hatever its original purpose, the out-building at Jason Aldean’s sprawling slice of Tennessee heaven south of Nashville is now more bar than barn. And given the wealth of Georgia Bulldog memorabilia, music posters both vintage and contemporary, and various diversions throughout the structure, it’s surely a place where he feels comfortable as Team Aldean tees up his fifth album, “Night Train”, due Oct. 16.
Call it the calm between the storms. “This has been a year of trying to wrap my head around what’s going on,” Aldean says. Hatless and wearing a faded Foo Fighters T-shirt, Aldean is clearly relishing some time off in the midst of his mega-selling tour. “Last year kind of took us by storm. We felt like we had a great record [in My Kinda Party], we felt like we had some big hits on it, but I don’t think any of us expected things to explode like they did. And when we went out and started not only selling out dates, but selling them out way in advance, we knew something was going on that was really cool.”
As the leader of a bona fide country scene, Aldean has moved from well-planned artist development success story to superstar status with remarkable speed. Fourth album “My Kinda Party” is flirting with triple-platinum status at 2.7 million units sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and spent 12 weeks atop Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart as the best-selling country set of 2011. On the road, Aldean is selling out high-capacity venues in advance, already at nearly 800,000 tickets sold, according to Billboard Boxscore, and topping a debut headlining year in 2011 that earned him the Breakthrough Award at the Billboard Touring Awards last November.
The spark was smoldering, and it ignited when “Dirt Road Anthem” was released in April 2011. “I went on vacation and ‘Dirt Road Anthem’ came out, and when I came back things were just crazy,” Aldean recalls, shaking his head. “You work for something for six, seven years, and all of a sudden in a matter of monthsâÃ’Â€¦ it was ridiculous. It took a little getting used to.”
“Night Train” — arriving on Nashville indie label Broken Bow Records, which signed Aldean to a seven-album deal in 2003 — shows all indications of continuing Aldean’s upward trajectory. Produced once again by Michael Knox, the album will no doubt please Aldean’s legions of fans, as lead single “Take a Little Ride” steadily marches toward the top 10 on the Hot Country Songs chart after Aldean’s highest debut to date.
Suddenly, 14 years after he moved to Nashville, an artist that frequently dealt with rejection back in the day is arguably the hottest male act in country music. Producer Knox, an early believer whose profile has risen in tandem with Aldean’s, hates to say I told you so…a little. “I was trying to get Jason a record deal for five years, and everybody I’d meet with would say, ‘He ain’t the best singer,’ or ‘He don’t look the best,’ or ‘His songs ain’t the best,'” Knox recalls. “And I remember sitting down at one of our later meetings and saying, ‘You know, he might not be the best at everything, but when you put what he does together, that’s what makes him the best.’ Those elements, nobody can do them at a higher level than him in one unit.”
Chris Parr from Aldean’s management team at Spalding Entertainment says the artist is a little bit “old school” when it comes to making a record, yet remains as current as it gets in the overall approach. “We’re completely active with his young fan base, very active in social and digital and all that stuff-we live in that-but when he goes to make a record, he approaches it in the old-school way, as an album project,” Parr says, adding that such an approach makes the albums longer and deeper. “We have that advantage with these projects where there’s a lot of depth to them and we can keep going at them, yet we’re not doing the same thing over and over. It’s showing the different facets to the diamond.”
With that analogy, “Night Train” is multi-faceted, packed with what have become signature Aldean calling cards in pounding midtempos, smoldering ballads and rowdy party soundtracks. Having broken country/hip-hop ground so successfully with “Dirt Road Anthem,” Night Train memorably features rap elements during “The Only Way I Know,” which includes scene-mates Eric Church and Luke Bryan, and arguably the most downright fun country song to emerge this year, “1994,” which celebrates good times to a soundtrack of ’90s radio hitmaker Joe Diffie.
Elsewhere, Knox and Aldean serve up plenty of their trademark country-meets-arena rock, with the atmospheric ballad “Wheels Rollin’,” along with the pure romance of “Talk” and Aldean favorite “Staring at the Sun.” If there is a common thread in “Night Train”, it’s the one that runs through tracks like “Drink One for Me”: taking stock of life as adulthood settles in, less about nostalgia than the realization that the wilder, younger days have been survived.
Aldean doesn’t disagree. “Everybody does that when you get to be a certain age,” he says. “You’re not a kid anymore, you’re not an old man, you’re caught in the middle, and that’s where I am. If we sit around and talk, I don’t know one person my age that won’t bring up, ‘Man, when we were in high school we did this one night and got caught,’ or ‘I met this girl.’ It’s fun for people to reminisce about good times and things you should have got arrested for.”
