Photos: iHeartRadio Music Festival 2012

Jason Aldean separated himself from the pack by ignoring conventional country boundaries, first with a duet with Kelly Clarkson on "Don't You Wanna Stay" and more aggressively with the country-rap "Dirt Road Anthem." His willingness to take risks, and his commitment to those risks, is surely playing into his success.

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"A lot of creative types can live in the 'gray,' and Jason's very 'black and white' about things," says manager Chris Parr at Spalding Entertainment. "That's a really strong thing, to understand who you are as an artist, and you can extrapolate that to your music, to appearances, to whatever different requests you might get. He's like, 'if I'm gonna do it, we're doing it, we're all in,' which fits well, because [Spalding Entertainment president] Clarence [Spalding] and I are the same way, we don't like to stay in the 'maybe.'"


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For his fifth album, "Night Train" (out Oct. 16), "maybe" duties went to Aldean's producer Michael Knock, who tells Billboard he went through about 5,400 songs for this record. "The job that I have now is making sure the quality of songs he picks from are where they need to be."

Theirs is a melding of '70s and '80s arena rock with contemporary country vocals and arrangements spiced with wailing guitar solos and the occasionally foray into rap and pop power ballads that fans have embraced and radio accepted. Beyond that, it's delivered with a rawness that comes from road-seasoned musicians in the studio and Aldean's way with a vocal that makes everything he sings believable to fans. Aldean is dead-set on his musical vision, and Knox is the tireless seeker of songs and the mad scientist in the studio that brings that vision to life."

"One thing I've never wanted is for my records to sound like every other male act that's on the radio," Aldean says. "I don't hear anybody's record and say, 'man, I want my record to sound like that.' I want my to record sound like me, what it sounds like when I'm on stage. The best way to do that is have my guys playing. The session players in Nashville are some of the best players in the world, but they don't always play what I want to hear."

In the end, the two ended up with a record that stays true to Aldean's sound and still manages to move that sound forward sonically, vocally and lyrically. "The big progression we made this time was more in the lyrical aspect than like 'Dirt Road Anthem' when we had never done anything like that, or when we did 'Don't You Wanna Stay,' he had never done that big pop power ballad before," says Knox. "Now it's more of a lyric thing, where he has something he wants to say and he's out there looking for it."

Which songs on Jason Aldean's "Night Train" are standouts? Check out our track-by-track breakdown of the album.

1. This Nothin' Town - The opening track to Night Train is a thumping mid-tempo with driven by guitar riffs, featuring lyrics like, "That old abandoned factory just got the wrecking ball/We threw a party in the parking lot just to watch it fall." Says Aldean, "Especially if you come from a small town, the least little thing that happens everybody shows up to check it out. There's something to be said when you hear a song for the first time, those visions pop into your head, and you can see it. This is one of those songs."

2. When She Says Baby - Another sturdy mid-tempo, very hooky, and an apt description of a contemporary, romance. "That song came in really late," says Aldean. "I got an email, I think from Rhett, and it had that song in it, and I downloaded it on my phone and played it riding in my truck. I thought, 'that's pretty cool' but we basically had the record cut, we were done. I kept listening to it, and we were talking about going back in and cutting a few more songs, so I called Rhett and said, "hey, let me have this song for a minute.' We put it on hold, and when we went back in, that was the first song we cut."

3. Feel That Again - Despite the ringing guitars and an arena-rock sound, this ones harkens back to '70s rock bands like Kansas or Journey, blended in with a prominent vocal by Aldean and a strong sense of melody. "The biggest thing with songs like that is being able to rock those songs up a bit," says Aldean. "You may hear a demo that kind of sits there, and you can spice them up just by the tones of the guitars, the production of it, and not being scared or thinking, 'we need a fiddle on this thing 'cause this is country music.' I don't think there's a fiddle on the whole record, honestly. It's not because I don't like fiddle, but I would rather hear a raunchy guitar than somebody sawin' on a fiddle, that's just the way it is. I think people are scared a lot of times to go in and rock up a song a little bit, make it more aggressive, and that's something we've always done. It gives songs a whole new sound."

