(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Some reasons why Jason Aldean is an unlikely superstar:
He has not been and likely will not be on the cover of Rolling Stone, which in these flea-bitten days of problematic celebrity remains probably the last standing true indication of full-blown stardom. Why hasn’t he? He’s not a classifiable country “type” that the RS crowd can easily understand. RS much prefers its country in classifiable bundles. And it especially likes malleable country stars who can be guided in interviews into saying some things they quickly regret and other things that they will regret in the future.
The last cover-star country artists that RS easily understood and put on the cover were Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks. Brooks was an undeniable multi-genre superstar, and the Chicks were easily labeled as rebellious but harmonious free spirits.
Maybe it’s Aldean’s up-yours unfashionable cowboy hat, which signals he’s not a safe commodity, or his casual give-a-damn attitude. He does not act like he even wants to be a big star. Maybe it’s the fact that his rise has been gradual, building slowly over the years since his chart debut in 2005 with the song “Hicktown.” Maybe it’s the fact he’s on a small label and doesn’t have the kind of high-powered major-label juggernaut machinery that can breach RS’s defenses and get some writers and editors out to actually see and experience an Aldean show for themselves.
He is a Marlboro man at a time when the world thinks it doesn’t need Marlboro men. This has nothing to do with the cigarette. No, it’s that Aldean is a return to the no-nonsense, firm-jawed alpha male in a metrosexual world. Maybe if he wore skinny jeans and a porkpie hat and pointy-toed shoes and a satin vest, he would qualify as hip.
But he looks no-nonsense in form-fitting Wrangler retros, unremarkable Ebay plaid shirts and boots. And then there’s that unfashionable cowboy hat. And there are no blindingly white teeth. Who is the dentist who’s getting rich by providing certain country males with all those porcelain-pure-perfect Chiclet choppers?
Aldean’s songs for the most part have come from the same common well — which means theoretically that any male country artist could have recorded them. They come from the pool of the usual Nashville co-writers, starting with John Rich and Big Kenny and going on to Brett James and others. Aldean’s debut was the very obvious country pride song “Hicktown” (written by Big & Rich with Vicky McGehee), and it hit an immediate chord with the audience. Aldean was originally signed as a songwriter before his recording contracts, and he continues to co-write, but his huge breakthrough was “Dirt Road Anthem,” which came from the pens of Colt Ford and singer-songwriter Brantley Gilbert, who is also responsible for such hit-or-miss similar familiar-themed songs as “G.R.I.T.S.,” “My Kinda Party” and “Country Must Be Country Wide.”
Aldean has embraced hip-hop, which most country fans profess to hate. His collaboration in performing a duet on “Dirt Road Anthem” with Ludacris was sounded as natural as one of these cultural clashes can. Although, in this case, it was not as much of a clash as you might expect. As country singers and hip-hop artists are increasingly pointing out, both musical genres are predominantly storytelling formats.
His videos are, by and large, understated. They are not beer-babe-beach-blowouts, which in itself is unusual in best-selling country music these days. The video for “Fly Over States,” probably his best video, fits the song and amplifies and expands its atmospheric themes. And it shows a knowing visual rhythm. The director of this video, Wes Anderson, probably knows how to properly plow a field. Which is a whole lot more difficult than you might think.
Aldean is now a star at Lakewood, the common name for Atlanta’s Aaron’s Amphitheatre. The concrete structure and lawn seat 19,000 and seldom sees a country artist playing there. The 404 area code is not usually country-friendly. Alden recently sold out two nights there in record time, something that I don’t think anyone else has done. It’s becoming apparent that — just as Garth Brooks did in his ascendency — he is attracting disenfranchised rock and pop fans. And it proves again that anytime there is a vacuum in rock and pop music, then country music steps forward with a sound to fill that vacuum. Brooks did it with a spectacular show and solid songs. Aldean is accomplishing the same thing with a hard-edged rock show that is loud and intense. Who else in country has included a Guns N’ Roses medley in his show?
He has attracted his share of very vocal non-fans. To them, Aldean said on Twitter, “To all u haters … if you don’t like what I do or think im ’ruining’ country music, feel free to unfollow me. Nobody is forcing u to listen.”
So there you have it. All the reasons why Jason Aldean is an unlikely superstar. But he sure enough is one.