BY THE TIME he was 18, country singer Jason Aldean had played every juke joint, gymnasium and bull-riding barroom in his hometown of Macon. Played them all at least 50 times.
Being a big fish in a small pond wasn’t enough. Following a time-tested trajectory, he loaded up the truck and moved to Nashville, worked every job he could find, showcased and networked and finally landed a recording deal.
Five hit singles, one gold and one platinum album later, this hardscrabble Georgia boy is one of country’s biggest up-and-comers. After a few years paying his dues by opening for mega-stars like Tim McGraw, Hank Williams Jr. and Rascal Flatts, Aldean’s headlining the cross-country “CMT on Tour” package with Lady Antebellum.
It’s a long road from the Macon VFW Hall.
“When I got out of high school I was like most kids: You just want to get out and see the rest of the world,” Aldean says. “You’re hoping that somebody sees you and discovers you, and if you confine yourself just to Macon, it’s probably a lot less likely to happen.
“So for me, it was about getting out and playing as many places as I could, and in front of as many different people as I could.”
Aldean’s country is hard-edged and owes a strong debt to the Southern Rock greats who put Macon on the map back in the ‘70s. His first hit, “Hicktown” (written by John Rich of Big & Rich) is a full-tilt barn-burner, heavy on the electric guitar, with a little sawbones fiddle thrown into the mix.
“My producer found that song, and he called me and said ‘You’re either going to love this or hate it,’” Aldean laughs. “It was right up my alley. Right off the bat, as soon as that guitar lick kicked in, it was something that grabbed your attention. Which was what we were looking for to get some attention at radio.”
Next came “Why,” a bittersweet mid-tempo ballad with nostalgic echoes of Duane Allman’s slide guitar, and brother Gregg’s weeping Hammond organ.
“Why” went to the top of the country charts; its followup, “Amarillo Sky,” reached No. 4.
“I always thought that the kind of music I was playing was a little different,” he says. “There was nothing else like that on country radio.
“Things you don’t even realize set you apart – for me, it was stuff like wearing a cowboy hat with two earrings. Things like that make people remember you. But I don’t think you ever really know what’s going to work and what’s not. If you knew that, someone would write a book – and everybody’d be famous.”
With his wife and two young daughters back home in Nashville, Aldean is finding life on the tour bus somewhat strenuous.
“It’s a lot more work than I thought it would be,” he admits. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I don’t think a lot of people realize how much work goes into us putting on one show.
“I thought it was as simple as you make a record, then go play your shows, and that’s it. It doesn’t really work like that. You do that 200 days a year, and it keeps you away from home a lot. That’s probably the real downside, that you don’t get to hang out and see family a whole lot.
“That’s the worst part, but I can’t really complain about anything else. Although sometimes I think I’d like to go to bed and sleep for 12 days, but that’s not really realistic.”
“Johnny Cash” and “Laughed Until We Cried,” from Aldean’s second album, “Relentless,” both went Top 10 this year. Still, he says, he’s not taking anything for granted just yet. He looks to his top-dollar road buddies for inspiration.
“Take Tim McGraw,” Aldean offers. “That’s guy’s been around for what seems like forever, and you don’t stay around that long by doing things the wrong way. So I pay attention to not only how they handle themselves onstage, but offstage, behind the scenes, how they try to go the extra mile for their fans.
“It’s like there’s a free education out here, as long as you pay attention and learn.”
Jason Aldean, with Lady Antebellum and Eric Durrance
Where: Savannah Civic Center/Johnny Mercer Theatre, 301 W. Ogelthorpe Ave., Savannah
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 24