Days before embarking on a critical run of amphitheater shows that will solidify his major-league touring status, Jason Aldean shows no signs of stress. Why should he? He's out in the barn -- his "man cave"-- at home, south of Nashville. Aldean is confident and relaxed -- though not quite as chill as his Georgia bulldog, Athens. Still, Aldean has shown a bulldog's determination in pursuing a still-rising career. Though it resides somewhat below the radar of the mainstream music industry, a case can be made that Jason Aldine Williams is the hottest male star in country music.
He's signed to Nashville independent label Broken Bow, and four albums in, Aldean has racked up 11 top 10 singles on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart (including five No. 1s), and his third single from current album "My Kinda Party," the boundary-pushing "Dirt Road Anthem," is rising quickly up the charts. Previous single "Don't You Wanna Stay," a duet with Kelly Clarkson, is now making noise on the Adult Top 40 chart, a rare crossover for a male country artist.
All four of his Broken Bow records have cracked the top 10 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart‹"Party" spent eight weeks there. Aldean has sold nearly 5 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, along with 10.5 million digital tracks. But the best heat indicator is Aldean's box-office success. In the most competitive year in memory for contemporary country music headliners, Aldean, booked by Buddy Lee Attractions and promoted this year by Live Nation, is blowing out shows all over the place in 20,000-capacity venues.
Aldean's growth during the past six years has been steady and sure, but prior to that the going was tough. After signing a songwriter deal with Warner/Chappell in 1998 (giving up his Pepsi delivery-truck gig in the process), Aldean moved to Nashville that fall. But, even with what must have felt like an endless parade of showcases, label after label either passed outright or failed to bring a deal home for Aldean. It was downright scary for the Macon, Ga., native: He had a wife and new baby daughter to support.
"It was like, 'Yeah, we love it, let's talk, we'll come see some more shows,' but nobody ever pulled the trigger," he says. "I'm not somebody that gives up . . . easily, but it was getting to the point where, not that I didn't think it was going to work, I just didn't know what else to do. You start thinking about, 'What else can I do?' This was my backup plan."
Being called "humble" is de rigueur for a country artist, but manager Clarence Spalding of Spalding Entertainment (Spalding's Chris Parr handles Aldean day to day) says Aldean found humility the hard way. "He's had the shit beat out of him," Spalding says. "He almost packed his bags and went back to Georgia. And without Benny Brown he would have been there."
Broken Bow owner Benny Brown is plain-spoken. An entrepreneur. He's successfully added record labels and publishing to his other business endeavors, which include a string of California-based car dealerships. When Aldean came to Brown's attention in 2003, Craig Morgan was the top artist at Broken Bow. Brown wanted to see Aldean showcase in front of "regular country fans." It was set up at Nashville's Wildhorse Saloon. "After it was over, I told some of my staff, 'This kid has something special. I think I'll sign him,' " Brown recalls. "Everybody thought I was crazy."
The circumstances surrounding Broken Bow signing Aldean to a seven-album deal were unusual, to say the least. Though he'd been playing music since he was 14, Aldean was, for country fans, a brand-new artist, steadfastly committed to an unproven producer in Michael Knox and sporting a rock-tinged sound. And he wanted to use his road band on the record. Brown and Broken Bow's approach with Aldean "took huge balls," Spalding says. "Think about it: 'We're gonna sign this kid, we've got a guy over here who's not a proven producer, and, hey, let's take his road band in to record with him.' It wouldn't have happened anywhere else like that."
Broken Bow then did the drill: introduced Aldean to country radio. "As an independent with a new artist, you kind of take what's given to you, which meant . . . doing a lot of free shows to promote their stations and the songs," Broken Bow senior VP of operations Rick Shedd says. "It was a long, hard battle to moving up the charts, like it is for a lot of companies."
But 12 weeks after Aldean's debut set was released (July 2005) Broken Bow had its first gold album with Aldean, driven by debut single "Hicktown." Though the song peaked at No. 10 on Hot Country Songs, its mud-slinging, hell-raising video cast the die for Aldean's sound -- and his fans. The song "was a polarizing single, different from what was going on at the time," Shedd says. "But when people . . . were turned on by it, it sold a lot of records. It set the tone."
