By the dawning of the new century, Jason Aldean was all but packed and ready to hightail it back to his native Georgia. He had moved to Nashville in 1998, at the tender age of 21, and jumped through all the hoops required of novice artists, playing showcases and various clubs around town. A couple of record deals floundered, failing to produce an album. One particular showcase at Nashville’s famed Wildhorse Saloon proved a further letdown when none of the promised talent scouts and label execs showed up. Frustrated and facing what seemed like a dead end, Aldean eventually gave himself six months to make something happen. If he didn’t get the desired results, Georgia would be not only on his mind but in his sights.
What subsequently occurred is now an often-told story in Nashville circles. Just a few weeks after imposing his six-month deadline, Aldean was offered a recording contract from independent label Broken Bow Records. And yes, he finally saw an album come to fruition. Aldean released his self-titled debut album on July 26, 2005, featuring the hit single “Hicktown.” The album also produced his first career No. 1 single, “Why.” From there, the Aldean express kept rolling like a runaway train, with No. 1 albums like Relentless, My Kinda Party, and Night Train, CMA and ACM Awards, tours that sell out major arenas and high-capacity stadiums, and 21 No. 1 singles on various charts. His latest album 9 debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart.
Aldean’s 2005 debut album provided the catalyst for his superstar career, and went on to be certified Platinum. On its milestone 15th anniversary, we take a look back at the album’s content, impact, and legacy.
By the time of the album’s release, Aldean was rolling with the “Hicktown” single on the charts. “Hicktown” showcased one of Aldean’s vocal strengths, forcefully blending rock and country in his delivery. The song powered its way through with crunching guitar licks, a pounding beat, and its anthem-like depiction of Southern culture. Aldean owned the credibility, having been raised in a small Southern town himself. “Hicktown” peaked at No. 10, impressive for a first single.
Artist/songwriter John Rich contributed heavily to Aldean’s album, co-writing five songs including the three main singles, “Hicktown,” “Amarillo Sky,” and “Why.” Rich remembers that he had met Aldean about a year before the album’s recording. “I had never really heard him sing,” Rich tells Sounds Like Nashville. “He asked about cutting several of my songs, before I was familiar with his voice.” Rich found a conduit for his material in Michael Knox, who produced Aldean’s record. “He was my song plugger at the time,” Rich explains, “and knew my catalog inside and out. He was the one playing my songs to Jason.”
Rich wrote “Hicktown” with his Big & Rich duo mate “Big Kenny” Alphin and Vicky McGehee. He notes that you can hear some of the progressive Big & Rich influences in the song. “With ‘Hicktown,’ the goal was seeing how far we could push the envelope, with lyrics and hard-hitting music, and get away with it,” Rich tells Sounds Like Nashville. “It was written within a month of [Rich and Big Kenny] writing ‘Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy),’ so you can hear the similarities. If Jason hadn’t cut it, it would have been a Big & Rich song for sure.”
The follow-up singles, “Why” and “Amarillo Sky,” were thematically different than “Hicktown,” giving fans an early inkling of Aldean’s versatility and range. The power ballad “Why” cast Aldean in a new light, sounding vulnerable and emotional as he realizes the pain that he has caused his lover. Written by Rich, McGehee, and Rodney Clawson, “Why” became Aldean’s first career No. 1 single in May of 2006.
“Amarillo Sky,” released in 2006, spoke to the plight of a Texas farmer who’s endured numerous hardships and clings to the hope that he’ll still be able to provide. As the man plaintively prays in the chorus, Please don’t let my dreams run dry/Underneath, underneath this Amarillo sky. The single reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.
Aldean and Rich formed a songwriting bond as they collaborated on the album cut,”You’re the Love I Wanna Be In,” with McGehee. Of the other selections, “Asphalt Cowboy” was an especially intriguing choice. It was originally recorded by Blake Shelton for his 2003 album The Dreamer but never released as a single. In an interview for the French Association of Country Music, Aldean said, “I actually heard this song before it ever became a Blake Shelton cut on his album. When he didn’t release the song as a single, I decided that I wanted to put it on my album.” Aldean added that he related to the song’s central theme of a truck driver who’s always away from his home and family, comparing it to the life of a country entertainer.
“Lonesome USA,” easily the most country-sounding song on the record, had the potential to become an additional single. The snappy chorus featured the lines, Well, I’m livin’ in Lonesome USA/Population one since yesterday/Livin’ and dyin’ in the hell I made/Since you’ve been gone. Aldean sold it with the right mix of lightheartedness and resignation in his vocal.
Aldean made a forceful introduction to country fans with this debut album. Mixing hard-edged rock with straight-up country, brandishing tunes with a decidedly Southern flavor, Aldean appealed to both male and female listeners. Whether singing about life in small towns or big-time breakups, he was believable and relatable.
“Jason’s first album showed the world that he could rock, be serious, and make you laugh, all on the same record,” raves John Rich. “It showed his depth as an artist and as a person – you can tell a lot about an artist by what songs they record. He blew the world up with that record and I was honored to be a small part of it.”
The album propelled Aldean to the 2005 ACM Award for Top New Male Vocalist. As we would come to discover, this was only the beginning.