record contract.
For all his preparation, Paisley is still surprised at some of the reality as his first single climbs the charts. "It's a lot of work, more work than I thought I'd do in my life. But it's worth it. The hardest part is the travel. But I wouldn't trade it for anything."
We spoke while he was in Los Angeles. Later that day he would be in Minneapolis, playing at a radio station's bass tournament. The day before, he was in central California, playing at another station's listeners' party. Then he'd return to Nashville for one day of rehearsal with his band and head to the Carolinas for a couple of shows.
"We're in the appreciation stage where we're fulfilling requests for stations that supported us. It's better than the regrouping stage, trying to figure out what went wrong."
Paisley's next single, "He Didn't Have To Be," is one that has already gotten a lot of audience response. It's about a loving-stepfather, but written form the son's perspective, "It's my favorite song on there. It's so interesting to watch the response playing it live. There are many people who can relate to that now. Every parent has to make choices at some point."
There's nothing intellectually challenging about Paisley's songs, and that's the way he wants it. "Simplicity and honesty." he replies when asked what he aims for in a song.
"Conversational. I don't want to go above how I normally talk. If I wouldn't say it, I shouldn't sing it. It's about appealing to the masses. You've got to talk the way they talk. If I get into deeper topics, it'll still be conversational."
Things seem to be going very well for Paisley now, but if it all falls apart, he won't be getting out of the business. After becoming an Opry member, Paisley says his goal is to "continue to make albums that I want to make and to be in this for the music as opposed to anything else."
If he doesn't make it as a singer, "I'll pick and write. I can't do anything else."