The past seems ever-present in Brad Paisley's music.
One of country music's biggest stars, Paisley has filled his songs with sentimental snapshots from times gone by. His first single, "Who Needs Pictures," opens with Paisley singing about an old Kodak camera in his closet. That was more than 10 years (and 14 No. 1 singles) ago.
Paisley's new album, "American Saturday Night," finds the 36-year-old West Virginia native sharing his childhood love of water sports and playing Pac-Man down at the arcade.
"People place value on pieces of their past, and they don't let things go easily," Paisley said. "Nostalgia has a way of making things cooler than they even were."
Sharing these memories has made Paisley one of country music's most relatable and popular musicians. He has won three Grammys and sold more than 10 million albums. Tonight, he performs at 1st Mariner Arena.
"He is country music," said Justin Cole, music director for the Baltimore country radio station 93.1 WPOC. "He's probably the biggest star in country. He has more staying power than anybody right now."
When Paisley's not reminiscing, he's kidding around in songs like "Alcohol" ("You've had some of the best times / you'll never remember / with me") and "Celebrity" ("Can't wait to wreck a Ferrari / on my way to rehab").
Paisley co-writes most of his tunes, which, he says, is more fun than working on them all by his lonesome.
"It's like driving a car with somebody you like, versus going on a road trip by yourself," he said. "Co-writing can be just as annoying as riding in a car with somebody you don't like, too. I only write with people I really like and get along with."
There were some songs that Paisley had to write by himself, though. "Letter to Me" was one of them. As the name implies, the wistful song is about what Paisley would tell himself at age 17.
"That's a very personal, from-the-heart thing that doesn't need to be me and someone else's letter to ourselves," he said. "It's a letter to me."
At 17, Paisley was already immersed in country music. In his early teens, he began playing shows. Early on, he opened for country mainstays such as Ricky Skaggs and George Jones - a promising start to what would become an A-list career.
Paisley wrote "Another You," a hit for country singer David Kersh in the mid-1990s, then set to recording his own material for the label Arista Nashville. Paisley's first album, 1999's "Who Needs Pictures," went platinum, and things haven't slowed down since then. He's had 10 No. 1 singles in a row, and is married to actress Kimberly Williams.
Paisley is also an accomplished guitarist, a talent that can be overlooked, given his stream of hits. In 2006, he released "Play," a mostly instrumental album which showcased Paisley's fiery fretwork.
"Oh man, let me tell you something - he is better than a lot of the studio musicians in Nashville," Cole said. "He's phenomenal. Between him and Keith Urban, you have two of the best players in country."
About a week ago, Paisley sat in with Urban to perform the song "Start a Band." They were using similar Telecaster guitars, but each guitarist had his own distinct tone, Paisley said.
"If I had his guitar on and he had mine on, it would still sound like him and I, conversely," he said. "I think I sound like me, almost to a fault. I wish I could sound a little more like other people at times."
Paisley said his biggest strength as a guitarist is his ability to realize he has room to grow.
"That's a good thing to have as a guitarist," he said. "We can all improve."
When he can take a break from the road (Paisley's tour stretches through March), Paisley is working on a pilot for a new TV series. Tentatively titled "Nashville," the show centers on an aspiring country songwriter vying for his big break, Paisley said. Actor Zachary Quinto, who played Spock on the recent "Star Trek" reboot, has signed on to the project, and the CW network has greenlighted the pilot.
"We think it's a really cool way to show the relevance of country music, by using actual artists," he said. "I would be in the first episode or two as a guy who takes a songwriter on the road and gets him going."
When Paisley sits down to write a song, he starts with the lyrics. Everything else - the melody, the music - comes second to the lyrics, he said.
"I can come up with a melody pretty easily," he said. "It's all in how you say it. A song like 'Letter to Me,' - that's your melody already."
Paisley demonstrates by singing the song's first line: "'If I could write a letter / to me.' That's how you'd say it. So I sing it that way."
Coming from him, it sounds so simple.
If you go
Brad Paisley performs tonight at 1st Mariner Arena. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $34.50-$51.50. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.