One of the intriguing side effects of the frequency with which many country artists play Rupp Arena is the ability to chart and sometimes predict career growth.
Review the venue's history and you will find many instances when the major leaguers of today were once humble show-openers. Garth Brooks opened for The Judds in 1992. Tim McGraw opened for Dwight Yoakam in 1994. More recently, the unstoppable Luke Bryan opened for Rascal Flatts in 2008.
A prime example of how repeat performance business leads to steady, sustained growth is the career of Jason Aldean. In less than a decade, the Georgia-born star has played a New Year's Eve concert at Heritage Hall (2007), a co-headlining show with Miranda Lambert in the pouring rain at the then-named Applebee's Park (2009), and shows at Rupp as an opening act (2007) and as a sold-out headliner (2011).
With his return to Rupp on Saturday, I have revisited separate interviews I conducted with Aldean ahead of three of those concerts. Together they form a history of an artist on the ascent to stardom.
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Let's begin with the show that got everything rolling — a February 2007 opening set, also for Rascal Flatts, at Rupp. At the time, Aldean was fresh from a hit debut album but far from the marquee country name now capable of headlining stadiums.
"Rascal Flatts was the first act that really took a chance with us," Aldean said before that performance. "They put us on their tour when we didn't really have a whole lot going on except for one song (the breakthrough Aldean hit "Hicktown") on the radio. That right there tells you what kind of people they are."
Fast forward to September 2009, and Aldean was back for the rain-drenched Applebee's Park show. The performance came on the crest of a summer that kept Aldean atop the charts with two successive hits: "She's Country" and "Big Green Tractor".
"It's amazing to have just one single come out and change your career," Aldean said. "I've heard people say that before, but I never really understood it until She's Country hit. And it did, too. That song changed everything for us. Now we've had back-to-back multi-week No. 1 hits. Who could ask for anything more? This has laid the groundwork for the rest of this year and will set us up for the future. We are now at a very good place."
Perhaps the importance of that performance, and the tireless fervor of the audience attending it, didn't fully register with Aldean until he returned to Rupp in March 2011.
"Man, I remember that night," Aldean said of the Applebee Park's downpour. "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."
Aldean's third Rupp outing this weekend comes on the heels of the massive radio hit "Burnin' It Down", a preview single from his impending album Old Boots, New Dirt. The record, the singer's sixth studio work, is set for release Oct. 7.
"I feel I've settled into a groove now," Aldean said in 2011. 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.
"But this career, ... it's just a different lifestyle, man. 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."