Brad Paisley's breakthrough from country's B list to real stardom last year came thanks to ''Whiskey Lullaby,'' a duet with Alison Krauss about two ex-lovers who drink themselves to death. Its traditionalism meshed with Paisley's own backward aesthetic, but there's something deeply ironic in it being him who got suicide back on country radio. Nobody in the genre is more devoted to the bearable lightness of being; between his penchant for comedy, honest romanticism, and fiery Fender Telecaster picking, Paisley's all about the joie shucks de vivre. He probably has as much real affinity for depression as Sylvia Plath did for charades and balloon animals.
Time Well Wasted, his fourth CD, is more Zoloft in a jewel case. A reference to death does arrive early, in the song ''Waitin' on a Woman,'' which is a terminal affliction, it turns out: ''I've read somewhere statistics show/The man's always the first to go/And that makes sense 'cause I know she won't be ready.'' Singing about pulling up a bench in heaven to wait for the little woman, he pulls off the sentimentality along with the rim shot, and that's about as heavy as it gets. Breakups occur, but only for the purpose of repopularizing the old-fashioned novelty song. (Sample forgiveness-begging chorus: ''Stop the senseless killing/Can't you hear the roses cry/Baby, how many flowers have to die.'') His comic takes on gender difference will probably engender bigger chuckles in the red states, though certain urbanites, as well as Keith Urbanites, may cotton to Paisley's now rare mix of corniness and courtliness.
As the second-youngest Grand Ole Opry member, Paisley, 32, prefers to hang with upperclassmen like Little Jimmy Dickens, George Jones, and Bill Anderson, all of whom appear here, as does fellow torchbearer Alan Jackson. It's easy to imagine Paisley pushing this stuff on the Opry when he's in his 70s: He's an old soul, and a merry old soul is he.
What gives him a contemporary edge on other neotraditionalists is his Playing or ''shredding,'' as Guitar One magazine's current cover story puts it. Time's opener, ''The World,'' may read like lovestruck mush on paper, but on record, it's all muscle, with a great Knopfler-goes-rockabilly guitar groove that explodes into a sweet and, this being country, modestly short solo. He represents the convergence of Buck Owens and legendary Buckaroos fretman Don Rich in one package: part Hee Haw hoariness-monger, part guitar hero. If the CMAs really took their ''Entertainer of the Year'' award literally, they'd have to give it to him, just for that.