Jason Aldean Works Back to His Core Sound With 'They Don't Know'

Billboard

Jason Aldean had plenty of cause for head-scratching.

On Aug. 30, the Academy of Country Music started its annual ACM Honors by presenting him the Triple Crown, a cumulative trophy that recognizes acts that have been named new artist, vocalist and entertainer of the year. He's only the seventh artist in that circle, joining such predecessors as Merle Haggard, Kenny Chesney and Brooks & Dunn.

The next morning, Aldean - the reigning ACM entertainer - was absent when the Country Music Association reeled off the names for its 50th annual awards in November. The overlap among voters in the two organizations is significant, thus the shift from winner in one ceremony to nonexistent at the other in a scant four months is astonishing, to say the least.

"It's disappointing," said Aldean on Sept. 1. "I don't understand the way the voting goes any more than anybody else does. I just know that things are going to happen if they're going to happen."

One thing that did happen was the release of Aldean's They Don't Know, an album that marks something of a return to form. Where his 2014 release Old Boots, New Dirt leaned more toward ballads and new sounds, They Don't Know veers back to the working-class pride that has been central to his place in the country universe.

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The middle-class values - affirmed in such previous Aldean hits as "The Only Way I Know," "Fly Over States" and "Amarillo Sky" - reach their apex in the title track, a sizzling production that characterizes the issues and ethics of a small highway-side town as a mystery to the travelers who pass it by.

It's that same sort of unrecognized reality that Aldean had in mind when he picked They Don't Know as the album's title. The farmers, factory workers and office staffers that pay to see Aldean may relate to the average-Joe messages that populate his songs, but they tend to project a little showbiz glamor on his lifestyle. Though a security fence may separate the fans in the front rows from his place onstage, he still needs the same level of focus and dedication they apply to their jobs. In fact, he probably requires more to keep his vocation on track.

"There's a lot of things people don't know," he says. "On the outside-looking in on things, a lot of times people feel like they know everything. It's kind of like watching a football game at home. You sit there and you're mad that the coach called this play and that play, and you feel like you could throw the ball better than the quarterback did. Ultimately, there's a lot of things behind the scenes people don't see. They don't understand."

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Aldean set himself apart from the moment he first blew out of the radio speakers in 2005 with "Hicktown." That title, like many that would follow, put him on the hard edge of country, owing as much to the arena-rock aggression of AC/DC and Guns N' Roses as he did to his country influences including  Alabama and George Strait. Producer Michael Knox (Montgomery Gentry, Trace Adkins) recognized that toughness and helped bring it to life in the studio along with a crack band that has been with Aldean since before he signed with Broken Bow.

Bassist Tully Kennedy creates a rare sense of movement underneath the pile of sound, which invariably includes crunch and snarl from guitarists Kurt Allison and Adam Shoenfeld, and a crisp power from drummer Rich Redmond, who sweats so profusely during their daylong recording sessions that he requires extra clothes just to pull through the date.

"I know how to communicate with them," says Aldean. "I know how to get what I want to get out of them and a lot of times I kind of let them be an artist in their own right. Michael and I have been working together for so long that we get in there and we know exactly what we're shooting for before we ever get started."

Like any other job, there's a sort of treadmill component to the vocation. Aldean has regularly cranked out a new album during the fall of every even-numbered year this decade. Other than the Christmas break and a few weeks in the autumn when he works on his Buck Commander TV show - an Outdoor Channel offering that teams him with Luke Bryan, Duck Dynasty's Willie Robertson and three Major League Baseball players - music is a perpetual part of the cycle.

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"This album hasn't even come out, and Michael Knox sent me a song the other day and was like, 'Hey, I got the first song for the next album,' " says Aldean. "It never really stops."

Neither does Aldean's hunger, though in the wake of the CMA shutout, he sounded like a guy who was angling to turn the situation into a day off.

"If we can't get enough votes to be nominated, we sure aren't going to get enough votes to win," said Aldean. "So what's the point [to a nomination]. Honestly. I'm not a it's-good-to-be-here guy. I'm competitive. I want to win. So if I can barely squeak in just enough votes for a nomination, if we're not going to win, I'd just as soon not be there anyway."