It’s the first in a series of daylong interviews for Jason Aldean and the not fully awake yet singer settles into a chair in a photography studio south of downtown Nashville. He’s in a black button-down and jeans, with his signature Resistol cowboy hat resting on the floor next to him. Most importantly, he’s wearing boots — in this case, camouflage hunting boots with an athletic sole — which serve as both the theme and title of his sixth album, Old Boots, New Dirt. Released today, it is Aldean’s sixth studio project and its lead single, “Burnin’ It Down,” has already gone Number One.
“I knew it was going to get people’s attention, whether they loved it or hated it,” Aldean says of the steamy ballad, a countrified attempt at Barry White sultriness. “I knew they’d be talking about it, and that’s what I wanted. But to put all that aside, I think the song is great. It’s a hit and it’s allowed us to do something different, which I like to do on every record. Something kind of weird and out there, and not what you’d expect.”
But it’s far from Jason Aldean’s Slow Jams for the Boudoir. Old Boots, New Dirt‘s 15 tracks — reflective of the as-many-songs-as-you-can-fit business model of his label, Broken Bow Records — also include the rock-tinged anthems that have made Aldean the face of new country. Especially in a live setting, he is as much Bon Jovi as he is Bocephus. Garth Brooks recently referred to the Georgia native’s sound as “muscle country.”
“It definitely was a compliment,” Aldean acknowledges, “but on the flip side of that I don’t like to label things: bro country, bra country, whatever. To me, it’s country music and everybody has their own version of what that is. That’s how I look at it. So whenever I see terms like that, it’s kind of like [rolls eyes]. But it was meant as a compliment from him, so I didn’t take that bad at all…. The fact that what we’ve done over the years has gotten somebody’s attention like [Garth] who has really changed the game for everybody, that’s pretty impressive. And definitely made me feel really good about me and my career.”
As did the response to “Burnin’ It Down,” which, while blasphemous to the online defenders of traditional country, nonetheless scored Aldean his first-ever Number One on Billboard‘s all-genre Digital Songs chart. But while Aldean took creative leaps on Old Boots, New Dirt, he stops short of saying he was actively trying to reinvent his sound.
“I don’t necessarily know if ‘reinventing’ is the right term. I do what I do. It’s what comes natural. It’s what I enjoy doing. So I think every album that I make, it has that country-rock, muscle country, whatever, vibe. But that’s because those are the instrumentations I like. I like the big guitars with distortion. I like [having] a bass player who almost plays lead. When me and my band get in there, that’s the stuff that works. I think that’s a lot of what makes us sound different.”
To be sure, tracks like album opener “Just Gettin’ Started,” with its plunking, atmospheric intro, and “Sweet Little Somethin’,” which merges a club beat with the loud guitars Aldean favors, stand out as new territory for the artist. The slippery slope of such songs — songs that are distinguished by unique production or musical stylings — however, is that the vocal performance can often be overlooked.
It’s something of which Aldean (a two-time ACM Male Vocalist winner who voiced his frustration over being snubbed by the CMA Awards when nominations were announced in September) is keenly aware. As such, Old Boots, New Dirt has two tracks, the yearning “Too Fast” and the twangy “Two Night Town,” that showcase Aldean the singer. He is especially excited by the former, co-written by Chris Stapleton [Luke Bryan’s “Drink a Beer”], and hopes to release it as a single.
“It’s hard to show off your vocal ability when you’re singing a song like ‘Dirt Road Anthem’ or ‘My Kinda Party,'” he admits. “So every once in a while songs like ‘See You When I See You’ [from 2010’s My Kinda Party] or ‘Too Fast’ will come along where it’s these soulful melodies that you can let [your voice] go and put it out there. It lets people see a side of you that maybe they didn’t know you had or they don’t get to hear that much.”
One of country’s more guarded stars, Aldean seems finally ready to open up — at least musically.
“I want to show people that we can go play the big rock stuff and the hip-hop-infused stuff, but I’m also a vocalist,” he says, circling back to the idea of not fixing what isn’t broken.
“Our formula is the same thing; I’m not trying to go out and reinvent myself every album. For the most part, I want to find great songs, put our spin on it, try new things and see what happens.”