My fondness for Brad Paisley will not be news to readers of past Slate Music Clubs. It took me a few listens to warm to American Saturday Night—we're hardest on those we love—but now I rate it as the best album by the star who has most consistently delivered the goods over the past 10 years. (Along with American Saturday Night, I'd rank Time Well Wasted and Mud on the Tires among the decade's finest.) The songs that got all the attention were the title track and "Welcome to the Future," the former a party-hearty ode to the melting pot, the latter a sweeping arena-rock ode to the melting pot—and to iPhones and video chats and, obliquely, Barack Obama.
Anthems like those make Paisley an easy country star for blue-state music critics to cuddle up to. But I'm with Music Club alum Robert Christgau, who singles out American Saturday Night's songs about family and domesticity. The hit was the ballad "Then," which I half-think Paisley wrote just to school Rascal Flatts, Nashville's slow-dance schlock-specialists. ("You think you can rock the prom? Boom.") In formal terms, it's a perfect power ballad, as architecturally flawless as "Open Arms." Those who aren't turned off by the genre in the first place—by big, shameless melodies that crest over stately piano chords and lines about how "the river meets the sea" etc.—will recognize "Then" as an unusually wise and moving (and clever) song about marital love, which Paisley carries off with his typical light touch.
For my money, Paisley is sentimental about the right things, and in the right proportions. But even when he's not being sentimental, Paisley is corny. The funny novelty songs for which Paisley is famous—pure cornpone. I've spent a lot of time defending Paisley from friends who diss him for being corny, but it's not corniness, per se, that they object to. The outlaw country greats whom my friends idolize are corny, too—their thing is grim, dust-in-the-wrinkles, fatalistic, Cormac McCarthy corn. Paisley's crime is optimism. The guy is constitutionally upbeat, and he doesn't try to hide it. He's incapable of good ol' boy bluster. He makes fun of it in his songs.
The truth is, corniness is part of a country singer's job, and Paisley does his job to perfection. He's as virtuoso a country star as Jay-Z is a rap star. In his New York Timesreviews of American Saturday Night and Paisley's Madison Square Garden concert, Ben Ratliff endlessly insinuates that Paisley is a hack. If by hack, Ratliff means genre artist, then, fine, Brad Paisley is a hack—a hack of genius.