Brad Paisley: Looks For Honesty In Songs

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Brad Paisley will be the first to tell you that the success of “He Didn’t Have to be,” his first number one single from his Arista CD Who Needs Pictures, has changed the way he looks at writing a song. The song is a true story (see this month’s “Pen In Hand” column) and was written for no other reason than because Paisley and friend Kelly Lovelace wanted to write a song that would make Kelley’s wife, Karen, cry.

Brad Paisley will be the first to tell you that the success of “He Didn’t Have to be,” his first number one single from his Arista CD Who Needs Pictures, has changed the way he looks at writing a song. The song is a true story (see this month’s “Pen In Hand” column) and was written for no other reason than because Paisley and friend Kelly Lovelace wanted to write a song that would make Kelley’s wife, Karen, cry.

After seeing just how many people the song has touched, Brad suddenly has a new appreciation for the term “writing from the heart.”

Another thing Brad has is appreciation for the music that he sings. He credits his grandfather with introducing him to the guitar and ultimately his career in country music. The native of Glen Dale, W.V. was a star in his hometown when he was invited to perform on the WWVA Jamboree in Wheeling, W.V. He was a seasoned performer at the age of 12. He went on to join the Jamboree as a regular performer, which gave him the chance to meet all the country greats who came through its doors. He didn’t hesitate to glean as much from them as he could, observing their shows and talking with them about the music business.

After a short stint at a local college, Paisley packed up and moved to Nashville to attend Belmont University. He had already started dabbling in songwriting (the first song he wrote was “Born On Christmas Day”) and soon was immersed in the music culture of Nashville and all it could teach him.

“I guess when I wrote that song I had held a guitar long enough that it was the next natural thing to do,” Paisley recalls. “I’ve grown to love writing, but at the time it fell out of me really, really easily. Since then I re-learned to do it. There’s an art to it, you’ve really got to think about it. It’s actually a very mathematical process that I’ve learned. You can’t get away with just putting your heart into a song; there are guidelines as well. To me the only songs I’ve ever written that I love are the ones I was honest with…the ones where I didn’t sit down to write a hit. But I learned early on that people relate to songs that are structured…you can’t get away with just anything.”

Brad’s statement almost sounds like the opposite of his reaction to “He Didn’t Have To Be” coming from the heart. He goes on to explain what he means about structuring a song.

“To me the process of writing, first of all, begins with having something to say,” he explains. “There are writers who write for other reasons, for every reason other then they have something to say. I sit down when I do have something to say, or when I have the time, and search for something to say. There needs to be something to write about. There are writer who sit down in rooms and think about what will make money for them or what they can write to complete their publishing deal. I’m guilty of that myself sometimes, but the process should start with being honest and having feeling about something and capturing it in a song. That’s when it’s your job to be honest within the bounds of country music.”

Paisley said one of the best pieces of advice he ever received was to make sure you have a great opening line. “You need to have an opening line that will make someone what to hear the rest of the song. I think back to the greatest songs of all time and they have that. For example (he quotes), “He said Ill love you ‘til I die’…you turn it up, you want to know what the rest of the song is about. Or the Steve Wariner song that starts out ‘here in the dark alone, the three of us again’…you are going to listen to see what happens next.”

Brad says the key for him in writing a song is to keep it simple, which is not necessarily as easy as it may sound. “To me, as a guitar player, I’m fighting not to pick the obvious, I try to use as few chords as possible. I have one song with two chords and it’s one of my favorite songs I’ve written. People like Bob McDill and Harlan Howard, they’ve made a good living off of three or four chords.”

Finally, for Paisley, he tries to make his songs conversational. “I try not to be contrived – I try to say only things that I would say. I think that you can usually spot what’s wrong with a song, because when a line sounds strange to you it’s probably because it’s not something you would normally say. Country music is all about being conversational, that’s the art form. Our job as country writers is to capture that in our songs. And that ‘x’ factor that makes something from the heart and honest, and the songs that are structurally sound, those are the ones that are the best songs.”

Songwriter Even Stevens claims that Nashville is like college, and the folks who come into town together are the freshman class. As each group moves up, they learn together and start to have success together. This has certainly been true with Brad and his songwriting friends. When he first moved to Nashville, he met Chris DuBois, who was working at ASCAP at the time. He and Chris began writing together and discovered they had similar influences in the likes of Dean Dillon and George Strait. Now Chris runs the publishing company that Brad writes for, and they have surrounded themselves with other new writers who share similar interests and influences.

“We steal from Dean all the time,” Brad says of himself and Chris. “We try to think of phrases that epitomize the English language in a spoken way, which Dean is a master at. Like the line in ‘The Chair,’…’can I drink you a buy’…those are strengths of Dean Dillon.