A key cog in the machine has been distributor RED, which, though traditionally more active in non-country genres, has a history with country dating back to Kenny Chesney's debut on Capricorn in 1994. Broken Bow began working with RED in 2003 when Morgan's first record came out.
"They made a compelling argument as to why they could handle the country business, and as Broken Bow grew, they grew with us," Shedd says. "They came with stronger sales reps and more aggressive marketing so they could service our needs, and it has continued with the growth of digital. When the digital thing started taking off, they had one person in place. Now they have 15."
RED senior VP of product development Alan Becker says, "With Broken Bow we saw this fierce determination." He adds that RED works closely with the label on "every important initiative," including digital/mobile marketing through RED's digital marketing division, Stache Media.
Aldean's self-titled debut album has moved 1.4 million copies, and follow-up "Relentless" is at 829,000, according to SoundScan. His "Wide Open" album, on the strength of mega-hit "She's Country," went platinum, and "Party" is heading into double-platinum territory. "If you ship too many albums out into the marketplace and they don't sell, retailers are quick to return them and you have to buy them back," Brown says. "Our rate of return on Jason has been exceptional; almost zero."
Brown says that prior to launching Broken Bow in 1999, he had invested in other artist development projects. "I found out quickly that by the time the label got through recouping everything there wasn't a whole lot left for the artist," he says. "So when I came up with the model for Broken Bow, I said, 'If we're going to do this thing, it's going to be without greed in mind.' With Jason we did a very fair contract, and consequently even his business manager said [he'd] never seen an artist that started getting royalties from almost day one."
For Spalding, who worked with Brooks & Dunn for the length of the duo's 20-year career and has added Rascal Flatts to his firm, working with an independent has its advantages.
"I don't hear, 'I've got to check with business affairs,' " he says. "For a manager, the worst words you can hear is, 'I've got to check with business affairs,' which means, what, three weeks? It slows down the process, and I understand why. But with Broken Bow, Benny owns it, he runs it, and for us it's been fantastic."
Shedd says the chain of command is simple at Broken Bow. "Benny is the decider. The company is completely funded by Benny. We have no partners. Everything is up to him," Shedd says. "We bring things to Benny . . . 'This is what it's going to cost, this is what the benefits are going to be' -- and, boom, it's done."
Spalding sees more big wins in the future for Brown and company. "Jason is their first breakthrough act," he says. "I think they're going to have a lot of others."
THE SOUND: COUNTRY ROCK
Knox and Aldean honed their patented country/arena rock sound to perfection and were ready to push the envelope. The debut release's title track was pretty much in the Aldean zone, but then came the Clarkson duet, an edgy power ballad, then "Dirt Road Anthem," with a sort of rap by Aldean that demands attention.
"Coming off a big record with three No. 1s, we'd established ourselves enough to say, 'OK, now we're going to hit you with something completely unexpected,' " Aldean says. "I love when I think people think they have me figured out, to come with something different. We're always going to try . . . stuff that's different from what other people are doing."
Aldean relies on "gut instinct." "When I hear something like 'Dirt Road Anthem,' I think, 'Yeah, that's different, but I'd go buy that record.' Once we got locked in on how we wanted to do it, there wasn't any hesitation."
Taking on a duet alongside a vocalist with the chops of Clarkson would also be daunting for many singers. "I was like, ŒOK, she's obviously going to make me look bad on this song, period, so just get over that and sing it your way,' " he says. "I went in and did my thing, and . . . when she started singing with me our voices blended so well. It was just one of those things you can't predict."
Four albums in, Aldean knows what he's looking for in terms of sound, and with more than 1,000 shows under his belt, he and the band, with Knox, have the sound on lock. In short, it sounds like a band, not just a singer with backing studio musicians.
