JASON ALDEAN WEARS HIS OLD BOOTS TO MAKE A NEW IMPRESSION
Jason Aldean’s Burn It Down Tour has been raging for awhile now. Over the last 14 months, I’ve seen it four times in four different states. Whether on the stage at Nationals Park, inside Nashville’s famous Bridgestone Arena, lighting up the night at Hershey Park Stadium, or warming up a rainy day in Bristow, Virginia, there’s a genuine sound and substance to the show. It’s components are varied, with a history that dates back to 1977, the year Jason was born. Jason didn’t come to Nashville to reinvent himself and become some neon version of a cowboy singer. The kid from Macon, Georgia put his boots on, dug his heels in that hometown dirt, and brought it with him to “Crazy Town.” He’s dusted himself off a few times over the years, but the dirt he came from is still there, on his old boots. He takes the stage like a man intent on making an impression. There aren’t a lot of big gimmicks in this show to divert your attention away from the music. The focus of the show IS the music, and Jason builds a bonfire with his impressive catalog, compiled over ten years and six albums. There is an energy and a strength in such a blaze, yet the warmth envelops you like a blanket. If you’ve heard “Night Train,” you know that Jason always has a blanket and a fifth of Comfort in tow. That’s the burn and the feel of a Jason Aldean show. This isn’t smoke and mirrors. It’s smoke and ashes.
“The Boss” himself, Bruce Springsteen, taught us that you can’t start a fire without a spark. If you want people dancing in the dark to your music, it has to inspire them to get out of their seats. After the Garth Brooks/Shania Twain era ended in country music, just after the turn of the century, the genre went stale for me. I went back to my rock roots and paid little attention to what Nashville was turning out. In the early part of 2013, as I was flipping stations on my car radio, the scan stopped on our local country station, WMZQ. Four thundering beats from a kick drum knocked me back in my seat. What followed it was like nothing I’d heard in country music before. Once I got past the use of ‘butt crack’ in a lyric, and rhyming Laura Ingalls with shingles, I wanted to know who the guy was who just kicked his way through my radio. Thank you Google. Jason Aldean. So who is Jason Aldean? I did some research, listened to all I could, and by May of that year, I’d bought my first ticket to a country concert and all five of his albums – in both digital and hard copy. If I was going to brave a country crowd in Hershey Park, Pennsylvania, I was going prepared.
Most people go to concerts having heard the radio hits and maybe a couple of others they’ve snagged off iTunes. I didn’t want the Aldean Army to sniff a Yankee among their ranks, so I was determined to be overly prepared for this adventure. I started listening to The Highway and our local station and writing down words that came up in the lyrics that I was unfamiliar with. I didn’t know a KC Light from a flashlight, had no idea what “rollin’ on 35s” meant if not referring to a highway, and F-150 and 30-06 were just numbers. After that enlightenment, I tackled the bulk of my homework for this concert. I learned the lyrics to every song off all five albums, including his recent collaborations at that time with Colt Ford and Alabama, just in case he threw one of those in the set list – which he did (“Tennessee River”). I watched his back story, read all the press I could find, and learned the names of his band members. The concert was like watching everything I’d learned come to life on the stage. I sang every word, never sat in my seat, and never stopped moving to the music. I paid close attention when he introduced his band members and committed those faces to memory. They are an integral part of the Jason Aldean story.
It is indeed rare these days to find a band that’s been together as long as this one has. Most new artists get a record deal and scramble to put a touring band together. The nucleus of this band has been together since Jason Aldean was a name nobody knew, unsigned, and touring out of a van. Kurt Allison (electric guitar), Tully Kennedy (bass), and Rich Redmond (drums and percussion), have been touring with Jason Aldean since the turn of the century. They played the circuit everyone must on their way to becoming a household name, as well as countless showcases before label reps hoping to get that record deal. As the albums were released, radio hits were on the rise, and Jason’s popularity was soaring, around 2010, two new members were added to the band – Jack Sizemore (electric guitar) and Jay Jackson (lap steel, banjo). The five of them, having been together on the road for five years now, play together seamlessly. Jason can jump in and out of the mix on guitar as the main focus or a contributing player. That cohesiveness, in the spirit of a rock band performance, set Jason apart from the pack in the early days. He brought a different approach to his live show, an appreciation for the musicians he surrounded himself with, and a new sound in music composition that hadn’t been heard from a country stage before. The sound of Jason Aldean and this band set the country music world on fire, a prelude to the inferno that was to come.
Had I listened exclusively to Jason’s radio hits leading up to my first concert, I would have missed the depth and diversity in his music. Judging an artist on radio airplay alone is like judging a book by its cover. We’ve all been cautioned in this regard. Having the advantage of five albums to listen to, recorded over a seven year span, I saw the progression of Jason the artist. What I noticed immediately was the firm foundation he grounds his music in. Don’t look for the whimsical or pie in the sky in a Jason Aldean song. There’s generally a firmament overhead and solid ground beneath your feet. Whether he’s describing life beneath an “Amarillo Sky,” the allure of a “Big Green Tractor,” the pitfalls of a “Church Pew Or Bar Stool” kind of town, or the romance of waiting on the “Night Train,” there is no shortage of detail in the lyrics and little left to the imagination. He wears his heart on his sleeve on every album and isn’t afraid to address the temptations and failings we’ve all experienced. This is what makes his music so relatable. The truck he drives, dirt roads he’s traveled, and the kinda party he prefers, are just part of the miles that made the man. He draws his artistic inspiration not only from the window dressing of his childhood, but from the music that lit his passion and the lessons he’s learned along the way. Putting his old boots in new dirt started long before he named his latest album after the premise.
