Jason Aldean was only a few songs into his headlining set at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas on Sunday night when gunfire began raining down upon the thousands of fans in attendance. At latest count, 58 were killed and more than 500 injured before the gunman, firing from the 32nd floor of the nearby Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, reportedly took his own life.
That Aldean, one of country music’s most popular artists, was onstage at the time of the massacre is eerie in its echoes of previous tragedies that have occurred at concerts at which he was playing. This time, however, it’s on a magnitude no one could possibly fathom.
A bar-band singer from Georgia who once funded his country-star aspirations by driving a Pepsi truck, Aldean came to Nashville in 1998, and after a few career setbacks, established himself as a country-music powerhouse. Working with his longtime producer and mentor Michael Knox, he astutely combined country music with hard rock to create a more muscular Nashville sound with songs like “Hicktown” and “Johnny Cash.” Later, he’d be at the forefront of the country/hip-hop movement with the release of the juggernaut 2011 single “Dirt Road Anthem.”
Loyal to a fault, he’s remained on the independent Nashville label Broken Bow Records since 2005, and with producer Knox. But the singer also weathered his share of public life changes, including a cheating scandal, a divorce and a subsequent new marriage. Which is precisely what endears him as a working-class hero to his fans. They call themselves the “Aldean Army” and continue to purchase tickets to his sold-out tours, making the 40-year-old Aldean one of the genre’s most consistent live draws.
But his time on the road hasn’t been without peril. While other country artists have suffered incidents on the road, namely the deadly collapse of Sugarland’s stage at the Indiana State Fair in 2011, the reigning ACM Entertainer of the Year has been in the orbit of multiple tragedies while on tour.
In May 2014, a man committed suicide by hanging himself in the men’s room of Atlanta’s Lakewood Amphitheater where Aldean was performing. A statement from the Atlanta Police Department to Rolling Stone at the time confirmed the incident, saying a janitor found the man in the bathroom stall with a belt around his neck.
That July, a 22-year-old fan disappeared during Aldean’s concert at Progressive Field in Cleveland. His body was found five days later in a county landfill. It’s presumed he had died after falling down a trash chute at the venue.
Later that summer, a police officer was injured when he was struck by a drunken driver leaving Aldean’s August 3rd show in Connecticut.
And a year earlier, in 2013, Aldean’s bus hit and killed a man who had walked onto an Indiana highway. The driver was not at fault, and Aldean wasn’t onboard the bus at the time.
“I saw some stuff during all that that I don’t ever care to see again,” the singer told Rolling Stone Country in 2014. “It seems like we had a streak of things like that happening to us.”
But, unbelievably, here he is again. Sam Hunt or Eric Church, the other nightly headliners of the three-day festival, could have drawn the Sunday night slot, yet it’s Aldean who is at the center of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. And it is impossible to do anything but sympathize with him and his Aldean Army. Those who survived Route 91 are forever bonded to the everyman artist they see themselves in.
“You want people to come out to your show to enjoy it and everybody to wake up the next day and talk about what a great time they had. You don’t want somebody to come to the show and never make it home,” he said to Rolling Stone in 2014. “Unfortunately that kind of stuff is out of our hands.”