Jason Aldean‘s “Try That in a Small Town” isn’t the only statement song on his new Highway Desperado album. It’s certainly not the most personal, and it’s definitely not the first time he’s flexed.
For this record, the singer focused on songwriting as he worked to separate his 11th studio album from others in his catalog. Talking to Taste of Country, he admits he left a pile of his own songs on the floor, choosing only three that capture his essence better than others that were pitched to him by close friends and longtime collaborators.
Aldean’s inner-circle is, by design, a tight-knit group. Two bandmates — Kurt Allison and Tully Kennedy — helped write 12 of the 14 new songs, and the singer’s original producer remained at the helm to guide the project. The controversial “Small Town” describes the bonds that make map-dot communities unique.
The title track of the Highway Desperado album describes a peculiar loneliness.
“To me, it’s what I feel like as a traveling musician,” Aldean will say. “You load up and you roll into town and you play a show and make a little money. You take off to the next town and kind of do the same thing. You’re just kind of always on the go.”
“I got a 5-year-old little boy who’s growing up in a crazy world right now. It’s like, man, just let ’em be kids.”
Part of why the 46-year-old star is who he is — and part of why he’s been so successful — is because he chooses to keep his list of confidants short and strong. An interview with Taste of Country Nights regularly returns to this ethos, showing how it’s a blade that cuts twice.
Watch, listen and read what the hitmaker had to say about raising little boys in 2023, seeing himself in Toby Keith and a flagging patience for those who come at him, his family and his music.
You wrote three songs on this album: “Hungover in a Hotel,” “Breakup Breakdown” and the title track. Were you nervous to offer up ideas?
No. I moved to town as a writer, as a songwriter, back in ’98. I’ve had a writing deal in town for most of the time that I’ve been here. The thing I’ve always learned about me writing songs is, I’m my own worst critic. I’ll write songs and be like, ‘Oh, that’s okay, but I like that song better than my song so I’m gonna cut that song.’ Then, this time around, couple of guys in my band who have been on fire recently as far as writing goes … they’ve been kind of after me to get back in there and start writing a little bit. I just started coming up with some ideas, throwing some stuff around.
“Highway Desperado” sounds like a song you needed to write.
The way that came about is, we were getting ready to announce the tour. We didn’t have a name for the tour and so my management called and … I said, “Give me 30 minutes.” I sat there at the house and I came up with Highway Desperado. I thought, that’s a cool name for a tour.
So we went and shot this tour poster that was really cool … and when I got the picture back I called Tully, my bass player who’s one of the guys I’ve been writing with, and said, “Man, this is also a pretty good title for a song.” Next thing you know we’re in there writing a song, too.
When you sing “Let Your Boys Be Country,” I couldn’t help but think of “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” Is there an interpolation there?
I definitely think there’s a play on words there. I didn’t write that song, so I don’t know what their mindset was for that. I feel like for me, it was a fitting song. I got a 5-year-old little boy who’s growing up in a crazy world right now. It’s like, man, just let ’em be kids. Let them be little. Let them go play and do all the things they’re supposed to do and figure things out for themselves.
Little boys grow up to be men that are supposed to get married and take care of their family and be providers. As parents, you gotta raise ’em to be that. To me, it was a song that hit home when it comes to thinking about him being little and what’s in store for him later.
Is the Aldean family complete?
Oh, it is complete! I always tell my wife, “If you have a different baby, it’s going to be with a different husband. I am out of the game.”
I want to play you something Toby Keith told me once, and I want to get your interpretation of it.
Toby Keith clip: The system got so easy for me. We were getting so much airplay and I had figured out who I was and what I did, that I’d write an album and I’d tell the promotion staff, here’s your four singles, go work ’em.
Are you at that point in your career now?
Yeah — I feel like we’ve been there for awhile. I remember it first happening with the My Kinda Party album, because I went in … I don’t think we played any songs for the label at all. I think we just went in and cut that whole album and then when it was done we were like, “Here’s your record.”
It didn’t sit too well with everybody at the label at first, but that album ended up doing so well that I think it gave me a little more street cred with the label. And from that point on, it was just the same kind of thing. We’d go make the record and it was like, “Here’s the singles. Here’s the first one, second one, don’t really know what the third and fourth are gonna be yet.”
“If you get what I said, you get it. If you don’t wanna see it, you’re not gonna see it, and at that point, I’m not going to waste my time trying to get you to understand it.”
As an artist, you hope to get to that point where you get to be an artist. You don’t have your project being — no offense — A&R’d to death. I don’t personally like playing my songs for the label before we cut them, because everybody is gonna have a different opinion. This person is gonna like that song — that person is gonna like a different song. Everybody is gonna have different opinions of what the singles are, and then that kind of gets in my head.
It’s like you working on a piece of art and somebody going, “Oh, we’ll take that piece away. Maybe move that here.” It drives me crazy, so I got to a point where I couldn’t do that.
Has any song of yours created the same kind of controversy as “Try That in a Small Town”?
I definitely think it’s the most controversial. I think the only other one that would even be close would be “Dirt Road Anthem.” I remember when that came out, it was a little bit of hip-hop, and you had your traditionalists in country music that hated that song. Then you had the flip side of that, where it was unlike anything they’d ever heard.
Do you feel misunderstood?
I don’t necessarily feel like I’m misunderstood. I feel like if you know me and if you get where I’m coming from, you know exactly where I’m coming from. I think a lot of times in the media, social media, they like to change the narrative around to make it … if this news channel doesn’t like who you are, what you stand for, they like to twist stuff around to make it sound like something it’s not.
I see that all the time. And I’m not the kind of guy that’s gonna run out there every time and go, “No, that’s not what I said!” If you get what I said, you get it. If you don’t wanna see it, you’re not gonna see it, and at that point I’m not going to waste my time trying to get you to understand it.
After people began to react to the music video for “Try That in a Small Town,” you put one message on social media and that was kind of it.
Yeah, that’s the way I do it. I’ll address it once. I’ll say my piece. You can do with that what you want. I just feel like — it’s the old thing — if you know, you know. If you know what I’m saying, you get it — you understand, you feel the same way. If you don’t, you’re probably never gonna get it. You’re probably never gonna see my point of view, so what’s the point?
Top 50 Jason Aldean Songs: His Greatest Hits + Best Deep Cuts
Taste of Country asked readers for input and did a deep dive into Aldeans’ full catalog of songs to identify those worthy of this top songs list, and those that simply aren’t. Spoiler alert: A few radio singles are missing, and several album tracks rank inside the Top 20. Sales and chart success helped us round out the Top 50. Do you agree with No. 1?