You're probably used to hearing artists who are eager to set their latest albums apart from their previous work speak of breaking free from formula, the idea being that they've grown dissatisfied with strictures imposed on their music-making. But not everyone shares that philosophy.
Take country superstar Jason Aldean, familiar even to non-country followers because of his performances on the Grammys and Saturday Night Live, the latter one of his first public gestures after his set at the Route 91 Harvest festival turned into a massacre. Over the last dozen-or-so years, the Georgia native has built his relationship with his massive audience on delivering consistency on virtually every front, from his gruff and tough persona to his amped-up, arena-rocking concerts and formula-guided albums.
"I want a project that will take [listeners] on a journey, if they want to party, if they're going through a breakup, or if they're in love," he tells NPR, taking occasional puffs from an e-cigarette, legs crossed in a rolling chair parked next to a mixing console. "But other than that, man, there's not too much hidden."
By this point in his career, closing in on the release of his eighth album, Rearview Town, Aldean is well aware that music critics tend to scour new music for things like narrative threads, provocative statements and conceptual complexity. He can save them the trouble when it comes to analyzing his work, he says with a dry chuckle: "Don't try to pick my brain apart and try to figure out where I was coming from, because more than likely I just thought the song was cool and wanted to cut it."
To him, even his life-altering experience in Vegas was something to be dealt with outside of the context of his album.
In the interview that follows, Aldean speaks, with matter-of-fact economy, about his creative process, how he dealt with the Vegas tragedy and circling back to Miranda Lambert as a singing partner on the contemporary honky-tonk track "Drowns the Whiskey," which NPR is premiering today.
This isn't the first song that you've recorded with Miranda Lambert. You had her sing on a track over a decade ago. Why is she a collaborator that you'd want to come back to? What do you identify with about her?
I dig Miranda. I think she's a great artist. I've always said if I was a female, I probably do the kind of stuff Miranda does, like "Kerosene." But then she can also do a ballad and sound amazing, and have fun and rock out. I've always been a fan of hers, and we've been friends for a long time. We used to tour together a lot in the early days. We kinda hit the scene about the same time and had the same booking agent. ... I had a couple songs that I thought she would sound amazing on, and this was one of 'em.
You let her choose?
I had one that I sent ... and she was kinda iffy on the song. I said, "Listen, if you don't love the song, let's not do it. I've got another one." So when I sent her "Drowns the Whiskey," she was like, "Yes!"
It tells the story of a guy trying to drown his sorrows in whiskey, which is a classic theme in country music. And the prominent steel guitar gives it a traditional sound. But the feel of the track is also very much shaped by the programmed beat. What do you consider to be the right balance between traditional sensibilities and pop-driven evolution?
To me, what sort of makes a traditional country song like that seem up to date is putting a loop on it or effects or whatever.... There's loops going on everywhere right now. That's a theme throughout music in general, not just country music. We'll incorporate it in hardcore country songs, and we'll incorporate it into a big arena rock banger.
Country artists of a lot of different generations would probably say that they wanted to do something that was up-to-date for their moment.
I think we all wanna keep the genre pushing forward and keep expanding it a little bit.
Your sound has everything to do with the fact that you've had the same core group of players on of your all your tours and all of your albums, this one included.
We've all kind of built this sound together. Those guys were just as responsible for that as I was, my band [drummer Rich Redmond, bassist Tully Kennedy and guitarist Kurt Allison] and Michael Knox, my producer. When I go out and play live, I want it to sound like it does in the studio. Why would I want to go get somebody else to play my songs that these guys are going to play every night?
There is still a perception that Nashville records are made with session players.
Oh yeah. When I first started making records, when I said I wanted to use my band to play on the records, it was like, "You can't do that." And I'm like, "Why not?" My guys are great players. They may not play it as clean as this [session] guy or that [session] guy, but that dirtiness has allowed us to create our sound.
There's a long history of rock flavors being absorbed into country music. Hank Jr. had a boogie-ing southern rock thing. Alabama used phaser guitar effects. Garth Brooks summoned arena rock energy. You and your band helped popularize more of a metal guitar attack.
Really aggressive and grungy and a lot of distortion. We all came from rock backgrounds. Hell, I was the countryiest one of the group, because I grew up listening to country music. But I also grew up listening to a lot of '80s rock and southern rock. The way we heard some country music was, "Man that's a great song, but it sounds wimpy." ... I like the big barre chords that just ring out.
Do you feel like you mirror that aggressive energy in the way you sing? You're definitely not a mellow country singer.
