Given that both his critical and commercial winning streaks are nearly unrivaled by his contemporaries, country superstar Brad Paisley has arrived at a point in his career where he can afford to take risks and be a little self-indulgent, and he does both in equal measure on his sixth outing Play: The Guitar Album. Paisley has come up with an album that showcases his love for, and his undeniable skill with, the guitar, a record that is fully two-thirds instrumental—practically unheard of in any genre of modern popular music today. Perhaps what is most surprising about the project, aside from the fact that a major label in Nashville would agree to release it at all, is that it is every bit as accomplished and thematically focused as Paisley’s previous efforts.
While the occasional solo or standalone instrumental cut on albums like 2005’s excellent Time Well Wasted and 2007’s slightly less-so 5th Gear proved that Paisley is handily one of the most talented guitarists of his generation, he’s rarely had the opportunity to cut loose on record the way he does here. His affinity for the chicken-plucking style of ‘60s-era country has been one of his trademarks, and the hold-on-for-dear-life throw-downs of songs like “Huckleberry Jam” and the spectacularly named all-star collaboration “Cluster Pluck” give Paisley the opportunity to pay tribute to some of his key sources of inspiration as well as play alongside them. Play demonstrates the unexpected breadth of his influences: From the fast-picking surf-pop of “Turf’s Up” and the straight-ahead blues of “Kentucky Jelly” to the ‘80s hair-metal shredding of “Kim” and “Cliffs of Rock City” (an homage to Guitar Hero favorite “Cliffs of Dover” by Eric Johnson), Paisley proves his versatility.
It’s a credit to his focus and to how seriously he approached the album that its vocal tracks are not merely distractions or concessions to a record label that was likely terrified by the prospects of one of its biggest stars releasing a record without a viable radio single. Instead, tracks like “Start a Band,” a duet with modern country’s other most notable guitarist, Keith Urban, and “More Than Just This Song” actually reinforce the album’s broader themes, in that they alternately find Paisley singing about the significance of his guitar at various points in his life or with some of his biggest influences. While “Let the Good Times Roll,” a duet with B.B. King, boasts the most full-throated vocal performance of Paisley’s career, it is “Come On In,” a duet constructed from a tremendous unreleased demo by the late Buck Owens that is the highlight of the set.
Hearing Paisley both lay his influences bare and do his damnedest to impress them when they happen to be in the studio with him makes this far more than just a one-off experiment of a record. A gamble that pays off handsomely, Play is an insightful, compelling and fantastically performed declaration of who Paisley is as an artist and a testament to why he is one of the standard-bearers for contemporary country music.