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Brad Paisley is one of the biggest stars in country music, admired especially for his guitar playing and for the way he mixes elements of country and rock music without pandering to either audience. His new album is called "This Is Country Music," and rock critic Ken Tucker says it's less a manifesto than an enjoyable way to hear him expand his fan base.

(Soundbite of song, "This Is Country Music")

Mr. BRAD PAISLEY (Musician): (Singing) You're not supposed to say the word cancer in a song. And telling folks Jesus is the answer can rub 'em wrong. It ain't hip to sing about tractors, trucks, little towns, and Mama, yeah, that might be true. But this is country music and we do.

Do you like to...

KEN TUCKER: Brad Paisley doesn't possess the most distinctive voice in country music, and his guitar solos have a lot of arena-friendly rock 'n' roll flashiness. But he's become a huge country star on the basis of just this combination of aw-shucks ordinariness and ostentatious skill.

On the title song that began this review," Paisley recites country-music cliches and then injects them with value by reminding us that many cliches are truths. Over a tight little melody that deliberately avoids pumping itself up with hot airiness, he boldly asserts the obvious: that some of these images -trucks and tractors, the American flag and senior citizens aren't hip, and they sometimes get politicized. But they still exist in pure forms unto themselves, certainly not in the pop culture of the young, but in the small towns he also salutes. In a similar way, Paisley small-scales the important stuff in a song such as "Toothbrush," about the little moments in everyday life that resonate emotionally.

(Soundbite of song, "Toothbrush")

Mr. PAISLEY: (Singing) Love starts with a toothbrush, a big razor and a Dixie cup. A little splash of aftershave, before you leave for that first date. I see stars in both your eyes, after that long kiss goodnight.

Forever starts with a suitcase. Sneaking out the window to get away...

TUCKER: "This Is Country Music" is Paisley's follow-up to his best album to date, "American Saturday Night," from 2009. That was an unusually direct and provocative collection that included "Welcome to the Future," a song celebrating the election of Barack Obama and was a bit polarizing for Paisley's audience.

He recently told The New York Times, "American Saturday Night" was sort of was my "The Times They Are A-Changin" album. It was, you know, telling the choir to think outside the box. Then, he added, but it didn't feel right to do that again, and, referring to the new album, we're not asking people to go places where it's not comfortable because at some point, the choir's going to go to another church. In other words, "This Is Country Music" is very consciously a more conservative effort, an album meant to reassure rather than challenge.

There's the generous 15 songs on "This Is Country Music," and rather than offering filler, the album is programmed in a shrewd way. It's front-loaded with the most commercial, pop-catchy tunes, such as the title song, Paisley's salute to the '80s country group Alabama, and a duet with former American Idol Carrie Underwood.

As the album proceeds, however, it becomes more hardcore country. There's some gospel bluegrass with guest star Marty Stuart, an eccentric salute to Clint Eastwood called "Eastwood," and what's probably the best song on the album, "Don't Drink the Water," a duet with Blake Shelton consisting of fiddle and steel-guitar-infused honky-tonk.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Drink the Water")

Mr. PAISLEY: (Singing) Empty house, empty rooms, empty bottle of Patron. I need to go out but not around here. There ain't nowhere we haven't gone. There's this travel agent that I know who says Cozumel is real nice. And so he got me a deal on a flight and a room and a little bit of free advice.

Don't drink the water. I told him that's OK. I ain't going down to Mexico to drink the water anyway.

Blake ain't you been there before?

Mr. BLAKE SHELTON (Musician): Yeah, I've been there a time or two. They got some sweet senoritas that are more than glad to meet you. But I'm telling you boy whatever you do.

Don't drink the water.

TUCKER: "This Is Country Music" contains a few of Paisley's characteristic novelty songs, like "Working on a Tan" and "Be the Lake" - which I only wish was as Zen-like as its title sounds. And by allowing guest appearances from Don Henley and Sheryl Crow, Paisley provides a safe haven for middle-aged rockers searching for where their middle-aged audiences went.

Turns out, like almost everyone else who's actually buying music instead of plucking it off the Internet for free, those folks are listening to some form of country music, and Brad Paisley has made himself the red-hot center of this commercial universe.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Brad Paisley's new album "This Is Country Music." You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. And you can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.

(Soundbite of song, "Old Alabama")

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

Mr. PAISLEY: (Singing) She'd rather wear a pair of cut-off jeans than a fancy evening dress. And with her windows rolled down and her hair all blown around, she's a hot Southern mess.

She'll take a beer over white wine and a campfire over candle light. And when it comes to love, oh her idea of a romantic night...

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