By Jeremiah Tucker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
In the past Brad Paisley specialized in clever, if somewhat corn pone, novelty songs about wanting to search women for ticks and first-person accounts of the world as experienced by anthropomorphic alcohol.
Beginning in 2009 with “Welcome to the Future,” a song written in honor of the inauguration of Barack Obama that never mentions Obama by name, and “American Saturday Night,” Paisley began to focus more on sweeping anthems engineered for stadiums but focused on the sociology of America.
“Southern Comfort Zone” -- his latest single, co-written with collaborators Kelley Lovelace and Chris DuBois and released last week -- begins with a medley of sound clips from “The Andy Griffith Show,” Jeff Foxworthy and the Grand Ole Opry over some wistful violin and acoustic guitar that, for someone not on board with Paisley’s brand of nostalgia and earnestness, could sound corny. Paisley loved Griffith. He prominently featured the TV star, who died earlier this year, in his 2008 single “Waitin’ on a Woman.”
It’s a shaky beginning. Then the song does something pretty interesting.
It acknowledges there is a world bigger than the one generally found in country music -- the one where life happens exclusively in small towns, on farms and at the end of dirt roads.
“Not everybody owns a gun, wears a ball cap, boots and jeans,” Paisley sings.
From anyone other than Paisley, this would sound like a sneering lecture.
Paisley roots the song in his homesickness for the South -- a common country trope -- except instead of reporting back about the shortcomings and depravity of the wider world, he describes its wonders.
He sings of walking “the streets of Rome,” kissing “a West Coast girl underneath the northern light” and being in places where no one understands him. He sings that he knows what it’s like “to take a good hard look around and be a minority.”
Paisley sings of missing his home, but admits, “I can’t see this world unless I go outside my Southern comfort zone.” It’s a subtle, deft way to make a case for empathy, which in an election year is a powerful message, if a somewhat dangerous one for a country superstar whose base is used to being pandered to by anyone considered one of their own.
“Southern Comfort Zone” debuted at No. 25 on Billboard’s country chart, and it will be interesting to see how it does considering “Welcome to the Future” broke Paisley’s streak of 10 No. 1 country singles by peaking at No. 2. Whereas pop music is more topsy-turvy and digital sales and streaming can propel indie songs to the top of the charts, country remains a genre where radio matters.
Luckily, the song sounds like a smash, propelled by a driving, rock ’n’ roll drum beat that, when combined with a church choir and a string arrangement that could’ve been lifted from the latest Coldplay record, gives the song a huge sound. When it careens right over the edge of good taste -- as it possibly does when that church choir booms “I wish I was in Dixie again” as Paisley solos furiously on his guitar -- it does so at least with a grin on its face.
If “Southern Comfort Zone” isn’t a big hit for Paisley, I suspect it won’t be its message of expanded horizons that sinks it. It may just be too weird for modern country radio.
Its ambition also will be anathema to country purists who feel the genre began to go downhill the moment Hank Williams drank himself to death, but this song isn’t aimed at the calcified and dead-hearted. Paisley spent years punching the clock and building a huge reservoir of goodwill, so God bless him for deciding to spend it on as grandiose a dream as making country’s tent a little bigger.