Jason Aldean had an easy task when he picked a name for his fifth album. One of its 15 songs, "Night Train," perfectly embodied the tone of his career.
"The train is moving," Aldean says, "and it's moving at a rapid pace." Indeed. His last project, My Kinda Party, was the top-selling country album of 2011 and the fifth-best seller across all genres for the year, catapulting him to the same category as Adele and Lady Gaga. Aldean's edgy single from that disc "Dirt Road Anthem" went triple-platinum and was the best-selling ringtone across all genres for weeks on end. His duet with Kelly Clarkson, "Don't You Wanna Stay," went double-platinum and found major cross-over success on multiple radio formats. Aldean also won his first two Country Music Association awards, with My Kinda Party securing the coveted Album of the Year trophy.
If his career is a runaway train, the real engine is his live show. Over the course of a single year, Aldean came into his own as a concert attraction – where he once crossed his fingers that he could sell out 6,000-seat venues, he's moved to stadiums now. He sold out each of the 2012 shows on his My Kinda Party Tour – often in minutes at the day of on sale. He broke over 40 venue attendance records and the tour has gone on to sell an unparalleled 1.9 million tickets.
"I don't know what the turning point was," he says. "I'd like to think that it was the last six years that we've ben building our following on the road by working hard and touring relentlessly. It's partly because of that, but I also know it's partly because of the radio success we've had."
Night Train expressly builds on Aldean's reputation for finding quality songs and for defying categorization. The album was introduced with a driving country/rocker, "Take A Little Ride," as its first single that flew out of the gate to become his highest career chart debut, and the collection goes on to cover plenty of turf. "This Nothin' Town" provides a churning undercurrent for a celebration of America's heartland communities. "Wheels Rollin" captures the concert experience with anthemic results harking back to the 80's rock bands that Aldean grew up idolizing. "Staring At The Sun" incorporates an impassioned vocal on the mid-tempo love song with epic results. The quirky "1994" puts a rhythmic spin on country nostalgia. And "Black Tears" captures the distress of a stripper beaten down by humiliation, a subject rarely – if ever - covered in the country genre.
The album is held together by Aldean's unique voice and by his refusal to stick with one sonic or lyrical theme. Night Train takes a twisting journey, transporting the listener through a variety of emotions and distinctive instrumental sounds, adding to Aldean's reputation as an unpredictable, uncontainable hard rocking country artist.
"We haven't backed ourselves into a corner with radio and fans where we said, 'OK, this is our thing, it's right here in this little box,'" Aldean observes. "So now I feel like if we do come out with something that is a little off the wall or left of center, it's really not that much of a head scratcher. I've always wanted to leave myself open to try new things."
Aldean has consistently forged new directions since he rose to national prominence with his 2006 debut, "Hicktown." That song's power chords – and his penchant for throwing a Guns N' Roses medley into his early concerts – demonstrated his willingness to challenge the accepted boundaries of the country genre. Some of his subsequent hits – particularly the farm-themed "Amarillo Sky," the pleading ballad "The Truth" and the million-selling sing-along "Big Green Tractor" – cemented his country cred, in turn allowing him even more leeway for experimentation. "She's Country" adopted an in-your-face, AC/DC vibe. "Dirt Road Anthem" introduced Southern rap into mainstream country. And the Clarkson duet, "Don't You Wanna Stay," added a pop sheen to his career that hadn't been obvious before.
"I'm a country singer," Aldean explains. "I love country music. But I also was influenced by a ton of different sounds, everything from rock to blues to hip-hop apparently. But I don't go in and intentionally and go 'OK, we're going to push it even further this time.' I think the songs that I'm drawn to lend themselves to different sounds."
Aldean comes by his diverse musical background naturally. He grew up on the outskirts of Macon, a town associated with both Little Richard and the Allman Brothers. The volume of country music in the region similarly influenced him and a bundle of his Georgian contemporaries – but country was hardly the only sound on the radio dial. Aldean heard plenty of classic rock as a teenager, and Macon is just a short skip from Atlanta, an incubator for urban artists including Ludacris and Outkast.
After forging his own sound on the Georgia club circuit in his late teens, Aldean moved to Nashville in 1998, landing a fair amount of attention from the city's music community. He even signed for a time with a major label, though he languished on the roster without ever having any music released. Over the course of several years, Aldean slowly drained his bank account and was just days from moving his family back to Georgia when producer Michael Knox asked him to stick around for one more showcase for a Nashville label.
That company, independent Broken Bow, signed Aldean on the basis of that performance and gave him the freedom to weld all his disparate influences around a voice that remains distinctly Southern. There were plenty of barriers to break down – country has been historically slow to embrace independent artists and labels – but the melodic component of Aldean's material and the sheer force of his live show were undeniable. Each of his first 15 singles hit the Top 20 on Billboard's Country Songs chart, with all but one of them cracking the Top 10 and seven of them bulleting all the way to #1. In fact, all five of the singles from My Kinda Party hit the top of either the Billboard or Mediabase country chart.
It helped enormously that when fans went to Jason Aldean concerts, they got the same sound they expected after hearing his albums. In a departure from country's status quo, Aldean insisted on using his road band in the studio. As a result, he has a core of musicians every bit as willing as its leader to defy tradition.
"You don't have a session guy who's been doing it for 30 years who says, 'No, this is the way it's supposed to be played,'" Aldean notes. "There's no formula to music. It's meant to be experimented with. You're supposed to try things. So I love getting in there with my guys and coming up with sounds that nobody else really uses."
That experimentation in the studio led to plenty of interesting pieces in the Night Train puzzle – the shifty guitar tone in "I Don't Do Lonely Well," the spaceship effect at the close of "Black Tears" or the call-and-answer vocal lines in the background of "When She Says Baby."
Those sounds are as unusual as the band itself. There's a fair amount of rock swagger and unbridled power behind Aldean's own confident presence on stage.
"My steel player for example is not your typical Nashville steel player," Aldean assesses. "He plays barefoot, he's standing up, pushing his instrument out towards the crowd. That makes him really different, but also just like the rest of us. He's not your run-of-the-mill player, which makes him a perfect fit with us. I'm not looking for someone who plays like every other player in town. I want someone who stands out, that's different, that has a little bit more to offer."
In that way, the band mirrors Aldean perfectly. He stands out for his adventurous, yet spot-on song selections – and for the intensity with which he delivers that material.
And he's always looking to offer a little bit more to his fans. It's why Night Train has 15 songs on it – not to mention a bonus guest appearance on "The Only Way I Know" by his buddies Luke Bryan and Eric Church. That song's unapologetic celebration of the American work ethic – "don't quit 'til the job gets done" – summarizes the relentless approach Aldean has used in pushing his career to rare heights.
Even at the elite level he now occupies, he continues to push his band, push his crew, push the envelope and push himself. Most likely driven by the ups and downs of his journey in the music industry, Aldean still has a desire to win over any remaining non-believers still out there.
"I've always kind of felt like I had something to prove," he says. "It's what keeps me hungry."
That hunger translates into a high-intensity live show and a 15-song album with no filler. It's what continues to push the "Night Train" down the tracks at full speed.