Brad Paisley is what the Grand Ole Opry calls a triple threat. He's an instrumentalist, vocalist and songwriter. And the Opry gets all that for just $300.
"Every musician gets union scale" (for live appearances), said Pete Fisher, general manager of Nashville's famed music hall. "Our stage is a leveling experience no matter how big you are." Yet Paisley remains committed to his coveted membership in the Opry, and performs there much more often than other platinum-selling artists.
Since his 1999 debut, Paisley, 34, has performed there more than 100 times.
Paisley, known for his traditional country roots, still takes Minnie Pearl's advice about the audience: Love them, and they'll love you back. "What I think of every night is, I want to give the fans their money's worth," Paisley said. "And we give it up every night, so they're thankful they spent their money."
Paisley remembers having not-so-good seats for shows when he was growing up in West Virginia. "All I could afford were lawn seats. So that's where I sat for guys like Dan Fogelberg and Alan Jackson," said Paisley. He even drove all the way to the Ohio County Fair to see Garth Brooks play. "It used to be washed up '70's stars that came to this place. The stage was just some flatbed," he said. "But when Garth came out, man, I've never seen a place come unglued like that."
Calling from the road ("I think someone said we're in Texas but I'm not sure," said Paisley), he's crossing the country to promote his recently crowned Country Music Association album of the year "Time Well Wasted." But when he gets to Chicago on Friday, he'll know exactly where he is.
"My wife (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) went to school in Chicago, so we love it there," said Paisley. "The people are really warm. The weather's not, but the people are."
In another local connection, Paisley's first video, for the 2002 hit "I'm Gonna Miss Her (The Fishing Song)," gave him an idea to use Jerry Springer's show.
"I don't know why they called me," Springer said. "But I'm a big fan of country music, so I said yes right away."
The song, about the consequences of choosing fishing over love, features a Springer show segment of angry wives left behind and a few seconds of Springer jamming on a Telecaster. Since then, Paisley's gone on to sell 7 million albums, win 7 CMAs and garner 10 Grammy nominations. His music embraces the roots of country, with shuffles, swings and a little bluegrass. His shows, like his music, lack the gritty edge of some other country artists, and people may grow weary of his boy-next-door shtick and dry wit. But what he lacks in rock-star cachet, he makes up for with solid melodies and adroit guitar picking.
Paisley has said that he only sings to get to the next guitar solo. He's been playing since his grandfather gave him a guitar when he was 8 years old. He learned by osmosis, watching other guitarists play. "It's not like when you teach a dog a trick. He'll shake your hand because he knows he gets a treat. With the guitar," said Paisley, "you only get out of it what you put into it."
While he misses the acoustics of smaller venues, Paisley is pleased that he's made it to the level of an arena-size headliner. "I love the grandiose scale of these places, and how we can bring a Pink Floyd approach to the show," Paisley said. "Technology is not something to be shunned."
"Brad cares deeply about what he gives his fans," said Fisher. "I've seen him an hour before the show modifying video elements on his laptop. It's a living, breathing reflection of who he is."