Singer-songwriter packs six years of living, including marriage and parenthood, into his new music: "I'm not afraid to record songs about life, songs about love. I don't want to just be the 'beer pong' guy"

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."

Eric Paslay
Eric Paslay
| Credit: Rachel Deeb

For the new album, that diversity means — among several standouts — a soaring love song ("Heartbeat Higher"), a perfect-day fantasy ("Boat in a Bottle"), a searing confessional of a washed-up pop star (Mike Posner's "I Took a Pill in Ibiza," the only song Paslay didn't co-write), and a love letter to his daughter ("Fingertips"). No matter the tempo, Paslay's melodies teem with energy, and his lyrics are filled with poetic treasures and warmed by his supple voice.

Paslay wrote "Fingertips" when his daughter, Piper Lily, now 20 months, was about 6 months old — around the time, he jokes, that he emerged from a haze of infant-induced sleep deprivation. The lyrics tell the story not only of a father's hopes for his child but also the depths of his love.

"I wanted to make sure that she knows she's loved by someone all the time and she's never alone even when she feels lonely, because I know she will," he says. "We all feel that feeling once in a while."

For good measure, he says, he cajoled his wife, Natalie, a music publisher who also sings, into adding harmonies to the track. "I was like, 'Hey, you should come to the studio today,'" Paslay recalls. "And then it was like, 'All right, go in the vocal booth. You know the song.' I love that my wife sang on it with me."

As with other love songs on the album, his wife is the focus of perhaps the most poignant track, "On This Side of Heaven," an expression of undying love while contemplating her death.

"A beautiful way to say it is imagining if I ever lost her or if she lost me," he says. "I know there are songs in my life that have comforted me through hard times that weren't completely autobiographical to that singer, but I know that they're true because I felt them. That song just had to be written, and we wrote it. I just thought, I love Natalie, and why not start telling the story now?"

Eric Paslay
Eric Paslay, his wife Natalie and their daughter Piper
| Credit: Courtesy Paslay Family

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.