In the decade since country singer Brad Paisley put out his debut album, the kid from Glen Dale, W.Va., has concocted a savvy musical amalgam of Roger Miller's songwriting wit, Buck Owens' hard-rocking twang and Chet Atkins' guitar wizardry. But there's powerful evidence of another influence at work in Paisley's music, one of the titans of American popular culture: Mark Twain.
Like Twain's youthful literary hero Tom Sawyer, Paisley frequently couples wisdom with a finely honed sense of humor, and appears to share Huck Finn's disenchantment with the emphasis that all those grown-ups around him place on becoming "sivilized."
In hits such as "Online," "Celebrity" and "Ticks," he's proved to be a skillful sneak, slipping in the kind of clever ideas and wordplay that few of his peers at the top of the country sales charts dare to venture. He's tackled the subject of alcohol abuse from different vantage points in two hit songs, the whimsical "Alcohol" and the artistic punch to the gut "Whiskey Lullaby," his award-winning duet with bluegrass queen Alison Krauss.
Paisley's eighth album, "American Saturday Night," due out Tuesday, has the usual complement of straightforward love songs (the first single, "Then"), ruminations on love lost ("Oh Yeah, You're Gone") and humorous come-ons ("You Do the Math").
But what is likely to elevate Paisley's standing as a musician, both in and potentially outside of the Nashville music community, are two key tracks: the title song and "Welcome to the Future," both of which broach topics that also were favorites of Samuel Clemens.
"I'm getting into some subjects that don't come up very often in country music, like racism, and I think it's time," Paisley, 36, said in late April during the brisk walk from his tour bus toward the massive stage at the 2009 Stagecoach country music festival in Indio, which he co-headlined with Kenny Chesney, playing to some 40,000 to 50,000 fans.
In person, Paisley's as quick with a quip as you'd expect from his humor-laced songs and he has a gift for putting visitors quickly at ease with his long-lost-friend demeanor. He frequently exhibits an impressive attention to detail, whether it's concerning some facet of the stage setup for his live shows, the production work on a new recording or the musical equipment surrounding him.
Stagecoach was a cherry gig he couldn't pass up, but it meant briefly tearing himself away from wrapping up work on the album -- a collection that constitutes an important step forward for him, and for country music itself.
"One of the things I thought about while we were working on this," he said later, relaxing on the comfortably appointed tour bus parked out back, "is this nagging feeling that country music had sat this one out a little too long, as far as what's going on right before our very eyes, and in our society."
The new album again blends his respect for country tradition with unexpected sonic touches (such as the '80s-sounding Moog synthesizer on "Welcome to the Future"). He's audibly proud when he talks about using his touring band in the studio rather than session players who create the majority of music that comes out of Nashville.
"American Saturday Night" leads off the collection with the feel of an instant concert centerpiece, an upbeat singalong outlining the myriad threads in the fabric of the nation.
There's a big toga party tonight down at Delta Chi
They got Canadian bacon on their pizza pie
They've got a cooler full of cold Coronas and Amstel Light
It's like we're all living' in a big ol' cup
Just fire up the blender, mix it all up
"It's definitely a different type of patriotism," said Paisley, who doesn't hesitate in citing Twain among his key role models. He and actress-wife Kim Williams named their first child William Huckleberry Paisley after Twain's irreverent protagonist. (The Paisley family, which also includes infant Jasper Warren, lives on an 85-acre farm outside of Nashville.)
"Patriotism in general is the idea that our country is the greatest because it's our country," Paisley said with a Twain-like edge on the observation. "You can name the reasons why you feel America is the greatest country in the world, but the fact of the matter is that pretty much anything you name, aside from American Indian customs, was not indigenous -- it was brought here.
"We are this place of transplants," he continued. "I think it's wonderful; I like being able to have Indian food for lunch, go to Lares on Pico for dinner or the Taj Palace in Pacific Palisades . . . It's the greatest place to party in the world, except maybe Ireland. But try getting a decent enchilada there."