4. Wheels Rollin' - A melodic, atmospheric ballad with an ominous undertone and some Skynyrd-esque guitars, this is for Aldean much like "Turn The Page" is for Bob Seger. This one's about life on the road, isolation, and sacrifices mad.

"That was one of those songs that Neil and Wendell and those guys wrote specifically for us," says Aldean. "We had been doin' "Wanted Dead or Alive" [by Bon Jovi] on the road as one of our encore songs, and we were talkin' one day that it would be cool to have our own song like that, that sort of feel. And they wrote 'Wheels Rollin',' around me and my lifestyle and what's goin' on. I heard it the first time and I was like, 'OK, that's gonna be on the record.' It's perfect for me, perfect for my show. For anybody that wants an inside look at what it's like to be me on the road and get inside my mind a little bit on what it's like, that's the perfect song."

5. Talk - A great intro leads to a power ballad that sequences perfectly on the record. Add a blistering guitar solo and Aldean's ownership of the vocal and this one sounds like a hit. "[Producer Michael] Knox called me and said, 'I found a monster. I listened to it and I loved the song, but it was one of those songs that I liked a lot, but Michael was infatuated with this song. I was going back and forth between that and 'Staring at the Sun,' which is one of my favorites on the record," says Aldean. "So I was like, if I gotta pick between the two I'm goin' with Staring at the Sun.' And I actually fell I love with the song after we cut it. Now all of a sudden I got a chance to hear my version of it, and it went from 'I like it a lot' to loving it, and I would've been kickin' myself if it wasn't on the record. That one was Michael's baby for sure. There have been songs that I loved and we cut 'em and I don't like the way I did it, and this was the opposite of that."

6. The Only Way I Know (with Luke Bryan and Eric Church) - With an ominous pulsing intro leading into a country/rap dynamo, this song taps into the chemistry these three artists own. "The three of us are friends, and I felt like this song, having a little attitude about it, just made sense for those guys," says Aldean. "Luke's not necessarily known for a lot of attitude, Eric is, but I thought having Luke come in on the verse he came in on fit him real well. I just thought it would be a cool moment on the record, us doing our thing. Luke's hot as can be, Eric's hot, having us all three on a song that made sense was a no-brainer. It started out with the idea of us three being on it, and once we got the green light, it was 'alright, this is gonna be pretty special,' and it turned out to be.

7. Take a Little Ride - The lead-off single charges out of the gate as a riff-laden up-tempo powerhouse. Aldean says he first heard the tune when recording previous record "My Kinda Party." "It came in on the last album, but we had all our tempos," he says. "I liked it, but we weren't looking for that type of song at that time. It was one of those songs that just kept hangin' around, and I was still listening to it two years later, still diggin' it. At that point it was time to put it on a record."

8. I Don't Do Lonely Well - This power ballad features a vulnerable, top-shelf vocal from Aldean, showing he is equally adept at bravado and vulnerability. The distinctive guitar sets the tone. "I'm a huge Alabama fan, so to me it was always cool to show that you could do this and also do that, and do them both well," he says. "When you go in, you don't always have to reinvent the wheel with a song, it can be just little things you change around in production. That little backwards guitar, it's just something that people just don't use. We have a wah wah on this record, and Evo [guitars] and stuff that, people just think that ain't cool to use any more. I think it's cool, nobody uses 'em any more, but we do. And it just sounds different, it's not so clean, it's not so technically right. I could go in and make a record that sounds perfect, but that gets boring to me after a while. I want to hear stuff that's different, that I can't hear on another record."

9. Night Train - This one's a slightly rocking mid-tempo ballad with an evocative lyric about the perfect spot for romance. "Who hasn't gone out with a girlfriend, park and whatever," Aldean asks rhetorically. "I'm a melody nut, melodies and hooks are very key in songs. 'Night Train' has a great one, it's ear candy, but it also talks about things that 99% of people either have done or are currently doing right now. If you've ever been in a relationship, in love with somebody, gone out and, hell, even if you just parked on a road somewhere and looked at the stars, you've done something like that."

Aldean says his album titles reflect where he is in his life and career, "and to me, 'Night Train' was a perfect example of just how far things have come the last few years, going from a bus pulling a trailer to now like a freight train with bus and tractor trailers. The title, more than the song, sums up where we're at right now."

