Independent Lens: Jason Aldean Rides His Night Train
By: Tom Roland
Jason Aldean’s My Kinda Party won CMA’s Album of the Year Award in 2011, amassing more sales than any other Country album in that calendar year. And if anyone still harbored doubts about his stature, the 2012 nominations list pretty much put them to rest. Aldean nabbed three nominations, including his second straight for Entertainer of the Year. But he also had a hand in the successes of some other acts that populated the finalists list.
Eric Church, whose five nominations led the field, is one of Aldean’s former opening acts. Double-nominee Luke Bryan, who announced 2012’s nominees with Aldean on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” is one of Aldean’s best friends as well as an opener at his shows. Double-nominee Thompson Square claims several of Aldean’s band members among its production team. Kelly Clarkson shared the 2011 Vocal Event Award with Aldean for “Don’t You Wanna Stay.” New Artist nominee Brantley Gilbert wrote two Aldean hits, “My Kinda Party” and “Dirt Road Anthem,” before he started scaling the singles charts as an artist in 2011.
Aldean downplays his role in their careers. “I’m not going to sit there and take credit for those things,” he said. “I think those guys were great artists before.”
Even so, these artists and many others as well have benefited from Aldean’s efforts. He helped to change the sound of Country Music by opening a stylistic door. When “Hicktown” (written by Big Kenny, Vicky McGehee and John Rich) debuted on the national charts in April 2005, Toby Keith and Montgomery Gentry arguably led the Country pack with edgy, testosterone-driven energy. But “Hicktown” took it further by melding a decidedly Country, small-town theme with the crunchy guitar chords and sonic assault of hard rock.
“When we shipped that first single,” remembered Jon Loba, EVP, Broken Bow Music Group, “the initial resistance out there was that ‘this isn’t Country, this is rock,’ ‘this is too hard,’ ‘this is not something that P1s (core Country listeners) can relate to.’ It was a daily battle. I can’t remember how many times we almost lost that record, so to go from that to mass acceptance and influence is definitely very gratifying to see.”
In the process, Aldean became a central figure in the “baseball cap Country crowd,” as described by Don Gosselin, Operations Manager, Clear Channel/New Orleans and Program Director, WNOE-FM/New Orleans.
Gosselin singles out Aldean, Eric Church and Brantley Gilbert, all of whom employ baseball caps extensively in their imaging, as acts that draw large numbers of 20-something male fans to their concerts. It’s similar to the impact of the Outlaw movement in the late 1970s, when a core Country audience found commonality with non-Country fans who related to the blue-collar rebellion signified by those artists’ music.
“Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson were the outlaws of the day,” Hart observed. “They had a similar image and drew those (mixed) crowds. Jason Aldean has appeal to a lot of people outside of our format, particularly males, because of the attitude he brings to his music. People want to raise hell, drink or whatever.”
“There’s more of a harder edge, more attitude-driven sort of stuff,” Aldean agreed, comparing his music, and that of Church and Gilbert, with Country’s mainstream. “If you listen to all of our records, they sound completely different. But I think it’s pretty obvious that we grew up probably listening to a lot of the same music.”
While that grittier side of Aldean’s art played a big role in carving a space for him in Country’s sonic landscape, a key to his rise lies in his insistence on counter-balancing his rock edge. He followed “Hicktown” with “Why” (Rodney Clawson, McGehee and Rich), a power ballad that appealed to female fans. Over time, he’s widened his creative circle by trying other types of material that defied his history, particularly by rapping in “Dirt Road Anthem” (Colt Ford and Gilbert) and with the power ballad “Don’t You Wanna Stay” (Andy Gibson, Paul Jenkins and Jason Sellers), which crossed onto the Adult Contemporary charts and attracted a whole new segment of non-Country female fans.
“As an artist, that’s what you want,” Aldean reflected. “You don’t want to back yourself up into a corner and play to one demographic or the other. We want everybody listening. We can go out and do one of those big tempos, but if you start putting four or five of those on every record, that’ll get boring. Just be able to change it up with a ballad here or there, or something off the wall now and then. That’s really the thing that makes it work.”
