Brad Paisley at the Susquehanna: Country with contradictions

Brad Paisley in Chicago. He played the Susquehanna Center in Camden Sunday and was all over the musical map.
Brad Paisley in Chicago. He played the Susquehanna Center in Camden Sunday and was all over the musical map. (BENJAMIN ENOS)
Posted: July 03, 2013

Country music and controversy don't usually go hand in hand unless one of those hands belongs to Dixie Chick Natalie Maines. But when Brad Paisley's song "Accidental Racist" hit the Internet this year, the reaction was swift and brutal.

Cultural commentators practically fell over one another in their rush to condemn the song, which posits an uneasy encounter between a Confederate flag-wearing Paisley and a black barista. Although the song's most cringe-inducing sentiments came courtesy of guest rapper and latte-puller LL Cool J, Paisley took the heat for downplaying the former slave states' ignominious past and setting up a false dichotomy between "Southern pride and Southern blame."

The stars and bars were nowhere to be seen at the Susquehanna Bank Center on Sunday night. But Paisley did take the stage to a montage of clips from Hee Haw, The Andy Griffith Show, and Jeff Foxworthy's stand-up act, and launched straight into "Southern Comfort Zone," which, like "Accidental Racist," is from Paisley's new album, Wheelhouse. Less lyrically confused and more musically engaging than his inadvertent firestarter, "Southern Comfort Zone" is a song about leaving the South behind. As images of the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum danced on a scrim behind him, Paisley sang, "I miss my Tennessee home, but I can't see this world unless I go."

Back in March, Wikipedia-savvy critics were quick to point out that Paisley was raised in West Virginia, which was not part of the Confederacy; his hometown of Glen Dale is very nearly at the same latitude as Philadelphia. But Paisley's South is composed solely of cultural signifiers: Billy Graham and sweet tea, cowboy boots and NASCAR, not poll taxes and Jim Crow.

As cultural warriors go, Paisley is largely a noncombatant: not for him the redneck resentments of Toby Keith. But he's not above the occasional pander to the aggrieved masses. In the acoustic-guitar opening to "This Is Country Music," he sang, "It ain't hip to sing about tractors, trucks, little towns, and Mama," as if those subjects weren't the heart of every country station's playlist. But then he tossed his acoustic to a waiting roadie and slipped on an electric guitar, turning the song into something more like Southern rock than Western swing; this is country music, too.

Although his lyrics place him below the Mason-Dixon line, Paisley was all over the musical map, segueing from the bluegrass-surf instrumental "Time Warp" into Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher," then leading a stripped-down band to the middle of the floor for an acoustic take on the social-media anthem "Online."

He may not be able to resolve the contradictions of modern country, but Paisley plays them out, one song at a time.

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