Thirty years later he was still doing just that when Alabama's Randy Owen showed up at the studio last year with his battered old Music Man guitar. Paisley was using his telecaster to try and mimic that eerie, funky guitar sound Owen made on classics like "Mountain Music" that's almost as distinct as the band's rowdy harmonies.
"Are you trying to play 'Mountain Music' there?" Owen asked Paisley.
Paisley, of course, denied it.
"Well, that ain't 'Mountain Music.' This is," Owen said.
"So he started playing and we hit record," Paisley said with a smile.
Those were the opening notes of "Old Alabama," Paisley's second No. 1 from his new album, This Is Country Music. It was a moment that encapsulated Paisley's bold concept for the album and his real appreciation for the genre's history and art.
When Owen handed the Music Man to Paisley for inspection that day, it was a little like the young gun trying the legend's six-shooter on for size - for a few minutes at least. And Paisley really appreciated the moment.
"It was really interesting to see the smile on Brad's face," Owen said. "He was like, 'That's the guitar.'"
That guitar is a piece of country music history, something Paisley seeks to put his own stamp on with his follow-up to American Saturday Night. He came up with the idea for the "Country Music" concept at the start of the album while he loaded up the title song with verse after verse - from cancer to Talladega - until it became overlong and unwieldy. Yet he felt like he could keep going forever.
"I just realized there's nothing off-limits as far as topics go in country music," Paisley said. "Nothing's too small in your life to write about. From a toothbrush to spiritual questions to difficulty, drinking, cheating - those are bigger things - sunbathing, you know what I mean? Nothing's off-limits. We say that very clearly in our music."
The 38-year-old turned that title song into a theme, and with the help of not only Alabama but also Don Henley, Carrie Underwood, Blake Shelton, Sheryl Crow and Marty Stuart, he began to pick apart the genre as he's experienced it. It seemed logical to start at the beginning and work his way forward in time, so he started with "Old Alabama," a song about a country girl who can be swayed to the sounds of Alabama.
The quartet holds a special place in Paisley's memory. It was one of the first country superstar acts Paisley was exposed to growing up in Wheeling, W.Va., and it blew his mind. While most country acts played the 2,500-seat Capitol Theatre, Alabama's convoy set up at the civic center, which held three times as many people.
"I remember thinking as their five or six buses rolled in, 'Oh, my gosh, what is that?'" Paisley said. "It was huge. They set the industry on its ear that way. Nobody had ever done what they did."
From there Paisley cruises his four-wheel drive pickup all over the map with some destinations you might not expect. He's done duets with traditional country luminaries like George Jones, Bill Anderson and Little Jimmy Dickens and instead wanted to go "a little bit left of that" with his selections. For instance, Henley, who guests on "Love Her Like She's Leavin'," doesn't leap to mind when you think country.
"He's so responsible for current country music in so many ways that I have a hard time believing he's never been more accepted as a country artist in that sense," Paisley said. "Asking him and Alabama and Marty Stuart and Sheryl Crow and Carrie and Blake, you've got a cross section of people that come from various sides of the equation, but I think they all make sense in that, yeah, you're right, they all represent country music in some way."
On other songs, he preaches to the choir about tough times in "A Man Don't Have to Die," seeks to rekindle a flagging romance in the Underwood duet "Remind Me," hits the beach and worships the beach bunny in "Working on a Tan," and pays tribute to the Western-style instrumental, complete with whistle, from Clint Eastwood, on "Eastwood."
He even manages to pull off a song about a toothbrush. Yes, a toothbrush.
"There was one line (in 'Country Music') that set the litmus test: 'This is real, this is your life in the song,'" Paisley said. "Every one of these is somebody's life."