Jason Aldean uses the royal “we” so often that you’re half-tempted to ask for whom else he’s speaking. Yet Nashville’s newest king comes by the grammatical flourish honestly: Barring a last-minute surge by Lady Antebellum or the kids in the Band Perry, Aldean’s My Kinda Party is almost certain to end up as the best-selling country album of 2011, thanks in large part to the crossover successes of “Dirt Road Anthem” and “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” his killer duet with Kelly Clarkson. Earlier this month Party beat out records by Taylor Swift and Brad Paisley for Album of the Year honors at the CMA Awards, and tonight Aldean is scheduled to appear alongside Lady Gaga and Rihanna on CBS’s live Grammy-nominations special. I recently sat down with him prior to a show at L.A.’s Gibson Amphitheatre, where he performed “Don’t You Wanna Stay” with an enormous video version of Clarkson that reminded me of Apple’s famous “1984” commercial.
Shortly before the release of My Kinda Party, your manager described your career to Billboard as “a really good build.” He said you’d never had one album that put you over the top. A year later, though, it’s hard not to think of My Kinda Party as that album.
Yeah, man—this album has been a completely different deal. It just goes to show you: When you have songs like “Dirt Road” and the song with Kelly, it kind of takes things to a whole different place.
Do you think new fans or old fans are primarily responsible for the record’s breakthrough?
I think it’s a little bit of both. The people that have been there all along, they’re still there. But I also think that by having a crossover song like [“Don’t You Wanna Stay”], you’re gonna hit new genres of people that might not even know who you are. That really helped. But, you know, we’ve had two out of the previous three records sell a million and a half.
Which I think a lot of non-country fans might be surprised to hear. Until now there’s been something almost stealthy about your success.
Up ’til this point everything was kind of clicking except for recognition at awards shows. But you can’t even say that anymore, because this year it’s like a light switch came on; all of a sudden we’re getting a ton of nominations for these shows. To me that was the only thing that wasn’t really happening. I mean, our songs were doing well, the albums were doing well, the tour was doing well. Now, this year, [the nominations] came. I don’t know if we can really claim that under-the-radar situation anymore.
Some artists say in retrospect that they’re glad the recognition didn’t come right away.
Why is that?
You start on top of the mountain, bro, you don’t have anywhere else to go. The first album did really well, but we had a lot of room to grow after that. And I think we’ve built it with each album. The shows have gotten bigger and bigger, and it’s kind of allowed us time to get ready and prepare for what’s going on this year with the tour. When you explode the first year, then you’re trying to go out and headline shows for an hour and a half when people are only really coming to hear the two or three songs you’ve got.
You’re launching an arena tour early next year, but right now it’s not set to hit New York or L.A. What are those markets like for you?
Well, obviously, they’re different. I mean, you look at New York, they don’t even have a country radio station. So it’s really hard to go in there and promote a show, because radio’s such a big part of that. It’s tough. You talk about playing Atlanta, Georgia, versus playing New York City—there’s no comparison. There’s just not many country acts that can go in and sell out Madison Square Garden. Now, on the flip side of that, we’ve always done really well out here in California; there’s radio stations here. But New York, that’s the one place I would say it’s probably toughest to play.
Is playing a city like New York important to you?
I wanna play everywhere. I would love to sell out Madison Square Garden; I think it’d be awesome. But I’m also realistic in the fact that it’s gonna be tough to do that. In any kind of business, people have to have a way of knowing that you’re gonna be somewhere. So if there’s no avenue to promote, it’s hard. Even if there was just one radio station there, it would change everything about country music acts playing New York City. But there’s not.
The Internet has allowed a lot of musicians to promote themselves outside that established system. Has it been useful for you?
Yeah. I think it’s definitely important, and it’s effective. But when it comes to country music and the way that it’s done in our business, you can’t take radio out of that equation. They’re still the biggest part of the promotion. They play the songs, people get familiar with the music; they run contests and give away tickets. There’s no making up for that. You can get online and promote your website and do whatever else. But you’re not gonna go out and sell 2 million copies of a record on the Internet at this point.
The crossover success of the singles from My Kinda Party has probably resulted in shows like the ones you described earlier, where people are only coming to hear the two songs they know. What do you make of that?
I want people to come out to the show, and if those are the only songs they know, that’s fine. I’ve always felt like if I can get them to the show, I’ve got a 50-50 chance of making a fan out of them. So if it takes that one song to get somebody to buy a ticket, cool, come on. That’s my best way to sell you on what it is that I’m about.
Does the album accurately represent what you do to a first-time listener?
Absolutely. When we made this record, we knew it was different. I knew we were traveling down some paths we hadn’t gone before. But I think that’s kind of what I’ve done from day one. That’s our whole deal: not being scared to try things that nobody else wants to cut. Those are the songs that will typically end up with us going, “Yeah, give it to us.” I don’t wanna play it safe; I don’t wanna be a guy that cuts things that are right down the middle. I don’t like songs like that.
Have you started thinking about the next one?
Oh, yeah. We’re actually going in Tuesday to start cutting it.
It’s a juicy opportunity, right? You’ve got the chance to make some of those new fans stick around.
Yeah, but at the same time, I don’t wanna overthink things too much. In my opinion, what got me to this point was cutting songs that I enjoyed. I make records I wanna hear, and luckily for me there’s an audience for the kind of stuff I do. So I don’t wanna go in there like, “We’ve gotta beat this last record.” I don’t like comparing records. It’s like comparing Michael Jackson Thriller to Michael Jackson Dangerous—both great records, but completely different things.
Will the next album reflect any newfound differences in your life?
I don’t think so. With every year you get a little older, hopefully a little bit wiser. But I don’t think my life has necessarily changed that much from the last record to this record. I’m just looking for songs that I enjoy performing—that’s how I pick my albums. And then we put those out, and the response is either good or bad. But I want it to be on my own terms. It’s like, “This is me. I cut this record, and I think it’s great, but apparently everybody hated it.” I can deal with that more than I can somebody telling me what to cut and then my career going down the shitter.
Jason Aldean performs tonight on The Grammy Nominations Concert, which airs on CBS at 10.