When I was younger, I did not like country music. Why would I? I was a teenager listening to immaculately produced pop and rock, painstakingly put together by Max Martin, Timbaland and The Neptunes. These tunes were sonically and rhythmically interesting and so, whenever I heard country music, I couldn’t connect with it in the same way, if at all.
At 27 years of age, I wandered into a shop in Greenwich playing a combination of Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley, three acts who were enormous in the early 2000s when Max, Tim and Pharrell & Chad were soundtracking the charts. By rights I should love the rocking country music the shop was blaring: all three acts use massive guitars in their music, their writing is often witty and they are generous to female performers. I went home, tuned into country radio and heard twang-voiced pop acts like Thomas Rhett, Brett Eldredge and (thanks for reading 150 words before I got to him) Jason Aldean.
Aldean will always be known to most people as the guy who was on stage in Las Vegas in 2017 when a killer opened fire at the Route 91 Harvest festival. He may also be known as a man whose wife wore a t-shirt outlining her political views. But can the casual pop music fan, given that over 20 have been country number ones which chart in the Hot 100, really name any of his songs?
Ten of the hits sung live by Aldean are included alongside 20 new ones on a two-disc set released in two batches over the course of six months. The ones those pop fans are meant to know include a cover of Amarillo Sky, which was first written by Big & Rich and recorded by McBride and the Ride, the Brantley Gilbert song My Kinda Party and the Florida Georgia Lina co-write Burnin’ It Down. Then there’s Johnny Cash (written by John Rich among others), Big Green Tractor (a David Lee Murphy composition about sex), the disguised Chevy commercial Take A Little Ride, She’s Country, Rearview Town, Blame It On You and the ballad Any Ol’ Barstool, which is still my favourite Aldean hit.
We hear Jason gurn and grunt his way through these songs in Vegas, St Louis, Knoxville, Dallas, LA and Nashville. I suppose the best way to experience Aldean is with speakers cranked up to 11. He’s been doing this for over 15 years and has seldom been off the radio because his music sounds like car, trucks and beer commercials. He is a product who is a reliable unit-shifter for Broken Bow Records but I wonder if he has run out of road.
It occurred to me that Aldean’s songs are meant to be listened to either on a highway going 80mph, or while doing some form of arable labour in a cornfield. By this point, album ten, Aldean will not gain any more fans. People know by now what he sounds like: guitars crunch, vocals snarl, solos come in exactly when you expect them to. So what about the content of the songs: what is he saying?
There are breakup songs aplenty. They include After You, a fine song which opens the Macon disc and is followed by Over You Again, which borrows its feel from The Boys of Summer and is almost a self-conscious joke. Aldean is ‘getting over you again’, just like he did on all his old songs about getting over some girl.
Trouble With A Heartbreak is a typical Aldean track that goes to radio, with fine production and a narrator driving off into a ‘rearview sunset’, a song about driving best experienced while driving. The State I’m In is basically Everywhere But On by Matt Stell, where wanderin’ Aldean can’t shake the memory of an ex, while Midnight And Missin’ You is driven by a three-chord riff but is otherwise dull.
The biggest names in Nashville at least give him some proper songs. Ernest K Smith and Craig Wiseman put Holy Water on the shelf and Aldean plucked it off. Michael Ray has also put out a song of that title recently, one with a narrative about preachers and sin, and this song is pretty good too, with Aldean stopping by at a bar to see a ‘preacher’s daughter’ he used to know. It’s the best break-up song here.
Aldean’s brand is also about drinkin’ so we’ve got a few of those: That’s What Tequila Does (‘top shelf Cuervo’ etc); Story For Another Glass, which uses very familiar chords and words (deer, Hank, hell, beer, neon and that’s country bingo); This Bar Don’t Work Anymore, where it sounds like a real drummer is thwacking the snare and which sounds like a single but won’t be; and Whiskey Me Away, on which more shortly. All of them would have been written as a result of a pitch sheet which prompts writers rooms to work on ‘songs about drinking for Jason Aldean’s new album’. Easy, knock it off in an hour, guys, and we’ll take the rest of the afternoon off.