“Night Train” also includes some of the pickup truck/drinking/small-town references that some critics claim are overdone in country music today. Aldean shrugs off those criticisms. “I don’t give a shit, I’ll be honest with you,” he says. “The people that hate it, that’s fine, there’s been plenty of records that came out that were huge that I didn’t really like. But I’m not who’s buying the record, so it doesn’t really matter.”
If there is a lot of talk about the country lifestyle on country radio today, well, “how many country singers do you find that are from way up North?” the Macon, Ga., native wonders. “I’ll wait — go ahead. The thing is, if you had a guy from the city singing about pickup trucks, hunting and fishing, whatever, that’s like me singing about being a stockbroker. I sing songs I can relate to.”
But, in the end, “Night Train” is most notable for what Aldean does so well: find a balance among edgy production and alpha male lyrics and unadulterated romance and present it in a way that — live and on record — appeals to both genders. “Alabama — they were the masters of that,” Aldean says. “They could come out with ‘Mountain Music’ or ‘Tennessee River’ and then turn around and come out with ‘Feels So Right.’ Go out and have fun and be those guys that like to party, then turn around and make every woman in America want Randy Owen.”
Aldean says it boils down to believing in the songs. “If you say, ‘I’m going to cut this song because I know the teenagers are going to love it,’ well, then you’re going to alienate everybody else,” he says. “When I cut my record, I’m just going to cut the things that I like, and whoever likes it likes it. That’s too much work to try to figure out the demographic. That’s too much like a business.”
The business of Jason Aldean is robust and growing, which brings new opportunities but also means more is at stake. Still, no one on Team Aldean is complacent, and next year they’re going to take things to the proverbial next level, particularly on the touring front.
Aldean’s touring in 2012 has built on the headlining status established last year, and brings the added bonus to fans of having Luke Bryan onboard as the latter’s career also surges. “Luke could have gone out this year and probably headlined on his own, so the fact that he decided to put it off another year and went out with us helped us out,” Aldean says. “Us and him both having huge years sent everything over the edge, and it has been fun.”
The tour, booked by Kevin Neal, president of Nashville independent agency Buddy Lee Attractions, Aldean’s career-long agent, and promoted by Live Nation Country Music president Brian O’Connell, will wrap in October as one of the biggest country treks of 2012, a year when country fielded more headliners than ever. Not only has Aldean posted huge boxscores in markets like Atlanta ($1.3 million gross, 37,789 attendance, two sellouts), he has also topped the 20,000 attendance mark in places like Cedar Falls, Iowa, and Camden, N.J., and sold out his first stadium show at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, that moved 27,450 tickets.
At these celebratory shows with Bryan, one can truly gauge the fervor of the audience, made up of rural and suburban 20-somethings, equal parts male and female, who know the songs and come to party. Aldean’s shows reflect a lifestyle, and he’s not hopping on an existing musical trend-these fans are digging a sound that hasn’t strayed too far from what Aldean was playing when he first caught Knox’s attention at the Buckboard in Atlanta more than a decade ago.
Aldean is savvy enough to know how cycles run and the value of good timing. “In the music business, especially the country music business, every 10 years or so you’re going to have this changing of the guard, this wave of new artists that comes in,” he says. “It just so happens that we kind of came in at that time, with guys like me and Luke and Eric and Miranda [Lambert] and Blake [Shelton] and Carrie [Underwood] and Taylor [Swift] — a lot of young acts that came out right about the same time. We kind of jumped right in there in the middle of that stuff, and we’re one of the fortunate ones to be able to have a career.”
But Aldean knows building the live thing is the surest path to career longevity, and if there’s a model in that regard, for Aldean it’s Jimmy Buffett. “Here’s a guy that hasn’t had a hit in forever, but he’s a prime example of an artist that went out and basically created a market for himself. And now the guy can go play wherever he wants and sell it out,” Aldean says. “We all know that as far as having radio hits and being on top of the world, it ain’t going to last forever. If you can go out with your live show and turn people on to that, where you have that fan base that’s religious and they’re going to come see you when you’re in that town, once your radio success is gone and you’re not a mainstream guy anymore you can still go out and play your shows.”
At the time “My Kinda Party” was released, there was a mini-movement in country music to release lower-priced “six-packs” of new music. “Strategically, we, with Broken Bow, went completely the other direction,” Parr says. “The value proposition was making it a good price and [releasing] 15 tracks. Maybe we were swimming a little bit upstream, but it paid off, and we’re going to go back to that. We feel we’re giving the fan a great value.”
