The Georgia-born Jason Aldean’s conquest of country music has been swift and surprisingly thorough. He debuted less than a decade ago, but was able to mostly fill up FedExForum on a Thursday night with a 19-song set that included 16 Top 10 country hits, with another -- the current “When She Says Baby” -- likely on the way.
Just before Aldean took the stage, the set extended, descended, and lit up as if it were the mothership landing. But though concerts in sports arenas are as much about spectacle as musicality, this performance was more grounded than most, fitting for a man who might be contemporary country’s most unlikely megastar.
Flanked by a tight, relatively bare-bones band -- drums, bass, two electric guitars, and a member splitting time between pedal steel and banjo -- Aldean emerged with his trademark white cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes and gave a sturdy, engaging, but relatively direct showcase of what’s rapidly becoming one of the genre’s best and most consistent songbooks. Eleven of 19 songs were singles released since 2010, but he also reached back to his career-launching 2005 single “Hicktown” and its 2006 follow-up “Amarillo Sky.”
Take a Little Ride
Tattoos on This Town
When She Says Baby
The Truth (I think)
Texas Was You
Don’t You Wanna Stay (duet with Kelly Clarkson hologram)
Tennessee River (Alabama cover)
Big Green Tractor
The Only Way I Know
Dirt Road Anthem
My Kind of Party
Though there were a few love songs sprinkled into the mix -- Aldean dueted with Hologram Kelly Clarkson on the gigantic power ballad “Don’t You Wanna Stay” -- Aldean’s true, constant subject is small-town life, as lived and as remembered.
Early on in his career, Aldean was prone to boisterous triumphalism on this subject, and that came through in the main set closer “She’s Country” (from 2008) and the encore closer “Hicktown.” Earlier in the night, Aldean did a comedy bit showing old photos of himself and his bandmates. Those photos and the guitar-crunch wallop of “She’s Country” and “Hicktown” offered more confirmation of what we already knew: That commercial country is where pop-metal guitarists went for a second life. (The same thing happened with opener Jake Owen’s set closer, “Hey Girl,” which ended with a wall-o-riffs from Motley Crue’s “Dr. Feelgood.”)
Recently, though, Aldean has found more success -- commercial and artistic -- with sepia-toned small-town testimonials. There was “Fly Over States,” which made its case against bicoastal provincialism without needlessly demonizing city slickers who thoughtlessly deploy the insult. There was the wistful “Tattoos on This Town,” an elegant and finely detailed bit of nostalgia that also carries a subtle, knowingly rueful edge. (“We laid a lot of memories down/And we’ll always be hanging ‘round.”)
There was “Night Train,” which Aldean introduced by speaking directly to “his guys” in the crowd, and he’s probably more relatable to male fans than most current male country stars. “I’m going to give you some dating advice, because I think I’m damn good at it,” Aldean said, before breaking into a smile. “Actually, that’s a lie. I suck at it.” The song evokes a young, small-town couple working through their night moves aided by a pickup truck, a blanket, and a fifth of Southern Comfort, and earns its Bob Seger comparison.
Best of all was “Dirt Road Anthem,” which is far more subdued than seems possible for any song with rapped verses and the word “anthem” in the title. Following the tone of the song, which drew the warmest crowd response of the night, the presentation was simple, the big screens behind and flanking the stage showing only a wall of amplifiers.
Aldean’s embrace of rural culture here is modest and matter-of-fact -- “We like cornbread and biscuits/And if it’s broke round here we fix it” -- while taking a dim view of the boredom that can set in --“All this small-town he-said, she-said … man, that talk is getting old.” And the performance achieved the perhaps unequalled feat of making an easy marriage of country and the rap with which Aldean and most of his fans grew up. The secret: Aldean doesn’t seem impressed or amused with himself for doing it. And that comfortable-in-your-skin naturalism explains much of his appeal.
Opening Acts: I missed early opener Thomas Rhett, a second-generation singer (the son of Rhett Akins) currently enjoying his first big hit, “It Goes Like This,” but did catch most of primary opener Jake Owen, a long-haired hunk playing a glittery gold guitar. Owen played to the ladies, even offering to be a “booty call” at the end of one song, offering glitz and titillation that allowed headliner Aldean to work with a little more gravitas. If that arrangement sounds like a plotline from the television series “Nashville,” that’s because it is.
Owen also played to the local crowd with appreciative references to getting drunk on Beale, listening to Al Green, and the good works at St. Jude. Standard fare, but it all seemed entirely sincere. A more tangible local connection: Owen’s drummer, Memphis native Myron Howell, whose family was -- per Owen -- seeing him play with Owen’s band for the first time.
Memphis drummer Myron Howell
Learn more about Howell here.
Owen got his biggest pop for his good-times hit “Barefoot Blue Jean Night.” Whenever someone gets around to compiling an “SEC Tailgate Country” collection, “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” deserves prominent placement.
Arena Action: I got some irritated reaction to this pre-concert tweet:
Merch Table Investigation
My intent was not to stereotype country music fans; I’m a country music fan. And this isn’t the space for a long take on the shifting nature of Southern identity as it pertains to mainstream country music culture (though I’m tempted). But unconsidered Confederate imagery has been fairly common in country music -- do we forget “Accidental Racist” so soon? (I know I’ve tried) -- for a long time and its (not yet total) disappearance is noteworthy.
Cowboy Hat Count: Only 8. Aldean’s worn white cowboy hat has become part of his iconography, but his music is more ballcap than cowpoke country and his audience tended to reflect that.
Between-Set DJ Audience Response Power Rankings:
- 1. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
- 2. “Sweet Home Alabama”
- 3. “Drink in My Hand” (Eric Church)
- 4. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”
- 5. “Back in Black”
All of these were better received than a dutiful spin of “Jailhouse Rock.”
Random Notebook Fodder: A word of commendation to the teenage girl who sat next to me and did her history homework between sets. School-night concerts require dual dedication. She had it.
Personal Bias: I care more about commercial country music than probably 95 percent of music critics but once you drill past the top tier (right now: Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, Brad Paisley, Eric Church, Ashley Monroe), I tend to take the genre a song at a time. So, Aldean’s a singles artist to me. And a good one. Both “Tattoos on This Town” and “Dirt Road Anthem” made the bottom half of the “Top 100 Singles of 2011” list I did. I never got around to making one last year, but “Night Train” will show up on my list this year.