Tales of heartache, financial ruin and running from the law may make country music hits, but Brad Paisley says the secret to his success is something far more straight-laced: landing the right college internship.
"That was my trick. I interned a lot. I interned at ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers)," said Paisley, a three-time Grammy winner who snagged three Country Music Awards as best male vocalist.
Paisley talked about his route to the top -- he has 16 No. 1 singles -- during a visit by Robin Roberts and ABC News cameras to his family's 85-acre estate just outside Nashville. There he seeks sanctuary with his wife, actress Kimberly Williams, and their sons, Huck and Jasper.
Paisley's journey to country music stardom started back in rural Glen Dale, W. Va., just outside Wheeling. He was eight years old and his grandfather gave him a guitar.
"His dream was for me to enjoy that instrument. He wanted me to have what he had in that, which was simply a refuge, a muse. He wanted me to love it," Paisley, now 38, told ABC News.
But Paisley disliked the instrument at first, playing it only out of love for his grandfather. He stuck with it for two years when, suddenly, it clicked. He was able to master such '80s 'tween essentials as the theme song to "The Dukes of Hazard" and Eric Clapton guitar licks.
"I could play the Waylon Jennings song that all the kids wanted me to play. I was finally able to say, 'How about this? Am I cool now?'" Paisley said.
He became so good that he was signed as a regular at age 13 on "Jamboree USA," the nation's second longest running country music radio show after the "Grand Ole Opry."
"I learned more there than I ever did in school," said Paisley. He said he was warmly accepted by the adult headliners and their band members, whom he peppered with questions about their equipment. Still, his parents valued formal education and encouraged him to enroll in Belmont University in Nashville, where he earned a bachelor's degree in music business.
"The most surefire way to wind up working in this town is to go (to Belmont)," Paisley said. "It's the best shot because it's right on Music Row. You intern. That was my trick."
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College internships were valuable because the music business, like any business, is about developing relationships, said Paisley. "It's knowing people and them liking you. If they don't, your days are numbered."
Today, Paisley is well liked in the music business and adored by his fans. It took less than an hour to sell out his concert in August at the huge Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.
Supporters describe Paisley as hot yet humble. He connects with the melting pot of American pride through songs like his smash hit "American Saturday Night," singing, "It's a French kiss, Italian ice, Spanish moss in the moonlight / Just another American Saturday night."
His career accelerated early, but his personal life was faltering. After a failed relationship, he said he valued the heartache as a source of songwriting material but was ready for happiness.
Watching the movie "Father of the Bride," he saw the girl of his dreams appear before him on the silver screen. She was a new actress named Kimberly Williams, playing the daughter whose father, Steve Martin, has a hard time letting her go.
"I remember thinking, 'That's the kind of girl I need to be with,'" Paisley said. He wanted to meet her so he decided to ask her to make a music video with him.
Williams-Paisley recalled the request, telling ABC News, "I was in the car in L.A. and I'd had it with men. My manager called me and said, 'There's this great guy and he wants you to be in his video.' She's working hard to get me a job. She's working harder to get me a husband. She said, 'You're going to date him. He's really cute. And he's got a really sweet Southern accent.'"
"I called him that very night," Williams-Paisley said. "We had a great conversation. He laid all his cards on the table. That was so refreshing. And I was ready. At that point in my life, I was ready to see his cards."
She made the video for Paisley's hit, "I'm Gonna Miss Her." Paisley decided to pay her back with a cameo on the long-running ABC comedy "According to Jim," starring Jim Belushi with Williams playing his sister-in-law.
Brad Paisley's H2O Tour Began Days After Nashville Flood
Married in 2003, they are now the parents of two boys, Huck and Jasper. The boys' safety was the Paisley's top priority when catastrophic flooding hit Nashville and the surrounding area in May. More than 30 people in three states died in the disaster, which caused billions of dollars in damage.
"I remember the whole house shaking and grabbing Jasper and grabbing Huck and us running down the steps in the middle of the night. That weekend you were fearful for your life if you lived here," said Paisley.
Nashville was under water. In just days, Paisley was scheduled to begin his prophetically named H2O tour in Virginia Beach. With floodwaters swamping his guitars, amplifiers, set and video production rig, it was all hands on deck around the clock in a desperate effort to put it all together again. There was no time to rehearse.
On opening night, Paisley faced the crowd and his crew, in a tear-choked voice, said, "I can't even believe what we've been through. For those of you who waded in water and volunteered and did all kinds of stuff above and beyond the call of duty to make this happen, thank you. This means more to me that you'll ever know. I love you. Now let's have fun, okay?"