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For the last 40 years, a civil war of sorts has raged within country music. In broad terms, the opposing forces are the country establishment of Nashville, fielding battalions of airbrushed divas and square-jawed crooners in hats, and the ragged underdogs defining themselves as alt-country and perceiving themselves - usually correctly, if occasionally self-righteously - as the true spiritual heirs of Hank Williams.
West Virginia-born phenomenon Brad Paisley deserves his considerable success - his seven previous albums have all either gone platinum in the US, or are getting there - for his ability to straddle this divide. Though his records are certainly - indeed, exuberantly - radio-friendly, riddled with soaring choruses and chiming harmonies, laced with Paisley's astonishing guitar-playing, they're also infused with a wry wit which verges on the subversive. The title-track of American Saturday Night shapes as a standard-issue goodtime anthem, but it also freights a delicious undermining of the bellicose patriotism that often blights mainstream country, as the lyric turns the ingredients of the traditional American gathering (pizza, margaritas, imported beer), into a celebratory defence of immigration: "Everywhere has somewhere they're known for / And usually it washes up on our shore."
Like all he most interesting country writers, Paisley regards the traditions of the genre as strictures to be challenged, rather than instructions to be followed. His takes on the familiar country subjects are therefore always at an intriguing angle to the predictable. When God is addressed on No, it's to note that "Every prayer gets answered / Even though / Sometimes the answer is no". Impending fatherhood is considered with honest trepidation (Anything Like Me), and love is portrayed as defined by humility rather than possession (Then, She's Her Own Woman). Welcome to the Future contains an unmistakable rebuke to any redneck tendency lurking in his audience, offering a name check to Martin Luther King, Jr. Paisley does not forget, however, to leaven this with generous helpings of swinging, twanging Merle Haggard-via-Dwight Yoakam 21st century Bakersfield honky tonk (The Pants, Catch All the Fish, Water).
This is a terrific and subtly clever album, a(nother) spirited and worthwhile challenge by Paisley to the prejudices of both sides of country's enduring schism.