NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Brad Paisley is taking control of the conversation about Brad Paisley with the release of his new album, "Moonshine in the Trunk."
The unexpected criticism he and rapper LL Cool J received over the song "Accidental Racist," which was leaked ahead of Paisley's 2013 album "Wheelhouse," still stings, and Paisley says he felt — and still feels — betrayed.
"I'm not going to take this anymore," Paisley said. "I'm not going to take it when they tell me, 'You shouldn't have done that.' I'm a musician. Don't tell me I shouldn't have done that. I am going to say what I want to say, and this album is what I want to say right now."
Paisley enlisted friends old and new — Ellen DeGeneres, NASCAR's Jeff Gordon and even a NASA astronaut — to help him leak every song on "Moonshine in the Trunk" before its Aug. 26 release, trading jabs with his record label boss along the way.
"Whatever critic wants to give it two stars, I don't care," Paisley said. "Because guess what? People know better, they've heard it. They've heard it, and I got the first presentation of it."
The title song is a metaphor for charging headlong into life as if you have some serious motivation, and the album follows that philosophy. It's mostly Paisley's super-charged take on modern honky-tonk, meant for good times.
This time, when Paisley does take on progressive ideas, he does so in a way designed not to offend in any way. He calls it "a sort of bright sides at all costs thing."
Chris DuBois, Paisley's close friend and business partner for two decades, said the sudden furor over "Accidental Racist" left its mark on Paisley. The song was meant to be an exploration of the state of race relations, with Paisley and LL Cool J offering different perspectives. Each managed to anger critics with lyrics that were dissected in the blogosphere.
"It was disappointing because of how badly the song was misinterpreted," DuBois said. "It came from a real honest place where he was wanting to address the reality of racial tension in America and especially in respect to the South. ... What we were not expecting is that the song would be misinterpreted and Brad would be cast as a racist in the blog world and the mainstream press."
Reaction to the song gut-punched the album upon release: Though "Wheelhouse" debuted at number one on Billboard's country chart, it sold just over 100,000 copies its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan. And the 41-year-old singer says he still felt some pushback as he rolled out "Moonshine," starting with lead single "River Bank." The song recently peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.
"What I don't like is that I'm held to a way higher standard than other people," Paisley said. "It's not fair. It's not fair in this town. When I do 'River Bank' and they go, 'Well, what else you got,' because it doesn't mention cutoffs and it doesn't do the things that everybody is complaining about, you know what I'm saying? I do have a song called 'Shattered Glass' on here, and I do have a song called 'American Flag on the Moon,' but they are positive, and they aren't things that people are going to get mad at me for."
Paisley wrote those two songs alone, and each has its genesis in his personal life. He looks at how things have changed for women in "Shattered Glass," a song inspired by his wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, and her experiences with a career in entertainment. And he wrote "American Flag," a song about human potential, after his son looked at the moon and said he thought he could see the flag once planted there by astronauts. The chorus begins, "Tonight I dare you to dream, go on and believe in impossible things."
"I'm sure there are people who would criticize it for its naivetÃ©," Paisley said. "But honestly I prefer to be naive if it means hopeful. The most naive of us might actually achieve something because they're too naive to know that that's not possible."