No matter how talented you are and how much industry muscle you’ve got, it’s never easy to reach the top in Country Music. But few young artists have faced odds so long and yet come so far as Jason Aldean. Born and raised near Macon, Ga., he absorbed the feel of red clay and dirt roads, mixed in an appreciation for rock, rap and other diverse influences and hammered it all together on regional gigs into a potent and personal sound. Three years after graduating from high school in 1995, he followed that timeless trail to Music City and began looking for opportunity.
He came close a few times, but several major record label deals fell through despite his persistent efforts. Then destiny beckoned from Broken Bow Records (BBR). The partnership ignited like a backwoods bonfire and shot both artist and label onto the fast track. Three of his four albums, Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party and Wide Open, were certified Platinum; a fourth, Relentless, has gone Gold. The most recent, My Kinda Party, burst from the gate in November, selling 193,000 units in its first week, going Platinum in only 11 weeks, with the title track, written by Brantley Gilbert, hitting No. 2 on Billboard and the corresponding video topping the charts on CMT and GAC. By year’s end, Aldean was named the No. 1 Male Country Artist and the Top Independent Artist of the Year by Billboard.
There are many reasons why the combination worked, but the most important is Aldean’s no-nonsense presentation. His vocals combine expressive nuance with a Southern-inflected conversational quality. His performances can rock the biggest arenas yet feel as if he’s still working the honky-tonk circuit, singing to party-goers a foot from the stage or packed onto the dance floor.
Aldean understands and embraces his appeal. His No. 1 singles, including “She’s Country” (written by Danny Myrick and Bridgette Tatum) and “Why” (Rodney Clawson, Vicky McGehee and John Rich), as well as “Big Green Tractor” (Jim Collins and David Lee Murphy), “Crazy Town” (Clawson and Brett Jones), “Hick Town” (McGehee, Rich and Big Kenny) and his other hits, draw from his personal history and, through his interpretation, speak directly to, as Aldean put it in a recent press release, “the kids who live in the sticks, drive pickup trucks, wear John Deere hats and like their Country on the rockin’ side.”
That impression resonates throughout My Kinda Party as well, from the raw but nostalgic imagery conjured on “Tattoos on This Town” (Neil Thrasher, Wendell Mobley and Michael Dulaney) and in the panoramic rap of “Dirt Road Anthem” (Brantley Gilbert and Colt Ford), the spacious heartland hymn “Fly Over States” (Thrasher and Dulaney) and even amidst soaring strings in his duet with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay” (Jason Sellers, Paul Jenkins and Andy Gibson).
That demographic, though, is growing and changing with the times, a fact that didn’t slip past Aldean and his team. Their promotions for My Kinda Party included autographed pre-release copies of the album sold exclusively at www.JasonAldean.com; his first-ever live video chat on his Web site, Facebook and Ustream; as well as opportunities on Facebook, Foursquare and Twitter for fans to “check in” at concerts and retail locations in hopes of winning an iPad loaded with the new album, digital gift certificates and a complete Wrangler wardrobe. (Details of this campaign are described on page 8.)
“I think there’s a stereotype that all those kids are still out there using rotary phones,” Aldean explained. “These guys go out, they spend money on their trucks, jacking them up and fixing them up. But they’re as much up to date as anybody. Nowadays it’s hard to find somebody that doesn’t have a computer or an iPhone or some sort of Internet gadget. ‘High-tech rednecks,’ man — that’s the whole deal.”
They’re also a big part of the consumer base targeted by BBR, Aldean’s management at Spalding Entertainment and the distributors at RED. Their efforts are apparently paying off, according to Rick Shedd, Senior VP of Operations, BBR, who noted, “On our last album, the first week’s percentage of full-album digital sales was 14 percent, which was kind of average at the time. This time, we felt that should be higher because of who Jason appeals to. With all the efforts that everyone put into it and the growth in that market in general, we boosted that up to 24 percent.”
