“Who’s gonna fill their shoes?” George Jones asked. “Who’s gonna play the Opry or the Wabash Cannonball?” When Brad Paisley became one of the youngest inductees to the Grand Ole Opry, Jones revealed his answer with an endorsement letter stating, “I am counting on you to carry on the tradition.” Paisley’s 5th Gear is a flawless, Opry-styled variety show. Besides playing top-notch telecaster with a barbed-wire wit, he delivers his hit-making Hail Mary pick-up line, “I want to check you for ticks” in the enviable way that sounds cute rather than creepy. Paisley attempts to appeal to traditionalists on “Throttleneck” and popsters on the softly beautiful “Oh Love,” featuring Carrie Underwood, without sacrificing his integrity. When he sings “All I Wanted Was a Car,” the destination is undeniably Bakersfield. “Letter to Me” successfully encourages frustrated teens by cleverly addressing the advice to his former self. Soul-searching histrionics color the tearjerkers “It Did” and “If Love Was a Plane” and, as a recurring theme, nostalgia makes for a pretty depressing album, but Paisley’s offbeat humor refuses to bow to grim sentimentality. For every regretful “With You, Without You,” there’s the comic remedy of “I’m Still a Guy” to explain Martian to the Venutians, “When you see a deer, you see Bambi/And I see antlers up on the wall/When you see a lake, you think picnics/And I see a large mouth up under that log.” If they make another Dukes of Hazzard or, God forbid, Smokey and the Bandit, “Mr. Policeman” could serve as the theme with its Jerry-Reed-meets-Commander-Cody breakneck chicken pickin’ and inevitable yet clever punchline where Johnny Law catches our outlaw hero. Vince Gill joins the sketch comedy of New Kung Pao Buckaroos, a staple since Time Well Wasted, along with Little Jimmy Dickens and Bill Anderson (Jones is a no-show here). Along with striking a sensible balance, Paisley avoids predictable vocal choices and crafts lasting tunes that outshine those of his more recent elders George Strait and Clint Black.
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