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Wearing white cowboy hat, black suit and black tie, country singer and guitar virtuoso Brad Paisley strode on stage in the East Room of the White House before a bipartisan audience.
It was a Saturday night and, fittingly, he began the 40-minute set playing his hit song American Saturday Night – but with an amended lyric. “I had to change the second line because it mentioned Russia, and I don’t do that any more,” he explained.
When Paisley delivered its substitute – “There’s a Ukrainian flag hanging up behind the bar” – no one applauded louder than Joe Biden in the front row.
It was a moment that illustrated Paisley’s engagement with Ukraine’s fight for survival and, before a gathering of governors from blue and red states, his efforts to bridge political divides. The 50-year-old from West Virginia, a three-time Grammy winner, describes himself as hard to categorise but optimistic that America can move beyond what has been called a cold civil war.
That night last month at the White House, Paisley compelled Spencer Cox, the Republican governor of Utah and an amateur musician, to join him in a duet. He also performed a new song, Same Here, marking the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Speaking by phone Nashville, Tennessee, Paisley recalls: “You had most of the states represented and you had all sides. I could see it in the room: let’s not lose what this is saying because it works. Face to face, left to right, it works. That’s the thing about something like this: when you put it out there, it’s going to be uncomfortable, but that’s OK. Art can be uncomfortable. I welcome the discussion.”
The commercial release of Same Here features a voiceover from the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, speaking proudly about his country and people. Paisley’s royalties for the track will be donated to the United24 crowdfunding effort to help build housing for thousands of displaced Ukrainians whose homes were destroyed in the war.
He describes the song – the first from his new album, Son of the Mountains – as an expression of empathy. “It’s about anybody who longs for freedom. Around this time last year, when I was seeing all this begin to happen, I was moved by the images of people fleeing – mothers, daughters, grandmothers crossing the border, all huddled in the backseat of a car, fleeing for their lives as the husband stayed behind to fight.
“It’s unlike anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. It’s unlike anything any of us have seen in our lifetimes. It just felt so helpless to watch this and be a witness to this with nothing we could do. Maybe the most exciting thing for me in having this out is the idea that this is going to help rebuild homes for people, and it’s also raising some awareness.”
Zelenskiy has worked tirelessly to promote his cause and build support around the world. The former actor, comedian and screenwriter delivered a rousing speech to the US Congress in Washington and has given video addresses at the Golden Globe and Grammy awards.
Paisley reflects: “It’s an amazing thing. Who would have thought? You almost can’t write the script – they did, actually, that was his TV show – but he seems to be the right man at the right time in a way that just seems divine. It’s unbelievable.”
The Ukrainian president was happy to collaborate with Paisley and even had some songwriting suggestions. “When he heard it, I got word that there were a few lines that he wondered about and so we worked on those and made sure that it came off the way it did.
“It’s funny how much better it is now than when we began in the sense that it’s truly remarkable to hear this voice in the middle of this conflict with a melody. He had great suggestions. I don’t know if he’s got aspirations to write songs or not.”
Paisley’s public shows of support for Ukraine has drawn attacks from bots – fake, automated accounts that became notorious after Russia employed them in an effort to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.
It would be no surprise to find Paisley caught in political crossfire. The perils facing country music artists who venture into the political arena were spelled out when the Dixie Chicks faced fierce blowback for their condemnation of President George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
During the 2016 election, a survey by the trade publication Country Aircheck found that 46% of industry professionals favored Republican Donald Trump while 41% preferred Democrat Hillary Clinton. Many stars prefer to remain apolitical, which may be pragmatic considering the risk of alienating half their audience.
Nashville, the home of country music, has a Democratic mayor, but is surrounded by Republican red in Tennessee. Paisley does not declare himself to be either Democrat or Republican. “The bottom line is I defy category. I definitely am one of the more confusing people that way. The minute you affiliate, ‘Here’s what I am,’ are you all those things? I’m certainly not all of those things on either side.”
“I’m a little hard to pin down. There will be songs when this album comes out where a lot of liberals will go, ‘Wait a minute, you can’t say that!’ I have written an album that does not pull punches. If I believe in something or if I want to tell a story, it’s on here on this album. I have literally bled for it – I’ve cut my hand a couple of times playing the guitar. I’ve written it to the degree that I’ve really tried to scope every word all the way from the very first line to the last line of this album.
“The far left may say, ‘What are you doing?’ Harlan Howard, one of our great songwriters in country music, they used to give him flak. So many of the songs were cheating songs, drinking songs. They’re like, ‘Why do you write about that so much?’ He said, ‘When people stop, so will I!” He laughs. “That’s the thing people do. If people don’t do that any more then we’ll have to write country songs about all the other things. But there are songs in here about things people do.”
It would not be the first time that Paisley has faced criticism from the left. Next month marks the 10th anniversary of Accidental Racist, Paisley’s ill-fated collaboration with rapper LL Cool J.
Paisley began the song with an anecdote about a Black man taking offence at his Confederate flag T-shirt, explaining: “The only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan” – a reference to the southern rock band that often used the flag. He went on to sing about white people are “caught between southern pride and southern blame” a century and a half after the civil war.
Paisley insisted that he was trying to foster an open discussion of race relations, but critics said it was tone deaf. An analysis by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic was headlined: “Why ‘Accidental Racist’ Is Actually Just Racist.” Demetria Irwin of the Black culture website the Grio called it “the worst song in the history of music”. Actor and comedian Patton Oswalt tweeted: “I can’t wait for Brad Paisley & LL Cool J’s next single: “Whoopsy Daisy, Holocaust, My Bad.”
Did he learn lessons from the experience?
“You can’t think of everything, and at some point the art you make should exist as the way you want it to exist, but if it can be better, and somebody has an opinion, you should listen to them. If it’s a valid opinion, if it’s not a bot, if it’s not some sort of strange agenda. In that sense, it’s all been a part of my journey for sure, learning from these things.”
The entire nation has been on a vertiginous learning curve in the 10 years since Accidental Racist, witnessing a racial reckoning that has a reframing of American history via the 1619 Project and the removal of many Confederate statues across the south.
Paisley comments: “I drove by these statues my whole life since I was 20 here in Tennessee and never really thought about them at all. Obviously I’m the wrong one to ask on whether they come down. It’s not important what I think. To me it’s about the people that feel something so deeply and feel so much hurt. Let’s talk about that.”
The musician has long used his platform to advocate for causes, opening a free grocery store in Nashville with his wife, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, and donating 1m meals during the coronavirus pandemic. He visited US troops in Afghanistan and has talked with Zelenskiy about performing in Ukraine. But he rejects that idea that Same Here is a case of mixing music with politics.
“To me in no way, shape or form is it a political statement. I guess I have a world leader on and it’s interesting to say something is avoiding politics when you do that. But truthfully, for me, when you boil it down, here’s what we care about: crying at weddings, having a beer together in a remote place, families and soldiers and flags and freedom and all these things.
“To me, if you want to call it political, call it whatever you want to call it. But let’s talk about this. These are key things in life that make us human.”
‘I’m a little hard to pin down’: country star Brad Paisley becomes unlikely Ukraine advocate
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