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Jason Aldean: Fame & Fatherhood (2011)

Originally published in the January 31, 2011 issue of Country Weekly.

It’s a few days into the new year and Jason Aldean is at his Nashville-area home, preparing to christen 2011 the best way he knows how: by burning up the pavement on an epic 30-date headlining tour, starting Jan. 21 in Little Rock, Ark.

“I’ve been off the road for a month and a half now and I’m getting the itch. I’m ready to get back out there,” Jason says, prior to settling in for a chat about the tour, the record-setting sales of his fourth album, My Kinda Party, and being named both Billboard’s No. 1 Male Country Artist of 2010 and an inaugural member of CMT’s Artists of the Year class. 

But first, there’s the more pressing matter of checking on his younger daughter, who may be making a ruckus down the hall.

“My little 3-year-old might be yelling, so bear with me a minute,” he politely asks. 

And that simple bit of parenting is what sums up Jason Aldean: Despite all the recent chart success, he is still a regular guy. And providing for his family—wife Jessica and daughters Keeley, 7, and Kendyl, 3—is his top priority. 

But even he admits that his high-profile job sometimes makes his role as the great protector a challenge. Fame, while welcome, has been taxing on his loved ones, especially the girls. 

“I was just thinking about this the other day. People don’t understand sometimes that when this kind of stuff starts happening, you go from nobody caring who you are, to all of a sudden having to plan where you’re going to eat with your family. I think that’s something that will always be a bit of an adjustment. I’m still not used to being recognized. And I have two young kids that really don’t understand,” he says, going on to recount a frightening encounter with some passionate fans around the time of last year’s CMA Music Festival in June.

“I was going to play in the celebrity softball game and my oldest daughter was with me. I pulled up in the car and we just got swarmed. That was really the first time she had a chance to see that,” Jason says. “My manager came out and grabbed her and took her inside with my wife. She didn’t really know what was going on and it freaked her out a little bit. It’s one thing to be a single person, but when there are kids involved, that really makes [the attention] difficult.” 

That said, Jason makes it clear that he is not another success story who is unhappy—and ungrateful—about how his tale is unfolding. “I don’t want to sound like I’m bitching about it,” he says. “It’s a good problem to have.”

And Jason knows firsthand what some of those more serious problems can be. He reveals that while Jessica was pregnant with their second daughter, the couple was blindsided by two serious health scares. 

First, the doctors feared unborn Kendyl might be afflicted with cystic fibrosis, the degenerative disease that attacks the lungs and digestive tract and often results in early death. Then, after giving birth, Jessica herself was struck ill. 

“It’s something that I’ve never really talked about much,” he says, recalling that terrifying day at the hospital. “We went to find out the sex of the baby and the doctor told us that something could be wrong. They caught something in the sonogram and wanted us to go to a specialist. It was like a punch in the gut.”

Fortunately, it was a false alarm. 

“Trust me, her lungs are working just fine now. She screams her head off,” Jason says with a laugh, still relieved. “She’s 100 percent healthy.” 

As is Jessica, who endured post-pregnancy complications that left the couple reluctant to add to their brood. “When Kendyl was born, my wife got really sick. She was on some medicine for blood pressure for a year,” he recalls. “The doctor advised us not to have any more kids because she may have more problems. So we said let’s count our blessings and be thankful we have two healthy kids.”

Yet Jason also felt compelled to share some of those blessings, thanks to a little dose of serendipity. About a month after he and Jessica heard the “all clear” about Kendyl’s health, a letter arrived in the Aldeans’ mailbox. 

“We received a cystic fibrosis donation form. My wife held up that letter and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this. Look what’s in the mail.’ I saw it and said, ‘Write a check. I don’t even care how much. Just write it and send it,’” he says, pondering the fatefulness of it all. “Sometimes it takes something like that to slow you down. It was kind of a sign saying don’t forget about this, because it could have happened to you.”

It’s a startling recollection to hear, especially given Jason’s usual reluctance to open up about his personal life. He prefers to let the songs tell the story, stories that he and his likeminded fans both relate to. About leaving their mark on their small towns. About blowing off steam after school or work. And about meeting that perfect girl. 

In Jason’s case, he has his high-school best friend to thank for that last one—Jessica was his teammate’s cousin. “He and I played baseball together and she came up to the fence in the dugout to bring him a drink. I thought she was some girl he was dating, but he said it was his cousin. I was like, ‘Oh, really?’” Jason says with a laugh. “I got him to put in a good word for me and I called her up. I was like 17 years old.”

In other words, right around the age of a good chunk of his devoted audience, who will no doubt turn out in droves for Jason’s current tour with fellow barn-burner Eric Church and upstarts the JaneDear girls.

