He’s one of the world’s biggest country acts and has just released his debut UK record Old Boots, New Dirt after a smoking set at the recent Country to Country festival. Here, Jason Aldean talks to us about signature Gibson guitars, singles going platinum in only nine weeks, and goes some way to dispel the myths about “bro-country”.
For a long while, Jason Aldean didn’t have a name for his now-platinum sixth record Old Boots, New Dirt – he and his team struggled so much that they’d refer to it simply as “No. 6”. In a reflective mood, one of the US’ biggest country stars admits that he made the right choice in eventually settling with the title Old Boots, New Dirt, as it’s “the perfect way to sum up where he is”.
Let us help you out with the rest: Jason Aldean is the real deal. He is a two-time Academy of Country Music male vocalist of the year winner, and Old Boots, New Dirt was the only country album to be certified platinum in 2014 (it was released in the US ahead of its UK release via Sony International.) The smoking lead single ‘Burnin’ It Down’ earned platinum certification in only nine weeks, making it the fastest selling single of 2014. Aldean has sold over 10 million physical albums and has taken 14 trips to number one on the country radio charts, and he was recently recognised by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) as the top digital male country artist in history, with over 21 million downloads.
When Jason Aldean is off the road, he lives on a large ranch and has a bar in his basement to entertain friends. It’s from here that he begins our conversation in between US tour dates about something he clearly loves: the acoustic guitar.
‘My dad had an old Fender acoustic guitar,’ Jason remembers. ‘And a couple of guys used to come over to the house and play it – my uncle was one of them. My dad knew the basic chords, just about enough to play a couple of songs, and he ended up teaching me those basic chords that he knew, and I went on from there, learning the rest of it. I did take some guitar lessons, but the teacher was keen on teaching me all kinds of cheesy songs that he thought were good to play, and he didn’t want to teach me the really cool songs that I wanted to learn – so we lasted about three lessons. Then I got hold of a book of guitar chords and just figured out for myself what went where, and that was how I learned to play.’
‘My first acoustic guitar was an old Bentley, and I have to say that it wasn’t really that good, because I could never get it to stay in tune. I would play through one song, and then I’d have to tune it, and that was how I went on: play a song, tune it, play another song, tune it – like that. My dad told me that if I was serious about the guitar, he would buy me a decent guitar, once I had learned a little bit about it. So, a couple of months later, I was playing better than him, and my dad was true to his word, and he bought me a Takamine Pro Series 6 which had a jumbo body. I kept that guitar right through my first band, and up until I got my record deal and got out on the road. Up to 10 years ago, I was still playing that guitar. Once I got my record deal, I got a deal with Gibson so I retired the Takamine, and it’s hanging up in my bar which I have in my basement at home. It’s doesn’t see live shows now, but that was the first really good guitar that I owned, and it is still important to me.’
You’ll now see Jason with a signature Gibson J-200, complete with “Jason Aldean” inlaid in mother-of-pearl up the fretboard.
‘I have several of them in different colours and I like those guitars a lot. The Gibsons have a real full sound, whether you mic them or just play them straight. A lot of acoustic guitars have a real high end sound to them; the best you can hope for is that they have a little mid-range in there as well. But the Gibsons have a full warm sound, with a lot of range. I tried a few in the Gibson line, and I did like them, but it was the J-200 that really did what I wanted in terms of the sound I like. I guess I am not as good a guitar player as maybe I ought to be, considering how long I have been doing it. On stage, I mostly tend to play rhythm, and for some songs I don’t play the guitar at all in my performances. I guess my practising these days comes down to learning new songs. Because I play the songs I have recorded so much, I do enjoy having new songs to learn because that’s a nice change – it’s refreshing for the band and I to have new material to work on. But as far as improving my technique, and becoming a better guitar player, I’d be lying if I said I give that a whole lot of attention!’
‘I’m not a real believer in things being technically wrong. I think all musicians pick up little quirks and dinks that make their playing different from what the manual says, but that’s what makes all musicians different. You could take a left-handed player who restrings his acoustic and plays it left-handed, and you could say that he is technically playing it wrong, which in a sense he is, but that’s what works for him, so does it really matter? I think the capo is a wonderful invention. It has allowed guitar players to avoid some of the really tricky up and down the fretboard stuff they might have had to do to get to some of those tricky chords, and made life a lot simpler for people. I don’t see anything wrong with that at all.’
Old Boots, New Dirt is a rock album with a country voice singing on it. It’s a mixture of the party songs he’s known for, as well as the burning country ballads. He’s as much Bon Jovi as Garth Brooks, and on hearing that we had reached that conclusion, Jason is perfectly happy.
