The Man From `Hicktown'

February 15, 2007|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

About five years ago, Jason Aldean would sing to a small knot of folks, maybe 20 or so, in out-of-the-way clubs. Those amateur shows in small Southern and Midwestern bars, sometimes filled with rowdy beer-guzzling college students, were great prep work for the big time: a national tour opening for Rascal Flatts, one of country's biggest groups.

"Back then, you're singing somebody else's songs, and it's easier to get 20 people involved than 20,000," says Aldean, who plays 1st Mariner Arena tonight. "You have to think, `What [does] the person in the back wanna see?' You make 'em get involved, which is harder. But people know the songs now and sing along."

The songs they know come from Aldean's 2005 self-titled debut, which was recently certified platinum. The CD has spawned three top 10 country hits, including the No. 1 heart-tugger "Why."

"I think this first album was a good representation of what I'm about," says Aldean, who last week was performing in West Virginia. "I think it's a learning process, though. The more you do, the more refined you become."

In May, Aldean's still-untitled sophomore album will hit stores. And he says it will be an extension of the first: polished tunes with "realistic lyrics about life." The most appealing aspect of the debut is Aldean's winking humor. Akin to Gretchen Wilson's hit 2004 anthem "Redneck Woman," "Hicktown," the CD's first single, extols blue-collar life out in the boondocks: We hear folks in the city party in martini bars/And they like to show off in their fancy foreign cars/But ... we buy beer at Amoco and crank our Kraco speakers/With that country radio.

"Country has always had this stereotype of being about your dead dog or your wife leaving," says the Georgia native, 29. "But it can be fun. Country music is cool. Like `Hicktown,' that's about something real, a way of life."

The 11-cut debut rolls on strongly written songs, about half of which were written by the trio of John Rich and Big Kenny of Big & Rich and Vicky McGehee. Aldean co-wrote three tunes, and the subject matter runs the usual gamut of contemporary country: bleeding hearts ("Even If I Wanted To"), life reflections ("Good to Go"), broken relationships ("Why"). The production, overseen by Michael Knox, is mostly predictable and trend-conscious, folding in glossily twangy touches heard on hits by the likes of Keith Urban and Kenny Chesney. Vocally, Aldean is a bit thin but likable.

"Every artist goes out, and you do what you do," says the Nashville-based singer-songwriter. "It's up to the people to decide what they want and if I'm bringing something new."

Aldean isn't introducing a style you haven't heard before. But he's promising. His easy charm and all-American good looks certainly help. And he says that, every night on the road, he's becoming a more assured performer.

"It helps to play in front of [10,000] to 15,000 people every night," Aldean says. "Now, in the band we look at each other and say, `Hey, this thing may be taking off.'"

See Jason Aldean and Rascal Flatts at 1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St., tonight at 7:30. Tickets are $59.75 and are available through Ticketmaster at 410-547-SEAT or ticketmaster.com.

To hear clips from Aldean's album, go to baltimoresun.com/listeningpost.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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