- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2011

This Is Country Music

Brad Paisley

Arista Nashville

Country music used to be a niche genre, aimed at those who lived in the small Southern towns depicted in so many country songs. That was before Garth Brooks and Shania Twain roped in a new audience of pop fans. Before Taylor Swift proved that teen starlets didn’t have to dance like Britney Spears. Before Lady Antebellum released the second highest selling album of 2010.

Nowadays, country music is hazily defined. Is it pop music with a twang? Rock ‘n’ roll with a cowboy hat? Brad Paisley has his own ideas, and “This Is Country Music” - his eighth studio album - boils things down to a few simple ingredients.

At his core, Mr. Paisley is a guitarist. “This Is Country Music” showcases his work on the Telecaster, which he plays cleanly and swiftly, fingerpicking his way through the songs like he’s Albert Lee or Brent Mason. In many ways, he’s a traditionalist, playing his riffs at breakneck speed but rarely breaking away from a time-honored, straightforward sound.

Tradition carries a lot of weight here. Within the first minute of the album, Mr. Paisley mentions Jesus. One song later, he harmonizes with the current members of Alabama and name-checks a handful of country staples, including Alabama’s own “Mountain Music.” The other songs are filled with familiar characters - the down-home country girl who’s more comfortable in a pair of jeans than an evening dress, the hardworking country guy who loses his job during the recession - and many of them feature cameos from familiar faces, including Don Henley and Marty Stuart.

Mr. Paisley’s closest doppelganger is Keith Urban, another guitar god blessed with twangy, affable vocal chops. Mr. Urban is a rock star, though, with a flat-picking style heavily influenced by Dire Straits and an affinity for loud, epic songs. And he’s the bad-boy type. Mr. Paisley is the good ol’ boy you can bring home to Momma, and those manners are more than evident in his music.

That said, he can still crack a joke. He watches his lover take a swim on “Be the Lake” and longs to be the towel that dries her off after she surfaces. On “Camouflage,” he jokes about wearing a hillbilly camouflage suit to his high school prom. “You shoulda seen the way it popped with her corsage,” he sings cheekily.

Clint Eastwood even stops by for a cameo, delivering the spoken word intro to “Eastwood.” The song opens with the flourishes of a spaghetti western soundtrack before barreling into a horse-gallop pace, allowing Mr. Paisley more opportunity to flex his guitar muscles. At the end of the day, though, even an appearance by Dirty Harry can’t soil these squeaky-clean songs.

If this is country music, as the album title asserts, then country music doesn’t take many chances. There are some jewels here - “Remind Me,” a duet with Carrie Underwood, is a gorgeous ballad about love on the rocks - but there’s also a good deal of cliche, which cheapens the imagination Mr. Paisley puts into his guitar playing. His past albums flirted with rock and pop, but those genres are absent from these songs, with stock characters and familiar melodies taking their place.

There’s a reason the novelty tracks on “This Is Country Music” are some of the album’s best numbers. They’re the only songs to break from the norm.

Birthday Bob

Bob Dylan turns 70 on Tuesday. “The Ballad of Bob Dylan,” a biography by Daniel Mark Epstein, will be published in celebration of this milestone. Also available is the Bob Dylan Archive, an elaborate tabletop display case for Mr. Dylan’s entire CD catalog.

Listed at $130, the Bob Dylan Archive is an expensive purchase, especially since it contains no music. Fanatics will appreciate the accompanying book of artwork, which includes 220 pages of oversized LP art prints. Those looking to celebrate Mr. Dylan’s birthday with music, however, would do better to shell out $17 for his newly released “Witmark Demos: 1962-1964” collection.

Jewel showcase

Also celebrating a birthday this week is Jewel, whose TV series “Platinum Hit” debuts Memorial Day at 10 p.m. on Bravo. Aimed at the same crowd that made “American Idol” a smash, “Platinum Hit” will pit 12 singer-songwriters against one another, with Jewel serving as the host and “American Idol” veteran Kara DioGuardi acting as head judge.

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