NASHVILLE (Billboard) - 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 s--- 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."
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."
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."
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."
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 s---."
Three singles in, everyone on Team Aldean believes "Party" has a lot of legs left.
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."
Editing by Chris Michaud)