Welcome To The Future: Brad Paisley On Bringing Back Live

Brad Paisley
Photo by Justin Kaicles / Courtesy Brad Paisley
– Brad Paisley

Brad Paisley and his band were doing their thing on stage in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, March 12 when they got word of The End of the World as We Know It. And the band played on.

“We got one past the goalie,” says Paisley, who sat recently for a Pollstar Zoom Q&A from his farm near Nashville. Paisley recalls telling the Saskatchewan audience, “‘We’re going to stay here until they kick us out of this building, because we know this will probably be the last time we’re doing this for a while.’ So we got the experience of being able to savor one last ‘normal’ live performance, with our audience, the moshpit, everything.”  

It was way back in March, a lifetime ago, when promoter Live Nation pulled the plug on that brief Canadian run for Paisley, and virtually everything since, for all artists. That is, until Paisley and a skeleton crew were able to again team up with Live Nation for a weekend of “drive-in” shows that, by all accounts, were safe and successful, a testament to creativity and fan passion for a populace suffering from a dearth of live events as the pandemic continues to rock our world. For Live Nation and Paisley, the drive-in shows in the parking lots at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Ruoff Music Center in Indianapolis, and Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre in St. Louis, July 10-12, were a welcome return, and approached with extreme caution.
Paisley says he quickly warmed to the concept – three shows, relatively close to home, in a socially-distant configuration safe for fans, band and crew – when he was approached by his longtime promoter and Live Nation Country President Brian O’Connell. “The trick is that everybody needs to stay safe. I did not want a situation where everybody could rush the stage and form a mosh pit,” says Paisley. “That would have ruined it for everybody going forward if we want more of these to happen. I want [fans] to have less chance of catching the virus at my concert than they do with the chances they typically take in life as they live right now.”
Drive-In Cowboy:
Robbie Larson / Courtesy Brad Paisley
– Drive-In Cowboy:
Brad Paisley performs in the parking lot of Nashville’s Nissan Stadium July 11 during Live Nation’s first U.S. Drive-In concert series, “Live At The Drive In.”

Even if it was a “surreal” experience, Paisley says ultimately both fans and musicians got what they came for. “You had to tailor your expectations for what it was like, what they were giving back,” Paisley says. “One thing that was absolutely the same was the experience of sharing live music with human beings. If anything, it was kind of emotional for me. You start to realize how important that front row [is]. Our front row [at the drive-in show] was like Row 30 [in a venue], as far as distance away. It wasn’t any less powerful to me, because …first of all, the back row of cars was a quarter-mile away, that’s a crazy sight. You’re playing for CarMax at that point.” 
O’Connell, who has worked with Paisley his entire career, says Paisley was a natural fit for the concept and quickly raised his hand to take part. “I think what intrigued Brad was to be able to connect with fans in a very real way, with production, and him actually being present,” says O’Connell. “He knew I was going to think it to death logistically, and just give the fans an experience in a super difficult time that they were going to enjoy. It was about the connection between what I know Brad can do on stage, whether it’s 20 people, no people, or 600 to 1,000 cars, in different places. I knew if anybody could pull it off, it would be Brad, because he gets it. Not that other artists couldn’t, but he loved the idea and, if you understand his affinity for old school things and drive-ins and the romanticism of all of that, it makes perfect sense that Paisley would be the guy.”

Longtime Paisley manager Bill Simmons says the shows were “fantastic for everybody’s psyche, incredible for both Brad and his fans, and the communities these were done in. From my perspective, they couldn’t have gone any better. It’s like the Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm. I think the drive-in shows did no harm, in fact, I think they did good.”

