By the time a hologram of Tupac Shakur hit the stage at Coachella 2012 and footage of the spectacle went viral, Brad Paisley had already been dueting with holographic Carrie Underwood on their No. 1 hit "Remind Me" at his own arena shows for months. Thanks to an elaborate setup — and the fact that Underwood still walks the earth, landing lead roles in network television musicals — Paisley's stage stunt thrilled crowds for a good, long while. Somewhere along the way, he sensed it becoming old hat for his fans, so he'll scrap it when he wraps his Beat This Winter Tour, shortly after headlining Bridgestone Arena.
"Now they're onto it," Paisley says, "so it's just kind of me pretending and the rest of the audience isn't."
Technological trickery is merely one facet of a Paisley show. "Celebrity," his decade-old satire of the perverting power of fame, is an occasion for comedic antics, for which he commissioned an 8-foot, Muppet-esque caricature of himself and shot TMZ-style footage of it behaving scandalously. Plus he shares the song's vocals with the screaming goat Internet meme.
It's moments like these that make Paisley's blowouts more gloriously goofy than any other G-rated country show playing the arenas. The paradox lies in how circumspect the superstar singer, songwriter and guitar slinger can be about getting silly.
"If there's any integrity and actual merit to the song 'Celebrity,' as far as it being a public observation, then I can see why [someone might say] we've ruined it," Paisley says. "But it's not a Beatles song. It's not like 'Across the Universe.' It's not important, as far as making a difference in society. I'm just making fun of all kinds of stuff.
"But then there's other moments in the show when we're very cognizant of the fact that you could easily ruin a song. There's several stretches of the show where there's nothing on the video screen. And that's really the key. That's the art of putting on a concert with this stuff: You have to really understand that the gaps are important. The lapses really are the only way you can keep from sending people into epileptic seizures every night with these incredibly high-powered LEDs."
In the 15 years since he released his first single, "Who Needs Pictures," Paisley has proven himself at once highly fluent in the language of country tradition — whether he's pledging allegiance to the genre's durably distinctive motifs in "This Is Country Music," or casting the Opry's oldest living member, Little Jimmy Dickens, in a slew of cameo roles — and unreservedly sanguine in his engagement with technology and popular culture. No other country act has managed to celebrate the superficially incompatible values of steadfastness and progress quite as colorfully Paisley does; it's a duality that first animated his high-concept music videos, then his shows.
"What I've realized lately," Paisley says, "is that we've morphed from spending a lot of time and effort on music videos for the music video channels — which don't really play them anymore, or not very often — to really spending more money and time on our live content, realizing we can guarantee that there's gonna be about a million people see that."
That estimate won't raise eyebrows here in the third decade of the arena-country era. What country observers are still reckoning with is how the scale of the venues shapes the music. An arena can seem confining indeed, when chart single after chart single feels uniformly engineered for the same mass-listening experience. All the more reason to ask Paisley how he first conceived of mercifully broad — and even meaningful — possibilities for modern multimedia country production.
"I think the enlightening moment for me was before I moved here," he says. "While Garth Brooks sort of brought everyone's attention to the fact that you could run around and play country music — sort of be more of The Rolling Stones, Elton John mentality of performing — Alan Jackson, to me, was the one who said, 'I'm going to use technology.' "
As a 20-year-old regional star in West Virginia, Paisley went to see Jackson, who was riding high on the success of his feel-good summer jam "Chattahoochee," plus an accompanying music video that showed him showboating on water skis. At first glance, Jackson's stage setup looked thoroughly drab. Says Paisley, "The band was on some risers that were square. Big, gray backdrop. There were all these box-looking things, and they were all gray. ... He comes out, and the stuff fired up. Everything was a video screen. I mean, it looked like Tron. And you know what? In my mind, that didn't take anything away from every song I loved by him. The video, the camera work was really as impressive as the content.
"Seeing that, it was like, 'OK, I came to hear him play "Chattahoochee,'' ' and I got so much more," Paisley continues. "Now, the purists would say, 'Gone are the days of sitting there watching a pure country singer.' I'm sure he got blasted by some people — especially critics, who do not see it the same way as fans."
Paisley eventually hired the video production company responsible for Alan Jackson's Tron-fest, Moo TV, as his in-house crew, and he's been working closely with them ever since. Together they overhaul the visual components of each new tour with his audience in mind.
"Country music isn't like certain formats, in that your fans don't go to see you and say, 'I hope he just plays the whole new album.' They'd be fine if [you] didn't play any of it. They're really there to experience the person they've gotten to know. They want all the hits. ... So it's sort of like we have to do the same show — and it's gotta be completely different."