By Eileen Finan
September 22, 2014 12:00 PM

Not long ago Brad Paisley’s son Huck was in a funk. Faced with saying goodbye to some friends, “he was depressed,” Paisley says of the 7-year-old. “You’d see him playing with Legos, and he’d wipe a tear from his eye.” So the singer brought the boy down to the yellow farmhouse on their Franklin, Tenn., property, where Paisley recently built a bar. Huck hopped up on a stool. “I’m going to make you a magic potion,” Paisley declared.

Huck was skeptical but watched as his dad mixed grenadine and cherries with 7Up, along with “a little dash of what I said was unicorn tears,” and told stories of his own beloved uncle who made the same concoction for him when he was a boy. “Drink up,” he told Huck, who took a sip. “He had never had a Shirley Temple before, and he flipped out,” Paisley says. “He said, ‘I feel lighter!’ It was my Andy Griffith moment as a parent.” The two headed back to the main house, where Huck ran up to his 5-year-old brother, calling out, “Jasper! You’ve got to go down to the yellow house! Dad knows how to make magic potions!”

Over his 15-year career, Paisley has made a little magic with his music as well. The Grammy winner has sold more than 12 million albums and scored 22 No. 1s by mixing tender tear-jerkers like “Whiskey Lullaby” and novelty hits like “Ticks.” With his new album Moonshine in the Trunk, Paisley, 41, is determined to add to those numbers—even if it means taking matters into his own hands. Weeks before his album launched, the singer trashed his label’s marketing plan and released the new songs via Twitter. “It’s the new mode for me,” he says. “I’m done with rules that are there just to be rules.”

It’s an attitude partly shaped by the lambasting he received last year after “Accidental Racist” was leaked online. The song, a duet with rapper LL Cool J, “was meant to do good, to start a conversation,” Paisley says. Instead the talk spun out of his control, and lyrics like “If you don’t judge my gold chains/ I’ll forget the iron chains” became late-night punch lines. The blogosphere declared the song racist, and sales of Wheelhouse, the album on which the song appeared, were weak. The criticism “was rough,” admits Paisley. “But it’s exactly the Andy Griffith episode ‘Opie and the Bully’ where Opie stands up for himself. He winds up with a black eye but tells his dad, ‘You know what? It only hurt for a second.’ That’s what happened. They only got one punch.”

Over the past year Paisley hasn’t stood still long enough to become a target for another. He’s launched a tour, traveled with the President to visit troops in Afghanistan, appeared on a flurry of sitcoms including Two and a Half Men with wife Kimberly and was part of the panel of experts on the ABC singing competition Rising Star. In some ways it’s been a campaign to reclaim his reputation. “This has been the summer of my personality coming out, and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had,” he says. “I’m not a person you can figure out in one month. And you can’t listen to one song and say, ‘That’s who he is.’ ”

One thing he isn’t, despite his recent TV dabblings, is a Hollywood actor—though he admits he’d happily play even “a stupid redneck garbage man” if Will Ferrell called. Instead Paisley insists his home turf will always be country music and the 87-acre Tennessee spread he shares with Kimberly, 42, and their two boys.

Life there is purposefully normal. A perfect family evening? Barbecue take-out (Huck’s favorite at the moment) followed by a stroll on the farm as the boys ride bikes—sometimes Dad joins in with his skateboard. Bedtime is 8 p.m., and the couple are similarly strict when it comes to indulgences. “We try to make them understand that nothing is free, and they have to earn things,” he says. “Not once have we been in a toy store and I’ve said, ‘Yeah, I’ll get you that.’ ” Instead the boys earn spending money by loading the dishwasher, feeding pup Holler or setting the table.

But Paisley does allow for plenty of fun too. “An indulgence for me is to take them to the comic-book store and they pick out a couple of books.” (Huck is a Calvin and Hobbes fan, while Jasper’s pick is DC Super-Pets.) And then there’s “Ye Olde Potion Room Pub,” his meticulously designed in-home Irish bar, where pals like Sheryl Crow and Scott Hamilton have gathered for Rising Star parties. Paisley himself isn’t much of a drinker, so it’s a sentimental nod to the years he spent playing in honky-tonks amid the smell of stale beer and smoke. “There’s no better memories for me as a teenager than those kind of nights,” he says.

His sons have already made their own musical mark on his new album—Huck’s class sang on “American Flag on the Moon” and Jasper played a harmonica riff on “Gone Green.” “He didn’t quite get it perfect, but he was serious about it,” says Paisley of Jasper’s efforts. It’s likely a trait picked up from Dad, although the singer shrugs off the idea that his influence might extend beyond his kin. “I don’t think I’ve changed anything in the country format whatsoever,” he says. “But I’m not worried about it. I’ve found my place in it. I’m the smart aleck. The class clown. I’m the guy who does the song nobody expects.”