Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties: Brad Paisley, “He Didn’t Have to Be”

“He Didn’t Have to Be”

Brad Paisley

Written by Kelly Lovelace and Brad Paisley


#1 (1 week)

December 11, 1999

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

December 10, 1999

A 21st century superstar earns his first No. 1 hit.

The Road to No. 1

Born and raised in West Virginia, Brad Paisley discovered a love for country music through his maternal grandfather, who gifted him with a guitar at a young age. He performed at his church, where his talent was quickly noticed and cultivated by his small town community.  By age 13, he was a band leader and a songwriter, and he spent his high school years opening for major acts when they played local venues. After earning a degree from Belmont University, Paisley was quickly signed to Arista Nashville, the final major act to join the roster before label founder Tim DuBois exited to DreamWorks.   His lead single, “Who Needs Pictures,” served as the title track for his debut album of the same name, and it went top fifteen.  His second single became the first No. 1 single in a career full of them.

The No. 1

At the time of its release, Brad Paisley’s debut album stood out as a return to traditional country music, and he was definitely waving that flag alongside recent breakout acts like the Chicks and Lee Ann Womack.

In retrospect, given Paisley’s long and successful career, what’s more impressive now is how fully developed his talent already was.  “He Didn’t Have to Be” has the sharp observation and intelligent wording that would define his best songwriting over the years, and it also is a perfect example of Paisley at his best as a singer.  When he’s in full sincerity mode, he’s one of the all-time greats.

“I hope I’m at least half the dad that he didn’t have to be” is a classic chorus, capturing multiple emotions and a person’s entire life story from childhood to parenthood in just a handful of words. The verses are also full of strong lyrical turns, including the perfect opening couplet: “When a single mom goes out on a date with somebody new, it always winds up feeling more like a job interview.”  The song then shifts to, and stays with, the perspective of the child:  “He took my mom out to a movie, and for once I got to go.”

Paisley’s vocal is effectively restrained, previewing his strength as a storyteller as he hits all the right emotional beats without getting in the way of the song.  Paisley is a slam dunk for the Country Music Hall of Fame, and this is the record that put him on that path.  It still holds up today.

The Road From No. 1

Paisley will be one of the most prominent artists when we get to the 2000s, starting with another single from his debut album.

“He Didn’t Have to Be” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties

Previous: Clint Black and Lisa Hartman Black, “When I Said I Do” |

Next: Faith Hill, “Breathe”


  1. It was actually Dec 11, 1999 this was #1 on Billboard. “When I said I do” was #1 on Billboard the 4th and the 18th. Hard to believe we have just one more song left in the 90s. Much much slower chart in 1999 and way longer #1s. We got through that year fast on here!

  2. Brad Paisley 1999= Clint Black 1989. Traditional Country in the beginning leads to slow trending towards poppy Country. However, LOVE the output from both!!
    Moving forward, I won’t comment on the last entry in this series. From “Who’s Lonely Now” to “Breathe”, the 90’s made me a fan of Country music. I have loved reading the before, during and after of all these hits. I loved most of the songs, tolerated many. Very few #1’s I disliked. This is an incredible idea and feature, Kevin. You started at the right decade. Take some time. Take some time OFF. I am SO looking forward to the 80’s!!!

  3. I probably like silly Brad Paisley more than you do, Kevin, but his more serious material is excellent. Brad is probably my favorite artist from the 2000s, but its always fun to hear this song come on SiriusXM’s Prime Country from time to time as a reminder that he got started at the tail end of the 90s.

  4. I love this song. It resonates with me in many, many ways. It was one of the first songs of Brad’s I heard. I like him silly but I love him serious. He may be – may be – one that will fill the shoes, to quote George Jones.

  5. And finally, a classic story telling song that is country for all its details and sincere sentimentality. It feels like it is about real people and not just a song about ideas and words. It felt real and lived in. This songs sounded like a classic in 1999 and it still does today. Paisley will wander as an artist and become too cutesy with his songwriting, but he was at his absolute best with this one.

  6. This song touches my heart. While the story in the song is not the same as how my life is but being adopted makes this such an emotional song for me. When Brad get’s to the line “I hope i’m half the dad that he didn’t have to be” makes me look at my adopted dad (My dad) with gratefulness because I owe everything to him and don’t know where i’d be without him coming into my life. Sorry for the story but these “simple songs” touch people’s lives and that’s what the best country songs do. It’s real life.

    • As an adopted child myself, I know that’s a big part of why this song resonates so much with me. It just says so much about how it works in the best way.

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