Brad Paisley decided to shake things up on his new album, “Wheelhouse,” which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard country album chart last month.
After a hugely successful, award-winning career, Paisley was ready to dive deeper. Producing himself for the first time, working almost exclusively with his own band, and writing about topics that mean something to him — from domestic violence to his Christian faith to great summer nights — the singer-songwriter hoped to make a statement.
“I was kind of crossing my fingers that people would notice a few of these album cuts and say, ‘OK, what do you mean by this?’ ”
He certainly got his wish.
The week of the album’s release, his duet with LL Cool J, “Accidental Racist,” ignited a flurry of commentary as it grappled — sometimes clunkily — with issues of race, touching on images fraught with emotion from the Confederate flag to the shackles of slavery.
We chatted with Paisley by phone from New York earlier this week and he was as he has always been: thoughtful, candid, funny, self-deprecating, and voluble. He plays the Comcast Center on Friday night.
Q. It must have been gratifying to see the album debut at No. 1, especially during that turbulent week.
A. It was really gratifying. The biggest thing about this album is that it exists. It is exactly what I wanted it to be. I said, “This is going to cause some people to talk, this is going to cause some questions to be asked. But that’s the point.”
Q. Careful what you wish for! “Accidental Racist” certainly did take the heat off “Those Crazy Christians,” which is a song I thought would draw attention.
A. I wondered about that, too. It’s a further stretch for me to be that guy. He hasn’t shaved in a while, he’s probably hung over, he’s very miserable, and he’s mad that anybody out there is happy with their faith. And that’s the point of that song: What must [faith] look like to somebody who can’t stand it or questions it or is baffled by it? And in that sense it makes a stronger case for faith than anything where you just tell somebody, “Life’s great, everything’s great, be happy.”
Q. Perhaps because what you’re saying is more straightforward and “Accidental Racist” is a bit more muddled with its lyrics equating gold chains and iron chains.
A. What’s interesting from my perspective, with my verses I was very concerned with everything I said, making sure that the song was both sympathetic to white Southerners who don’t want to appear racist and also completely respectful of the gentleman I was having the conversation with. I’m trying to be my fanbase in some ways and LL is trying to be his fanbase. But I now know something that I didn’t know in March. In love you can say, “If you cheat on me, I’ll love you anyway.” Nobody takes that personally. Nobody says, “How dare you speak for the entire male population in saying this woman can cheat on you and you’ll forgive that.” (Laughs.) When LL says, “I’ll tell you what. If you don’t judge me for this I will look at you and say I think there’s more to you than what I see.” So he says that and an entire race says, “You don’t speak for us in that.” That wasn’t our point to speak for anyone else; this was a very personal conversation. Both myself and LL Cool J wanted to start a discussion.
Q. Well, mission accomplished. But for people who have followed your whole career and know that you have raised these types of issues before with sensitivity, there was concern that you would be written off as a “good ol’ boy.”
A. Yeah, and that’s OK though. To make a documentary you have to dive in. It’s a hornet’s nest to try and sort it out and you’re not going to sort it out in a song. But the fact that Dartmouth did a class on it last week and Berklee College of Music called me and wants me to come up and speak this fall — and LL and I have talked about places we want to go because we realized when we did this, this is starting a discussion; this is not going to end it.
Q. Speaking of which, what did you think of the “Saturday Night Live” parody?
A. I loved it. To me that was the button at the end of that week. That was the craziest week of my life. I guarantee you I aged in that week, in both a good and a bad way. By Saturday when “SNL” did that I was ecstatic. People can say whatever they want about the song itself, as long as you’re making fun of me I’m OK with it. I mean, who would I be if I could go up and host the CMA awards every year and roast everybody in our format and I’m not OK with it when I get it? Then I’m an idiot. I loved it. They were actually really kind.