“Jason just appeals to such a young audience. His show has a rocking vibe that is so energetic and everyone feeds off that. It’s a big ol’ rock show with country lyrics that talk to rural people,” says Luke Bryan, who became close friends with Jason after the two toured together last year. “Being Georgia guys set the tone for us to be great friends. Before we knew it, we were shooting our bows and arrows every day and going hunting. We just had a great time together.” 

The pair forged such a close bond, in fact, that Jason wondered how he would fill Luke’s boots for this tour.

“I was worrying about how we were going to replace my boy Luke,” he says with a chuckle. Nonetheless, he found an able-bodied cohort in Eric. Well, if you don’t count Eric’s foot, that is.

“The last time I saw him he had a cast on,” Jason recalls. “I asked him what he did and he said he broke his foot stomping on the stage. I was like, hell! That’s pretty aggressive. I’m excited, man. I think we have a lot of the same fan base.”

Luke jokes that Jason may not be able to keep up with the hell-raising Eric: “He’ll party even more than I will. After two good years of hard partying, first with me, then with Eric, Jason is going to have to get a physical!”

But he won’t have to worry about blowing out his voice. His boisterous crowds sing along to every word of his hits, from “Hicktown” to “The Truth”—and even to songs that have yet to be released, like Party’s next single, the adventurous “Dirt Road Anthem.”

Composed by spoken-word performer Colt Ford and “My Kinda Party” writer Brantley Gilbert, the song mixes some fluid rhyming with a slinking sing-along chorus. And to hear Luke tell it, it goes over big in Jason’s set list.

“Oh, it’s massive. I’m almost certain it’ll be the biggest song of his career,” Luke says, awed by the crowd’s reaction when “Dirt Road” is performed live. 

That sure makes co-writer Colt happy. “It’s cool that the song already resonates with so many people. It’s kind of a hit without ever being heard. It wasn’t heard on the radio because I didn’t write it to be played on the radio,” he says, still surprised that Jason recorded the track, which originally appeared on Colt’s 2008 album, Ride Through the Country.

“That’s the last song I thought Jason would want to cut,” he says. “What I like about his version is that he made it his own. He didn’t try to do it like I did it, nor should he have. He made it sound like Jason Aldean.”

Jason agrees. “The way Colt does it is his deal and it’s cool, but it wouldn’t have worked for us,” he says, discussing how he and producer Michael Knox approached the track. “We thought it might be cool to try, but we’d have to slow it down and make it less of a rap thing and a little groovier. Once we locked in on the way we wanted it to sound, we were like, OK, this is going to be pretty neat.”

Neat and most definitely different, yes—but not genuine rap, Jason stresses. “Everyone kept referring to it as that and I kept telling them it’s not what you think. It’s not like Eminem,” he says with a laugh. “I was glad when they got a chance to hear it and I was able to quit answering questions about if I was going to become a rap star.”

But what about a country star? To his record- and ticket-buying fans, Jason is without question a Resistol- and Wranglers-wearing hero. But inexplicably, the country industry—and specifically its awards organizations—has yet to embrace him the way they have some of his peers. Case in point: Jason was excluded from this year’s Country Music Association Awards nominations, despite his three No. 1 singles from his 2009 album, Wide Open.

Jason brushes it aside, but does admit to being a bit confused by the snubs. 

“It is a little frustrating when awards time comes up. We had one of the biggest songs of the year with ‘Big Green Tractor,’ a four-week No. 1. Then you [hear the nominations for] Single and Song of the Year and it’s nowhere to be found. Yet there are songs in there that barely cracked the Top 10,” says Jason, who admits he’s at a disadvantage because he’s signed to an independent label, Broken Bow Records, instead of a major. “I’m not knocking the awards at all. It’s a great thing and if I ever do get the opportunity to win some, I will be ecstatic. But as long as I’m able to make my living and go out and play my songs, I don’t need a trophy to validate my career.”

Luke echoes his pal’s sentiments. “The complete truth is that Jason is on a small, independent label that doesn’t have enough votes. It’s not a knock against his label. It’s just the reality of it,” he explains. “But in the end, it’s not about awards. It’s about connecting with fans. And Jason is doing that.”

For proof, you needn’t look any further than My Kinda Party’s sales. At 193,000, the album was the highest first-week debut by a male country vocalist since Kenny Chesney’s Just Who I Am: Poets & Pirates in 2007.

Jason credits the big bash for Party to simply keeping it real. “When people get their record deal, the company comes in and says, ‘This is the demographic we’re going after.’ We just never did that, man. We went in and recorded songs that I liked and that I thought were cool. And if you think they’re cool, too, that’s awesome,” he says, reflecting on his success in 2010. “I’ve waited my whole life to have a year like I just had.” 

Which sounds like another good problem to have. 

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