On an unassuming Thursday night in Macon, cold February rain drizzles down, cloaking the city in a slick, dour sheen. But inside the sprawling Macon Centreplex Coliseum, any sheen is most likely caused by spilt beer. A young, raucous, sold-out crowd of 9,000, dressed in a smattering of plaid and camouflage, have just lost their composure as the first piano lines of “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” Macon native Jason Aldean’s hit (which hit #1 on the charts) with pop superstar Kelly Clarkson, reverberate through the arena. Thousands of forefingers pump the air amid claps, camera phones and signs that read “We love you” and “I want to ride with you on your tractor.”
Aldean stands at the stage’s tip, just out of reach of dozens of hands vying for a leg grab. Dressed in his standard uniform of a khaki cowboy hat, jeans ripped at the knees and a graphic T-shirt (this one black and emblazoned with the name of one of his idols, John Mellencamp), he strikes a proud pose as he inhales to launch into the demanding power ballad. Thanks to technology, Clarkson appears for the second verse, her upper body projected two-stories tall on a massive screen. Then, as they burst “together” into the chorus, a shower of projected sparks fly on six smaller, mobile screens on either side of the stage. It’s a decidedly dramatic, and some would argue, “un-country” moment.
As Aldean croons the final notes, he positions himself center stage. But metaphorically, he and the song stand at a crossroads that has been emblematic of the state of country music. With the infestation of social media, and technology in general, the country lifestyle has become hard to maintain—for many artists it’s more of a goal than a reality. At the crossroads, rebels want to head down the paved road which takes those bygone country themes and pairs them with the increasingly blended sounds found in the mainstream. The purists want to go down the other road, most likely dirt and gravel, taking with them the roots of country which favor spare arrangements and intimate, mature lyrics discussing the intricacies of life as it is now.
But while forces in Nashville have battled over country music’s soul, Jason Aldean has chosen by not choosing, straddling the crossroads between heartfelt twang and over-the-top production. Throughout his career, tender, emotive hits like “Laughed Until We Cried” and “The Truth” have stood alongside rock-tinged small-town anthems like “Hicktown” and “Big Green Tractor.” The consistent juxtaposition showcases how Aldean has slowly built a formidable brand as a sincere surveyor of country’s roots and a harbinger of the blended sounds to come. When he released his self-titled debut in 2005, one reviewer even called him “part Haggard, part Guns N’ Roses, part Mellencamp.”
“Yeah, I mean, it’s pretty accurate,” Aldean tells me in his slow, boyish drawl a few weeks before the Macon concert. “And maybe on the new album, part Snoop Dogg or something, I don’t know.”
He’s referring to “Dirt Road Anthem,” a song on Party where he performs a kind of country-rap about everything from biscuits to bonfires. It, along with the Clarkson duet, are risks he’s taken on the album, both of which inch him a little further onto the paved side of the aforementioned crossroads. Aldean, though, is characteristically blunt and zen about the album’s sound.
“I think that just comes from experience,” he says. “[As a new artist] I had a little bit of a rock flavor to my music anyway. But you’re a little nervous at first to kind of go too overboard with that. Radio proved to us that they were going to play songs that were a little edgier, which I think for me, songs like ‘She’s Country’ and ‘Johnny Cash’ and ‘Hicktown,’—the fact that they were as big a hits as they were kind of left me with, on this record, [the lesson] just to not overthink that stuff too much. A song like ‘Dirt Road Anthem’ that’s a little out there… I don’t even really question that stuff anymore. It’s just if I think it’s cool and I like it, that’s really all I have to go on is just gut instinct and definitely just from experience. You just get more comfortable and [are] willing to take more risks than you are I think as a brand new artist.”
Clearly, Aldean’s instincts have worked in his favor. All but one of his 12 singles has reached the Top 10 of the Billboard country singles chart with four hitting #1. Part of that credit must also go to Michael Knox, who has produced all four of Aldean’s studio albums. He’s managed to hone in on Jason’s varied tastes which range from rockers 3 Doors Down to legendary country supergroup Alabama.
