At this moment, anyway, Aldean -- temporarily hatless and tucked into a back room of a Nashville restaurant, sipping coffee -- hardly looks the part of that much older and more storied country cliche, the outlaw. But everything he does, he does on his terms.
That includes setting the template for that crop of rock-worshiping, truck-polishing "bros" -- among them Luke Bryan, a close pal, and Florida Georgia Line, his opening act this summer -- something you can trace back to his 2005 self-titled debut, which has sold 1.4 million copies (according to Nielsen SoundScan) and established power chords as a country radio staple, or 2010's triple-platinum My Kinda Party, which brought rap into the fold with "Dirt Road Anthem." It also means indulging his irascible, unsmiling tendencies at a time when many of his peers come off like grinning party acts.
"One of my best friends in the world is Luke [Bryan]. He can flash those teeth like that," Aldean says, snapping his fingers, "and he walks around smiling all the time. I'm the complete opposite. We'll do a photo shoot and I'll look at all the ones of me smiling and I'll just move them to the side, like, 'Those are out.'" Hesitant to concede that even a moment's self-consciousness goes into his persona, he quickly adds: "I hope people feel like what you see is what you get with me. I don't try to be something I'm not. It's too much work to try to be something else."
Calculated or not, those inclinations have made Aldean one of country's biggest male stars today. His most recent single, "Burnin' It Down," is holding steady at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart for an eighth consecutive week, and his sixth album, Old Boots, New Dirt, out Oct. 7, will surely be among this year's top bows. (His previous effort, 2012's Night Train, sold 409,000 copies in its first week, topping out at 1.6 million.)
And it comes hot on the heels of a massive summer tour that included five stadium dates, where he played to sellout crowds of as many as 40,000 fans and grossed nearly $13 million, a game-changing run that helped make this year the strongest one for stadium shows in a decade, according to Boxscore.
But even as Aldean extends his dominance, his domain grows more crowded. "It's the curse of Nashville," he says. "Luke has become a major star here in the last couple of years, and it seems like every damn artist who comes out now has got a damn baseball cap on or a hat turned around backward, trying to cop his vibe. Florida Georgia Line is killing it right now -- and the next thing you’re going to see is a bunch of duos coming out, all tatted up."
Aldean knows the feeling well: "In my case, when 'Hicktown' [his 2005 debut single] came out, there was really nothing like that out there. People saw a hat act that comes out and looks like a country singer, but it's straight rock stuff -- well, then there's a wave of that stuff. If the people that run the record business in Nashville find something that works, they will run it into the ground."
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Aldean has managed to stand apart with his reluctance to glad-hand. His lack of effusive cheerfulness may cost him award nominations -- he didn't get a single nod for this year's Country Music Association Awards, which inspired his similarly fiery father to pen a Facebook post condemning the CMAs as "a farce." But his half-sensitive, half-surly, all-smoldering persona appeals to both male and female country fans eager for a star who doesn't seem desperate to be embraced.
When Michael Knox, 47, a song-publishing player and Aldean’s longtime producer, discovered Aldean in 1998 at a talent show in Macon, Ga., the singer was a 21-year-old kid who "had his shirt tucked in and was a little more '90s country-looking." Still, the Music Row veteran (who had gone to visit his mother in her hometown, and went to a local talent show on a whim) was transfixed.
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"He would do Alabama, Tracy Lawrence, Merle Haggard, 'Behind Closed Doors' -- and then he would do Guns N' Roses," Knox remembers. "I had been looking for five years for an arena-country guy -- we hadn't had one since Garth Brooks -- who could take a heavy-metal kind of approach and really blow it out. But he had to be a real country boy for it to work. And I knew he could pull that off. Jason was a small-town American guy, red, white and blue, and he didn't want to be anything but country. He could just sing other things."
It wasn't only heavy guitars that influenced Aldean. The rock attitude (and imbibing) that defined the late '80s and early '90s inspired him just as much. "I grew up on Guns N' Roses and those guys who were really badass when they played a show," he recalls. "They were stoned or drunk out of their minds onstage, but still just killing it. I remember seeing [GNR] at the American Music Awards drunk out of their minds, accepting an award, cussing all over the place because they were destroyed. I'm not saying that those were the guys that I strived to be, but those were the guys that I grew up watching."
Aldean's parents divorced when he was 3. He spent summers with his father, Barry Williams, a federal worker who played a lot of George Jones and Eagles, and his younger half-sister. (Jason took his stage moniker from Williams' middle name, Aldine.) His mom, Debbie, also worked for the government, and played bingo at the VFW hall where 14-year-old Aldean took the stage for the first time.
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Within a few years, Aldean was driving a Pepsi truck by day and headlining Macon's top club, Whiskey River, by night. Although he didn't see himself as a songwriter, Knox convinced him to sign a publishing deal as a way to get to Nashville.
In 2001, Aldean wed childhood sweetheart Jessica Ussery, with whom he has two daughters -- Keeley, 11, and Kendyl, 6 -- and started working with a rugged band that Knox put together for his showcases. Many false starts and failed record deals later (with Capitol Nashville signing and dropping him along the way), Aldean hooked up with Broken Bow and clicked with a series of singles co-written by John Rich of Big & Rich.