These figures impress even more, given the trimmed-down products in recent album charts. But on My Kinda Party, brimming with 15 tracks, Aldean stands up for the format. “I would hate to see it get away from artists making full-length albums,” he stated. “Singles sales are huge; I get it. But the coolest thing, when I was starting to play music, was buying records and learning all those songs — even the B-sides. To me, six songs is not an album. It’s something I did when I was playing clubs, just to get a few songs out there for people to hear, which we sold for 10 bucks at our shows. If I go and buy an album that’s got six songs on it, I feel like I’ve been ripped off. They can sell it to me for $5 all day, but I still feel like I’m kind of getting cheated. So instead of giving people less songs for the same or a little bit less money, let’s give them twice as much for less money. Give them 15 songs and charge what we would for a 10-song album. People will still go and buy an album if it’s something they want. For us, it’s about figuring out how to get them interested in doing that versus just buying the singles.”
Aldean’s plan is simple: Make the best music you can and present it as the kind of unified package that was essential to him as he was growing up. On My Kinda Party, as on his earlier albums, his first step was to go for a live feel by building the lineup of players on his touring rhythm section. Guitarist Kurt Allison, bassist Tully Kennedy and drummer Rich Redmond have been with Aldean since 2000, when his producer Michael Knox recruited them at SIR (Studio Instrument Rentals) Nashville to back different artists on showcase performances. They ended up playing about 40 such auditions before BBR signed him, after which they began their ongoing run as the bedrock of his band.
It also involves expanding Aldean’s range a bit, while never losing his identity as an artist. “We’ve been working together for 12 years, and each album has brought him up a little bit,” said Knox, who has produced all of Aldean’s albums to date. “People might call it taking chances, but he’s just gotten more comfortable to do more of his roots. That’s where ‘Dirt Road Anthem,’ ‘My Kinda Party’ and even ‘Don’t You Wanna Stay’ come into play. Jason’s feeling more comfortable to pull these things off.”
That last track was performed live by Aldean and Clarkson on the 2010 CMA Awards in November, with immediate results in sales. “We hadn’t even gone to radio with it and it went Top 30,” said Shedd. “We had ‘My Kinda Party’ at No. 5 and ‘Don’t You Wanna Stay’ at No. 28. It wasn’t one coming up and the other coming down; it was two going up. Obviously, radio embraced ‘Don’t You Wanna Stay’ because of that great performance on the CMAs.”
Sales may have also gotten a boost from Aldean’s commitment to keep ticket prices low for his “My Kinda Party Tour,” which kicked off in January and features Eric Church and the JaneDear girls. The main incentive was to give back to those who have supported him, based again on what he remembers about living with tight budgets not so long ago. But there are practical reasons too, boiling down to building long-term fan loyalty and freeing up a little extra for souvenir purchases.
“When our first daughter was born, for us to go and do anything as a family, you had to be very conscious of that stuff,” he recalled. “If we wanted to take her to the circus, it was a big expense. I’d rather make my concerts affordable to where a husband and wife can bring two or three kids and not worry about whether they’ll make a house payment that month. To me, that’s how you make fans long-term. You make it affordable for them to come. You blow them away, whether it’s by the show or the production or the opening act or all of it together. And hopefully they’ll keep coming back.”
Achieving success has also empowered Aldean to raise awareness for causes in which he believes, including the fight to find a cure for breast cancer. For five consecutive years he has designated one of his shows a “Concert for the Cure,” with all proceeds donated to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. In 2010, the event took place in October at Roberts Stadium in Evansville, Ind., with additional donations accepted via a link on www.JasonAldean.com as well as Aldean teaming with www.TicketsForCharity.com to offer his fans special access to sold-out floor seats and other great locations, with ticket sales benefitting the cause.
The hard times he and his family weathered instilled a commitment in Aldean to share his good luck. “Now, when I sing or talk, people are more apt to listen than they might have been six years ago, when nobody knew who I was,” he mused. “People want to listen. That can be a powerful thing, and it’s our responsibility to use that in the right way.”