“Country music’s really not about the production,” Knox says. “Country music’s about a lifestyle. And as long as Jason stays true to his lifestyle he will always be a country artist. And that’s the unique thing about Jason is that, you know, he is a country boy. He might not be, you know, Texas country to a point of George Strait. And he might not be something hardcore country, you know, like a George Jones, but he is his kind of country, which is that new generation of kids that believe in God, country and family. Jason’s a Christian and that’s usually the country backbone and he’s never going to shy away from his lifestyle and that’s what’s going to keep him from not being country. Jason is a country artist, it’s just a modern-day country artist.”
To understand Jason Aldean the country artist and star, you have to start with Jason Aldine Williams and a pivotal moment in his childhood. Three years after he was born, his parents Debbie and Barry divorced. His time between them would be split, but in the process he would gain separate but equally important experiences he now uses to straddle Music Row’s fences. Growing up, Jason mostly remained with his mother in Macon, going to football games and hanging out on his cousin’s 200-acre farm on the city’s outskirts. He relished the small-town life Macon engenders despite its size. In the summers he visited his Dad, who’d relocated to Homestead, Florida. There, Barry routinely played guitar, filling the house with a variety of rock, country and pop tunes. Mesmerized by the sounds, Jason wanted to play himself, so Barry would draw out the chords before leaving for work and Jason would practice all day, many times knowing the songs by heart by the time his father returned home.
As much as he loved his life growing up, though, Jason’s love of music soon propelled him beyond Homestead and Macon, yearning for a bigger life and to impact as many people as possible. But while his father’s musical encouragement—and rural lifestyle—laid the foundation, the spark igniting the his career came only when he met Knox, his future producer who was then vice president of Warner-Chappell Publishing. Knox, as the only-in-America story goes, stumbled upon Jason by way of other intentions: He was trying to find a way to expense a trip to see his grandmother in Macon when he noticed a music showcase at the Buckboard—a club just outside Atlanta. A now 21-year-old Jason was the 18th artist performing out of 20. He went on at one in the morning.
“When I first saw him, man, I loved him,” remembers Knox. “You know, he had his cowboy hat lower than most people wear it. The aggressiveness of his music, the covers he was picking at the time were not the normal kind of thing that kids would do in country music. I was just turned on because I thought I was seeing the future of country music. I thought I was seeing that next generation, that next thing that was going to happen.”
Feeling the universe had given him a blatant sign he had to pursue, Knox took on Jason, offering him a publishing deal and promising to do everything he could to get him a record deal too. But for Jason, that would come with the achingly difficult price of moving away from the life he loved in search of the life he wanted—a thought that still causes Aldean to shudder slightly.
“You know it was tough, man,” he sighs. “I was born and raised there and then all of a sudden I had a chance to move to Nashville and kind of take the next step in my music career. It was tough when I moved [there], I didn’t know anybody—I mean I literally knew two people in town. And, you know, all my friends are back at home and as much as I missed them and wanted to be home and hanging out with them, to achieve what I wanted, I knew that I had to stay here. It was tough in the early years, so it was definitely something I struggled with.”
Initially, Nashville didn’t make the struggle any easier. Twice, Jason would get a recording contract, only to be subsequently dropped. Around town, folks were advising Knox to “give up” on him. Even Jason, a little emotionally bruised, thought of giving up. Knox would hear none of it. He had promised him a record deal and that’s what he would deliver. “I love believing in people and there was just a thing that when I saw Jason, I was like, I can’t walk away from something I believe in this much or I won’t be true to myself either,” Knox says. He urged Jason to keep going, helping him form a band and secure gigs. It would take 40 more showcases until one night at the famed Wildhorse Saloon changed everything. Jason’s showcase was intended for a label whose delegates never showed. However, reps from independent label Broken Bow were there, intending to watch someone else but instead found themselves enamored by the same fire in Jason that Knox had seen at the Buckboard.