Hall of Famers:
Rick Diamond / Getty Images / Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum
– Hall of Famers:
From Left: Manager Bill Simmons, Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern and Brad Paisley at opening night of the “Brad Paisley: Diary of a Player” exhibition at Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum on Nov. 17, 2016, in Nashville.
BP In The Time of COVID
The summer of 2020 should have seen yet another productive run for one of country music’s most consistent box office stars. Over the past decade, Paisley has averaged $516,524 gross and 12,254 tickets sold on tour, generating a whopping $215 million in touring revenue and over 5 million tickets sold for 416 arena, stadium and amphitheater shows reported to Pollstar. A foray into Europe in 2019 was particularly encouraging for an artist of this America-centric genre, with Paisley selling 43,071 tickets and over $3 million gross to just seven shows last summer.
By all indications, 2020 would have continued that trend, both in the U.S., where Paisley would have again been part of Live Nation’s successful Megaticket program (with a portion of sales going to the Grocery, the free grocery store founded by Paisley and his wife Kimberly Williams-Paisley in conjunction with Belmont University), and abroad. “We had a lot of stuff planned, a very exciting year,” Paisley says. “We had a really cool European run planned that would probably be happening about now, including a bunch of festivals.”
Among them was a new country music festival startup in Europe, “that felt like a great thing for country music in Germany, because when we played Berlin [in 2019] I couldn’t believe how enthusiastic they were. I remember that [date] going  away early on as we were reshuffling the deck and we kept kicking the can down the road. You’d see dates reschedule for May moved to August and now dates that were going to be in August pushed to next year.”

Team Paisley is currently routing 2021, but as for the Euro run, “I don’t know when we’re going to be able to do that, that probably will be another layer of issues,” Paisley says. “It’s one thing to get back on track in America, but then to actually cross borders and play in other countries might take a minute. All of it will someday come back, and I do believe with more enthusiasm and more of a love of music from the audiences than before. I just think there’s no one, including the music artists, that will take for granted the experience of live music again.”

No Parking On The Dance Floor:
Kevin Mazur / Getty Images
– No Parking On The Dance Floor:
Brad Paisley performs at Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre in St. Louis on July 10, 2020.
While the trio of drive-in shows were Paisley’s first performances in front of “faces” since March, they weren’t the artist’s first live performances for fans. When the plug was officially pulled and live went away, it didn’t take Paisley, a consummate musician and performer with a deep well of hits that have accumulated more than 3.6 billion on-demand streams worldwide, very long to start playing songs delivered electronically via Zoom. 
“We started doing things from home that a lot of people were doing, just go live from Facebook and sing songs,” Paisley says. “My wife and dad were the camera people and I played, and we had a couple guests Zoom in, like Carrie [Underwood] and Tim McGraw and Kelsea [Ballerini], and that was fun. It was totally lo-fi, and reminded you of public television, and just so absolutely amateur, but fun, and people really responded to that.”

The Zoom blitzkrieg, which also included Paisley popping in unannounced to scores of Zoom calls with people from all walks of life, is an example of Paisley, “just trying to do his part and entertain people as best he could from his farm,” Simmons says. “I’m so proud of him, and proud of his team. Everybody has stepped up and helped him, but really Brad’s the driver of all this.” Some of Paisley’s more notable Zoom crashes are part of his memorable new video for his “quarantine anthem” of a current single, “No I in Beer,” the video of which debuted this week. 

On The BackHoe:
Kevin Mazur / Getty Images
– On The BackHoe:
Brad Paisley with his wife Kimberly Williams- Paisley and Belmont University President Dr. Bob Fisher breaking ground last year on the nonprofit free-referral based grocery store in Nashville’s 12 South District, which opened on March 14.
Then on May 15, Paisley performed a 75-minute full band/full production concert from the Steel Mill in Nashville, adhering, of course, to all CDC guidelines. 
Presented in association with Bud Light Seltzer, the concert, which also featured opener Lady A, generated over 3 million views. “That [performance] was very therapeutic for us, and such a gift from Bud Light,” Paisley says. “They’ve been such great partners for musicians during this time, I think they realize they’re one of the few products not in some way affected [by the pandemic]. I don’t know the figures, but I would imagine they’re drinking more Bud Light today than they did before this all began.”

