One of the great tests of being a fan of any musical artist is fortitude. In other words, to what lengths would you go and what conditions would you endure to experience a favored artist in performance?
For fans of country star Jason Aldean, the answers are pretty far and pretty severe, in that order. Aldean got to see that for himself at his last Lexington concert, a sold-out affair at Applebee's Park in September 2009. With fellow country celeb Miranda Lambert along as the show opener, the entire open-air event took place with Mother Nature on the warpath. From first notes to last, both artists performed in a steady downpour, making the baseball grounds seem something akin to a mini-Woodstock.
"I remember that night," said Aldean, who returns to town Friday night to play another sold-out show, at the larger and drier Rupp Arena. With about 18,200 tickets issued, it will be the largest show at the arena since Kenny Chesney's concert in April 2005, Rupp officials said. "As the rain was pouring down, I was thinking, 'Man, by the time I get out there, half of these people are going to be gone.' So to walk out onstage and see that none of them had left, that everybody was out there getting soaked ... well, I just thought that if they were willing to do that, then I sure don't mind getting soaked with them by putting on the best show I can."
At the time, Aldean had just taken the latest in a long series of incremental steps forward with the massive radio hit Big Green Tractor. In the previous four years, the singer's mixes of traditional country charm and contemporary appeal enjoyed a steadily mounting popularity that began with the No. 1 hit Why. That success continued with a series of gold- and platinum-selling records that culminated last fall with the release of his fourth album, My Kinda Party, one of the few recordings that managed to nudge Taylor Swift off the top of the charts.
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Almost every step of Aldean's mounting stardom has included a stop in Lexington. He has played Rupp as an opening act, headlined a New Year's Eve show at the neighboring Heritage Hall and, of course, performed as the storms raged at Applebee's Park.
"This career, ... it's just a different lifestyle, man," says Aldean, who turned 34 on Monday. "I don't know if you ever get used to it. You live your life a certain way and then all of a sudden you've got a record deal and you start having some success. It's like a light switch. Everything changes.
"For me, I think the first few years were probably the worst just because I was playing twice as many shows as I am now. On top of that, you're going out to promote everything, every little thing you've got going on, at radio stations. That can be tough. I don't envy any new artist. Sure, it's great to have your career start to take off. But as a new artist, those first few years were really, really hard.
"I feel I've settled into a groove now. I'm able to be at home more and even bring my family out on the road with me if I'm gone for a while. The schedule is still kind of crazy. But because there has been such a gradual climb to my career, the transition has been fairly easy."
What has made Aldean's success all the more remarkable is that of his chart-topping hits (the newest being a radio-friendly duet with Kelly Clarkson, Don't You Wanna Stay) and platinum-selling albums have been cut not for a major label but for the independent Broken Bow Records. The majors, Aldean insisted, had their chance to sign him.
"Broken Bow was the one label that stepped up and took a chance on me," he said. "All the other labels in town had the opportunity. We went to those labels and tried to get deals. But at the time, none of them were into what we were doing."
Aldean's recorded output with Broken Bow has been remarkably consistent. His voice brings to mind Southern traditionalists — specifically, John Anderson crossed with a touch of Alan Jackson. Similarly, the mix of traditional and contemporary country appeal remains balanced throughout My Kinda Party. But ask Aldean about the blend, and he will admit that he doesn't worry much about specifics. He prefers to record, perform and indulge in the country music that comes naturally to him.
"We've never gone in and said, 'OK, we want to cut a really traditional country record' or 'Let's find a really cool duet for this album.' It's never that. We just go in the studio and try not to overthink things too much.
"A lot of times, artists will make a record and just work on it and work on it until they take all the magic out of it. That's something I never try to do. Sometimes, little mistakes that are made while recording turn out to be the really cool parts of an album. Too many artists just beat their music to death. That's something we don't do.
"Besides, I can't afford to overthink my music. Whenever I do that, I tend to screw everything up."