COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Jason Aldean is pretty much unflappable. Before he goes on stage in front of thousands of fans, you won't find him pacing the floor of his bus or worrying that the crowd might be tough on a new artist like him. Instead, he's probably watching sports on TV.
"I've been doing this since I was 14, so ... 15 years?" he says on his bus before taking the stage as an opening act on CMT on Tour: Trace Adkins. "That's one thing I don't get nervous about -- going on stage and playing. I've been doing it ever since I can remember. It's not something I sit on the bus and get nervous about. I don't look at my watch until it's time to go on. We do it pretty much every day, so you just go out and do your show, do what's comfortable, and I think that's what comes off the best."
Aldean has sold more than 700,000 copies of his self-titled debut album since its release in July 2005. His debut single, "Hicktown," reached the Top 10 at country radio in October 2005. Seven months later, his second single, "Why," climbed to No. 1. In the meantime, he secured an opening slot on a Rascal Flatts tour and nabbed a best new male artist trophy from the Academy of Country Music.
At the end of this year, Aldean figures he'll have spent around 250 days away from Nashville -- not an unreasonable amount for an artist whose career is slowly but surely on the rise.
"Typically, you put out a first single and you kind of watch it," Aldean says. "Your shows start out slow, but the better your song does, the more you're getting booked. So it picks up at a gradual pace, which is what happened with us. It's not like I went from being home every day to gone every day of the week. It was like being gone for a couple of days, then three or four days, then five days, and sometimes now two or three weeks at a time."
Ten people travel on his bus -- Aldean, four band members, a tour manager, two people for production, a merchandise manager and the driver. The bus generally leaves the venue at 2 a.m. and arrives at the next one by 8 a.m. If he can get away, Aldean will play a round of golf in the morning in whatever city he's in. That is followed by an afternoon sound check, press interviews, dinner and meet-and-greets.
"I think a lot of people's perception of a singer is that it's all this rock star stuff, like limos and all that stuff. And it's not," he says. "I mean, it is a lot of fun and you do have benefits that a lot of people don't get to have, but there's a lot of not-so-glamorous stuff involved in it, too. Eating a hot dog at a truck stop at 2 in the morning or showering in the locker rooms at the venue before the show. I think there's a lot more work involved in stuff like that then people would think."
Before a recent show in Columbia, fan club members and radio winners wait in the arena's locker room until he arrives -- right on time. (Punctuality is always the goal on big tours like this.) He poses for photos and signs cowboy hats until everybody gets what they need, making sure the fans have enough time to get back into the arena to see the first act, Billy Currington.
"That's part of the job description," Aldean says. "Those are the people who are paying for us to ride around on these buses and pull these trucks and do all this stuff. I don't think there's a time I'm not going to want to do that. It's a way to show your appreciation. I mean, usually it's 20 minutes a night -- and that's nothing."
Now that he's playing in larger venues, he acknowledges that connecting to the audience may be more difficult.
"Sometimes it's a little harder because you like for them to be right up by the stage, and some of these venues don't let them stand up in the show, or they can't come to the front," Aldean says. "Billy and I talked and said we're going to call them up anyway, and if [the venues' management] don't like it, then ... oh, well. We're trying to get them up close and get them involved in the show. There are obviously a lot more people than if you were playing a club but it's all the same -- just playing to more people."
A successful connection, he adds, "also translates to how responsive they are to what you're saying or what you're doing -- just feeling it out. Sometimes it takes a while to get it figured out. But the bottom line is you want them to come around by the end of the show, and usually we've been able to do that."
The tour with Adkins and Currington lasts through mid-December. In early 2007, Aldean returns to the studio to finish his second album -- always a jittery proposition for a new artist.
"Every time I release a single, I get nervous, so yeah, that's something that makes me nervous," Aldean admits. "Just being a new artist, you never know. As they say, you're only as popular as your last hit. That's something that's a little nerve-wracking, to put a new song out. You fear that it may not do well. And right when things are looking good, in a matter of a couple weeks it can go to looking really bad for you. But we've been lucky. We haven't really had that problem yet. We've been blessed as far as that's concerned."