As with the drive-in shows, Paisley says the team felt pressure to pull the Steel Mill show off safely. “We knew that if 20 of the 50 people we needed to put this on ended up sick, that’d be it, there’d be nobody else able to do it,” he notes. “You don’t want that for anybody, but more you don’t want to ruin the chances of the whole industry to do live productions like that. I said this early on, even when they started opening up everything and there started to be live music here and there in bars and places, I said, ‘I just don’t think this is going to last like this until they eradicate the disease.’ We really need to make sure this kind of thing, being able to play safely over the internet, is preserved.” 
Paisley says it didn’t take him and his band long to get their live groove back. “As a band, these guys have been with me 20 years; we had our groove going the first song of St. Louis; we had it going when we did the Steel Mill thing,” he says. “For the Steel Mill, we went with a setlist that was kind of a conglomeration of what we had done in the past, because we know it. Typically with a tour, we would do two weeks of rehearsing a new set list.” 
There’s No Zoom In Beer:
– There’s No Zoom In Beer:
Screen shot from Brad Paisley’s just released video for his single “No I in Beer.”
For any performance, especially the drive-in shows, Paisley says he now, more than ever, feels the weight of what they do and what it means to fans and artists. “We felt like doing this was a really important thing for morale, not only for fans to be able to purchase something and experience something safely and not get sick after it’s over, not take a chance on their lives, and for my crew and band and everybody to feel like we are making a difference with music,” he explains. “Everybody who plays music live wants to make a difference in the time they’re up there doing it, even the guys that run monitors and lights. There’s a reason they’re in this industry, they know what they’re bringing to people is a necessary thing, and the most important thing to me is you get to do what you’re gifted at. That felt so rewarding for us to do.”
Like everybody else in this hammered industry, Paisley, Simmons and his management company the AMG, his agency WME Nashville, and Live Nation are trying to figure out when they can ramp up full-blown touring again, hopefully for 2021. “Whether or not [the tour] goes, nobody knows, but we are definitely routing Brad’s tour for 2021 right now, that’s being done with us and Live Nation and WME right this minute,” Simmons says. 
And, conceivably, with higher expenses for safety, increased touring traffic, and an uncertain economy, the economics of touring are in flux. As of now, Simmons says they are proceeding under their existing business model, but admits that could change. “Live Nation does so many of his shows, and they don’t know what they’re going to do yet, because they don’t know what they’ll be allowed to do,” Simmons points out. “So, in a way, the economics of everything are just up in the air, just like what shows will be like. We just don’t know yet. I’m open minded about it.”
Up At The Mill:
Harry Walker / Courtesy Brad Paisley
– Up At The Mill:
Brad Paisley performing at the Steel Mill with his full band and full production in Nashville, on May 15, 2020.
O’Connell notes that an industry populated by “control freaks” is decidedly not in control right now. “The only thing that we can control is smart decision-making, planning, logistics, and running 1,000 ‘what-if’ scenarios,” he says. “We’re going to always be here for the artists and the fans to innovate and create the best possible live experience, given whatever circumstances we have. What does it look like going forward? Tell me what the rules are, tell me people are safe, and we’ll be in good shape to deal with it.”
For his part, Paisley says he is “beyond optimistic” that live music will return to the Golden Era it has enjoyed over the past decade. “I don’t know if it’s going to be ‘turn the light switch on,’ that’s up to the medical world and science,” he says, “but I know people are ready. I think we’re going to be looking at way more enthusiastic audiences. We’re going to all have to be creative, because we’re all going to hit the road at the same time, so we’re going to all have to think about how we do it. But people will flood the venues, I believe that.”

And, for an artist spending his first summer at home since 1998, Paisley has a new appreciation for the beauty and power of touring and the live experience. “The things I took for granted, [like] hanging out with the guys after the show’s over. One of our rituals used to be, every now and then, we’d rent out a movie theater, and take the whole tour, opening acts, everybody, and go see a movie at midnight as a perk. These are things that we took for granted, and I know that when it comes to the audience, just the idea that they get to jam in together and just high five somebody you don’t even know, just because you love what you just saw. When we’re allowed to do these things, I’m very optimistic. We will have been through the fire together, audiences and performers, and we will take this very seriously and also we will have more fun than we’ve ever had before.” 

READ MORE: How We Got To ‘Live From The Drive In’ 

To watch Brad Paisley’s conversation with Ray Waddell, click the link below: 
Pollstar Digital Session: One-On-One With Brad Paisley