10. 1994 - One of the album's standout tracks, this funky hick-hop blockbuster is a tribute to Joe Diffie and the '90s, urging a girl to "Put a little third rock in your hip-hop, I got that." This one is pure fun, a rarity for Aldean, and represents the blending of hip-hop to country like no other song before it. "The only thing I was ever really concerned about with that song was having a lot of our younger fan base not really getting it, because of it being '94 and it making reference to some of his song titles," says Aldean. "I was a junior in high school in '94, and Joe Diffie was huge, man. For people that don't remember '94, they may not get it, but he was a big star, and that was my main thing, wanting to make sure that people understood the song. There may be some younger fans that have to do some research and figure out who Joe Diffie is, but obviously people in the business know he's a great singer and one of the best vocalists we've had in this town in years. I remember all those songs, it was a song on the record for us to cut loose with, have fun, not be so serious, and break up the record a little bit."

'Hey, Joe Diffie!' Aldean Gives '90s Star a Shout

11. Staring at the Sun - The albums most notable ballad and powerful vocal, with the great line, "She gets under your skin like a tattoo," a wah-wah guitar solo, and nostalgic feel. "Again, I'm a melody freak, I think that melodies on songs like that kind of set the song up," says Aldean. "When you have a killer melody and a killer lyric to go along with it, that just makes all the difference. 'She gets under your skin like a tattoo,' what a great line, the first time I heard it I was hooked. We didn't cut it the first time [in the studio], and I was kicking myself, because I thought it was better than some of the things we had cut. So when we decided to go back in and cut four songs, I went in to the label and Michael and said, 'alright, I talked myself out of cutting this the first time around, and I'm kicking myself for it, so we're cutting it.' And it turned out to be a monster, so at this point it's probably my favorite song on the album."

12. Drink One For Me - A sterling mid-tempo that really captures the isolation of leaving home, making sacrifices, and missing friends and loved ones. "To me, the appeal to that song was me moving to Nashville, moving away from all my friends, starting my new life," Aldean says. "I'd call home, and all those guys would be hanging out, and I'd be sitting in my apartment by myself, writing songs and doing my thing. This was a song that took me back to that period in my life, remembering that feeling of 'I wish I was there with ya'll, have fun, drink one for me.' That kind of summed it up.

13. Black Tears - The album's riskiest cut, a stripper ballad with drug references and a non-judgmental stance about a girl who became the "Wrong kind of famous in her Mama's eyes." Knox's production is superb. "I hope people actually listen to the song, listen to the lyrics, listen to what the song's saying," says Aldean. "If they think, 'that song's about a stripper, I can't listen to this,' they're going to completely miss the idea of what the song's about. Honestly, I think it's one of the most well-written songs on the record. Like 'Dirt Road Anthem' and songs like that, it allows us to branch off in a different direction and try something new."

14. Walking Away - A mid-tempo ballad with a great lyric, and another strong Aldean vocal. It's about a guy warning a girl that maybe-probably-he's not the right guy for her. "That song is what a lot of guys probably should say to girls if the girl's into them or whatever, 'I'm gonna save you some trouble here and give you a heads up: you do not wanna hang out with me. You are hot, and I'm all about it, but you're probably not gonna like me tomorrow.' That's what that song's about, 'if you knew what was good for you, you wouldn't be hanging around very much," Aldean explains. "It's probably what guys should say to girls but don't, so a girl would probably appreciate a guy telling them that. As a father, I can appreciate it."

15. Water Tower - The album closer is a contemplative ballad about missing home. "That song is about Macon, Georgia, to me," says Aldean. "It's about me growing up in that town and wanting to get out and pursue this dream of being a singer, spending so much time working on that, and trying to get outtta there and be successful in the music business. Once that started to happen, all I wanna do is go back and hang out there now. That's kinda how it is for me. There's certain things I see on the way home that remind me, 'I'm back in my spot. Whether it's a street sign, a store, whatever it is, when I see it, it's, 'I'm back, I'm back to my place, where I'm comfortable.' It's home.

Questions? Comments? Let us know: @billboard

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