‘Well, we are a rock band with a country singer, so if that is what you are hearing when you listen to the record, then that makes perfect sense to me. The guys in the band were influenced by a lot of different things; everything from George Jones to Van Halen, and Aerosmith to U2. The boys in the band, and me as well, we like all kinds of music and that goes into the records that we make. The thing is, you can go into the studio with a band and have a set idea of what you want, or you can loosen the collar a little, let them have their heads, and see what everyone comes up with. I am not someone who is going to get into the studio with a bunch of guys and tell them what I want, and direct them how to play the songs. What I want is for them to bring what they feel into the studio with them, and we’ll try it out different ways until we get a fit that works for all of us. It’s about the freedom to experiment a little. If it goes down a road that I really don’t like then I will pull the reins back a little and put things back on track for where I think we should be heading. Musicians are creative, you can’t be creative for them, and that’s what I try to do, let them create the style that we have.’
As the huge sales figures prove, country audiences have embraced Aldean right around the world – he played to a sold-out crowd at the O2 arena as part of the annual Country to Country festival. In the case of streaming figures, Old Boots, New Dirt garnered three million listens over on Spotify in its first week, setting the record for the best-ever debut for a country album on that platform. Aldean subsequently joined ranks with Taylor Swift and pulled his album from Spotify’s catalogue. Setting aside the stereotype that country music is all about beers, girls, and trucks, one thing’s for sure: Jason Aldean isn’t your “bro”.
‘I think country music still has its stereotypes; people who don’t know anything about country music think it is all about wives leaving, and dogs dying, and all that kind of stuff. It is very frustrating for country music artists to still be viewed with this narrow idea of what the music and the settings are about. If I find anyone who still thinks that country music is about crops failing and women being unfaithful and all that, I’m likely to give ‘em a kick down the highway, because if that is what you are hearing after all this time, then you are just not listening to country music with an open mind. That is so ridiculous to me now; the idea that country music is only about a bunch of guys sitting around on hay bales strumming banjos, when the reality is that country music is one of the biggest musical genres in the world – and has been for a very long time. In terms of the overall production for a country musician touring, they can be as big as anything that is out there.’
‘I think that these days a lot more people are open to a lot more varieties of music. Certainly in the States there are plenty of specialist stations around and people can and do jump from one to another. If you are listening to a country station and a song comes on that you don’t like, then you can switch over to the pop station, or the rock station, or whatever, and then come back to the country station later to see if there is something there that pricks up your ears. I think country music is music for everyman; it’s for the working guy, the stay-at-home mom, the high-school kids, the college kids – it works right across the board. It is accessible to anyone and everyone – and that is your appeal.’
The golden rule is – write what you know. In Jason’s case, however, he sings what he knows. ‘You’re not going hear me sing a lot of songs that are about subjects I know nothing about. Singing what you know is what makes the music real, and that is vital in country music; it has to be real and believable. If I am a shoemaker, and I am on stage trying to convince you that I am a mechanic, you are going to know that I am not singing about something I understand. That’s never going to be convincing, so I am a great believer in choosing material that reflects things about life that I can relate to and understand, because then I can make them come over in a way that the audience will relate to and understand. It is all about being genuine. Every songwriter or performer puts their songs over in a slightly different way, but the essential reality of the song is what counts. If you work on a “what you see is what you get” basis, you won’t go far wrong.’
Aldean moved to Nashville in 1998 to pursue a songwriting career, but it was never something he truly felt passionate about – he has always been driven by the need to be on a stage performing or being in the studio recording. For his hit ‘Burnin’ It Down’ from Old Boots, New Dirt, Aldean enlisted the help of friends and tour support act Florida Georgia Line to write it.
‘I do still write songs, although my writing is pretty sporadic. I could do it then, and I could do it now if I needed to, but for me, I was always more excited about being up on stage performing, or being in the studio recording and creating music from that end. I am a great believer in looking at the huge number of great songwriters there are out there in Nashville. If I was to write songs and put them on my album just because I wrote them, I think that would dilute the album. I would much rather seek out the great songs that are out there, and find those and record them and not force my songs in there. I reckon there are only about five or maybe six songs of mine on all the albums I have made. To be honest, I am just not that passionate about songwriting. I can do it, and there are times when I want to do it, but for the most part, I just want to be up there on stage.’
As his tour ticket sales demonstrate, Jason Aldean is a master at choosing songs that work for his audience – so what makes an ideal country song for him? ‘It comes back to being real again, and putting something out there that people can relate to. It can be something sad – maybe a relationship broke down, or a friend passed away, or you just had a bad day at work – or it can be something really good like getting ready to go out and have a great weekend partying with your friends. Any mood you can think of that is something an audience will understand can be the basis for a song. Whatever mood the songwriter is in that day, that is what is going to influence the song that comes out – but making sure the connection is there is what will make it work as a song, both in writing it, and when someone like me comes to perform it.’
‘I have always loved watching the guys who will give the band a break and come out to the front of the stage with an acoustic and play a couple of songs; I always thought that was really cool. Garth Brooks is really good at that, Travis Tritt does the same, and I used to enjoy John Denver’s shows when he did that – he was a really accomplished acoustic player. It’s great to drop everything back to one acoustic guitar and one voice; it doesn’t get much simpler than that – and you get to hear the real strength of the song.’
Jason Aldean’s Old Boots, New Dirt is out now.