Aldean’s brand is aimed squarely at people who live in small towns, so we have Small Town Small, a plea to ‘keep the red dirt roads red dirt…keep the blue on your collar’ and other hymns to ‘y’all keepin’ small town small’. That song credits eight writers including Michael Ray and Brantley Gilbert, which is far too many cooks for a song so banal; maybe Michael and Brantley (who is essentially Jason Aldean with tattoos) were going to feature on the song.
Morgan Wallen passed The Sad Songs and the aforementioned Whiskey Me Away on to Aldean. The former may not have made Dangerous, an album which has been at number one since it came out at the beginning of 2021, because there were enough sad songs on that album. On this one, Aldean/Wallen compliments the ‘looker’ who hasn’t heard the songs about ‘the rock bottom…the messes I’ve made’. Odd that a song that seems personal to Wallen is given to Aldean, who is happily married to a wife who, as noted above, is the subject of an odd fascination from some sections of the press.
Whiskey Me Away, meanwhile, has been chosen to open the Georgia Disc, with Aldean/Wallen wanting to hear Alabama on the jukebox to soundtrack a ‘hangover I wanna wake up to’. The disc’s new tracks end with the celebratory Your Mama, which rhymes ‘Georgia’ with ‘gorgeous’ and was co-written by Tyler Hubbard, whose solo career is coming whether we like it or not (I am in the ‘not’ camp).
FGL will always be bracketed in my mind with Aldean because they rode the trend of masculine country, telling sugar-shakin’ girls to hop in the truck and head to the riverbank. Many of those songs were written by Rhett Akins, who is one of two writers on Rock And Roll Cowboy: ‘another town, another show, another hotel room, “when you coming home”.
The final track on the Macon set, a bland retread of familiar tropes called Watching You Love Me, was written by Lee Thomas Miller, Neil Thrasher (the other writer of Rock And Roll Cowboy) and Wendell Mobley. Their names are so common in the credits to Aldean songs that by this point they could get away with combining bits of old songs they have written for Aldean and call it a new song. Hey, it’s a living.
Michael Tyler co-wrote Ain’t Enough Cowboy, which should have been kept off the album because it clashes with hat-wearing, Georgia-accented Aldean’s brand. There’s also ugly autotune, and I bet this will be a single. Perhaps to enjoy a nice cheque, Gordie Sampson, Barry Dean and Hillary Lindsey gave Aldean My Weakness, which will definitely be a single. It’s a love song with plenty of imagery: hurricanes, cigarettes, sunrise, temptation and, as with so many tracks on the collection, whiskey.
There’s a cover of the Bryan Adams 40-year-old hit Heaven which reminds me that Tom Petty once called country music ‘bad rock with a fiddle’. You can actually see the muscles and pistons in Aldean’s music, and that includes the big ballad If I Didn’t Love You, featuring Carrie Underwood, which followed 25 other Aldean smashes to the number one spot. One of those was a duet with Miranda Lambert.
Lydia Vaughan was in the room for that song and a few others – she’s also behind Carrie’s brilliant new song Crazy Angels – so at least there’s some women in this most masculine of acts. The argument goes that women fell out of favour on radio after 9/11, whereupon Chesney, Paisley and Aldean made hay. Given that only Carrie and Miranda were at one stage the only solo women with hit-making qualities for a time between Taylor Swift and Maren Morris, this is stark.
North Carolina native John Morgan launched his career this year while representing his home state in the American Song Contest, which was won by a girl from Oklahoma with blue hair. Morgan is opening for Aldean on his summer jaunt and his name appears in the credits of several of Macon, Georgia’s new songs. They include If I Didn’t Love You, Over You Again, That’s What Tequila Does, This Bar Don’t Work Anymore, Trouble with a Heartbreak, The State I’m In, Midnight and Missing You and God Made Airplanes. I hope his royalty cheque buys him a house.
That final track was written with Jessi Alexander and the Warren Brothers, which means the chorus will get through quality control and which has a brilliant melody and a reference to ‘New York minute’. There is no mention of the ozone layer in this song, unsurprisingly.
Ultimately, there’s a fine 12-track album amongst the 20 new tracks – which you can hear here – but bigger is better and the label have given us a buffet, including a live album which nobody asked for. Like Morgan Wallen in 2021 and Zach Bryan in 2022 (34 songs?!?), Aldean is giving his fans quantity, not quality. Aldean’s fans deserve better.