Brad Paisley on ‘Son of the Mountains’ and ‘The Medicine Will’ Videos

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In an effort to train a spotlight on the part of the world he’s from, and its joys and sorrows, Brad Paisley is simultaneously releasing two striking new videos, “Son of the Mountains” and “The Medicine Will,” that each representing a flip side of Appalachian life. One song is a warm embrace of his home state of West Virginia that’s so inviting, it might make the state tourism board do backflips. The other is a chilling look at the casualties of the opioid crisis that has had particularly tragic results in that region. Together, they form an unusually holistic portrait of a part of the U.S. that has seen the best and worst of times.

Paisley is unveiling the twin tunes as part of a livestream happening on YouTube today at 1 p.m. ET/noon central/10 a.m. PT. The premiere event will begin with a conversation hosted by Variety‘s Chris Willman, followed by the unveiling of both of the Jim Shea-directed videos. Watch the conversation and the unveiling of the videos here.

In an offline conversation prior to the YouTube unveiling, we talked more with Paisley about what inspired him to go off the beaten track of a mainstream country career for his first album since making a switch to UMG Nashville, coming up with an album that addresses topical concerns and regional pride and prejudice. The new project also, incidentally, hits some decidedly rootsier notes, with contributions throughout from the revered instrumentalists Jerry Douglas and Dan Tyminski, who both appear in the ebullient “Son of the Mountains” video. Read our Q&A below.

Paisley’s full new album, for which “Son of the Mountains” is the title track, won’t be out till early 2024. But these new tracks are part of a four-song teaser that is dubbed quite literally “Son of the Mountains: The First Four Tracks.” Along with the two new songs just coming out, the mini-collection also includes two previously released songs: “Same Here,” with a cameo by Ukrainian president President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (whom Paisley recently visited in his wartorn country, along with West Virginia senator Joe Manchin), and the wistful “So Many Summers.”

These two videos represent the first two songs on your project, both with a regional theme that means a great deal personally to you. Would you go so far as to call it a concept album?

It might be giving me too much credit, if you call it a concept album. It has a direction, or more of a slant. There’s a vantage point that stays the same, which I describe at the beginning of these new videos, where I’m talking about the hollers where I hail from and the music that came from there, really.

They did two different things where I’m from. They powered America with their blood, sweat, and tears and back-breaking labor for many, many, many decades. And then a lot of those immigrants that moved here to work the coal mines from Scotland and Ireland and places like that really did shape what we know of as hillbilly music, [which came to be known as] country music. And this was a record where my focus was sort of going back there and exploring a little of that.

It came about because of a few songs that I wrote that really just felt like the right thing to write, one of them being “The Medicine Will,” another being “Son of the Mountains.” And then this slant of looking at, I guess, how this place shaped how I look at the world. I look at this world through the eyes of somebody who grew up in that situation, and these are unique people, really unique. And you can’t put them in a box and say this is exactly who they are at all times. They’re very free-thinking, really emotionally intelligent and resilient people where I come from up there. And it was fun to go back after all these years and really explore that musically. Because sometimes you go off on these tangents in a career, and I don’t know that you lose your way, but you certainly —in a good way — get lost, from Hollywood red carpets to doing really fun side projects, whether that be playing with rock legends or getting to know my heroes at the Opry. But to go back there and really see that not only is everything that I think about the world sort of shaped by that place, but since I left, it’s been devastated. It’s been attacked. It’s been truly exploited and targeted. And so it became really important to tell that story.

These two songs that are coming out this weekend are very yin and yang. So I’m assuming that there was some kind of balance you wanted to achieve by releasing those two songs together. Like, one might be too upbeat and happy, the other one might be too much of a downer, and somehow you’re painting a holistic picture by putting the two of them out together.

That’s a good way of putting it. I think it’s two sides of a coin, and the videos work together that way on purpose as well. One’s color, one’s black and white. It’s very “Wizard of Oz,” in that sense. The first song, “Son of the Mountains,” is more sort of a chamber of commerce piece. I mean, you see that video and you think, “I want to go whitewater rafting. I want to go up and down the river and meet these people…” It’s not the whole story, but that story is true. It’s beautiful. It’s a great place to be from. It’s a terrific way of life up there. I envy, to some degree, that area on some level, in the simplicity of life that’s still there. As well as the… I don’t know, it’s just good people. They really are.

And then, the other side of the coin is, you could miss the fact that some of the most painful and criminal things that have happened in our country to any certain group of people in the last 20 years have happened there. And, you know, this opioid crisis has hit my state the hardest of anywhere. It’s truly something to see how this idyllic place has been affected… I mean, it’s just been brutal. And so, I talked to (UMG Nashville CEO) Cindy Mabe when we were talking about what order to put things out. And I said, “I don’t love anything where it’s just ‘Son of the Mountains’ first.” Because I didn’t want anyone to think that I was turning a blind eye to harsh reality. And at the same time, I’m really glad they both are coming out, because I think if you only put out “The Medicine” right now, that’d be the whole story. But I definitely think the two of them together help set the picture for the rest of this album.

