There's not been a lot of swagger in country music. Maybe that's because an imperious pose tends to rankle the common folk who've come to expect their stars to act like them. But copping an attitude served Cash and Waylon, Paycheck and Toby Keith well. And it seems to be working just fine for Jason Aldean, who strides the stage like it's a papal balcony.
This week, Broken Bow Records releases Aldean's second album, Relentless, which, fittingly enough, is paced by the supremely attitudinal single "Johnny Cash." The song has been Aldean's fastest rising effort to date and has just moved up to No. 15 on the Billboard chart.
Aldean has a long history with the song.
"I actually recorded one of the demos for this song, probably four years ago," Aldean explains. "We were going to put it on my first album, and about two weeks before we went in to start recording, the publishing company pulled it from us and told us they were going to give it to 'a more established artist.' So they ended up giving it to Tracy Byrd, and he put it on a greatest hits album [in 2005 for BNA Records]. But it never singled. It was the first thing we cut for this new album."
Relentless presents a wide emotional spectrum -- from the breaking-loose defiance of "Johnny Cash" to such snagged-by-love laments as "Who's Kissing You Tonight," "Back in This Cigarette" and the title cut. Miranda Lambert joins Aldean on another lover's complaint, "Grown Woman." But there are spiritually triumphant pieces here as well, among them "Laughed Until We Cried" and "I Use What I Got."
Aldean says he got the idea to have Lambert sing with him on "Grown Woman" when the two were on tour together.
"I heard the song, and I knew it was great," he says. "The demo had a female background singer on it, and I just thought it would be really cool to find somebody to sing that part -- somebody other than just a Nashville background singer. So I started dropping [Miranda] hints. I said, 'I've got something I want you to hear. Just let me know what you think about it.' Actually, I took it to her on her bus, and a couple of days later, she called me and said she loved the song. That's when I started the pursuit to get her to sing on it."
Although Aldean wrote three songs on his self-titled debut album, he has none on this one.
"I'm a singer first and a songwriter second," he says. "If I write something that I feel is worthy of being on an album, I will be the first one to go to bat for it. ... But if I don't feel like I have anything that really contributes to the album and that we have better songs we found somewhere else, then I'm going to record those. ... I was on the road so much over the last couple of years that I just really didn't have time to sit down and write."
Like its predecessor, Relentless was produced by Aldean's friend and longtime musical mentor, Michael Knox. In the liner notes, he thanks Knox "for believing in me when nobody else did." There was a long stretch of time when that was the prevailing state of affairs.
Aldean came to Nashville from his native Georgia in November 1998. The next month, Capitol Records, which was then under the leadership of Pat Quigley, offered him a recording contract. "I thought, 'Man, this is easy. I should have moved to Nashville a long time ago,'" Aldean says.
But the proffered deal was short-lived. Mike Dungan replaced Quigley at the label and pretty soon Aldean was cut loose. Then came the hard times.
"I was damaged goods," the singer recalls. "It was like nobody wanted to touch me or talk to me or give me a shot. I got turned down by every label two or three times. I mean every label.
"It was really frustrating at the time, but looking back on it now, it kind of made me appreciate everything a lot more," he says. "When I signed with Broken Bow, I had a lot of people telling me I was crazy to sign with an independent label -- that it was never going to happen over there. It just goes to show you [that] when you get somebody who believes in you and is willing to give you a shot, you never know what's going to happen. It's been a perfect fit for me."
Aldean's first single for Broken Bow was "Hicktown," which, like "Johnny Cash," was co-written by John Rich of Big & Rich. It established Aldean as a musical presence and became his first Top 10 song. "Why," the next single, went to No. 1 in May 2006, and "Amarillo Sky," the follow-up, peaked at No. 4 this past February. In March, Jason Aldean, the album, was certified platinum for shipments of 1 million copies.
At last year's Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, Aldean demonstrated he could take command of a crowd -- even a tough one. Instead of being deferential to his audience of radio programmers, he simply squared his shoulders, turned up the volume and rocked the house at the New Faces show.
"I definitely felt like a new face," he says of that experience, "even though I'd been in town a long time. That crowd sometimes can be weird. It's so different from playing an actual show. ... I had the head of a record label one time tell me, 'Well it doesn't matter who you're playing for. You should be able to play it like it's a [regular] show.' I'm like, 'This is coming from someone who's never been on stage in his life.' Believe me, it's different."
Because he's not a soloist, Aldean talked Broken Bow out of sending him on a conventional radio tour to introduce his first album.
"I said if we're trying to get radio to see what I'm about, sending me into their offices with an acoustic guitar ain't gonna do that. That's not my strong point. ... So what we did was [say to radio], 'If you've got any kind of festival or show coming up and you need a full band, deal us in.' Instead of going in and playing acoustic for everybody, we just basically went in with a full band and gave them a free show."
This summer, Aldean will be on the road with Rascal Flatts and also headline his own series of concerts.
Listen to Jason Aldean's new album, Relentless.