It’s a mild November morning at Jason Aldean’s 130-acre estate an hour south of Nashville and the reigning ACM Entertainer of the Year is sitting at his outside patio bar swatting away bees.
“They aggravate the shit out of me,” mutters Aldean. He’s dressed in a green Guy Harvey T-shirt with mahi-mahi on the back, blue jeans and a baseball hat, and looks more rested and fit than he has in some time. A cup of coffee and a Blu e-cigarette rest on the counter in front of him, both of which he reaches for frequently. A doormat stamped with a giant W – for his surname Williams; Aldean comes from his middle name – lies in front of the sliding door that leads back inside to the den, where his bulldog Bentley lounges by the fireplace and the flat-screen is tuned to South Park.
“I need a damn fly-swatter,” he says, flapping his hand at another bee.
Since releasing his debut album for Broken Bow in 2005, Aldean, 39, has had to become expert at waving away nuisances, both in his professional and personal life. That’s not to say he hasn’t been stung a few times. With his hard rock and hip-hop influenced brand of country music, the Macon, Georgia, native is, to his detractors, the embodiment of how far country has drifted from its roots. His 2011 quadruple platinum mega-hit “Dirt Road Anthem,” with Aldean rapping about swerving like George Jones, was as polarizing as contemporary country songs come.
He’s also not your typical modern-day mannequin star, all handshakes and smiles – Aldean admits he’s more cantankerous than most. “It sounds awful,” he says, “but I’m not a warm and fuzzy kind of guy.”
His rough demeanor didn’t afford him much sympathy then in 2012, when caught up in a love triangle scandal, he became a regular in the tabloids. Aldean and his wife of 12 years divorced in 2013, and the singer married Brittany Kerr in 2015.
But it’s those very trials and criticisms that account for Aldean’s appeal. He is not perfect. Rather, he is everyman, the mirror image of his fans, striving for a better life but stumbling to get there. In that way, though purists will recoil at the suggestion, he’s not unlike Jones – putting his own stamp on songs written by others and stepping in shit in his personal life.
The biggest difference between Aldean and his fan base is clearly visible from this seat at his bar: the castle-like home, the pristine swimming pool, the Range Rover in the garage. Aldean just moved into the home a little less than a year ago and plans to construct an outbuilding that will house his music and sports memorabilia, as well as two bowling lanes. According to Forbes, he made $36.5 million last year, most of it from touring, and remains one of country’s most reliable live draws, selling out Boston’s Fenway Park last summer in less than two hours.
Still, Aldean, who drove a Pepsi truck prior to achieving country stardom (“They’d fire you if they caught you drinking Coke,” he says) doesn’t flaunt his bling. Earlier this morning, spying a Rolling Stone Country journalist, he sprints over from a barn on the property and wrestles open the unwieldy gate to allow him to enter. Later on, he and Kerr hop the house’s fence and hustle into a nearby field, binoculars in hand, to check on a potentially injured deer bedded down by the treeline.
“I’ve never had this,” says Aldean, waving his hand this time not at a bee, but at the spread around him. “So I know how fortunate I am. And I know it can be gone in a second. I don’t want to sound like I’m a guy who always got the bad end of the deal, but nothing’s ever been handed to me easy.”
Instead, he’s sweated for it.
“When I signed with Broken Bow, I knew I already had one strike against me because I was on a small label and that I was going to have to work harder than all these others guys who had all this big money pushing them from these bigger labels,” he says, pausing to take a sip of coffee. “I think that’s a big part of the reason people can relate to me – because I do feel I’m like them.”
You released your self-titled debut album in 2005 on Broken Bow Records. What do you recall most about that time?
I’d been in Nashville since ’98 and I’d had a record deal on Capitol Records and was dropped. I had a lot of things that were promising, but it would kind of go away. A guy would want to sign me to a deal at a record company, and he’d get fired two weeks later before I could even sign. Things like that happened a lot. So it’d been seven years or so of frustration. To finally get a chance to make a record and be on a label, even though it was an independent label at the time, I was excited. Nobody gave us a chance in hell of having success.
You ended up putting Broken Bow on the map. Do you remember who else was signed to the label when you came onboard?
It was Joe Diffie, Elbert West, Joanie Keller, Sherrié Austin and Craig Morgan. They had a couple hits with [Morgan] and they were getting something going. But it was pretty small. You walked in and they had pictures of all the artists in their office there – it was a small wall, you know what I mean? [Laughs] But at the same time, I felt like it was an opportunity for me to go in and be a priority at the label, which is what happened.
What did they see in you that attracted them?
We did a show at the Wildhorse and we invited them out. After the show, [label founder Benny Brown] came back and basically tells me he wants me on the label. Then I didn’t hear anything for about a week, which is torture. Because I had heard that before. I heard guys come up and say, “We want you on the label.” And then you don’t hear anything else. So I was thinking, “Oh, here we go again.” I had already had a deal on Capitol, so I knew how that worked. If they really wanted you, lawyers get involved. So until that started to happen, it was all gibberish to me.
Your debut single on Broken Bow, 2005’s “Hicktown,” went Top 10. What was it about that song that connected with fans?
