The 17-track album is crammed with the sort of stuff you don't normally hear on a mainstream country recording. There are samples and sound effects. There are guest appearances from such diverse folks as rapper LL Cool J, and Monty Python and comedian Eric Idle. Paisley wore the producer's hat himself this time around, and used his road band in the studio. Sometimes funny and sometimes serious, “Wheelhouse” is a risk-taking release.
Chief among those risks is the song “Accidental Racist,” a song that opens with a guy offending a Starbucks clerk by wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a Confederate flag. “I'm just a white man comin' to you from the southland / Tryin' to understand what it's like not to be,” Paisley sings. LL Cool J chimes in with his rapped response, including “If you don't judge my do-rag / I won't judge your red flag.” The song has created a media firestorm.
He has clearly gotten out of his “Southern Comfort Zone,” to quote the title of one of his new songs. The album came out Tuesday, and Paisley plays First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre on May 11. The singer, songwriter and guitarist recently called from Nashville to talk about recording at home, writing the unexpected and why both Andy Griffith and Quentin Tarantino are inspirations. This is an edited transcript of that interview.
Q: ‘Wheelhouse' is a very experimental record, especially for a mainstream country release. Did the idea for this release grow slowly over time or did you wake up one night at 3 a.m. knowing you wanted to make this record?
A: It was a little of both. I knew there were things I wanted to try. You get a little bit of leeway 10 years into a career like this, when things are going well. And I'm spoiled by my fans. They're very supportive. They've put up with incredible risks from me before. They sit through cartoons and laser shows at my concerts that belong as much at a country concert as a tuxedo. They're very open-minded.
Q: You've said about “Wheelhouse” that you wrote “a bunch of songs that aren't comfortable.”
A: What I meant by that was I wanted these songs to take twists. I didn't want anything phoned in. I didn't want to put anything on here that wasn't a unique sound. I challenged my co-writers on this. I said, ‘What we've gotta do is be unexpected.' I don't like movies that are exactly predictable. I don't like TV shows that go nowhere. I like journeys that take very sharp corners. I'd rather drive a road course than an oval track, and that's what this needed to be. Honestly, the twists and turns were the point.
Q. In the song “Accidental Racist” a white southerner wearing a rebel flag t-shirt realizes that it’s offensive to African-Americans. What inspired this song?
A. I think life inspires this in every way. I think there’s a large percentage of our population that wants to make this right, but in some ways it doesn’t feel like it’s getting better. I really don’t know what the answers are to these things, but I really feel like asking the questions. Asking is the first step.
Q. How did the collaboration with LL COOL J on “Accidental Racist” come about?
A. It couldn’t have been more perfect in the sense of who we really are. I’m a white, country, hat-wearing, redneck singer, and he’s a black, Yankee, northern guy. He was in Nashville and we got together. When I told LL about the song, ironically we had just gotten done taking a tour of the Ryman Auditorium. There’s a balcony there called the Confederate Gallery that was built by the confederate soldiers of the time. LL said to me, ‘What kind of a country is this when you and me can stand here together after all of that? How great is that?’ I said, ‘Well, let’s go to the car.’ I played him the track. He said, ‘I’m so in. This is important. I want to be a part of this.’ He wrote every word of (the rap in the song).
I feel like I understand LL, and he understands me so well to this day, because of this experience together. And if we can give that gift to a few other people with this song, or start the discussion, if that helps anything, that would be wonderful.Q: Some of these songs press cultural buttons. “Karate” is about an abused woman who earns a black belt in karate then beats up her abusive husband. There's a rap-recitation by Charlie Daniels of the blow-by-blow fight. The song has a heavy message but it's done with humor.
A: That's one thing I love about the Quentin Tarantino “Kill Bill movies. This woman, Beatrix Kiddo, is on her way to get her revenge against every single assassin who tried to take her out. It's so gory, but it's so over the top that it's funny. Somehow they're very empowering movies for a woman. There's a lot of that element in the way that we did “Karate.” It really is a spoonful of honey makes the medicine go down. It's fun to find a good way to do that, to empower her that way. The core message is letting a woman have her day in a country song.
Q: On “Wheelhouse” you use samples of the late singer-songwriter Roger Miller and the actor Andy Griffith. Out of the galaxy of samples to choose from, why those two?
A. My top two artists of all time are Buck Owens and Roger Miller. And Andy Griffith — I became very close to him. We were good friends. He is the voice of the South. To me, Andy is everything that life in the South is. When I was doing the song “Southern Comfort Zone” and wanted to evoke a homesick feeling, there were a few people who were really important to have, and one of them was Andy Griffith. Andy was a Mark Twain type figure.
Q: You renovated one of your own buildings into a recording studio to make “Wheelhouse.” You served as your own producer. You also used your own road band instead of the usual Nashville session pros. What made you go in that direction?
A. My guys are every bit good enough to do this (studio recording). That was part of the whole “let's be different at all costs” thinking on this record. One way to do it is to use these guys who play so well every night (on tour). We're going to get the best takes we can on these tracks, but they will be what they will be and sound like they sound. We aren't going to edit them (in the studio), we're not going to fix them.
Q. It must have been fun to experiment in your home studio for all those months.
A. Pots and pans are part of the percussion on the Eric Idle song “Death of a Married Man.” That's an actual frying pan and a pot sitting on the drum kit and my drummer is playing it like a high hat and a snare. Listen to that and know that those were used to cook spaghetti later that night. I love that kind of thing. I don't think we would have done that in a studio that charges $1,600 a email@example.com | Twitter @chitribent