Building an artistic image isn’t as simple as hiring a stylist and selecting a sound. If you’re Jason Aldean, it was about breaking a mold. He was a hybrid of sorts, blending different genres into a single musical expression. Where Garth Brooks had injected an energy boost into country music, Jason changed the beat, gathered a band capable of multi-genre fusion, and delivered the lyrics to suit his sound vision. It was a risk and it could have flopped. It didn’t. His fourth studio album, My Kinda Party, was a game changer. It won Album of the Year at the 2011 CMA Awards and pushed the boundaries with the rap-styled, “Dirt Road Anthem.” This album produced five radio hits and put Jason on a headlining level he hadn’t seen before. The overwhelming reaction of the fans has led to sold out shows, stadium tours, and collaborations with some of the biggest names in music. On the boot heels of this success, he recorded the Grammy nominated, Night Train, in 2012, which also delivered five radio hits. It was a testament to the fans’ embrace of his identity as an artist. Ticket sales don’t lie.
In 2014, Jason released his sixth studio album, Old Boots, New Dirt, which started the brush fire that has become the Burn It Down Tour. The first single, “Burnin’ It Down,” was the added fuel to test the heights this fire could reach. It went to #1 on country radio and launched this tour amidst a firework celebration. From my seat at Jiffy Lube Live this past Saturday night, I watched the evolution of Jason Aldean the artist, as it played out in the set list. He opened with “Hicktown,” which seemed appropriate to celebrate the ten year anniversary of his debut album release. When Rich Redmond opens the show with those four enormous beats on the kick drum, the song explodes onto the stage like a backdraft. If you follow the beat throughout the song, the power in this one never lets up. Jason’s vocal comes at you like his vocal chords are shooting bullets with every word. They set the bar high opening with this and it matches the fire that explodes around them at the conclusion. Every song in the set list would add another log to the fire. This blaze was not going to burn out any time soon.
Every album was represented by the weight of success it had. Like watching a retrospective on a successful career, each song was cheered with a turn it up reaction. The use of video throughout the show is not heavy handed. It’s used merely as a setting for the lyrics to tell their story. The emotion in songs like “Amarillo Sky,” “Tattoos On This Town,” and “Fly Over States,” comes from Jason’s connection to the subject matter. A light interpretation would not punctuate his message – farm towns and small towns are the heart of this country. Pride in America starts here. While “My Kinda Party” could easily be a theme to build his show around, he doesn’t. He keeps that fraction of his catalog in perspective. The more tenderhearted, “Big Green Tractor,” “The Truth,” and “Tonight Looks Good On You” are a welcome counterbalance to the raise your glass anthems. “Johnny Cash,” “When She Says Baby,” “1994,” “Just Gettin’ Started,” and “Take A Little Ride” are the flirty, fun songs that channel the mood of the audience into Jason’s hands. He commands nearly a singular pulse from a packed amphitheater. The crowd was completely in sync with every lyrical intention.
Watching this show, it was easy to forget there was more than one person on the stage. This band is so tight in their performance, it’s often tough to separate one player from another and focus on where an individual sound is coming from. I caught myself more than once following a sound to the hands of Kurt Allison. If you watch him for any length of time, you’ll see what an understated virtuoso on guitar he is. His control over that instrument is masterful. Depending on the song, each member of this highly skilled band flashed their skills, if but for a moment. They don’t pander to the audience or overplay. They play to make the song as good as it can be, and provide the musical kindling to make Jason’s vocal spark the fire. The longevity of this group on the road has made them a powerhouse of sound and precision that energizes the audience from the first beat of the drum to the last.
There are certain songs in a Jason Aldean show that you can feel the audience collectively embrace as iconic JA material. “Night Train” has quickly become one of those songs. As if we’ve all arrived with a blanket to wait for its passing in a spot nobody knows, all is right with the world when Jason sings those first words, “I’ve been thinkin’ ’bout you all day baby.” The music sets the mood of a peaceful starry night, while Jason’s vocal brings the power of a passing train. This is always a highlight of the show. No Aldean concert is complete without the truth telling of “Crazy Town” or the song they closed the night with, “She’s Country.” This brings us back to the roots of this country boy, a few vocal acrobatics to show off the pipes, and the power of a Jason Aldean song. They go out the way they came in, with a blaze of fire and the pop of fireworks.
Jason Aldean’s Burn It Down Tour has really been ten years in the making. You have to have a lot of material to build a bonfire the size of the one he starts. He has enough now to change up the kindling and still bring the same amount of heat. Through those ten years since the first album was released, he’s pushed the boundaries of country music past where they previously stood. He’s stayed true to the storytelling that the genre was founded on, but made his own impression through unique music composition, sound, and stage performance. It’s a hit you in the heart, punch you in the chest, full throttle concert experience. Jason arrived in Nashville wearing boots they’d seen before, but refused to trod the same dirt and follow the footprints on a well worn path. Old Boots, New Dirt was how his journey started. He’s since blazed a trail and left his mark on the genre. As the fire died out Saturday night, Jason left the stage and the band played their final notes. Smoke was the only visible sign that something had burned, yet this band left an indelible impression. Jason says it best in the lyrics of his new single, “We may not be around in twenty years, but they’re sure Gonna Know We Were Here.”
Visit Jason Aldean’s website for tour information: http://www.jasonaldean.com/tour
Download Old Boots, New Dirt through iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/old-boots-new-dirt/id913336200
Download the new single, “Gonna Know We Were Here,” through iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/gonna-know-we-were-here/id913336200?i=913336248
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