Capitol had tried to change my whole image. I wore the cowboy hat and boots, like now, but when I got there, it was during a time when boy bands were big … ‘NSync and guys like that. They wanted me to not look like a cowboy. “Don’t wear a hat!” Every time I went onstage to play I was uncomfortable, it didn’t feel natural, it didn’t feel right to me. So the one thing I made sure to stress to Broken Bow was, “This is me, this is what you’re going to get. So leave me alone and let me do my thing.”
“Hicktown” allowed me to come out [as myself]. It was different and more aggressive than anything on the radio at the time. I go back and listen to it and, compared to the stuff we’re doing now, it’s really light … when I put it up against “She’s Country” or “Lights Come On.” But for the time, it was an anthem for a younger generation that maybe wasn’t into a lot of the other, slicker stuff on radio. And there was a changing of the guard of artists at the time. You had me, Miranda [Lambert], Eric Church, Luke [Bryan] – all of us hit at the same time. It was a different sound coming into the genre and I think we were at the forefront of that stuff.
You stumbled a little bit with your second album, 2007’s Relentless. What’s your take on that?
We were coming off three Top 10s [“Hicktown,” Why,” “Amarillo Sky”] and had a Number One with “Why.” We were off and running. I knew we were tapping into something. So how do we keep the momentum going? We had a really cool record and some stuff like “Back in a Cigarette” that was really ahead of its time. The problem was we had a lot of changeover over at my label. A lot of our A&R guys and promotion staff left. I was nervous. But we came out of the box with “Johnny Cash,” which was Top 5 for us, and we’re still cooking – and then we hit “Laughed Till We Cried” and “Relentless.”
There are a couple songs in my career that I just feel like we made the wrong decision on song choice. Not that the songs aren’t good, but it was the wrong decision as far as singles. With “Laughed Till We Cried,” I feel like we missed it. Even though it was a great song and should have been on the record, I don’t think it should have been a single. We had a couple of those on that record.
The title track “Relentless” didn’t crack the Top 10.
It’s my lowest charting single ever. I thought the song was cool, but I felt like we had better songs that really drove the point home as to who I was as an artist. We had a song on that record called “Grown Woman” with Miranda that was killer. We just missed it. And that was at a time for me where I didn’t have as much input on singles as I do now. I’d have to fight a little bit with the label and give in on some stuff to get what I wanted. So at the end of that record, coming off of two songs that just did OK, I was really nervous going into the next album.
But you didn’t have to be. Wide Open, released in 2009, had three Number Ones in a row with “She’s Country,” “Big Green Tractor” and “The Truth.”
We knew there was something cool about that record when we went in. There was a feeling around that record that we didn’t have with Relentless.
Tell us about “The Truth,” written by Ashley Monroe and Brett James. It was a stone-cold country ballad.
That was one of those that I had to fight for. The label wanted “Crazy Town” to be the single, which was not necessarily my first pick, or second pick or third pick. But to get “The Truth” to be a single, I had to agree, “OK, we’ll put ‘Crazy Town’ out.” But we were starting to stack them up: “She’s Country,” “Tractor,” “The Truth” … Number Ones. And “Crazy Town” was Top 5. Shit was starting to clip on all cylinders then. That’s when it started to get fun for me. And then we went into the My Kinda Party record.
Which went triple platinum and was named Album of the Year at the CMA Awards. It also featured your biggest-selling single, “Dirt Road Anthem.” Did the success of that song and album raise expectations for what was to come?
Oh, for sure. But I think it’s a blessing in the fact that every artist wants that one thing where, at the end of your career, you can look back and go, “That was my mark. That was my Thriller.” [Laughs]
For us, “Dirt Road” was such a different kind of song. I’m proud of the fact that we were able to come in and [experiment with R&B and hip-hop]. All of a sudden, everybody else was looking around going, “OK, it’s cool to do that stuff.” You’ve seen it a lot with Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt. We led the charge. [My Kinda Party] was kind of a perfect record for me. It had “My Kinda Party” on it, which was the aggressive rock sounding stuff that I love. It had “Dirt Road,” which was really different and something that hadn’t been heard on country radio before. And the big duet [“Don’t You Wanna Stay”] with Kelly [Clarkson]. We got nominated for a Grammy for that thing.
My Kinda Party had an anthem for rural and Middle America, “Flyover States,” that feels especially timely today. You told us back in September that the folks you sing about in that song are “stereotyped.” Do you think they’re marginalized? They played a big role in the presidential election.
The common man is highly underestimated. I heard a lady say it on the news the other day. She’s talking about Trump speaking to people who made under 60 grand a year. And she’s in New York, and she says, “To be honest, I don’t even know anybody that makes under 60 grand a year.” No offense, but that’s where I came from. And that’s the issue. The common person out there, the everyday guy who is going to work and wanting a normal life for his family, he doesn’t work on Wall Street … that guy still has a voice. And there is a lot of them out there who feel like they’re forgotten about.
When it comes to elections, anybody just wants to feel like they’re being heard, no matter who you are. You saw that in a huge way this time around. Trump, like the guy or not, he was out there busting his butt on the campaign trail, talking to these people and putting it in laymen’s terms for them, listening to what they had to say. He wasn’t just focusing on the big companies and the big cities. He was digging in to the heartland of America. You saw those people come out in a big way to support that because they want to feel like they have a voice too. He shocked the world with that.
Did you vote?
I did not vote this year because we just moved and I wasn’t registered in this county. Trust me, I wanted to. This is the first year I