NASHVILLE After his first album sold a million copies, country singer Brad Paisley didn't sweat its follow-up.
Paisley credits former Arista Nashille president Tim DuBois for helping the young singer prepare for the pressure of recording his second album, Part II, which was released Tuesday.
"When Tim first saw me as an artist," Paisley recalled, "he said, 'You need to write your first couple of albums right now and not in a couple of years.'"
Paisley now believes DuBois was half-joking. Nevertheless, the young singer who came to Nashville from Glen Dale, West Virginia, to study at Belmont University worked from 1994 to 1997 creating both his 1999 debut, Who Needs Pictures, and most of the songs on Part II.
His new record takes the concept of a movie sequel as its unifying theme. Its cover sports poster-style credits citing producer Frank Rogers as the man behind the "film" and Buck Owens, George Jones and Bill Anderson as guest stars. Songwriters Kelley Lovelace, Chris DuBois and others are its "screenwriters." On the back cover, Paisley stands hat in one hand, light stand in the other, gazing out at a movie-set sunset.
"Frank pulled off the perfect emotional journey," Paisley said of the album, admitting the journey is pretty much his own.
"You ask about my personal life and how I feel," he explained. "Well, listen to the record. That's usually where you'll find my past or present. I try to include as much of myself as I can in each song we write or cut."
Which is Paisley's way of saying he's not eager to respond to questions about personal relationships with co-writer and duet partner Chely Wright or anyone else. The Country Music Association's Horizon Award winner seems more interested in guitar solos, fishing and playing the Grand Ole Opry than in advancing his personal relationships.
Though he claims to have tired of the controversy, Paisley talked about becoming a lightning rod for the debate over the direction of country music. As with Who Needs Pictures, nearly all of Part II features sparse arrangements making liberal use of fiddle and steel guitar. "I try to make the records I want to make, and I enjoy going into the studio with the freedom I've been given to be myself, with the fiddles and steels I grew up loving to hear."
For all the support he gets from fans and colleagues at the Grand Ole Opry (where he became a cast member in February), Paisley has endured some bias and backlash, too.
"A TV show I was going to do wouldn't let me sing 'He Didn't Have to Be' solo," he recalled. "They said, 'He's too country.' Don't tell me that. If you think the message I'm trying to convey is the wrong message, or that I sing off-key or have too much twang in my voice, tell me that. Don't tell me I'm 'too country.' What does that mean?"
The same question gets asked in the new album's "Too Country." Written by Anderson and Chuck Cannon, the tune concerns life-style as much as music, Paisley contended. "There's a bit of the 'big city' versus 'country' mentality out there right now," he said. "How many shows on TV are set in small towns? Any of 'em? There's nothing wrong with being simple."
This year Paisley joined Anderson and Jones as a member of the Grand Ole Opry, a powerful symbol of traditional country values. As his career heats up, Paisley continues to find time to appear on the show, following an example set by another picker, singer-songwriter Vince Gill.
On a recent Friday, Paisley fished all day, quitting about dark. "I put the boat away, changed my shirt, drove to the Opry and sang two songs. I got there at 9:15 and was on at 9:30. It's really cool to drive 25 minutes and walk into a building full of people ready to hear you sing country music. You walk out, they love you, you sing your two songs, and you go home. Who could get tired of that?"
Underlining his allegiance to the Opry, Paisley ends Part II with "The Old Rugged Cross," recorded live at the Opry the night Anderson, Jimmy Dickens and Jeannie Seely invited him to join the show as a regular member. Paisley said he intends to put a sacred number on every album he makes in keeping with a tradition that has fallen out of favor.
"That's a big part of my life," he said. "I feel extremely blessed and I'm a spiritual person who wastes a lot of God's time talking to him. Who am I if I leave out the spiritual part of my self-portrait?"
Paisley hopes Part II will demonstrate to his fans that he remains true to the values he brought from West Virginia to Nashville.
"I'm proud to be a Nashville-based country artist who cares about what's going on in this community," he said. "I'm not out to impress L.A. or New York. I sure hope some of those people get it, but more than likely they won't. I'm not sure 'The Andy Griffith Show' was as big a hit in L.A. as it was in Kansas, but I'm a big fan. And that mindset's where I focus my efforts."