Nothing Much Goin’ on Around Here: Jason Aldean Makes Nowhere Big Business

Holly Gleason | October 30th, 2012

jason-aldeanHe doesn’t sing about much. Not really. Back water towns with water towers, driving with no place to go, working with one’s hands, no real arc for what the future holds, needing to believe and finding little to put one’s faith in. An American Dream that’s faded, now torn and shrinking. The will to survive when thriving seems beyond possible, but without the Springsteen heroics of a blue collar flipped up to the cold wind.
 
Except for Jason Aldean and his tribe, who most certainly are in the 47%. They’re the weeds in the cracks, post-rural teens and 20-somethings refusing to buckle, even if their future is being traded away, jobs being sent to where labor is cheap and the people doing it live like dogs. In the final verse of his new Night Train’s “Nowhere Town,” he celebrates yet another nail in the coffin of in their future. But rather than rage, there’s an almost unaware notion of making the best of what can’t be changed: “That old abandoned factory just got the wrecking ball/We threw a party in the parking lot, just to watch it fall.” Do they know? Understand? Care? In the face of inevitability, there’s no rage in the face of fate, nor is there any sense of what’s driving the erosion of what was once the American Way of Life for a 18-25 year old with a high school diploma, a strong back and the will to work.
 
Listen to Aldean’s records, there’s a sonic aggression: guitars stacked, power chords layered thick and hard on top of each other, even the stabbing way Aldean’s unexceptional tenor pushes through the bombast that says everything. Not since Trent Reznor gave another generation of alienated youth a nonverbal place to put their rage have young people watching the future shrink had such catharsis from their music. Aldean and producer Michael Knox have more than delivered. Sure, you could write volumes about the lyrical clichés, the notion that many songs are retreads of 80s and 90s hair metal (“Wheels Rollin’,” with its careening guitar outro, evokes the Outlaws’ “Green Grass and High Tides” and Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mama, I’m Coming Home,” while working a solid morph of Seger’s original “Turn The Page” through a steroidal rendition of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive”) and the awkward country-rap “event” with fellow outliers Luke Bryan and Eric Church feels forced where his breakthrough “Dirt Road Anthem” felt inspired and real. But that would miss the point.
 
No, this is about the sound. The bottomless well of fat waves of big, booming production: crashing drums shoving the guitars and Aldean’s shameless vocals forward. Like Garth Brooks, another populist theatrist, Aldean will hurl himself at a lyric and wring it dry; his voice loud, rippling, forceful. For the nonagrarian Southerner – more often living above the Mason Dixon line – that  release is most needed. Hate crimes on the rise; teenagers walking into schools and shooting up the place, luring kids away and brutally killing them, bullying, cyber and otherwise…thank God for Jason Aldean and a place to get it all out.
 
And his numbers prove it: 400,000+ CD sales his first week and two upcoming sold out shows at Boston’s legendary Fenway Park. “Take A Little Ride,” already a multiple week #1, is jubilant, euphoric. Not quite a “tramps like us” celebration, but the notion of freedom behind the wheel. It is the one place where everything can be right. Aldean and his ilk know it. Reach for what you can, ride it for all it’s worth. And at a time when country – the “She Left Love All Over Me” genre of yore — has become oddly non-contact, Aldean has no fear about going in skin deep. “When She Says Baby” is all about sex as salvation, while “Night Train” tackles killing tedium and finding release out in a field “with a blanket and a fifth of Comfort, something to knock off a little of that edge” listening to that metaphorically connect train drive through.
 
When interviewing Aldean in 2007 for The Los Angeles Times, he had no problem looking me in the eye and telling me Kenny Chesney was just too old. It wasn’t about disrespecting his elders, it was recognizing there was a deeper dissonance among his generation – kids for whom it wasn’t all rum drinks and sandy beaches. With the hard knocks raining down, the toughness Aldean espouses may well reflect the state of the country. Looking at the election, the attack ads and extremism, he sure seems to understand the power of the pump and the punch. After all, the numbers don’t lie – and this year’s CMA Awards nominations sure seem to back up the notion that the future might just be Macon, Georgia made.