"Everybody knows some of these studio guys are the best in the business; technically they're flawless," Aldean says. "But to me some of the flaws, some of the things that aren't clean, are what makes it cool, because . . . it's a little bit raw. It's . . . maybe a very, very good garage band . . . I think that's why it's appealing to people. It's believable. It's real."
Kevin Neal, president of independent Nashville agency Buddy Lee Attractions and Aldean's agent, met the country artist when he was 18 and signed him around the time of the Broken Bow deal. "He is a live act," Neal says. "He's had that for as long as I've known him. Whenever he did a show it was always there. A lot of record companies were either afraid of it or didn't get it.
Or it didn't fit within their box."
Building his live fan base has been a more steady, if continuously upward, progression. This was a plan Aldean bought into. "Jason believed in the long-term plan," Neal says. "I told him, 'Here's what I think an artist should do, and very few do it: Play areas where there's major radio and . . . develop a following. When the single comes out, they'll know who you are and maybe it'll help get you added to the station earlier.' He said, 'Fine, start booking me.' "
The climb, according to Spalding, was dictated by the market. "We wanted him to grow at a natural pace, not even a slow pace or a fast pace, but what was natural to the progression of selling records and having hit singles, and what we were seeing out there in those secondary [and] tertiary markets," he says.
Another key element is pricing. "You don't go out and just grab the money, you develop the career, have people buy a ticket . . . $10 or $15, then you slowly escalate the money," Neal says. "After 'She's Country,' things really started to take off, [and] at the end of our CMT tour [with Lady Antebellum in 2008] you could see the numbers growing. Jason called me that year about pricing and said, ŒI'd rather have 5,000 people at $20-$25 than 1,500 at $30.' "
With a top ticket price of about $45, Aldean is moving tickets like few artists on the road, and the show is bigger on all levels. "We're able to go out now and build the kind of show that four years ago we weren't able to," Aldean says. "Now we're able to go out and I can make a show look and sound the way -- if I was a fan -- I'd want to see."
Given the ticket counts, it's easy to forget that these are Aldean's first headlining dates in the big rooms. "There's always a risk when you go from playing 8,000- to 10,000-seat buildings to playing 25,000-seat buildings," says Brian O'Connell, president of Live Nation's country division. "But this year, we're out there dead-on competing in some of these major markets with 14 acts over the course of a 12-month period."
But it was time for Aldean to make the move. "There was no way around it," Spalding says. "We did such good business last year that we were growing at the natural pace."
Spalding reels off the numbers: 16,000 in Dallas; 19,000 in St. Louis; 24,000 in Indianapolis; 21,000 in Washington, D.C.; 20,000 in Hartford, Conn. And he's selling out in advance.
"I had a great run with Brooks & Dunn," Spalding says. "But I don't believe we ever in their history sold out the amphitheaters a week in advance. A week in advance? In an amphitheater? If it were freaking [Lady] Gaga you'd have it on the cover of Billboard. I'm over here with one of the healthiest things alive in the business."
O'Connell says that all involved were confident. But, still, at this level? "If any of us tell you we said we thought we would do 20,000 tickets on a Sunday night in Hartford, Conn.," he says, "you could call us all liars. It took Aldean seven years to get to this point. There are acts from time to time that don't wait seven minutes before they think they're headliners. Jason has put in the work."
After pushing the boundaries on "Party," Aldean's not sure what comes next. "The album takes shape with whatever songs you get," he says. "If you ain't got the songs, you ain't got shit."
Three singles in, everyone on Team Aldean believes "Party" has a lot of legs left. "We could go probably seven singles deep and have hits," Brown says. "At the same time, if the album sales start dropping off too much, we'll have the next album. We're already looking for songs and preparing for it. We'll just let the market decide."
Whatever comes next, a conversation with Aldean makes it clear that he's going to come hard. "I'm a competitor," he says. "I'm not going to lie: If I get nominated for an award, I want to win. I'm not pissed when I don't, but this whole 'I'm just glad to be here' spiel? Not me. I'm glad to be there, but I'm there for a reason."