NASHVILLE — By the time Jason Aldean wraps his My Kinda Party tour next week in Dallas, he'll have played in front of 2 million ticket buyers. That tour, which began in January 2011, saw Aldean climb from the status of consistent hitmaker to one of country music's biggest stars.
From the 35-year-old Georgia native's perspective, the change happened while he was on vacation. "I was at the beach for a month and a half" with his wife and two daughters when his country-rap Dirt Road Anthem single went to radio, he says. "I kept hearing the song when I was down there, and it was like, 'Cool, the song's doing well.' When I came back off vacation and started playing my shows, everything had changed. It went from a career rolling along to ridiculous."
As Night Train, the singer's fifth album, pulls into the station Tuesday, driven by chart-topping lead single Take a Little Ride, Aldean certainly has his career on track. He's the second-most-played artist at country radio this year, according to Mediabase; only Kenny Chesney has more spins. Previous album My Kinda Party was last year's top-selling country album and has sold 2.8 million copies since its November 2010 release.
REVIEW: Jason Aldean's 'Night Train'
He's also at the forefront of an influx of Georgia-bred acts that includes Luke Bryan and Lady Antebellum, both of whom have opened for him. He has championed up-and-coming acts like Brantley Gilbert and new duo Florida Georgia Line by covering their songs on his albums.
"If he's not the No. 1 artist in country music right now, I don't know who's bigger," says Gregg Swedberg, program director for KEEY-FM in Minneapolis.
Though Aldean openly embraces hip-hop elements and rock guitar riffs, he also possesses a throwback-country quality, and not just because the maroon-and-gold jersey he's wearing today in his manager's Music Row office has a faded Dukes of Hazzard iron-on transfer on the front. Aldean's voice resembles that of '90s star Tracy Lawrence ("I used to do a part of my show where I would do an impersonation of him," he says), and one of Night Train's most memorable songs, 1994, name-checks another favorite from that era, Joe Diffie. "I still think he's one of the best singers we've ever had in country music," Aldean says.
Aldean's preference for the workhorse singers of his youth over the superstars dovetails with the blue-collar approach he takes in many of his songs. But Aldean distinguishes himself from the current glut of let-me-sing-about-my-truck-and-tell-you-how-country-I-am hits by not only taking pride in his cultural background, but by being keenly aware that many people don't hold the same things in similar esteem.
"It's no secret that people, a lot of times, look down on the South and think that we're all hillbillies and still make moonshine in the woods," he says. "Does that go on? Yeah. But we don't sit around on hay bales and all play banjos. It's so ridiculous what some people's mind-set of people in the South is like.
"I'm proud that I'm from Georgia and where I came from and the lifestyle that I grew up living. People like to talk. In actuality, they don't know what they're talking about."
Aldean brings that same underdog mentality to his career. He began recording for the independent Broken Bow Records label in 2005 after a couple of deals with bigger labels fell through. Seven years and more than 6 million album sales later, he continues with Broken Bow, which, because of him, now has a much bigger presence in Nashville. Still, he admits to carrying a chip on his shoulder when it comes to the music industry. "Not a huge chip," he says. "Just a little one."
That industry is finally starting to give him some recognition. He got three nominations for February's Grammy Awards and three more this year from the Country Music Association. That includes an entertainer of the year nod that pits him against last year's winner, Taylor Swift, as well as Chesney, Brad Paisley and Blake Shelton.
"I'd be lying to you if I didn't go into those things hoping that we would walk out of there with something — that's just human nature," says Aldean, who won CMAs last year for his My Kinda Party album and Don't You Wanna Stay, his smash crossover duet with Kelly Clarkson. "At the same time, I've learned over the years not to get my hopes up too much for that stuff."
If this year's CMA nominations are any indication, Aldean may stand a good chance of taking that top award. The weirdest batch of CMA nominations in recent memory — with nominees including Clarkson, rapper Snoop Dogg, R&B singer Lionel Richie and folk duo the Civil Wars — suggests that voters are in the mood for new blood.
