Gearing up to hit the road this fall on his Six String Circus arena tour to introduce fans to his seventh studio album, Aldean is learning the hard way that life at the top of the charts comes with its own set of obstacles. He’s now at a point in his career where he can easily send a single to No. 1 (“Lights Come On,” the first offering from They Don’t Know, became his 15th chart-topper on Billboard’s Country Airplay tally in July), but fame’s increased visibility has come with drawbacks.
After creating a catalog of chart-topping hits, including “Dirt Road Anthem,” “She’s Country” and “Burnin’ It Down,” and building a devoted fan base to become one of the biggest arena artists in country today, Aldean, 39, has had to learn how to navigate an increasingly intrusive media. The first clear signal of his fame came in 2012 when TMZ published photos of him making out in a Sunset Strip bar with American Idol contestant Brittany Kerr. Seven months after the story broke, Aldean filed for divorce from his high-school sweetheart Jessica Ussery. He and Kerr married in 2015.
Perhaps as a result, Aldean has tightened his inner circle. This summer, Kerr and his daughters Keeley, 13, and Kendyl, 9, went on tour with him. “It has been good having Britt out on the road,” he reflects. “It gives her a chance to see the stuff I go through. We’re on the road, and we play music for a living. It’s hard on me. It’s a lot of traveling, not sleeping, working day after day without a day off. She gets to see that. It’s nice to have my partner with me out there. It makes it a lot easier.”
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Controversy reared its head once again during Halloween 2015 when photos of Aldean dressed in blackface as rapper Lil Wayne circulated online. The singer, publicly addressing the situation for the first time, says he just wanted to hang out with friends, found the costume in a store and Kerr, a makeup artist, painted his face so he could go unrecognized in public.
“In this day and age people are so sensitive that no matter what you do, somebody is going to make a big deal out of it,” he says. “Me doing that had zero malicious intent ... I get that race is a touchy subject, but not everybody is that way. Media tends to make a big deal out of things. If that was disrespectful to anyone, I by all means apologize. That was never my intention. It never crossed my mind.”
Even with the fame, in many regards Aldean is still as untamed as the kid his longtime producer Michael Knox first encountered when he discovered him in 1998 at a showcase in Smyrna, Ga., with his cowboy hat slung low, like a bull rider. As an investor in the Jay Z-owned streaming service Tidal, he has vacillated between listening to fans who want to stream music for free and supporting the Nashville songwriters who count on royalty checks to pay the bills. To compromise, for the first month of its release, They Don’t Know will not be offered on any streaming service — only as a digital download and CD.
“This isn’t about me making more money,” he says. “It’s about wanting to stand up for not only myself but for an entire genre of music and an entire town — Nashville. It’s about the writers, publishers, producers, everybody who’s getting the short end of the stick on this deal.”
Sticking up for and representing the little guy is part of what has made Aldean a superstar. It’s why “Lights Come On,” an ode to blue-collar Joes letting loose on a Friday night, including those doing the back-breaking work of putting on a Jason Aldean show nightly, still resonates with fans.
“It’s about honoring the guys who get to the stadium at six in the morning setting up the show and waiting on the fans to get there,” explains Aldean. “It’s what we live to do.” The new album’s title track, meanwhile, pays respect to small-town Americans, whom the singer grew up admiring on the outskirts of Macon, Ga. For Aldean, the song’s message is simple: “Don’t talk down about things you’ve never experienced. I’ve traveled the world, and you go to a place like Los Angeles and people assume you just sit around on a hay bale and live in a trailer. Whenever the South is portrayed in a movie, it’s seldom flattering. It’s a song I could relate to.”
Knox says it’s the singer’s knack for picking songs that personify him, along with his stadium-ready swirl of rock and country, that slots him a cut above the rest. “I’ve never worked with anyone so diverse,” says Knox. “He takes you on a journey of attitude and emotion. He sells it. He’s a freak of nature. That’s why his shows are so exciting.”
Taking risks is just one of the luxuries that ever-rising stardom affords. “When ‘Dirt Road Anthem’ came out, there were a lot of people at the record company and at management who were scared to death of that song,” says Aldean. “ ‘Burnin’ It Down’ made people nervous because it was so pop. But every time we’ve shaken things up like that, it has worked in a big way. I never want to back myself into a corner.”
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 17 issue of Billboard.