Country-music devotees tend to be sensitive when their artists stray from the fold, and as possibly the most compelling crossover country act since Johnny Cash, Brad Paisley no doubt understands this. His most recent record was titled This Is Country Music, like he was trying to convince folks — and maybe himself — that he wasn't getting too far afield. "Southern Comfort Zone," the lead single on his new Wheelhouse and his 21st No. 1 country hit, performs another balancing act. It's an argument against xenophobia whose kicker is a choir singing "Dixie." Using a song like "Dixie," with its roots in blackface minstrel shows, is a bold move.
More questionable is singing about the Confederate flag and Southern pride in a bravely awkward song called "Accidental Racist," which features a rebuttal from rapper LL Cool J and has social-media pundits in a froth. It's probably not going to win any awards for songcraft or rapping, but in the wake of movies like Django Unchained and Lincoln, it shows how fraught racial dialogue remains in America. Not to mention religious dialogue: I'm waiting for the uproar over "Those Crazy Christians," a similarly soul-searching provocation that I suspect even my more devout relatives would get a kick out of.
Wheelhouse is not made up entirely of hot-button cultural self-examinations — there are also twangy guitar solos, universal married-man punch lines and all-purpose love songs. As with most mainstream country acts, the production is often laid on thick. But what makes Paisley a great country artist is how he fully embodies a tradition while also laying it down on the psychiatrist's couch. The jury's still out on his therapeutic approach, but as a musician, he's at the top of his game.