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Jason Aldean

Jason Aldean, Relentless

Lives and careers have tipping points, days when investments pay off and when a bunch of scattered puzzle pieces suddenly fit together. Jason Aldean doesn't have to think long when asked to call up his top game changing moment of 2006.

"We were playing a show in Portland, Oregon. It was a little club, just an acoustic show," says the Macon, Georgia native. "'Hicktown' (Aldean's first single) had been doing okay. It was probably 25 on the chart or something. The club was basically sold out. And we went into 'Hicktown,' and the place just went crazy."

"Hicktown," propelled by a spanking beat and a girls-gone-hillbilly-wild video, would go Top 10 before long, but that's the night it found its place in the full-roar, sing-along party that is Jason Aldean's groove. "We couldn't even hear ourselves for people singing to us," he recalls. "And that was the first time when I got the feeling that we had a hit. We had had pretty decent crowds at our shows, but it seems like from that show on things turned a corner. You get that kind of feedback and it hits you that you may end up having a career."

A year after that show, the whole career thing looks better than ever. At a time when new artists in country have struggled to be heard, Aldean broke through a crowded field, capturing the Academy of Country Music Award for Top New Male Vocalist and earning a gold album just 12 weeks after his debut's release. Aldean followed up "Hicktown" with "Why," a fist-to-the-heart ballad that rang the bell at No. 1 on radio and CMT.

Now he's preparing to drop his second album, a collection of songs that sustain his emphasis on relatable, recognizable lyrics while pushing into new sonic territory. The standout tracks include a tight duet with fellow rising star Miranda Lambert on "Grown Woman," the brooding "Back In This Cigarette" which almost screams to be made into a video, and the swampy groove of "I Break Everything I Touch." The project narrowly dodged disaster when a fire at Nashville's Treasure Isle Studio very nearly destroyed the recordings during the final mastering stage. The project, titled Relentless after a particularly feverish cut on the disc, benefits he says from the track record he established with his debut. "We were able to find great songs for the first album, but we had to dig a lot harder to get them," says Jason. "And this album, it wasn't as hard. After a couple of hits, people are more willing to give you great songs. So we kind of had a whole new world open up to us with this, and we took advantage of it."

Why has Aldean been able to connect with so many people so fast? His fans would probably say relatable songs, a powerful, dynamic voice, and total dedication to giving himself up for an audience. He's done it for years at a stretch across the Southeast, in bars and taverns and some places you'd best not even go. He's thrown down for 15 people in halls that could have held hundreds. And he's spent the last year proving he can connect from the biggest stages, the ones that they haul around in multiple semi-trailers.

You get the sense that Aldean gets pumped up to sing live the way college quarterbacks fire up for games. The Tennessean called his music "amped-up contemporary country, with Southern rock and honky-tonk influences." Aldean calls it "aggressive country." So it's no surprise that behind his radio success is a desire to commune with his crowd, to make a party happen wherever he and his band go. He played some 200 dates last year, a hard pace, but one he's trained for.

"I was playing clubs when I was in high school," says Aldean. "But it was one of those things where I don't know if people knew how serious I was. I don't even know if I knew how serious I was about it at the time." After high school, he put a band together and went out on the road. "I actually had a chance to go to college and play baseball or go after a music career," he says. "But I was in bars every night, having fun, playing music. At that point I threw everything I had into it."

Those high school days were spent in Macon, Georgia, hometown of music legends like Otis Redding and Little Richard. "I didn't think about it much at the time, but looking back I don't think you can grow up somewhere that has that kind of musical history and not be influenced by it in some way. I definitely think I was influenced by it, especially the Southern Rock thing. It just taught me to be who I am."

For a while there, it looked like Jason might sidestep some of the hardships typically waiting for a newcomer in Nashville. He landed a major label record deal and a publishing contract. But the record deal fizzled after a year, and his publisher started to get antsy.

"In the meantime, my daughter was born in 2003," says Jason. It was a blessing, to be sure, but one that put the not-yet-happening music career into cold new perspective. "I basically just started putting in for some jobs back in Georgia. My priorities had changed a little bit. It was more about making sure I had baby formula and diapers at home than it was about me getting a record deal. I was doing what I had to do."

When the Broken Bow deal came through at the last possible minute, it was great news but certainly not a guarantee of anything. Independent labels had struggled for years to be taken seriously at radio. But label founder Benny Brown had been building his brand and a promotions team for several years by the time Aldean came along. They'd even helped singer/songwriter Craig Morgan thrive after being dropped from a major, landing big hits and paving the way for Aldean's "Hicktown" and all that would follow, including the momentous ACM win. Aldean says that was the no-doubt high point of his career so far.

"I had grown up watching those shows on TV from the time I was a kid and seeing all the guys that I looked up to on the show and winning these awards," says Jason about his Top New Male Vocalist nod. "At the time it seemed like such a reach to get to that point, so to first of all be sitting in the audience, second of all to be nominated for an award, and then to actually win it. . . .I think anybody who goes back to see the tape of that night would probably see how nervous I was. I almost knocked the microphone over."

It's no nervousness and all nerve on Aldean's new album Relentless. You can feel the attitude he brings to his live shows in its opening lines. The lead song and lead single, "Johnny Cash" is about freedom and abandon, a fantasy about blowing off the grind and the naysayers and hitting life's highway with the top down and "Folsom Prison Blues" or "Big River" pumping on the stereo. Later, Aldean sings "I Use What I Got" about the pride and steel it took to get through the hard times in a breaking career. The album closes out in a similar vein - a song with a "Honky Tonk Woman" backbeat about a serial heartbreaker called "I Break Everything I Touch."

Relentless also has a darker side, with a handful of songs about the wake of busted love and sonic textures that are grittier than one normally hears on country radio. He and long-time producer Michael Knox took advantage of success not by trying to repeat themselves, but by looking for new angles. "It was cool to go in and experiment a little bit with this record and not have to worry about everything being so mainstream," Aldean says. After all, he knows his fans. He sees them most every night on a stage somewhere, and more often now on the street or in a restaurant, where he's being recognized more and more regularly.

"It's cool. I like meeting people and hearing what they have to say," he says. "One thing I learned about fans is that they're brutally honest. They'll tell you if they like something and they'll tell you if they don't. But that's good. That's the way I am too."

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