Country Pushes in New Directions

In an age of milquetoast, pickup-truck-obsessed himbos, Brad Paisley is one of the few country artists to regularly wrestle with race and class, and what happens when those issues intersect with some of Southern culture’s darker impulses.

He’s almost certainly the genre’s only superstar to take pride in telling his audience things they don’t want to hear. But country fans can be hidebound and criticism-averse, and while Paisley’s observations usually come in the form of affectionate nudges and not sharp elbows, even he can’t get away with too much.

Paisley, who recently told an interviewer that his musical nerve went in and out like the tide, has lately alternated socially conscious albums with less-complicated crowd-pleasers. His new disc, Wheelhouse, (out April 9) is the follow-up to 2011’s benign This Is Country Music and opens with Southern Comfort Zone, a gentle takedown of Southern insularity. “Not everybody owns a gun/ . . . Not everybody goes to church/ Or watches every NASCAR race,” observes Paisley, who sounds as if he can’t believe it, either.

Whether these seem like obvious statements of fact or an affront to your belief system depends to a great extent on which side of the Mason-Dixon Line you’re located. But Paisley swaddles the would-be controversial tracks in choir-preaching love songs and shaggy, honky-tonk ramblers — his versions of musical insurance policies.

On its second full-length album, Pioneer, the Band Perry acts as if those boundaries don’t exist at all. The trio — two brothers and a sister from Greeneville, Tenn., whose self-titled 2010 debut was a platinum-plus behemoth — appreciates bluegrass, shiny choruses and Queen, and sees no reason why those influences can’t peacefully coexist. While Paisley cloaks his cosmopolitan musings on nationalism and multiculturalism in traditional country clothing, the Band Perry dresses up traditional country sentiments in the cosmopolitan trappings of glam rock and emo-pop. In the process,the group has made what will likely be one of the signal country albums of 2013.