  1. Leeann Ward
    October 30, 2012 at 11:31 pm

    Holly, with this article and your previous Taylor Swift feature, I’m impressed and intrigued by how you can make music that I find so frustratingly bland seem almost smart and vibrant. That’s a testament to a pretty fantastic writer, I’d say.:)

  2. Ken Morton, Jr.
    October 31, 2012 at 12:23 am

    For me, I think I understand why the blue collar southern country living themes seem to be appealing to the “post-rural teens and 20-somethings.” Holly, you make a great reasoning there.

    The harder leap for me is understanding how it has connected so far beyond that target audience. He’s resonated incredibly well with the soccer moms. Out here in Northern California, where the twang is missing and the dirt roads are fewer and farther between, he’s resonated just as well. My belief is that he speaks his truth- he sings his personal story. What triggers the strong reaction from the guy in the business suit and the thirty-something mother- and the grandmother that works for me- is what I find interesting. Perhaps it’s that the personal truth he speaks resonates because they find it just that, truthful. (Even if it’s not their own story.) They can buy into the story he’s telling. For me, it’s a harder sell, I guess. I can admire a personal story from any good singer/songwriter. But the continual theme (or justification) of how that “post-rural teen and 20-something” country living is superior to everywhere/everything else wears thin after awhile. I need a more diverse theme or a better representation of both sides of the coin. Rural living is hard. My extended family is tomato farmers. It can be brutal at times. Where’s that story?

    And yes, unless I invent a machine that gets inside another person’s head, I recognize I can’t ascertain all the reasons why a specific piece of music appeals to someone. I just find it interesting that this theme has become as pervasive as it has- and succeeded commercially as much as it has.

  3. Holly Gleason
    October 31, 2012 at 12:43 am

    Yes, but the walls ARE closing in on everyone you mention…
    They’re reesoonding to the swagger and the thrust, the fist-pump thump of his don’t have to face the jagged thrust of it reality.
    It’s that veneer that makes the truth of it less harrowing….
    And I’ve had more than one person suggest to me that so many of these creek-dippin, four-wheelin neo-roughnecks probably haven’t baled much hay, contrary to what their songs suggest
    Like Hollywood, it’s the illusion… And like NIN, it’s the aggression and arena rockishness many beyond the plowboy realm are reesoonding to. Heck, Jake Owen was on track for a golf scholarship before his “8 Second Ride” came in!

  4. nm
    October 31, 2012 at 9:13 am

    I guess I’d be more impressed with an expression of frustration and agression that wasn’t so musically derivative. It seems so lazy (on both the listeners’ and the artists’ parts). You know, “we’ve got this dated rock sound as a signifier of the emotion we want to project, so we don’t have to bother finding our own expressive forms.” It’s every bit as deracinated as the hay bales.

  5. CraigR.
    October 31, 2012 at 1:22 pm

    Holly what a great essay. It almost makes me want to buy Jason Aldean’s music. But I won’t for a number of reasons. His empty music and lyrics are pandering to the misery of a group of people. He isn’t one of them. He is just selling them back their fears and illusions. His voice is especially vague, aloof, and shallow. It’s all attitude and cockiness without any base of experience or resolve.

    I believe what he is really selling is boredom. Watch him perform- live or on video- he looks like he doing this gig to get paid, and he would play whatever the audience wanted to hear. And his audience is so bored and easily distracted that they need his loud, over-produced sound to tip their ear his way. Once they connect to the music the rest is boredom. Boring lyrics, boring singing, boring performance. I can’t imagine Aldean getting excited over anything. That might crack the facade of attitude and cockiness. And then he would be just another hat act.

  6. MH
    October 31, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    “I can’t imagine Aldean getting excited over anything.”

    I can, Craigr. Any woman besides his wife.

  7. Jon
    October 31, 2012 at 5:59 pm

    It still surprises me that there are people who think a sentence that begins with “I can’t imagine that…” is somehow going to be taken as revealing more about whom it’s written about than about whom it’s written by.

  8. Rick
    October 31, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    I’m always impressed by writers who are gifted enough to make me interested in something that I truly don’t give a rip about! (lol) If all these people find comfort and empowerment in identifying with honest and truthful mediocrity, well good for them. I would love to tie this concept into Obama somehow, but know this post would get deleted if I did. Holly has proven once again that thoughtful and insightful analysis of even the most mundane things can elevate them far above their raising…

  9. DKW
    October 31, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    You’re giving Aldean waayyyy too much credit. To think he does anything other than sing exactly what Music Row tells him is just not paying attention. But to think that he consciously sings songs of “dissonance” that reflect the emotions of a certain generation and come from personal experience is just plain ignorant. He is a simple creation of Music Row, designed to sell records to bored suburbanites and self-proclaimed “rednecks” who love to tell everyone just how redneck they are.

