Paisley's wit, talent shine in performance

Brad Paisley pulled his talents together in a solo segment that was the highlight of his fair-opening concert.
CANFIELD -- People love to tell those I-knew-him-when kind of stories.
A few years from now, the 3,000 folks who heard country musician Brad Paisley sing Wednesday night at the Canfield Fair should be able to say they caught his act before he was a superstar.
Paisley has been building up steam since making his Arista Records Nashville debut two years ago with the CD "Who Needs Pictures." He strode into the fairgrounds one day after being nominated for three Country Music Association awards, including best male vocalist.
When your name is on the same list as three heavyweights of country entertainment -- Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw and George Strait -- and the hot shot of the year, Toby "How Do You Like Me Now?" Keith, you don't hurriedly clear the mantel for that trophy.
Paisley may be the dark-horse candidate when awards are presented Nov. 7, but that's this year. A little more seasoning and he'll hold his own with Strait, McGraw and the gang.
Here's the scene: That might not have been apparent as Paisley performed on a small, portable stage at trackside.
When it comes to production values, the difference between Paisley's show here and a Tim McGraw concert is like comparing an abacus to an Apple Macintosh PowerBook.
He and his six-man band performed in front of a blue plastic tarp. A few dozen colored lights and a spotlight shone down on them. No props, drops or catwalks were used, which put the emphasis on Paisley's songs and demeanor.
The concert began slowly, and there were a few warts, including restarting one song. It didn't take long for things to jell, however.
What stands out: Paisley's witty way with words is his greatest asset. In his hands, a song like "We Danced" is sweet, not syrupy. The reality-steeped message of "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" is moody, not maudlin.
He's also a talented guitarist who demonstrated his skills in various instrumental numbers.
He pulled it all together in a solo segment that featured some heartfelt gospel songs, including "In the Garden" and "The Old Rugged Cross," and his humorous look at relationships called "I'm Gonna Miss Her."
Thin, dark-haired Paisley -- wearing a green plaid shirt untucked over a white T-shirt, medium-blue jeans, cowboy boots and, from time to time, a black cowboy hat -- engaged in friendly banter with the audience throughout his 95-minute show.
What he said: Before launching into "Two People Fell in Love," he asked for a show of hands of those who were in love at that moment. "And I suppose the rest of you are ... married?" he asked.
He used a Jerry Springer-like story about a girl named Stephanie to introduce superb fiddler Justin Williamson, slide guitarist Randle Currie and guitarist Gary Hooker.
He milked encouragement from the audience before continuing to sing "Who Needs Pictures," a heartbreak song.
Paisley was downright humble as he spoke near the end of the touching song "He Didn't Have to Be." He wrote it with his best friend, Kelley Lovelace, about the role a stepfather played in a young man's life.
They had hoped only to write something that would make Lovelace's wife cry, he said. Instead, the song became a hit.
Nashville doesn't know as much about writing hit songs as you do, Paisley told his cheering fans. "Thanks for teaching me that lesson," he said.

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