Editor’s Note: CMT Hot 20 Countdown takes a look back on 10 years of incredible music with Decade, a weekly segment that features a modern country classic that made its greatest impact between 2010 and 2019. This week, Jason Aldean talks about his 2011 single, “Dirt Road Anthem.” Here’s Aldean, in his own words:
The first time I heard “Dirt Road Anthem,” I had Colt Ford out on tour with me and Colt was playing it in his show. I thought it was cool and it was different — and it was kind of an underground hit for him. Brantley had actually recorded it but Colt was playing it in his show every night and it was going over huge when we would play places especially down in the South, in Georgia. …
I never really thought much about recording the song and it wasn’t until my producer, Michael Knox, brought the idea up to me of, “Hey, man, we should look at this thing. It’s kinda cool,” and my first thought was, “I need to call Colt and see if this is cool with him if I cut this song.” To me, that was their song. I didn’t want to look like I was trying to go and jack a song from ‘em or something.
So I called him and he was actually over the moon. He wanted us to cut it, so we went in and cut the song and really my biggest thing was, OK, Colt and Brantley had already cut this song. How do we cut it and make our own version of it and not try and copy what they did? So my producer Michael Knox and I got in the studio and started working on it.
Every once in a while in the studio, you come out with a song that you’re like, “Man, there’s something kinda special about that. I don’t know quite what it is.” I can’t sit there and say I knew it was gonna be a career-changing song for me but I knew there was something kinda cool about it. I knew that if radio would give it a chance and play it, that it was gonna get a lot of attention. Whether people loved it or hated it, it was gonna get a lot of attention. And it did, man.
I actually wanted to launch the My Kinda Party album with that single. And the label, they were a little nervous, so they said, “Well, can we put out ‘My Kinda Party’ first and split it up with ‘Don’t You Wanna Stay,’ this Kelly Clarkson duet? And then we’ll give you ‘Dirt Road Anthem.’” I said, “Cool. As long as I get it on the record, we’re good.”
We were already on that upward trajectory, and once that song hit, I mean, it was white hot at that point. It was one of those songs that I think every artist hopes to have in their career — that’s sort of that one song that changes everything. It really changed everything for us. To this day, we play it live and people come unglued and it’s just one of those career songs.
I think when you have a song, especially a big song, you just feel it. It’s hard to explain, but you just feel it on the road when you’re playing your shows. You go into that song one night and you get a reaction, and the next night, it’s bigger, and it’s almost like within a couple of weeks, people are holding signs up, they’re wanting to hear that song, and when you crank into it, people go crazy.
It’s hard to put your finger on it and say, “Well, it’s when you see this, or when you do that….” It’s just this feeling you have when it happens, and you can almost feel it turning. … We were already starting to do really well. We were starting to really take off and hit another level. That song hit and it was like the afterburner and it was crazy, and it took everything to a different level with us.
I think the song was so different, too. It was such a different-sounding song on the radio than anything else that was out there. A lot of people loved it, a lot of people hated it, and to me that’s what music’s about, anyway. I’ve always said I want ‘em to love it or hate it. Either way. I’d rather them feel passionate about it one way or the other. If it doesn’t do anything to ‘em, I missed the mark.
That was one of those songs — to me, that’s the kind of stuff me and my friends drove around and listened to and wanted to hang out and crank in our trucks when we were riding around. So when it hit, it became this anthem for country music and for the fans and it was pretty crazy.
I think there were artists that came before me that helped to knock down some barriers and spread things out to allow me to come in there and be in country but also rock ‘n’ roll and all these other things. I think songs like “Dirt Road Anthem” and some of the things we’ve done in our career helped [artists like] Florida Georgia Line, even Sam Hunt with his style of music, sorta almost rapping-type verses and things like that. I think a lot of the stuff we did definitely opened the doors for some of those guys — but we had that door opened for us, too, by other people.
I think music just is, you want to see it evolve over the years. And if not, then you’re still hearing the same things you heard in the ‘50s. That’s the cool thing about music, man. There’s no rules, even though people try and put these reins on different things you can do and say, “Oh, this is country. You can’t do that.” Or, “This is pop, you can’t play that country song on pop radio.” It’s like, man, there’s no rules in music. To me, music is music and if it’s good, it’s good, and I don’t really care what you wanna label it.