At a recent concert, as Brad Paisley closed his show, B.B. King flashed onto a giant screen behind him.
The pair began trading guitar licks on the blues workout “Let the Good Times Roll.” The solos were loose and raw, and their interaction so flawless that it felt like King was in the house.
As the band played a final coda, Paisley slapped a throng of hands thrust up from the crowd, unstrapped his Telecaster and walked off through a cloud of dry ice smoke.
It was a rock star moment, but it underscored his love for the instrument that’s been like an appendage to his slight frame since he was 8.
The duet with King is from Paisley’s latest album, “Play,” a collection of guitar-heavy tunes and instrumentals that has to be one of the most unusual releases by a top-of-his-game hitmaker.
When Paisley isn’t jamming on the disc with guitar greats like King, Albert Lee and James Burton, he’s paying homage to a host of others, from Les Paul to Eric Johnson.
“If there’s any part of my image or my artistry that goes unnoticed at this point, it may be the guitar-playing side,” says Paisley, who brings his “Paisley Party” tour to the Spokane Arena tonight.
Paisley, 36, has always included an instrumental track on his albums, and even his mainstream hits like “Alcohol” and “Online” have dazzling string runs.
But “Play” is different. The guitar is front and center on most of the 15 tracks that span country, rock, jazz, blues, gospel and bluegrass. Only five songs have vocals – this from a guy who’s been awarded male vocalist of the year by the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music.
The original idea was to make an entire album of instrumentals, but Paisley decided to include vocals on tracks with King, the late Buck Owens, Steve Wariner and Keith Urban, and add a re-recording of his recent No. 1 “Waitin’ on a Woman” with actor Andy Griffith.
“I feel like it’s a good time to do something like this,” Paisley said when the album was released.
“The natural thing you’d expect for someone in my position would probably be a greatest hits album, but I don’t like greatest hits albums. At a time when you can buy every song individually that you want, there’s no real reason to do that sort of thing.”
Instead, he views “Play” as a chance to regroup before his next release, expected next year.
“How do I do the fourth installment of what you’d call my normal records? I really want to take my time at getting that right and making sure it really is the next best thing,” says Paisley.
“By doing this it buys you time and also cleanses your palate. It’s a lot like ginger at a Japanese restaurant between meals.”
He wrote one instrumental titled “Kim” for his wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, and another, “Huckleberry Jam,” for his son.
“I think ‘Huckleberry Jam’ is a great title,” Paisley said. “I thought, ‘Let’s do something that sounds a little like the energy my 20-month-old son has.’
“With ‘Kim,’ I tried to come up with a romantic-sounding instrumental piece that was simple and earthy. It sounds like her to me somehow, something about it. It has a minor section that is the dark part of her personality.”
Joe Galante, chairman of Paisley’s label group, Sony BMG Nashville, has had other stars on his roster do projects that don’t lend themselves to radio hits. Alan Jackson cut a gospel album for his mother. Martina McBride did a record of old country standards.
“People have a passion for something and I help them pursue it,” Galante said. “It adds to their repertoire, and I think that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.
“Everybody who’s done one of these projects with us says, ‘I don’t know what this is commercially, but I want to do this because I feel the need to do it.’ ”