“The Medicine Will” is one of the most powerful songs you’ve ever written or recorded. It’s a little akin to the feeling of “Whiskey Lullaby,” but more of a gut punch because there’s nothing fanciful about it. And in the video, you feature real people you interviewed who have been affected by the opioid situation there in your home state.

I think “The Medicine Will” is my favorite song I’ve ever written. Because I wrote this with Lee Miller, and he’s from eastern Kentucky, so he’s kind of a neighbor, and his area is no different. They’re not number one — we’re number one [in West Virginia] — but they might be two or three. It’s pretty dire there too, so it was his idea to write about this subject. When we sat down to write about this, in my mind, I just thought, “I don’t know how good a song this will be, but it could be very impactful or important. But I don’t know if it’ll be something you want to hear over and over again.” And that’s the part that surprised me when we got done is, I just love the song. Like, if I didn’t know better, it doesn’t feel like the kind of thing that is a historical account or some sort of documentary. The record just feels like it’s a type of blues; it’s a type of protest song.

The song “Son of the Mountains,” by contrast, is pure giddiness. And it brings out your rocking side as much as your bluegrass side.

I had written “Son of the Mountains” first. That one we toiled with just as much, trying to say the right things in it. The state motto where I’m from is “Montanai Semper Liberi,” which is “Mountaineers are always free.” And I think if there’s anything they prize more than anything, it’s being free up there. So I was like, well, how do we say that and say some of the things I want to say in this song? That’s when Lee said, “Well, you know, my great uncle did time in prison for running moonshine across lines,” and I said, What? And he said, “Yeah, my family doesn’t talk about it. They’re ashamed.” And I said, “That would be line one of my bio! If I had an uncle that ran moonshine, that would be the coolest thing. I’d have T-shirts made and everything. We’d have a statue out here on the farm to him.” And I said, that’s the spirit of the song. So that really determined the angle.

But once you got those together, things that follow on this album, they don’t all follow the same theme. And in that sense, it’s not necessarily a concept record, but it’s not a far stretch to see how they work together. I mean, even when it goes into “So Many Summers,” we’re talking about growing up where I did and seeing the passage of time, which is the natural thing to do after those first two songs. And then from there, with “Same Here,” I go talk about what’s going on in the world from the vantage point of somebody who’s asking these questions of: Well, I’ve shown you what I believe, how are we the same? Far across the sea and such [in Ukraine].

Having spent a lot of time in West Virginia, I can vouch that there is a magic to just the geography there that feels a little different than any other state, even the ones surrounding it. Do you have enough distance from it to be able to describe what that is?

Yeah, I mean, the closest thing to it, in a weird way, is like New Zealand. To me, there’s obviously elements of New Zealand that don’t look anything like West Virginia, but it’s sort of sparsely populated and mountainous and wild, and you get that idea here and there that you might be the first human being that’s ever set foot in the spot. There’s a little of that in West Virginia.

And then there’s a mindset: We exist for a different reason than any other state in America. We exist because we decided to stay with the union in 1863. That’s a very bold thing, to split a state in half and decide, “No, we’re going to do our own thing. This is what we believe in. Here we go.” And then to decide to fight on that side of the Civil War, it’s no small thing. It’s certainly remarkable in that sense, and there is a defiance and a free spirit to that state that is very rebellious.

“Son of the Mountains” may be the first song that ever equates running moonshine with marriage equality.

Again, this place shaped what I think and I do, and I think probably a lot of us can get on board with anything that says, “Leave me alone.” With West Virginia, the state motto is “Mountaineers are always free,” but it ought to be just “Leave us alone, and we’ll do our own thing.”

It was really fun to film that video where we’re out there on the bridge and me, Dan (Tyminski) and Jerry (Douglas) are jamming on the river bank there and kind of walking through the the towns and showing the firefighters and the people that have their flags and the guy that’s got his homemade West Virginia sign and all of that. That was the fun part of these video shoots.

And then the other… The most surreal thing I’ve done is, I literally lived what I’m trying to do with the two songs, which is, I had a ball [with one shoot] and then sat down and did interviews with these opioid survivors and people that are really inspiring. Everybody that you see in that “The Medicine Will” video is either a recovered addict or in recovery, or a first responder or a police officer or somebody who works with them, and they’re all trying to help. And to top it all off, the next thing you know, we’re 500 feet underground, performing the song in a coal mine. That was an idea I had when we first did it. I thought, there’s nothing that conveys the spirit of the song more than just being buried under the ground, doing that. And you can imagine what that felt like. The first time we performed it in there, you’d hear the water trickling. We had playback speakers on, playing the song and it just echoed through there like something out of “The Hobbit.” It was bizarre. I was expecting Smaug to come out at some point.

