Ever since 1999, Brad Paisley has been touted by some critics and fans as new traditionalist country's great hope. Blessed with good looks, good taste, and a nice twang in his voice, Paisley could have gone pure country-pop but decided to stick fairly close to his roots and play a nice amalgam of honky tonk, Western swing, and pop. It was straight out of the George Strait handbook, but it was nicely done on his first two records, particularly compared to a crop of new artists who seemed anxious to gun for the big hit. Paisley never seemed that desperate for chart success; he took it easy, so any sales seemed to be the side effect of his easygoing charm. That, along with his exceptional taste, garnered critical favor and a nice, dedicated base of fans, but his third album, 2003's Mud on the Tires, is where some cracks in the facade are revealed. It's not that it's a bad album, because it isn't. Far from it, actually -- it's a really good record, boasting a set of songs that are arguably his most consistent and illustrating Paisley's capable grasp on a wide variety of styles and sounds, from honky tonk and Western swing to plaintive bluegrass, country-folk, and even country-pop novelties. These are all the things that have made Paisley such a hot commodity among those listeners who prize traditionalism in country music (which, let's face it, most country fans do).
With his crackerjack band, featuring guitarist Redd Volkaert and bassist Kevin "Swine" Grantt, he sounds good, reverent, and muscular, recalling classic country in a way that will be appealing to most listeners, whether they prefer George Jones or George Strait. No, the cracks in the facade do not lie in the sound of the music -- it's in the feel and flavor of the music. Brad Paisley suffers from a near-terminal cutesiness that undercuts his music, making even good moments seem a little affected. And this cutesiness just flows from every other song on the record. There's the hit single "Celebrity," where he "skewers" celebrity hijinks in a way that suggests nothing but the "wacky" video that's sure to accompany it. There's "Ain't Nothin' Like," a paean to simple pleasures boasting one of the shrillest kid's chorus ever committed to tape. Then, there's "Spaghetti Western Swing," primarily a showcase for Volkaert, but burdened with an awful mock radio play written by Paisley and performed by George Jones, Little Jimmy Dickens, and Bill Anderson. There are the homespun "truths" on "That's Love" (as in, "That ain't a lie/That's love") that operate on the same level as Tracy Byrd's "The Truth About Men," only without the conviction to be truly silly. The Byrd comparison is a good one -- Paisley has more musical muscle and a better band than Byrd, but he lacks the spirit; he seems to be putting on a show, and that affectation keeps his music from digging as deep as it should. On the surface, Mud on the Tires is a fine, satisfying listen, but to truly live up to the mantle that's been bestowed upon him, Paisley had better start adding substance to his admittedly fetching style.