Aldean hopes fans and the industry alike don’t compare “Night Train” to “My Kinda Party”, commercially or artistically. “I never went in to cut ‘My Kinda Party II’ or say, ‘We’ve got to cut a record that’s going to beat the last record,'” he says. “If you start to try to compare records and beat what you did last time, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”
Aldean points out that when the team went in to cut “Party”, his 2005 album “Wide Open” was his career record at 1.6 million units, according to SoundScan. “I didn’t go in for ‘My Kinda Party’ and say, ‘I got to beat Wide Open.’ We just went and tried to make a great record, and it did what it did on its own,” he says. “When this new album comes out and if it sells, say, a million where the other sold 2.5 million, I wouldn’t consider that a failure by any means. Now, if it comes out and sells 3 million, that’s fine, too.”
The growth of Aldean’s touring business has been a critical component of his career, and the team will up the ante next year. “We’re going to put him in some different kinds of venues next year, places you wouldn’t expect,” Spalding Entertainment president Clarence Spalding says. “It’s been a long journey, but what we want to do is make sure that we can keep building.”
One area where they won’t push the envelope is with ticket prices, typical of the genre as a whole and no small reason for its success. “The worst thing we could do is overprice our tickets,” Spalding says. “We’re leaving a lot of money on the table, and that’s Jason Aldean’s choice. It’s something we talk about constantly, making sure those ticket prices are at a level where, if you want to come to a Jason Aldean show, you can. You might not be able to sit in the front row, but you can darn sure attend this show.”
Ticket prices for Aldean’s shows range from $30 on the low end to around $65 on the upper end. “We are sensitive to [pricing]. We want to keep bringing people into the tent and that’s a great way to do it,” Parr says. “It’s a little frustrating when you see scalpers taking the margin there, because we’re selling the shows out so fast, but we’re taking measures to address that any way we can without making fans have to jump through a bunch of hoops. I don’t know if there’s a silver bullet for that yet, but we’re keenly aware of it and we want to put more tickets at face value in the real fans’ hands, because that’s going to help Jason have a long career.”
‘HAT ACTS’ ARE COOL
The numbers don’t lie, and the rest of the world is figuring out something is going on here. “The media centers on the left and right coasts are just now grasping how strong the Jason Aldean brand is,” Parr says. “All you really have to say to them is, ‘Come out and see a show,’ and that’s when that light bulb goes off with brand partners, a lot of the retail partners, our friends in radio who are out there on a market-by-market basis. There’s no replacement for that, and that’s all Jason Aldean, that’s him driving that train.”
As Aldean continues to post figures that would be enviable for any genre, asked if country music gets the respect in the general music market that its numbers would seem to warrant, Aldean replies, “You tell me. Watch an awards show and see how many pop awards are given out versus how many country awards are given out. Then take any of those acts and take some of us over here in the country music world and put us head to head, and go off of numbers. Well, you be the judge of that.”
Pressed as to why that situation exists, Aldean says, “I honestly don’t know. When you look at the music business, country music has always seemed like the stepchild, almost an afterthought. We’re this underdog deal that nobody pays a lot of attention to, doing better numbers than 95% of the artists they’ve got out there working.”
Other than Swift, Aldean points out that country doesn’t have a lot of “media darlings,” as he puts it. “Then you’ve got Katy Perry. Every time she sneezes somebody’s there to write a story about it, or Rihanna or any of those [pop] people, and it’s just not like that in country music,” he says. “I guess it’s because all that stuff’s in L.A. and they’re out there in that world a little bit, and we’re down here in the South kind of doing our own thing. It’s funny. I don’t think the music business in general has ever given country music the props that it deserves.”
But things are just fine within the world of country music, which next year will again see more contemporary country headliners. All of this heat from younger acts gives country a “shot in the arm,” Aldean says.
“As much as I am still a fan and have huge respect for the guys that came before I did and paved the way for me, from a fan’s standpoint, It’s always exciting for them when there’s a new generation that hits, because it’s new,” he says. “It’s like getting a new car-you’re excited for the first year, then you quit washing it. You still like it, but it’s not as awesome as it was when you first got it. It’s exciting now [in country] because there’s some new blood — it creates an atmosphere for country music fans. They haven’t watched us play for 15 years, it’s their deal. Every generation is going to have that, and that’s us right now, which is fun to be a part of.”
There’s no doubt Aldean is indeed a big part of it, but situated among the peaceful hills of Tennessee, platinum albums and sold-out crowds might seem miles away. Still, Aldean says he can feel it “out here,” too, “because without all that stuff, I wouldn’t have any of this,” he says, gesturing toward his surroundings. “Obviously, the last couple of years have been more than I could have hoped for, but at the same time I feel like I worked my butt off to get to this point too. I’m not saying I deserve it, but I’m definitely enjoying it, and not taking it for granted. I can sit here and say it was not by any means handed to me. I went out and worked my ass off for it. And there’s a lot of guys that do that. We just happen to be one of the lucky ones that it did pay off for, and hopefully it’s something that I can do as long as I want to.”