"You look at an L.A. movie producer who is directing a movie about small towns, and you see every stereotype you could imagine."

By Brian Ives

On Friday (September 9) Jason Aldean released his seventh album, They Don’t Know, which sees him returning to his signature sound of loud guitars. The superstar singer/songwriter, who is headlining CBS Radio’s Stars and Strings concert in November, spoke to Radio.com about the new album, as well as his recent collaborations with Kelsea Ballerini and Jordan Rager.  

Your new album starts off with “Lights Come On,” which has some pretty aggressive guitars. Your band must have been excited about that.

Oh, yeah. Well, the one cool thing about the guys in my band, and I think one of the reasons that it’s always worked with us, is that we communicate really well together onstage. And when you play music with somebody for a long period of time you can communicate with them without even talking to them a lot of times. It’s just a look or whatever.

But one of the things I love about going in the studio with those guys is I kinda turn ’em loose. I go in, and I say, “All right, do what you do,” and then if I need to dial it in a little bit here and there, then I’ll kinda take the reins and dial it down a little. But for the most part I want them to go in and experiment and bring what they bring to the table, and if it’s not right, then we’ll fix it.

But I also give them free rein to go in in the beginning and really be artists in their own right, be able to be creative and do what they do. And so I think that’s been a big reason that it’s worked.

On your last album, [2014’s] Old Boots, New Dirt, you introduced the album with “Burnin’ It Down,” which was almost Usher-esque. This time, you reminded everyone that you’re still the guy who loves loud guitars.

Well, yeah. I think one of the things over the years with every album we’ve ever done is you’re constantly looking for ways to push yourself and go down different roads and try new things. It’s like when we put “Dirt Road Anthem” out, there was nothing else like that out at the time. That was a big roll of the dice for us. We put that out, and songs like that have since become more of the standard. You hear a lot more of the rapping style thing in a lot of songs now, but back then you didn’t.

And “Burnin’ It Down” was kind of that way. We put that song out, that was really different for the time, and there wasn’t a lot of stuff like that out, if anything. Now you’re hearing a little bit more of that.

So I think for us it’s always been about trying to find different ways to be creative and still feel like you’re pushing the boundaries a little bit, but never get away from what it is that really got us here, which I know is that country rock sound, which is just naturally what I do anyway. So for me it was important on this album to come out and go, “Hey, we put some of these sexier type songs out, but hey, don’t forget that we still turn it up to ten, and it’s loud, obnoxious and fun.” That’s what we do best.

Talk about “A Little More Summertime”; it’s not just about not wanting the summer to end.

“A Little More Summertime” is one of those songs that to me was lyrically a little different than some of the things we’ve done in the past. But it had what I felt like was my vibe, sort of that vintage vibe that we had had on some previous albums. But it was different, it was still different enough to where I didn’t feel like we had recorded that song before. It had this cool sort of U2 vibe going into the chorus, guitar stuff that was really different sounding.

Like I said, lyrically, it was just really well-written; melodically, it did some things that were a little bit of a change-up for me. I just thought it was a really, really cool song and got back to the sound that I feel like is what I do best.

Related: Jason Aldean to Headline CBS Radio’s Annual Stars and Strings Concert

You’re probably a competitive guy, and I’m sure you want your music to get played on the radio. 

Yeah. Well, I think as an artist you always wanna constantly have songs, you constantly wanna be on the radio, to feel like you’re staying relevant, and you feel like if you’re gone off the radio for a few months people are gonna forget all about you, you know. I think that’s just a common thought of every artist, especially when you’re having success, because you wanna just keep the momentum going.

But a lot of times it takes stepping back for a second. And I think artists that have probably been around a little bit longer that have had success can probably get away with that a little easier than a new artist, but if you’re a new artist, you’re kinda wanting to hurry up and get everything going anyway. Once you’ve had success you’re trying to maintain that, so it’s a little tougher.

I definitely think that comes with just being… I don’t know if “veteran” is the right word, but being in the business for a while and being an artist that’s had success, and you can kind of call those shots a little bit more definitely than you can when you’re a new artist, for sure.

Speaking of new artists, you recently collaborated with Jordan Rager on his breakthrough hit “Southern Boy.” 

Yeah, Jordan Rager, I’m a huge fan of his. He’s from Georgia, which is where I’m from, and I’ve known him for quite a few years now. My dad kinda works with him, and has for a long time, and just over the years I started hearing songs he was writing and what he was doing, and he’s turned out to be a really, really great songwriter and a really cool artist.

So we cut a song with him called “Southern Boy” on his album that was out not too long ago, and then we also cut a song that he co-wrote called “All Out of Beer” that’s on my album. So he’s almost kinda like a little brother, somebody that I’ve taken under my wing a little bit and given him some advice when he needed it and still needs it whenever he calls or whatever. But he’s one of the guys that I think is really cool and has a legitimate future in the business and can’t wait to see what he does.

Related: Jason Aldean Cranks Up The Guitars on ‘They Don’t Know’

Another new artist you’ve worked with is Kelsea Ballerini.

We had this song on the album called “First Time Again” that originally I was gonna record just on my own. We really didn’t have any plans of it being a duet at first. So at that point you kinda start looking around for other artists whose voice is out there that you think would fit the song and who’s doing what, and Kelsea was an artist who was starting to get some heat.

We wanted to do something in the country world, and we had done a song with Kelly Clarkson in the past, and she knocked it out of the park. And we were kinda looking to do something more in the country world, and Kelsea just seemed like the one that was really getting some heat. And then I heard the song she has called “Peter Pan.” I had a chance to hear her vocal, and it was kinda that song that I went, “Hmm. This is really interesting.”

You never really know how the voices are gonna blend. So I did my thing, and she cut her part, she sounded great on her part, and then the biggest thing to me was once we started singing together, how it sounded. It sounded really great. And so that’s when you kinda breathe a little bit and go, “All right. Home run. We did good.”

But I’m a big fan of hers, man. She’s a great singer, I’m glad to have her on the album.

Talk about the title track of the album.

“They Don’t Know”… being where I’m from in Georgia, kinda growing up on the outskirts of Macon, you have people that, for lack of a better term, come from [air quotes] “the big city,” they have a tendency to sort of look down a lot of times on things that they really don’t understand and don’t know.

I think that happens a lot. You look at an L.A. movie producer who is directing a movie about small towns, and it’s like [you see] every stereotype you could imagine. Why? Because they don’t understand. They’ve never lived in those places; they’ve never experienced those things.

So to me, it’s that. People that look down on something or frown upon something they really don’t understand or don’t know about it. And to me the song says it perfectly, and I can relate to that just growing up in Georgia where I did. So it was just something to me that I could relate to.

I imagine you’ll always feel like a small-town guy, no matter how successful you are in your career.

Well, yeah. I think that no matter how much you travel… at this point I’ve traveled a lot; I’ve seen a lot of the world at this point. And at the end of the day, I’m a country kid from Georgia that got really lucky. [Just] Going to Atlanta was a huge thing for me back when I was a kid, and now it’s like I go to New York, L.A., you go to all these big places. We were actually talking about it today on the way over. It can be a culture shock, for sure. And I don’t think you ever lose that. You sorta learn to deal with it and how to handle it, but it’s still, I still come into New York and it’s a little weird for me. It’s just different than how I grew up, and no matter how many times I’ve been here, I don’t know that you ever get used to it. You just learn to navigate it a little better.

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