NASHVILLE – Crew members for “A Prairie Home Companion” are rarely starstruck, but they were practically giddy over an update from the Ryman Auditorium parking lot.
“The greatest bus in show business just pulled up,” said one veteran stagehand, reporting back to his colleagues in the wings of the country-music shrine on a late Saturday morning in April.
The man who eventually emerged from the vehicle, custom designed to invoke the side of a 1960 Corvette, certainly didn’t act like the king of the road, let alone someone about to embark on one of the summer’s most anticipated tours, which includes a pit stop Saturday night at Minnesota’s Winstock Music Festival.
“You’re talking to me exactly in this time of crunch,” said Brad Paisley, less than a week before releasing his latest fast-rising single, “Without a Fight,” a duet with Demi Lovato. “Right now, the deadline is everything.”
If the three-time Grammy winner was feeling the pressure, it certainly didn’t show upon arriving at the venue, hugging various members of Garrison Keillor’s band and tuning up to run through three solo numbers for the evening show. Within five minutes, he had eagerly agreed to back up the program’s longtime truck driver Russ Ringsak on a cover of “Six Days on the Road,” which — no offense to the affable Ringsak — was akin to a Michelin-star chef manning the deep fryer at a fast-food joint.
Paisley’s improvised contribution was so polished that it caught the attention of Keillor, who took a rare break from rewriting the evening’s program to give his driver a gentle jab.
“I came out to hear that amazing guitar, thought it was you,” Keillor said, before quickly retreating back into his foxhole.
Paisley’s abilities have been dazzling his elders ever since he was a teenager, opening for the likes of Chet Atkins and the Judds on “Jamboree USA,” West Virginia’s version of “A Prairie Home Companion.” Since then, he has reached the top of the Billboard country charts 19 times, been named Entertainer of the Year by the Country Music Association and, at age 28, became the youngest member ever invited to join the Grand Ole Opry.
“I am counting on you to carry on the tradition,” George Jones wrote in an open letter that was read during Paisley’s 2011 induction, “and make folks sit up and listen to what good country music should sound like.”
Part of that tradition means accommodating the public.
Following sound check, Paisley had agreed to provide a quick quote for an upcoming profile about Keillor, who departs his radio show in July. But the sound bite stretched into a 40-minute conversation, with the relaxed star, sporting a well-worn Captain America T-shirt, taking time to reflect on the genius of “Hee Haw” (“it was an LSD trip without taking anything”) and rave about “Captain America: Civil War,” which he had caught on opening night (“I think it’s a work of art”).
After the Saturday night performance, Paisley lingered for nearly an hour, signing autographs while Keillor charmed his wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, and their two boys.
Time would soon become more scarce.
His five-month tour includes headlining gigs at a number of major festivals, including Colorado’s Country Jam and Florida’s Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam. And while the Winstock gig in Winsted, about an hour’s drive west of Minneapolis, is slightly more intimate (if you can call 14,000 screaming fans “intimate”), Paisley isn’t taking it lightly.
“They’re all drunk at all of them,” said Paisley, who will almost certainly include his 2005 hit “Alcohol” during his outdoor set, scheduled to start at 10:30 p.m. “They’ll all be real happy to be there and all be typically tired by the time I go on. It’s not always easy. You’ve got to entertain people who are very distracted, even if they don’t intend to be. They just are. But they’re fun. In the summertime, that’s how people want to hear music. They don’t want to sit in an arena. They want to go out.”
Those not within arm’s reach of Paisley’s denim jeans won’t be shorted.
“The only time a festival is too big is when they can’t see,” he said. “We take care of that with all kinds of video, because we’re really putting on a show for people way in back as much as anyone else.”
Paul McCartney’s recent state-of-the-art concerts at Target Center, featuring screens that could be spotted from both Venus and Mars, is mentioned.
“Anything you can put on that video is great,” Paisley said. “I want to see him sweat. I want to watch his fingers played up close.”
The Winstock crowd can expect to hear new material, including a scathing number about cellphone selfies (“Why’d you have to go and tweet it/When you really should delete it”), which he previewed during his “Prairie Home” acoustic set. A release date and title for his upcoming album have not been announced, but Paisley has confirmed it will feature collaborations with John Fogerty and Mick Jagger.
As usual, Paisley was the primary writer on nearly every song, another trademark that separates him from contemporaries like Blake Shelton and Keith Urban.
“If you have something to say, you should be the one to say it,” said Paisley, who is such a big fan of Mark Twain that he named his oldest son Huck.
Paisley, who has headlined 15 tours and will be putting out his 11th album, doesn’t use the self-imposed workload as an excuse. The 43-year-old considers an eight-month absence from radio to be an extended vacation.
“My friend John Fogerty was talking to me about the 10 years he took off between albums, that he would just shut down. I was like, ‘How do you do that?’ ”
So would Paisley consider trading his tricked-out bus for a hammock once this latest tour wraps up?
“Nah, I don’t think so,” he said, leaning back in a dressing room named after Hank Williams. “Strike while the iron’s hot.”