With the video interviews, you get to know their stories as you’re sitting there. There’s a lot of talk about it these days anyway, so I’m not the first, of course, to bring this up. It’s a full-blown example of just sickening exploitation and targeting by these companies.

You mentioned the word “criminal,” about the opioid crisis. Do have thoughts about what went wrong and who’s to blame? Is there a way out of this? Have a part of America just gotten in a mess we can’t get out of?

Everybody I talked to said there’s a lot of hope. For instance, when I finished the song I got a call from Senator Manchin saying, “Would you come up to the Greenbrier and help me convince some of these people to support this game changer initiative that they’re doing in schools to keep kids off drugs and and help with recovery?” I said, yeah, I’m totally in. And he didn’t even know I had a song yet.

But yeah, this is criminal. It’s so criminal. It’s as criminal as anything I’ve seen. And I’m angry about it, having been from there and now meeting these people.

There are so many small towns in that region that are so charming… and yet have their main streets boarded up. You wish you could have been there when they were lively and bustling, with the theater marquee lit up and the ma-and-pa shops still thriving. You have a lot of shots in the “Medicine Will” video that represent that. It speaks to why people might feel the urge for escapism in their lives.

The plywood on the side of these buildings and the devastation of these areas, it goes hand in hand. I mean, in the words of Senator Manchin, he says in the video, “They preyed on the people who did the hardest work, because they knew they’d be the most in pain.” And the opioid companies, it’s no coincidence that they said, “We’ll hit this area of the country.” I mean, their livelihoods are drying up and they’re in pain, and it’s backbreaking labor. I mean, we all about threw our backs out doing a video in a coal mine. I can’t even imagine actually working in one.

And the town I’m walking through, Mount Hope is the name of the town, which couldn’t be a more perfect name. I’m in front of that old theater marquee that says “for sale,” or it would if it wasn’t missing a letter. It is as adorable as Franklin, Tennessee. It’s a street through the mountains, and then you see a drone shot that we took where I’m standing there and it looks like it’s been attacked. I mean, it does. And ironically, eventually, you’ll see the next two videos on this album, and the fourth video is the one I shot in Ukraine. And I’m walking around there and those buildings look very similar. It’s just a different attack. So I was putting these together, and as we were editing “The Medicine Will,” I started to also simultaneously edit [the Ukraine-set] “Same Here,” I mean, it’s like the same video.

And I do think that these towns are victims of both changing economics and then a full-blown assault from drug companies where, you know, they didn’t have a shot. They didn’t have a prayer of [avoiding] this. And this stuff was so addictive that the minute these people started [on the opioids], everything in life became less important.

On a lighter note, Dan Tyminski and Jerry Douglas represent bringing in the A-team, although your band already counts as that.

They’re on a lot of it — they’re on most songs [on the full album. Dan’s harmony is on almost everything. But it’s also Sierra Hull singing the female high part in “Medicine.” Jerry’s parents live 40 minutes away, there, in West Virginia, so he was all in the minute I said, “Hey, here’s what I want to go do.” I mean, I just love these guys and and I just basically said, “You know, I’m making you guys a big part of this record whether you want to be or not.” I really felt like I wanted to throw them in the band in addition to all of my guys that I usually use — my steel player and fiddle player and all those. The minute I had written a few of these songs, I knew, OK, I need my pals that are the legends and the real deal. And that’s the beauty of Nashville is that, you know, it’s central casting. You go, “Who’s the perfect genius?” And that’s what we tried to do on this record was bring in the influence of all of that.

There’s definitely a thing going on in this album throughout that’s very important to me, that felt like uncharted territory for me of a record, with a lot more sort of a grounded, dog’s eye view of where I’m from.

You must feel like you’ve sort of earned the right at this point to make some statements and do something that is very determined and not just about writing enough singles until you have an album.

I don’t know if I’ve earned anything, but I definitely feel like once you write something that you believe in, it’s wrong to hold it, if you believe it. I believe in the things I’m saying so much that it’d be wrong to sort of say, “Well, you know, why don’t we just put one of these ones out that it’s about love or heartbreak or something a lot easier.” It’s nice to feel like it’s more important than normal to get this out, in the sense that I definitely feel an obligation to the people that I have met and know from that area that have been paying the price for what happened there. And the ability to both show how great it is back there and also how much injustice there has been… It’s rare that musically you get that feeling that there’s something that’s more important than just chart position.

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