Welcome to the Future: Brad Paisley’s American Saturday Night Ten Years Later

How the country prodigy’s 2009 classic resonates in modern times

Brad Paisley 2009 (Art: Ron Hart)

Spoiler alert: Things didn’t work out. For America or Brad Paisley.

Though you could also say things didn’t work out for country; the genre hasn’t produced a country album by a non-woman as good as American Saturday Night in the whole subsequent decade its numerous radio-suffocating bros have had to get their shit together.

There aren’t a ton of genres susceptible to that kind of dominance, though there aren’t a ton of genres that have a Miranda Lambert, who’s made at least two albums this extraordinary in the 2010s and possibly the decade’s best in her spare time. And her closest competition are women: Sarah Shook, Margo Price, Brandy Clark, fellow Pistol Annies Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe, industry wrecking ball Kacey Musgraves, not Sam Hunt or Chris Stapleton or “metamodern” journeyman Sturgill Simpson. 

Brad Paisley American Saturday Night, Curb 2009

The best country album by a man in the 2010s would be Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s The Nashville Sound, which shares with American Saturday Night a consciousness of white male privilege, spelled out directly in “White Man’s World”: “I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes / Wishing I’d never been one of the guys / Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke.”

He doesn’t just stop there though, tracing his lineage back to holocaust: “I’ve got the bones of the red man under my feet.”

Paisley’s not the grim sort. In fact, for a genre earmarked by sad songs and left loves he’s unusually cheery. And it’s even more remarkable how much political music he’s gotten out of that. But even he grasped the meaning of Barack Obama’s 2008’s election enough to trace the throughline back to his running back classmate getting a cross burned on his lawn “for asking out the homecoming queen.” And he released it as a single, “Welcome to the Future,” which, true to its title, featured a Cars-y synth breakdown. It went to #2 country, such was the overarching power of 2009 Brad Paisley. This was allyship of unprecedented reach, someone who could really make a difference in his astoundingly conservative purview, only a few years after the Dixie Chicks were burned at the stake for daring question the Iraq war’s chief profiteer.

Then “Accidental Racist” happened, fulfilling its own title. See, if you research well enough, it’s hard to not be the grim sort, especially now. Someone less liable to fall flat on their face maybe wouldn’t have had the podium Paisley had in Nashville, nor would a Lil Nas X type, whom Taste of Country readers sniff and (try to) snuff out pretty quick. The archetypal “nice guy” we kind of mock on the left? They stand a better chance of reaching across the aisle than any blue senator; Garth Brooks included his lesbian sister in his success when he got “We Shall Be Free” on all but the most morally bankrupt radio stations in 1992. Kacey Musgraves has somewhat taken up the Ambassador of Nice mantle; her biggest actual radio hit may still be the LGBT-welcoming “Follow Your Arrow” even in the wake of her Grammys and Pazz & Jop-uniting Golden Hour. But even though she charmed Brooks & Dunn this year into a lovely techno remake of “Neon Moon,” her cowboy clout has nothing on Paisley’s 18 number-one singles. Or, if you prefer, only one person had the chutzpah to get Charlie Daniels on a song against domestic abuse of women.

 

VIDEO: Brad Paisley ft. LL Cool J “Accidental Racist”

It’s not necessarily that “Accidental Racist” ended Paisley’s political songwriting — his 2014 pay-gap protest “Shattered Glass” on the otherwise bro-friendly Moonshine in the Trunk is one of his best tunes — but it shrank from the forefront of his craft. Love and War in 2017 only made small overtures against war (albeit getting John Fogerty on one is a flex) and his wit suffered from being out of the loop; there’s an unwelcome transphobic joke on one track. So listening to the miraculous American Saturday Night today is a reminder of what there was to lose.

The title track is a proper start for one, and it sounds like the pre-Trump relic it is, a party-hearty celebration of all the greatness xenophobic would leave us without, from Brazilian leather to French kisses to Italian ice. It also has some of the fastest and most liquid guitar playing of the casual virtuoso’s life, but extolling multicultural celebration to an arena of white dudes was kind of his thing. So’s feminism. “The Pants” shredded big-man archetypes by pointing out “it’s not who wears the pants, it’s who wears the skirt,” and daring Mr. Macho to try on some lace and frills. Of course, being a corny countrypolitan, his feminism is largely Wife Guy-ism; “She’s Her Own Woman” finds him admitting he wouldn’t last 45 minutes in his house without her, partly because he doesn’t know what tarragon is or where he’d find it. Night’s awfully sweet hit “Then” is the pinnacle of his devotion, a skyscraping ballad about his amazement at how much more he was capable of loving his one-and-only.

Of course, there’s also tributes to his other loves, “Water,” which has the most eloquent description of a wet t-shirt contest you’ve ever heard, and “Catch All the Fish,” which finally finds the harmony between matrimony and angling that 2002’s “I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song)” could not. With love to the spooky falsetto of the “heartbroken zombie” in “Everybody’s Here,” American Saturday Night is largely a joyous artifact of extraordinary optimism, for the infinity of Paisley’s marriage, pastimes, and the world surrounding. He proudly beams about wishing to tell his ancestor who fought the Japanese that he was on a video call to Tokyo today.

 

VIDEO: Brad Paisley “Water”

The masterstrokes on Paisley’s more fraught 2011 follow-up, This Is Country Music, are less sure of their footing: the gorgeous Carrie Underwood duet “Remind Me,” about rekindling the old sex life, and “A Man Don’t Have to Die,” Paisley’s greatest-ever economic-unrest song, and possibly his most acute political moment. When he sings about being unable to make payments “on a house that you can’t sell” and rhymes it with H-E-double-hockey-sticks, he no longer feels like a liaison between classes but someone who understands the housing crisis from deep within. Two years later, he was singing “I Can’t Change the World” (on the same album where he naively recruited LL Cool J to equate his gold chains with the iron ones of slavery) and he was right.

But American Saturday Night brims with the brio that he could, and listening to it in an era marked by confusing and heartbreaking developments in white supremacy will hurt.

 

 

 

 

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Dan Weiss

Dan Weiss is a freelance writer living in New Jersey.

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