For Brad Paisley, 5th Gear is more than a clever reference to the number of albums in his career. It also identifies the gear in which an engine is expressing the full extent of its capabilities and force. That's a good analogy for where Paisley is right now. The reigning CMA Male Vocalist of the Year and ACM Top Male Vocalist, Paisley has now scored ten #1 singles - six consecutively - with 5th Gear launching three in a row with "Ticks," "Online," and "Letter to Me." After five albums—the double-platinum fourth was crowned Album of the Year by the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music—the West Virginia favorite son has established a fresh sound and a distinct creative path.
Rooted in traditional country sounds, yet as modern as a hybrid vehicle, Paisley's music draws on humor, sincerity, compassion, instrumental prowess and unique song topics to give him a style all his own. " 5th Gear is something you reach when you're on a long, good stretch and you're really rolling," Paisley says. "This album, and this time in my career, feels like that. We are pushing things further in every way—musically, lyrically and in our concerts."
Indeed, by this point, the multi-threat guitarist, singer, songwriter and entertainer has placed himself among the leaders of his generation of country music stars. He's been nominated for a whopping 38 CMA Awards since 2000, the year he won the Horizon Award. In 2006, besides winning Album of the Year for Time Well Wasted , he also took his third Musical Event of the Year honor, this time for "When I Get Where I'm Going," his hit duet with Country Music Hall of Fame member Dolly Parton.
His streak continued into 2007, when he won the prestigious Top Male Vocalist honor at the Academy of Country Music Awards and Male Vocalist of the Year from the Country Music Association. A widely recognized guitar specialist who fills his songs with head-turning instrumental twists, Paisley is one of the few country artists who takes his own band into the studio for his recordings. Along with producer Frank Rogers, who has worked on all of his albums, he began work on 5th Gear the week after his triumphs at the CMA Awards. Paisley brought his Album of the Year trophy into the studio and set it on the console for everyone to see. "We gave each other a round of applause, and I told everybody, 'Congratulations, this is yours. Now, let's do even better.' That's the mindset we had," Paisley recalls. "I didn't mean that we expect to win it again. What I meant was, 'Let's see if we can top it.' We wanted to aim at pushing ourselves and at doing something we felt moved the music forward." 5th Gear does just that.
By expanding his musical palette, from the country-meets-'80s-rock catchiness of "All I Wanted Was a Car" to the real-life poignancy of "Letter to Me," and from the full-speed "Mr. Policeman" to the wistfully philosophical "If Love Was a Plane," Paisley finds fresh ground both in his themes and in the details of the lyrics and the how-did-he-do-that musical arrangements. The album's first hit, "Ticks," typifies Paisley's ability to write about age-old subjects in completely surprising and fresh ways. "If you think the song is gross, you're missing the point," the singer says with a laugh. "It's not about bloodsucking bugs. It's about a guy flirting with a girl, and, in trying to tell her he's interested in her, he's using a term that's about as country as can be." Paisley came up with the image naturally. "Working out here on the farm, I literally have to check for ticks every time I come in from the woods or the fields," he notes. "Now, if a young guy who lives in the country were to take a girl into the woods for any reason, it would totally cross his mind that she's going to have to check for ticks when they come back out. So it seems that an enterprising guy would at least consider that he could offer to check for her." As with all his humorous songs, Paisley wanted to get away with as much as he could. "It was a hard song to write because if you go too far with it, it's not funny anymore," he says, a comment that also works with other new and humorous tunes, including "Online," "I'm Still a Guy," "Mr. Policeman" and "Bigger Fish to Fry." "But if you stay with just the right amount of innuendo, and leave the rest to the imagination, then it works."
He sings a soaring duet, "Oh Love," with country sensation Carrie Underwood, who became friends with Paisley while touring as his opening act in 2006. "Carrie and I had a great tour together last year, and we became friends," he says. "She sang 'Whiskey Lullaby' with me every show, and at the end of the tour, we both expressed that it was a shame that we didn't get to sing together anymore. So when it came time to do the album, it seemed natural to record a duet with her. It was just a matter of finding the right song, and we did." As always, Paisley put the album together with his stage show in mind. "This feels more like our concert than any album we've done," the singer says. "I said that about Time Well Wasted , too, but our live show has evolved and improved since then. I think this album reflects what we're capable of doing now."
Indeed, after an incredible 2006 playing to more than 750,000 fans as he headlined one of the top country tours of the year, Paisley launched his 2007 Bonfires & Amplifiers Tour with the added muscle of presenting sponsor, Hershey's. "It's the dream of every artist," he remarks, "to find the right collaboration with a sponsorship package. With the push that they're helping us do, we can reach people we've never reached before. As an artist, that is appealing, and the sponsorship money, we reinvested." Billboard named Paisley among five hot headliners to watch—all genres—in 2007, and with the backing of Hershey's, he had the chance to pour newfound resources into his live show. "You can really tell that we had a sponsor this time. You will see the absolute state of the art in concert technology out at one of our shows. It's really, really fun."
The live-audience dynamic is part of Paisley's focus on two criteria when creating a new album: "With each song I choose, I have to visualize the people in the front rows of my shows enjoying it as we perform it. If I can see them singing along, smiling and laughing, or holding up a lighter or cell phone, then the song is a keeper." The second rule comes when he considers if this song is different than anything he's said before in a song—and if he can imagine it becoming somebody's favorite. "That way, I'm sure each song is different than others on the album, and each song is a potential hit," he says. "I don't want to feel anything on there is weaker than the song next to it. I didn't want to think, 'Man, I wish we could've found something a little better.' I'm proud to say, with this album, I don't feel that way about anything on it."
What might surprise fans is that none of the songs refer specifically to another major event in Paisley's life: He and his wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, welcomed the birth of their first son, William Huckleberry Paisley, on February 22, 2007. "People might be surprised at how little influence our son's birth had on this album," he says. "Part of it is that most of the songs were written and selected before he was born. So you'd have to know what to look for to hear me addressing it. Interestingly enough, the song that most directly speaks about birth ["It Did"], I didn't write." That doesn't mean the Paisleys' first child didn't influence the album in some manner. "I think where it manifested itself is how youthful the album is in its feel and themes," he says. "There are references to wanting a car at 16, to writing a letter to myself when I was 17, and references to things like dating and online chat rooms and the mistakes you make when you're growing up. So I think his birth influenced the album in a less direct way.
By now, as he's hitting fifth gear, there are some obvious traits that Paisley's albums share: There's the instrumental, "Throttleneck" (which in 2008 won Paisley a GRAMMY Award - his first - for Best Country Instrumental Performance), and the gospel song, "When We All Get to Heaven"; there's the song that has fun about the wayward habits of unreconstructed men, "I'm Still a Guy"; and there's the humorous Kung Pao Buckaroos skit, this time with Paisley's heroes Bill Anderson and Little Jimmy Dickens joined by a relatively young buck, Vince Gill, with all of them sharing vocals on the witty, swinging shuffle, "Bigger Fish to Fry." In the end, Paisley figures he is indeed in 5th Gear now; he and his band are running at top speed and firing on all pistons, and he's honed his songwriting and his guitar-playing ability to where he's not afraid to push forward a little further. "I think this album is really a candid snapshot of who I am and what me and my band can do," he says. "We challenged ourselves, and I'm really proud of what we've done."