Thinking about that period and the resulting five years at the top of the charts it’s grown into, I ask Aldean about the people he left back home in favor of the bright lights of Music City. “[There] was a lot of support,” he says, before backtracking somewhat and stumbling over how to characterize his thoughts. “I also think it was a lot of people like, I don’t want to say ‘naysayers,’ but it’s like any other thing, it’s a little bit of a longshot—it’s a one in a million deal. There’s a million people in this town that they’re after the same thing. It’s just tough… I don’t think they ever believed in a million years that it would get to the point that it has.”
Two days before the Macon concert, Aldean scored his first major awards nominations from The Academy of Country Music. For the first time he’ll by vying for Top Male Vocalist of the Year and Entertainer of the Year—the granddaddy of country music awards. Two weeks before the concert, the announcement came that My Kinda Party had reached platinum status, selling close to a million copies in a mere 11 weeks—his fastest album to reach that mark. And the frenzied scene in Macon isn’t simply because Aldean’s in his hometown. No, the following arena dates of his My Kinda Party 2011 tour are sold-out as well. With industry sales in shambles, insiders are doing a double-take at how successful Aldean has become, because, up to now, his positioning at country’s musical crossroads has given the misleading impression of a career that’s been somewhat unassuming.
“I’m a guy that doesn’t really get caught up in all the political stuff of the music business,” he admits. “I feel like I’ve made my career off of going out and playing my live shows and trying to be as real as possible and not ever trying to act like a superstar… I go out and still, I’m one of the guys, just being real, just somebody people can relate to. And I sing songs about things that I can relate to. I like it to be loud, I like it to be aggressive and when we go and play a show, it’s going to be loud, it’s going to be fun and that’s how I built my career. A lot of times I think I’m probably a little misunderstood… I’m kind of quiet and not one of the guys that’s going to walk into a room and take it over. I’ve met a lot of people—one of my best friends,[fellow country star] Luke Bryan, he’s like that. That guy’ll walk into a room and you can’t shut him up; that’s just the way he is. And I’m just not like that and I think a lot of times people really don’t know what to think of you…”
Still, as much as Aldean has shied away from the trappings of his business, you can’t achieve the kind of success he’s had and not have it change you a little, even if it’s just in your level of confidence. Aldean agrees, citing his duet with Clarkson as an example: “The fact that we could even get [her] to even sing on the record is something, you know?” More importantly, though, he feels his career has been quite the education. He’s learned patience (“I never really had a lot of that before”), leadership (“All of a sudden you’re in charge of running a multimillion dollar business”), and to appreciate the smaller pleasures in life like coming home.
“I still go home,” he says. “I love going back to Georgia and getting a chance to hang out with my friends and just getting back to some simpleness. It’s really funny, because my life is this whirlwind kind of thing and all my friends back home are in their nine-to-five jobs and everything for them is really normal and simple. And for me to go home and just be around them and … that’s some of the best therapy you can have.”
Back in Macon, the effects of that “therapy” become evident by the end of his 17-song set. The toll of an hour and a half of having his family, friends and fans screaming for him under one massive roof seems to have made him hyper-aware of the business (and the bigness) of being Jason Aldean The Country Star—the “whirlwind,” as he described it, that his life can sometimes be. The band is about to dive into the last song, his rollicking 2008 hit “She’s Country,” but Aldean, in an unscripted moment, waves at them, asking them to give him a moment with the audience.
“It’s been 13 years since I moved to Nashville,” he calmly tells them. “For anybody out there who thinks the American dream is over, I’m living proof it’s not.”
The crowd devours his succinct but sincere comment, no doubt seeing themselves and their dreams, big and small, in him. In so many more ways that just being in Macon, Jason Aldean is home.