Nancy Kruh
Nancy Kruh
November 18, 2016 11:35 AM

So what did Brad Paisley think after seeing his exhibit for the first time at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum? Of course he couldn’t resist. He had to bring out his famous wit.

“When’d he die?” he deadpanned. “That’s what it feels like.”

But don’t think for a moment that the exhibit opening on Thursday wasn’t an overwhelming experience for Paisley and his entire family, including his wife, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, who had just lost her mother the day before from a long battle with dementia.

In a private family preview, Paisley’s mother, Sandy, was in tears almost from the start of the expansive display. “I was embarrassed because I lost my composure,” she said later at a reception in the Nashville museum’s Hall of Fame rotunda.

All it took was seeing a cluster of early memorabilia: a photograph of her father, his beloved Sears Silvertone guitar that he gave his 8-year-old grandson for Christmas, and a photo of Paisley at age 15 around the time her father died.

Rick Diamond/Getty

“My dad would be in ecstasy right now,” Sandy Paisley said. “He so much wanted Brad to succeed. Before he died, my dad said … ‘I just wish I could hang around to see what happens to Brad.’”

What happened was a career that has taken Paisley, 44, to the heights of country music, and the exhibit reflects every aspect of it: the honors and awards, the sold-out concert tours and No. 1 songs and albums, his musical virtuosity (represented by the many guitars on display). But the artifacts also feature revealing glimpses of Paisley’s boyhood, his other creative interests (he paints!), and his reverence for the Hall of Fame icons he’s worked with: Buck Owens, Little Jimmy Dickens, Bill Anderson, George Jones, Alabama.

Experiencing the exhibit, Paisley allowed, “is more emotional than I expected.”

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In an interview with PEOPLE, he described himself as “somebody who wanted to be a part of this as opposed to doing my own thing. I always wanted to be part of country music … and that’s been the most rewarding thing about this career.”

And now, he said, “the idea that I get to be in the same walls as these amazing legends is so humbling.”

Rick Diamond/Getty

Also in tow for the event were Paisley’s two sons, Huck, 9, and Jasper, 7, and the honoree said he prepared the boys for the experience by simply telling them they were going to a museum.

“They said, ‘What is this for?’” Paisley said. “I said it’s truly just like a natural history museum, but it just goes back about 100 years. And it’s the history of country music. What’s interesting is, this is one of the best museums in the world, especially for what it is. It puts most of them to shame. It’s ridiculous how great it is. So it’s an honor to have even a pair of socks in this thing.”

After the family preview, Williams-Paisley declared the boys “loved it. It’s cool for the kids to see pictures of Brad when he was little. I recognize them in him.”

Huck seemed especially taken with what he saw, returning by himself to study the boyhood display case that features his dad’s Dukes of Hazzard car and toy backhoe. His curiosity was understandable, his grandmother Sandy Paisley said, since he had been playing with those very toys at her house not too long ago.

Most of the exhibit’s artifacts, in fact, came from Doug and Sandy Paisley’s home in Glen Dale, West Virginia, including the many awards.

“I don’t have any of them,” Paisley revealed. “I’ve got a thing about that. Walking in my house … I don’t know … I don’t like seeing awards. … That’s like hanging your diploma on the wall in your living room or something, you know what I mean.”

Rick Diamond/Getty

Paisley’s two original guitars – including the one from his grandfather – also have been in safekeeping in West Virginia, but Paisley was happy to linger over them on Thursday evening. What would a “Letter to Me” sequel say to the kid who first picked up those guitars?

“It says, ‘It’ll be worth it,’” Paisley mused. “‘It hurts right now. It’s no fun in the beginning, playing, but you’ll get better.’”

Or maybe even become one of the best.

“Brad Paisley: Diary of a Player” officially opens at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on Friday. It runs through May 14, 2017.

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