Aldean made good use of the hard-rock sound that Big & Rich had introduced to country radio, but his songs steered away from that duo's tongue-in-cheek lyrics in favor of more serious tributes to small-town living. "It really wasn't until the Wide Open album [in 2009], when 'She's Country' hit, that I realized, 'All right, I may not have to go back to working at Pepsi,'" Aldean says.
Aldean sparked his first (and only) celebrity scandal in September of 2012, when TMZ snapped him kissing 24-year-old American Idol contestant Brittany Kerr in a West Hollywood bar. He quickly issued a public apology and promised to recommit to his 12-year marriage. Seven months later, though, he filed for divorce. Aldean and Kerr went public as a couple at June’s CMT Awards; in July, he Instagrammed a photo of them and her dog backstage. Seeing him back with Kerr, some conservative-minded country fans went off on them through social media.
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Predictably, Aldean has little patience for that kind of moralizing. "It has been two years of this shit -- get over it, already!" he says. "And then when I finally do get enough of it and say something, every newspaper grabs it. And I'm not trying to get in the headlines -- I'm just trying to get people to stop running their mouths."
The negative attention still gets to him. "I'm pretty private, but over the last couple of years I've gotten that taken away from me, which kind of pissed me off. You know, my kids get on there and read all that. I'm not blaming anybody. Obviously, a lot of that stuff is my own deal. But I could go post something on my page right now that says, 'Hey, we just donated $5 million to a children's cancer research center,' and somebody would get on there and go, 'You're an asshole cheater.'"
None of this discouraged Aldean from releasing "Burnin' It Down" -- which features lyrics like "Laying right here naked in my bed" and "Girl, when you want it/ You know that I'm on it" -- in July as the first single from Old Boots, New Dirt. "People in country music, when they think about the fan base, they think about the soccer mom driving her kids to school in the car," Aldean says. "So then it's like, 'Somebody said 'naked' on the radio? Oh, my God. We've got to go to church tonight.' If that is the worst thing that's said on radio or the worst thing that your kids see on TV -- I mean, you see worse stuff than that on the Disney Channel."
Still, some in Aldean's camp privately admit to worrying that releasing such a frankly sexual song would reignite the divorce brouhaha. And it didn't help that it's a midtempo ballad -- "R&B, baby-making music," Aldean calls it -- relying on drum loops, which still make country radio programmers nervous. "It's different from anything that's at country radio," says Broken Bow GM Jon Loba, who concedes that "there were several stakeholders who were very hesitant to release this as the first single."
Naturally, Aldean squashed the protests: "I finally just went, 'This is the single.' I'm in a fortunate position that not a lot of artists get to be in where I can go in there and do that." The huge airplay and sales (more than 1 million downloads sold) of "Burnin' It Down" confirm that this was the right move -- and underline that Aldean's defiant gestures are often what take his success over the top.
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Of course, his new album does cover some familiar ground, from the rock'n'roll-all-night opener, "Just Gettin' Started," to the sorrowful closer, "Two Night Town." Aldean even includes a straight-ahead song about country music's favorite mode of transportation, "If My Truck Could Talk." He's not blowing off the soccer moms and churchgoers; he's just taking the occasional, carefully reckoned risk -- with a clear marketing upside. "I wish a lot more artists had that [power], rather than just being the poster for it all, and everybody else being the decision-makers," Aldean says. "I think it's a little unfair. It has probably cost a lot of artists their careers by doing that. I never wanted to be one of those casualties."
Bold as Aldean might be growing in his work -- from booking stadiums to pushing singles about "lovin' up on you" -- in his personal life, he's becoming even more of the "recluse" that Knox described him as being before the TMZ tail. These days, he likes to stick close to home when he's off the road. He has a newish house in Nashville with a stocked fish pond, and further outside of town, he owns 1,500 wooded acres where he goes to hunt with buddies Bryan and country singer Tyler Farr.
Sometimes, though, Aldean has to venture out like any regular Tennessee suburbanite -- that is to say, without a security detail or any special stealth measures. "If I want to take my daughters to the mall, that's what we're going to do. If me and Brit want to go on a date, I'm not going to say, 'We need to eat dinner at the house, and sneak in the back door of the movie theater.' That's ridiculous." Says Knox: "If somebody walks up and asks for his autograph, he doesn't hesitate. He's kind of like a NASCAR guy -- he'll sign it and keep walking and just say, 'Thank you.' He's not going to stop and talk to them for hours, because for him that's like being trapped in an elevator -- he’d freak out."
In music, Aldean's just fine starting up a debate. "You're going to have your traditional country music fans that think you're completely ruining country music, and you're going to have your new-age fans that love what you're bringing to the table," he says. "I love that. I want you to either despise it or love it. You might as well slap me in the face as say, 'Yeah, it's OK,' about a song of mine. If people say they hate it, as ridiculous as it sounds, at least I know I'm getting a reaction, which is exactly what I want." Whatever complaints you might have about him, his sexy song or how his rock fixation put the word "bro" in front of much of today's "country," those are all things he's happy to burn down, too.