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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Brad Paisley has become country music royalty in part by pushing the genre into surprising territory, and that's certainly true for his new record which comes out today. "Wheelhouse" takes on some touchy subjects. One track has already ignited an online backlash. We'll have more on that in a moment. First, Will Hermes has this review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUTHERN COMFORT ZONE")

BRAD PAISLEY: (Singing) When your wheelhouse is the land of cotton, the first time you leave it can be strange. It can be shocking. Not everybody drives a truck. Not everybody drinks sweet tea.

WILL HERMES, BYLINE: Country music fans can 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 last 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 record and his 21st number one country hit, is another balancing act. It's an argument against xenophobia whose kicker is a choir singing "Dixie."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUTHERN COMFORT ZONE")

HERMES: 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 on the bravely awkward "Accidental Racist," which features a rebuttal from rapper LL Cool J and has social media pundits in a froth.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ACCIDENTAL RACIST")

LL COOL J: (Rapping) So when I see that white cowboy hat, I'm thinking it's not all good. I guess we're both guilty of judging the cover, not the book. I'd love to buy you a beer, conversate and clear the air. But I see that red flag and I think you wish I wasn't here.

PAISLEY: (Singing) Oh, I'm just a white man...

LL COOL J: (Rapping) If you don't judge my do-rag.

PAISLEY: ...coming to you from the southland...

LL COOL J: (Rapping) I won't judge your red flag.

PAISLEY: (Singing) ...trying to understand what it's like not to be. I'm proud of where I'm from...

LL COOL J: (Rapping) If you don't judge my gold chains.

PAISLEY: (Singing) ...but not everything we've done.

LL COOL J: (Rapping) I'll forget the iron chains.

PAISLEY: (Singing) It ain't like you and me can rewrite history.

LL COOL J: (Rapping) Can't rewrite history, baby.

HERMES: OK. It's probably not going to win any awards for song craft 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 song I think even my more devout relatives might get a kick out of.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THOSE CRAZY CHRISTIANS")

PAISLEY: (Singing) And every now and then, they meet a poor lost soul like me who's not quite sure just who or what or how he ought to be. They march him down the aisle and then the next thing that you know they dunk him in the water and here comes another one of those crazy Christians.

HERMES: "Wheelhouse" is not made up entirely of hot-button cultural self-examinations. There are twangy guitar solos, universal married-man punch lines and finally (unintelligible) love songs. As with most mainstream country acts, the production is often laid on thick. But what makes Brad Paisley a fascinating country artist is how he fully embodies a tradition while also laying it down on the psychiatrists couch. The jury is still out on his therapeutic approach, but as a musician, he's at the top of his game.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: That was Will Hermes reviewing the new album "Wheelhouse" from Brad Paisley.

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