Written by Alan Sculley
The first single off Jason Aldean’s album “Old Boots, New Dirt” has become one of the biggest hits of the country superstar’s career.
“Burnin’ It Down” took just two weeks to reach the top of Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, ending 2014 as the year’s No. 2 single on that chart with sales of more than 1.4 million. But “Burnin’ It Down,” was far from a unanimous choice for the lead single.
“That’s a song where I got a lot of sort of resistance from the label and from even from my management and a lot of people on my team,” Aldean said in an early February phone interview.
The reason? “Burnin’ It Down” was not the typical Aldean song. A simmering ballad, its rhythm track is built around a loop, and other programmed percussion mixes with drums and the traditional instrumentation of the song. In fact, one could easily argue that it draws more from today’s glossy pop and hip-hop production than country.
“They wanted something that was a little more safe,” Aldean said. “But to me, I felt like, my career hasn’t become what it is by me playing it safe, ever. The biggest songs we’ve had are things that were a little left of center and things that we sort of stuck our neck out on a little bit and took some chances. And I felt like this was one of those songs. Plus, it was just a great song.”
Aldean said he thought it was an obvious single from the start.
“I felt like it was something that was really different and something that we really needed for the album, and something that wasn’t going to be confused with any other song,” he said. “It wasn’t going to just blend in to the 39 other songs that are on the radio. It’s like it was something that was really different and sort of unique.
“There was no doubt when you heard that song, and still when you hear it, you know what it is, you know who sings it, what the song is, and that, to me, is half of the battle. So to me it was a no-brainer, but it was one that I really had to go to bat for pretty hard for this record.”
As Aldean said, “Burnin’ It Down” isn’t the only time he’s gambled on a song that tested country radio’s status quo. “Dirt Road Anthem,” which featured a pair of rap segments with its easygoing country sound, is another shining example of the adventurous side of Aldean’s music. The 2010 single also generated mixed opinions before being green-lighted as a single.
The song, co-written by Aldean and fellow star Brantley Gilbert, went on to became Aldean’s biggest single to date. It sold more than four million copies and remains the biggest-selling song in digital history for a male country solo artist.
Aldean sees plenty of upside in pushing the envelope on country radio.
“I think a song like that is going to reach a lot more people just because you’re reaching out into maybe the pop world and grabbing some people over there — not that I want to be a pop singer by any means,” the Macon, Georgia, native said.
“But I also think when you record music, you want as many people listening to it as possible. If you’re able to go out and grab a few people that normally wouldn’t listen to country music and sort of draw them in to what we’re doing over here, I think that’s a good thing.”
It’s not just the choice of singles that has given Aldean a reputation as a bit of a risk-taker. With each of his six studio albums, he has walked the line between maintaining his signature sound and cutting songs that take him in new stylistic directions. He feels “Old Boots, New Dirt” is his most adventurous album yet.
“I think you just kind of want to grow a little bit with each album, and I feel like this was one of those albums that probably shows it more than any other album that we’ve done probably,” Aldean said.
Obviously, “Burnin’ It Down” is a prime example of a song that was a stylistic stretch for Aldean. But he feels he pushed forward in other ways on the album.
The rocker “Just Gettin’ Started” uses some synthetic percussion to give its quieter moments a modern feel. “Sweet Little Somethin’” pairs a pulsing synthesizer and banjo as primary instrumentation in its verses — a move that helps make this bouncy rocker a true collision of pop and country.
In a larger sense, Aldean also feels he dialed back on the kind of turbo-charged rockers that have been his musical signature.
“The one thing that’s not on this album that we’ve typically had a lot of over the years is those big, big uptempo ‘She’s Country,’ ‘Hicktown’ kind of things,” he said. “There are a couple of big tempos, but not a lot. I think from a song standpoint, some of the coolest songs that we’ve ever recorded are on this record, if you believe in songs like ‘Two Night Town’ and ‘Burnin’ It Down’ and also ‘Too Fast,’ [ballads] things like that. They’re just really good songs. So I think it’s a little bit about showing some maturity as far as an artist.”
Maturity is one thing, but sounding fresh doesn’t hurt, either. And when Aldean released his self-titled debut album in 2005, his brand of rocked-up guitar-based country was something new — and a bit risky — for the genre.
But the sound caught on quickly, and Aldean is often credited with creating the template for today’s popular “Bro Country” sound, with its rocking tunes and male-oriented, just-having-a-good-time lyrics. For his part, Aldean chafes at the “Bro Country” label because it represents only one side of what is a multi-faceted catalog of music. But whatever you call his sound, it’s connected in a big way.
“Old Boots, New Dirt,” has become the latest in an unbroken string of platinum-selling albums for Aldean that began with his self-titled album and continued with each of his succeeding releases: “Relentless” (2007), “Wide Open” (2009), “My Kinda Party” (2010) and “Night Train” (2012). Those successes have made him a bonafide arena act, able to headline outdoor stadium shows.
Aldean will be back out filling arenas this spring and summer, and between his summer dates, Aldean has sprinkled in about a dozen co-headlining stadium shows with Kenny Chesney. The show Aldean is taking out figures to be a visual as well as musical treat.
“It’s called the ‘Burn It Down’ tour, so obviously we’ve incorporated a lot of fire, a lot of flame, a lot of heat coming,” Aldean said. “Obviously you want it to sound as good as possible, but visually you want it to look great, too. I think from that standpoint, this is by far the coolest thing we’ve ever had on the road.”
Aldean plays the Huntington Center 7:30 p.m. March 26 with special guests Cole Swindell, Tyler Farr and Dee Jay Silver.