    Perhaps the problem with this country’s direction lies in the apathetic-yet-somehow-still-angry crowd to which Aldean sings and purports to be a part of. As an authentic country singer, Sturgill Simpson, writes: “the most outlaw thing that a man today can do is give a woman a ring.” Aldean is a farce, and not even an entertaining one.

  10. Ken Morton, Jr.
    October 31, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    You know, “we’ve got this dated rock sound as a signifier of the emotion we want to project, so we don’t have to bother finding our own expressive forms.”

    I think that’s the crux of Holly’s point. They are finding their own expressive sound and niche within country music. What they are doing has never been done within the genre they’re playing. Are they stretching those boundaries? Yes. They are using their own personal music influences/history to recreate a sound that’s (controversially) turned country up on its ear. They’re using that 80’s and early 90’s rock influence on their version of country music to help separate themselves from what came before them.

  11. Holly Gleason
    October 31, 2012 at 6:48 pm

    To DKW…
    I love your passion and respect your opinion,
    but like so many people who find today’s Nashville egregious at best and criminal at worst,
    I have to take exception.
    You don’t have to like Aldean’s jugheaded take on life, or think that the audience’s frustration manifestation in his 2-dimensionality is crap,
    but you miss the point.
    As a non-involved mainstreamer, it’s easy to make these guys puppets. Aldean has always been outlier… his first single was called “Hicktown” on a crappy little label most people in Nashville thought was a joke…
    Michael Knox, the architect of the sound, has been with him since before there was the crummy indie record deal… and he’s always had this take on Aldean’s kinda country.
    These are NOT members of the Music Row Club. Indeed, the Row is trying to figure out how to xerox this was anemic results — and it’s only nominally successful, because it’s not a posture, it’s a reality in a whole lot of America.
    This is NOT deep stuff… It is as Mr. Morton acknowledged, their version of Night Ranger… But it’s connecting. And that says A LOT about the people buying it: people who will probably vote Romney against their own best financial interests and welfare.
    So, yeah… he ain’t no chimp, ain’t no puppet.
    I know: I’ve been covering mainsteam country since I was a sophomore in college for THE MIAMI HERALD, and have watched the tides rise and fall, the Credibility Scare of the late 80s, the neotrads of the early 90s, the Garth Boom, the Shania pop and yes, the Kenny Chesney beachparty on steroids.
    Recognize what’s there, then figure out how to build a better music trap I say; but you only create change when you’re real about where we’re starting!

  12. Leeann Ward
    October 31, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    I always thought that Aldean ripped his rock sound from Big and Rich. Wasn’t John Rich involved in Aldean’s early mainstream career? “Hicktown” definitely sounds like something that you’d hear Big and Rich record…not to mention that John Rich was a writer on early Aldean songs.

  13. CraigR.
    October 31, 2012 at 9:42 pm

    Jon -I meant that I could not see Aldean coming out of his performance mode, which I believe conveys a state of boredom, to really connect with any real emotion or story.

    Leeann you are correct about John Rich. He did write some Aldean’s first hits. Aldean use write songs too. I wonder why he never put one out as a single- now that he has an audience.

  14. luckyoldsun
    October 31, 2012 at 11:36 pm

    “…Any woman beside his wife.”

    MH–
    Yes, I’m aware that Jason Aldean has reportedly been involved in a situation with a woman other than his wife, though I haven’t followed it.

    Hey, that puts Aldean in one respect in the same as Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Glenn Campbell, Kenny Rogers, Vince Gill, and Garth Brooks. I don’t get the feeling that that’s going to be the impediment to Aldean’s joining them in the Hall of Fame.

  15. Jon
    November 1, 2012 at 11:44 am

    “Jon -I meant that I could not see Aldean…blah blah blah.”

    Same thing. Since millions of other people obviously see him doing something you don’t, these clearly aren’t statements about him and his performance, they’re statements about you and your perception.

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