“I did a writer’s night with Dead and Bill Anderson about two months ago and I was intimidated as heck. I don’t get nervous around many people, but Dean makes me nervous. The same with Mike Reid, Mac McAnally – these guys have had more to do with the face of country music in the last 10 years than any artist we think of. And the thing about Dean, he is so nice. He came up to me and said ‘man I heard that step dad song and I just about wrecked.’ That meant a lot to me.”

The hardest thing for Brad to learn, he said, was that no song is ever finished until it’s cut. “You shouldn’t take it personally when somebody says you can improve this or that about your songs. I don’t see these songs as perfect works of art. I’m never offended when someone asks is I can tighten this or that. New writers can learn a lot from the writers in the industry. If two opinions come back the same, then there’s something wrong with it, so fix it. That’s helped me a lot, not to have too big an ego when it comes to songwriting.”

And what makes a song great for Paisley? “To me a great song will make me feel an emotion that I hadn’t planned on feeling. They are fewer and fewer – it’s rare to hear a song that makes you think, cry, gives you the chills, makes you laugh. The great song will do that, will change your mood instantly.”

Paisley’s advice to the young writers is to get involved in the music scene and meet other writers with whom you can work. “I would say more than anything, go to writers nights and observe and find your own little click of people around you who want to do what you want to do. The four of us (at the publishing company) have succeeded in doing something together, hardly using any outside factors. I think that’s where the future lies, in people who are willing to take chances on new things and new people. It’s all about new blood.”

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  1. I keep telling my husband he treats me like a dog. My twins had just finished cupcakes at the table and chocolate cake crumbs was on the table and floor. When my husband walked into the kitchen he said I want you to look what a mess and proceeded to the garage. I went in the kitchen and saw the mess and wrote this song………..

    >I know he loves me but treats me like a dog<<

    He likes to take me huntin far into the woods
    or fishin in a lake or flyin if he could
    I cook and clean and do the clothes and no dog could do better
    So women listen really hard it just keeps gettin better

    Yeah I know he loves me but treats me like a dog
    I wash and clean the wagon and slop all those hogs
    He tells me evry night “ROLLOVER”
    But I’m up against the wall
    Yep I know he loves me but treats me like a dog

    The days are hot the nights are hard the leaves are turnin green
    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man so mean
    He rides his hog out in the rain his trucks out in the drive
    The dogs a layin on the porch thankful he’s alive

  2. I am hoping this gets to Brad – it may be a corny way of writing a song – but it is a song I wrote from the heart for a special girl in my life. I was wondering if Brad would just even like the words for I see him doing this. Anyway I don’t know if it will even get to him – but it is worth a shot.

    I do have music for this – and I am trying to get him a track to listen to. This is crazy to do – but the girl I wrote this for is worth this and more,

    Thank you for your time!

    Isaac Moran

    Girl In My Life

    There’s a girl in my life,
    I’d like to make her my wife;
    But the distrust and lies,
    From days that have gone by;
    Has left some hurt.
    There’s this girl I’d like to keep,
    Gonna ask if she’d marry me;
    Will she say yes or maybe no,
    Her heart will tell her so;
    You know.

    Sweet Dianne,
    I surely miss your love;
    Sweet Dianne,
    The love I’ve been thinking of;
    Sweet Dianne,
    This love I have is true;
    Sweet Dianne,
    “I love you”.

    Now this girl I know,
    In her smile there’s a glow;
    Of beauty and truth,
    Wisdom and integrity.
    God has shown his grace,
    By the beauty on her face;
    The blessing that you are,
    In every shining star;
    To me.

    Sweet Dianne,
    I surely miss your love;
    Sweet Dianne,
    The love I’ve been thinking of;
    Sweet Dianne,
    The love I have is true;
    Sweet Dianne,
    “I need you”.

    Now this girl so true,
    Girl I’ve said “ I love you too “;
    For through my mistakes,
    Have sent her away;
    Now she is gone.
    What a girl I knew,
    I’m not afraid to tell you true;
    The hurt that she can bring,
    Is more than anything;
    I’ve ever known.

    Sweet Dianne,
    Don’t forget my love;
    Sweet Dianne,
    Hope you’re thinking of;
    Sweet Dianne,
    The love you gave so true;
    Sweet Dianne,
    “I miss you”.

    Sweet Dianne,
    I surely miss your love;
    Sweet Dianne,
    The love I’ve been thinking of;
    Sweet Dianne,
    This love I have is true;
    Sweet Dianne,
    “I love you”.

    Thank you – just because!

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