“We hear that all the time from the female consumers and core fans. They love Jason because he rocks but he also sings songs that a lot of rockers resist,” said Rick Shedd, Senior VP/GM, Broken Bow Label Group. “He allows himself to be vulnerable.”
Aldean does all of those things on his current album, Night Train. “Take a Little Ride” (Dylan Altman, Clawson and Jim McCormick), “Wheels Rollin’” (Neil Thrasher, Wendell Mobley and Hillary Lindsey) and “This Nothin’ Town” (Thrasher, Mobley and busbee) embrace his energetic, rockin’ edge. “Talk” (Thrasher and Mobley), “Walking Away” (David Lee Murphy and Clawson) and “Black Tears” (Canaan Smith and Tyler Hubbard) employ sounds and storylines that show a balladeer’s sensitivity.
Then there’s “1994” (Thomas Rhett, Luke Laird and Barry Dean), the album’s off-the-wall entry that picks through hit titles from Joe Diffie’s singles discography while holding Diffie up in a rapping, nostalgic ride down memory lane.
Night Train was clearly made with an eye toward reaching out to the disparate demographics of Aldean’s audience. Still, his strategy didn’t involve cloning his previous work. The sales and CMA Album of the Year recognition for My Kinda Party created a new and somewhat unfamiliar context for Night Train, so Aldean did his best to forget about past successes as he rolled up his sleeves to tackle the present.
“I knew there were going to be a lot of people that have high expectations of this album and that there would probably be a lot of people that want to compare records,” he said. “But it’s a completely different album. I’m a couple of years older now, so it’s going to reflect a different point of view of where you are. I don’t think it’s fair to compare them. But I will say this: I think Night Train is an unbelievable record. I’m very proud of it. Do I hope Night Train topsParty? Of course I do! Was that the mindset when I went in and cut it? No, not at all.”
One aspect that’s consistent on all of Aldean’s albums is the makeup of the studio team. Each one was recorded under the guidance of producer Michael Knox and the aid of the singer’s road band, including guitarist Kurt Allison, bass player Tully Kennedy and drummer Rich Redmond. Using the touring band was a bit unusual when Aldean did it on his debut album, though it’s since become more commonplace. In fact, three of the five finalists for CMA’s Single of the Year in 2012 — Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem,” Church’s “Springsteen” and Little Big Town’s “Pontoon” — featured at least two members of the artist’s road band.
Historically, Nashville has used a handful of musicians to handle much of Country’s session work, believing that the skills required to get a good sound in the technical confines of a studio are different than those required to support an artist onstage. Jennings and Nelson got much of their outlaw reputations by fighting that assumption. Aldean, by contrast, faced little resistance at Broken Bow when he decided to use his own players.
As Aldean remembered it, “I went in and basically said, ‘This is what you guys signed me for. You signed me because you liked these demos that I cut and you liked the way that my record sounds. So if that’s what you like, then let me keep doing it the way I’ve done it. If you don’t, it’s not going to sound like that.’ It was actually never a really big deal.”
Maybe not. But by building an audience that blends core Country fans with new, young and non-traditional converts, Aldean has become a bona fide big deal. All of his shows in 2012 were sellouts, many within minutes or hours of tickets going on sale. He headlined a stadium for the first time in August and, in true Country fashion, was determined to make hay while the sun shines. Aldean packed his schedule so tight that in one stretch he was at home in Tennessee for only a couple of nights over a couple of months.
This hard-driving pace echoes the relentless “full-throttle, wide-open” theme of Aldean’s single, “The Only Way I Know” (Murphy and Ben Hayslip), which teams him with two of his former opening acts, Luke Bryan and Eric Church. Its energetic stance certainly connects to the 20-something guys who are a key part of his audience.
“The bottom line is I love what I do,” Aldean insisted. “I’m living out a dream that most people would never get to experience. That would be crazy not to want to take advantage of that and take it in as much as I could while it’s here. At some point, you know it’s going to kind of level off. Every artist’s career does at some point. And I figure I can rest when that happens.”
On the Web: JasonAldean.com
On Twitter: @JasonAldean
©2013 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc. Posted With Permission of the Country Music Association®.