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Entertainment News

Sunday, 22 July, 2007 2:18 PM

Jason Aldean: A Year To Remember

PHOTO BY JOHN RUSSELL / CMA

Jason Aldean performs at the Nightly Concert at LP Field on Friday, June 8 in Downtown Nashville during the 2007 CMA Music Festival.

By Keith Ryan Cartwright
© 2007 CMA Close Up News Service

Sitting on his bus parked outside of the Pengrowth Saddledome in Calgary, Canada, Jason Aldean paused to gather his thoughts before declaring, "Yeah, it's been a weird year."

If you consider snow in Las Vegas weird, yeah, it has been a weird year for Aldean. And if you consider the fire that ravaged Treasure Isle, the studio he was using to record the follow-up to his Platinum self-titled debut, it's been a really weird year for the Georgia native.

"I almost had a heart attack," Aldean recalled, of the phone call he received from producer Michael Knox. "He was like, 'Everything's cool, but the studio caught fire.' I was really nervous. You hit stuff the first time that's just on instinct. I would have hated to try and recreate it ... but once he said the masters were fine, I was OK."

"The first single is 'Johnny Cash,' and we really mixed it in a ring of fire," joked Knox, who started mixing the new album two days later amidst the reconstruction process. "We had to mix in all the ash and change clothes twice a day. It was awful, but I had no choice."

The fire happened on a Saturday in mid February, while Aldean was in Vegas filming a video with director Wes Edwards for "Johnny Cash." During an otherwise cold month in Music City, the emerging singer/songwriter thought a trip to the desert would have been a reprieve from the winter-like weather. Not so, as it snowed the day he filmed the video.

"I sure hope this is not a sign of things to come in '07," said Aldean, only half in jest.

For the past two years, though, everything has seemed to be working, especially since the release of his sophomore album Relentless, a groove-laden collection that borders on a rock 'n' roll sound.

"We're ready for some new music," he admitted. Two years ago, when Knox and his touring band cut Aldean's debut, no one knew exactly who would make up his fan base. This time, however, they have a better idea of who the fans are and what they want.

"The first record struck a nerve," Aldean said. "You want songs you like and songs they can relate to, but it's kind of a balance."

If the early success of "Johnny Cash" forecasts how fans and radio will react to the new album, then Aldean is poised for his fourth trip into the Top 10. Less about Cash as a person and more about the Man in Black as a symbol of freedom, "Johnny Cash" resonated immediately with those who have heard the hardhitting tune about a man willing to abandon his cramped routine for a life with fewer constraints.

"It embraces the attitude of Johnny Cash," Aldean explained. "I was going to put it on my first record."

Unfortunately, the publishers of the song wound up holding it for another artist. Though disappointed, Aldean responded by cutting "Hicktown," which like "Johnny Cash" included John Rich of Big & Rich and Vicky McGehee among its writers. (Big Kenny also co-wrote on "Hicktown," while Rodney Clauson shares writer credits on "Johnny Cash.")

Amidst the success of the first album, Aldean and Knox never stopped listening to "Cash," and when they started selecting songs last year, fortunately for them, "Cash" hadn't been recorded. "I still wanted to cut it," Aldean said. "'Hicktown' was a great song to introduce us with, and 'Johnny Cash' became a great intro to the second album."

"The cut you hear on the radio is the one I cut at Warner Chappell," Knox explained. "It was the one I cut to get him his record deal and the one that everyone passed on. We just went in and remastered it."

Aldean's growth as a singer is evident on Relentless. Be it the vocals of "Grown Woman," a duet with Miranda Lambert, the swampy "I Break Everything I Touch," or the hard-driving "Back in This Cigarette," Aldean solidifies the raucous, goodtime attitude he established the first time around.

"It's more me personally finding my niche," Aldean explained, "knowing what I like to sing, what comes off in the live shows and what works for me. It has the same vibe as the first album. There are some cool things on there, and we cut some things that may never be heard on the radio but they were cool to us." The "we" he refers to is the band he's toured and recorded with for the past nine years. They've embraced their success as a group, with Aldean pointing to one particular show in Portland, Ore., late in 2005, as the moment they knew their collective efforts were beginning to pay off.

"The crowds were getting a little bit bigger," Aldean said. "Until then they were honky tonks and we just happened to be there, but that night they were coming to see us. We started playing 'Hicktown' and they started singing back, word for word. That's when I realized we were making an impact outside of Nashville and Georgia.

"We're still building a fan base. We had a couple big weeks. But it's been a steady build, which is great 'cause now we're getting ready to drop the second album. It's perfect timing."

It hasn't always been this perfect.

In the summer of 2003, Aldean was ready to "throw in the towel," as he put it. His first record deal didn't materialize into anything. His publishing deal was about to expire and it didn't look as though it would be renewed. He was married to his high school sweetheart and they were expecting their first child to go along with a mortgage and two car payments he could no longer afford.

Just days before moving back to his hometown of Macon, Ga., and reprioritizing what was most important to him, he got a call saying that Broken Bow founder Benny Brown, who resurrected Craig Morgan's career, was interested in signing him. Aldean stopped applying for new jobs, put off the move home, and by January 2004, he was signed.

His debut Platinum-selling album spawned three successive Top 10 hits: "Hicktown" (No. 9), "Why" (No. 1) and "Amarillo Sky" (No. 4). More than 18 months later it remained the oldest release on Billboard's Top 20 Country Albums Chart.

The sweetest part of this picture, Aldean noted, is the creative freedom that transpires when "not only are you an artist on a label, but you experience everything together for the first time. It doesn't happen every week. When a milestone happens, it's a big deal - and it should be."

The milestones and success he had at radio have led also to extensive touring, which hasn't been easy on his family. But, Aldean observed, "you have an obligation to your career. It's not ideal for all families ... but it's our lifestyle."

Aldean will perform on the summer's hottest TV special, "CMA Music Festival: Country's Night to Rock," which airs Monday, July 23 (9-11 PM/ET) on the ABC Television Network. The special will feature heart-warming stories and riveting musical performances. Artists Dierks Bentley, Big & Rich, Brooks & Dunn, Sara Evans, Martina McBride, Reba McEntire in a duet with Kelly Clarkson, Brad Paisley, Kellie Pickler, Rascal Flatts, LeAnn Rimes, Sugarland, Josh Turner, Carrie Underwood and more will be featured.

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