Doug Paisley apologizes when our phone interview is momentarily interrupted by a knock at his door. After that, the Canadian country-folk singer-songwriter resumes our conversation with a chuckle, explaining that a friend had just shown up at the wrong place for a band rehearsal.
It figures. For his latest album, Strong Feelings, Paisley has called on more members of his widening musical circle than ever — from the legendary Garth Hudson of The Band (who recorded piano parts during an all-night session in the lobby of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa) to fellow singer-songwriter Mary Margaret O’Hara and multi-instrumentalist Emmett Kelly (who leads an experimental folk group called the Cairo Gang).
If that all sounds very independent-minded, Paisley actually draws inspiration from country sources who are anything but obscure. It might come as a surprise that Don Williams — the master of easygoing expression of devotion — is atop the list.
CMT Edge: The smooth balladry on Strong Feelings brought Don Williams to mind.
Paisley: He’s one of my favorite country artists of all.
I’ve noticed that you like to bring him up in interviews. I find that interesting because Williams’ mellow style isn’t one of the vintage flavors that’s attracted younger generations of musicians and fans. What about it appeals to you?
I guess it’s a number of things. It’s the kinds of songs Don Williams chooses or writes, and then it’s his delivery. … I think it’s the most earnest, straightforward way to be trying to make music, like, unreflexively, you know?
It’s maybe not the most descriptive explanation, but I try to keep it as natural as possible in terms of the recording environment and musicians and the objective. … Like, here are the charts, here’s the guitar player, here’s the drummer, here’s the microphone. It’s not exactly some brilliant scheme, but there is something kinda plain about it, and that’s something I pick up on in Don Williams’ approach, what I like about him.
In another interview, you said none of your friends shared your appreciation for singers like Don Williams. How’d the same music turn you on and turn them off?
I think unless you grow up with it, or it’s your predominant cultural music — which it isn’t necessarily, especially in Toronto where I live — it’s almost like something totally outside of your own will has to keep you listening to it until you find what’s [good] about it.
I remember someone kept telling me, “You’ve gotta listen to I Am What I Am, the George Jones album.” I owned it, might’ve put it on [once] and never touched it again for months. Then one day, I just kinda got it, you know? What probably drew me into it was I love the singing. … It sounds so simple.
I think that’s why people dismiss that kind of stuff. You can be like, “Oh, I don’t like it, and there isn’t much to it.” But if you go and sing along with it, you realize how much work goes into one of those vocal performances. … I was a musical sponge, and I found so much to learn in this area.
So while the smoothness of that production didn’t appeal to your peers, you heard something else in it — heft, technique, finesse, whatever — that you applied to your craft.
Definitely. Also, I think I’ve always been tuned into music that was at least a generation earlier than me. So in some ways, I don’t think I was as versed in my contemporary musical sensibilities. So I don’t think it was such a big step for me to appreciate some of this music, as opposed to someone who was really tuned in to what’s coming out right now. … If you were listening to, like, the new Daft Punk album, you’d be an ocean away from a lot of that stuff.
I definitely like emotional music. What other people might find overly sentimental or something, I just don’t see it that way.
It comes through in your songwriting that you’re willing to sit with an emotion and articulate it.
Yeah. There’s a song on the album called “Song My Love Can Sing.” To me, it’s kind of about that. It’s like that actually is where you work with your emotions — in songwriting and music. From an early age, I had an emotional reaction to music, which I think most people do in some way.
It wasn’t lost on me that you chose Strong Feelings as the album title. That phrase usually has romantic connotations, but you look like you’re feeling dread in the cover shot.
(laughs) Yeah, it has that romantic context, but I think there are a lot of other strong feelings. … Some of them are conflicting or conflict with love or resemble love but aren’t. They overtake you, and that’s a wonderful thing when someone’s describing being in the spring of their love affair. But when feelings of another kind overtake you, it can be a dreadful experience, you know?
Years ago, you had a duo called Stanley Brothers: A Loving Tribute. What did audiences make of your duo?
I think a lot of people around us that we were playing for probably didn’t know the Stanley Brothers or necessarily have an opinion about them one way or the other. … We did play mandolin and guitar and duets and stuff like that.
You also played Wurlitzer organ and guitar, which was very un-Stanley-like.
I think that’s kinda my point. We were so genuinely into the Stanley Brothers, but we recognized that for a lot of people, especially a lot of purists in bluegrass, we weren’t doing that kind of a tribute to what they were doing. We were playing their songs with our instrumentation out of our love for them. It was almost a way of saying, “Yeah, I know this is a different approach, but it really is coming out of a genuine inspiration from this music.”