Eric Paslay's new album, Nice Guy, features his menacing mug shot on the cover, and the title song is actually about someone who's not a nice guy at all.
But don't be fooled by all this show of toughness. Take note that Paslay also couldn't bring himself to put two more S's in this snippet of the song's lyrics: "You gotta be an A-hole if you wanna bank roll."
"I mean, we had to be nice," Paslay, 37, tells PEOPLE, offering his defense, "because, for heaven's sake, 'ass' doesn't rhyme with 'bank.'"
Obviously, as hard as he may try, Eric Paslay can't avoid the fact that he's basically a nice guy. He's also one of Nashville's most seasoned and skillful singer-songwriters whose talent and likability have attracted a lengthy all-star list of songwriting collaborators to his new project, including Caitlyn Smith, Sugarland's Kristian Bush and Lady A's Charles Kelley.
Paslay is best known for his No. 1 song "Friday Night," as well as for co-writing four more No. 1s, including Jake Owen's"Barefoot Blue Jean Night" and Eli Young Band's"Even If It Breaks Your Heart." His first album in six years, Nice Guy is packed with six years of living, which for Paslay has included marriage and parenthood.
"I'm a fan of so much different music that I'm not afraid to record songs about life, songs about love," he says, reflecting on his place in a genre where party-hardy themes often prevail. "I don't want to just be the 'beer pong' guy. We all have our days, and we all have our experiences, and I love writing songs about all those days and all those experiences."
Despite her fictional demise, his wife gave the song an immediate thumbs-up. "She's loved it from the day we wrote it," says Paslay, who shares credit on the song with Jordan Reynolds and Jordan Minton. "She knows I'm a songwriter and I write stories, and it's not always just exactly about me."
Natalie's mother, Paslay reports, isn't as much of a fan, especially of the song's video since it features her daughter amid all the dearly-departed lyrics. But, he says, "I didn't want to put an actress in it. I don't want to kiss up on an actress. I'd rather kiss my wife."
There's that niceness showing up again. In fact, Paslay wears it so comfortably that he can let loose with a cheeky song like "Nice Guy": "I'm gonna do my best to get arrested / Take a drunk mug shot / When I go out clubbin' / Gonna roll these hubs right up in that handicap spot."
The song is actually a cautionary tale, Paslay says, "meant to remind people to be decent" — but with lyrics like that, how could the mug-shot album cover not be far behind?
The artwork, he explains, is just an expression of his longtime fantasy of joining the ranks of country renegades like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, who earned their mugshots the old-fashioned way.
"I've always wanted to have a mug shot," Paslay confesses, "and I just don't have the guts to actually go do something illegal to get one."
Spoken like a true nice guy.
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