Aldean's Peach State pack is reaping the benefits from that mood shift: Bryan, who's supporting Aldean on the current tour, has two CMA nominations; Gilbert, who wrote Dirt Road Anthem and My Kinda Party before topping the country charts with a couple of his own recordings, is contending for top new artist.
"You can see the changing of the guard that our format's going through, which is healthy for it," says Aldean's manager, Chris Parr. "If it's not this year, I think it will come for Jason, I really do."
One track from Night Train has an almost-guaranteed lock on a spot in next year's nominations: Both Bryan and Eric Church, who leads all CMA nominees with five, join him on The Only Way I Know.
"It's a song about that relentless spirit, of doing everything to the fullest, going at everything full steam ahead," says Aldean, who's slated to perform on this year's CMA Awards show Nov. 1. "Luke and I have been friends for a long time and have talked about working together for a long time. This song made sense for that. The more I listened to it, the more I thought we could bring somebody else in, too.
"Eric had been on tour with me last year. I'm a huge fan of what he does. His Springsteen song was one of the best songs out there this year. So to bring him in kind of made sense. To get all three of us on one record was something that doesn't happen every day in the music business. I thought it'd be a cool event for the record and a song that fans will get into, as well."
Aldean's rise to prominence has also brought him unwanted attention. Last month, TMZ posted photos of the married singer nuzzling former American Idol contestant and Charlotte Bobcats dancer Brittany Kerr at a Los Angeles bar.
When the story broke, Aldean quickly manned up and addressed the incident on his Facebook page, posting, "The truth is that I screwed up. I had too much to drink, let the party get out of hand and acted inappropriately at a bar. I left alone, caught the bus to our next show and that's the end of the story. I ultimately ended up embarrassing my family and myself."
KEEY's Swedberg says Aldean took exactly the right approach in responding to the photos. "If it had been handled any differently, it might have hurt him."
Aldean says he said what he wanted to say about that night in his Facebook post. "My main focus right now is piecing my family back together and doing that as privately as possible," he says. "It's been a really embarrassing situation, not only for me but for everybody I care about. It's something that has opened my eyes to some things. I don't need to be in that situation. You definitely want to surround yourself with people who are going to help keep you from getting in that situation.
"I'm not counting on everybody else to do that. It's ultimately my responsibility to keep myself out of those positions."
Ironically, the TMZ story may have vaulted Aldean into another level of celebrity.
"It's definitely a celebrity status that I could have done without, for sure," he says. "Sometimes you don't realize how big you are until something like this happens. I didn't think I was that big of a story. I was obviously proven wrong on that."
As he looks toward 2013, Aldean hopes the big story for him won't be his personal life but his continued success on tour. Life on the road is a recurring theme throughout the new album, in the title track and also in Wheels Rollin', which has the feel of Bob Seger's Turn the Page and Bon Jovi's Wanted Dead or Alive, both of which Aldean has performed in concert.
"It's more of a journeyman record," he says of Night Train. "That's what my life has been like for the last eight years, nine years. Ultimately, your lifestyle is going to affect the kind of songs you play."
When Aldean announces his 2013 touring schedule, it likely will include some stadium dates. He tested those waters this summer, playing for more than 27,000 people at a sold-out show at Columbus Crew Stadium to close the Ohio State Fair.
"Ultimately, that's what everybody would love to do, a stadium tour," he says. "There aren't a whole lot of people who can do that on a consistent basis."
Parr says Aldean definitely has stadiums in his immediate future. "We're not going to get way ahead of ourselves; it's not going to be Cirque du Soleil," he says. "We're certainly looking at bigger venues in particular markets, where the population centers are."
Marci Braun, music director at Chicago country station WUSN-FM, doesn't believe filling stadiums would be much of a stretch for the singer, noting that he sold out the 28,000-capacity First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre near Chicago in August. "I've watched him and his show grow exponentially," Braun says. "Making that leap up (to stadiums) is completely within his reach. With the right support, it would be a massive home run."
Aldean doesn't want to take that kind of career growth for granted, though. "I'm scared to let up at all," he says. "I don't want it to go back to the way it was. ... I want it to last as long as it can."