I think the way we attack the songs allows me to sing it more aggressively. I'm not a real soft, melodic [singer] with a lot of trills and movements. That ain't really my thing.
I am a southern rock country singer. That's what I grew up singing. I think the way those guys play matches the way I sing and vice versa, and I think that's why it's always worked.
Sometimes it sounds like you're clenching every muscle in your body to project a song.
Sometimes I have to to hit those notes.
For some artists, an album is an outlet for self-expression or emotional catharsis, or a chance to reinvent themselves or make some kind of statement. What do you look to accomplish when you make an album?
I'll be honest with you: I don't get too artsy with it or overthink it or try to come up with a really cool story of why I cut different songs. That's just not the way I'm wired. Am I drawn to songs sometimes for personal reasons because I'm going through this or that, or I know somebody that's going through it? I'm sure I am drawn to certain songs at specific times because of that. But ultimately, for me, I wanna go cut a bad-ass record that's got songs that I wanna go out the following year and sing live every night. And I like telling stories, so I like songs that sort of paint the picture.
I feel like I'm a pretty simple guy. I guess sometimes I have things going on in my life that not every man does, but for the most part, I feel like I'm a pretty normal dude. If I can relate to a song, then somebody else can too.
I wrote some songs for this record that we ended up not putting on the record, because I'm so hard on my songs that I'll sit there and go, "Man, I think that one's better than the one I wrote." But I don't sit down and go, "Well, I'm going through this, and I really need to write about this for some therapy."
You dedicate the album to the Vegas victims and their families in the liner notes. I gather that you'd actually completed most of the album before the tragedy, but did that experience ultimately leave an imprint on the finished product?
I would say 95 percent of the album was completed before that happened. Anybody that's sort of looking for references to Vegas throughout the record, you're probably gonna be grabbing at straws, because it was just basically done before that.
You didn't consider going back to the drawing board?
No. I don't feel like I need to go address it on an album to really bring some closure to everything. As far as dedicating it to them, I just felt like that was a cool way to pay tribute to those people that were my fans that were there, to the memory of the people that were lost.
Did you learn anything about what your fans want or need from you at a time like that?
I think more than anything, there was a lot of people looking at me, saying, "What now? What do we do now?" Which is why we chose to go on Saturday Night Live. I chose to do that, because I was allowed to do it the way I wanted to.
You mean that you chose to perform the Tom Petty song "I Won't Back Down"?
Yeah. My deal was, "I'll do the show if I get to say what I want to say and play the song I wanna play and do what I wanna do. I don't want you guys writing stuff for me to say." I felt like I needed to do that.
My first show back was in Tulsa. I played three songs and looked up and you could hear a pin drop in the arena. It was like everybody was waiting on me to say something. So I said, "Let's address the elephant in the room. This is our first show back. You guys bought a ticket to see a show, and from here on out, you're gonna get a show. Let's get back to what it is we do." That was really kinda all I knew to do.
"I Won't Back Down" is a defiant song, and a tone of defiance is a thread through your own albums. I'm talking about songs like "Fly Over States" and "They Don't Know," and from the new album, "Better At Being Who I Am," songs that take issue with being looked down on. What's that about for you?
Typically it's like if you're from the South, you're just a hillbilly or a redneck or inbred. It's just this accusation. Those kind of things do sort of get under my skin a little bit. I hear those things, even watching a movie or watching a TV show and you hear people talk and the way they're portrayed if they're from the South, it's like, "Man you know nothing about these people."
Some of your country star peers are more affable or goofy or smile a lot more than you do. You're aware that you don't project that kind of persona. What difference do you feel that's made to your relationship with your fans and the industry?
I feel like there's probably times where people probably misunderstand me. One thing I'd say is if people ever take the time to sit down and talk to me and get to know me a little bit, I think they'll understand [me] better. I'm just not what I call a cheeser. I'm not just gonna go out and smile. I'm extremely uncomfortable doing that. I'm way laidback. I'm not the kind of guy to walk into a room and take it over and start talking louder than anybody else. That's just not me. I know there's guys out there that do that, and they're good at it. I'm not.
You've been at this long enough to see new generations of artist come along with new ideas. Your career has taken you all over the place, into settings and experiences you might not have had if you'd stayed in Macon, Georgia. How do you relate to change that you see around you?
You just kinda roll with it. Change is inevitable. It's gonna happen whether you want it to or not. Things change and times change, people change. The music business changes and you have to, to an extent, adapt if you want to stay relevant, but not adapt to the point that you just completely abandon your deal.