Only two weeks ago, country superstar Jason Aldean said he was steering clear of the gun control debate.
“I’m not a politician,” he stated. “I’m not trying to push my own agenda. If I say that I believe this, I’m gonna piss off half of the people, and if I say I believe that, I’m gonna piss off the other half. I have my opinions, but what the hell do I know? I think everybody needs to sit down, stop pushing their own agendas, and figure out what will make it safer. When people can’t go to a damn movie or a concert and not worry about somebody shooting the place up, there’s a flaw in the system.”
He went so far to blame virtual reality games where kids would be shooting people all day long at home.
“Get out and throw a ball, you know what I’m saying? I think that’s part of the problem, but I don’t know.”
Now as his latest album “Rearview Town” is about to hit, he’s wading slowly into the gun control debate, but he knows to only dip his big toe in as that lightning rod subject could surely affect record sales.
Last October, Jason Aldean was in a Las Vegas hospital visiting some of the victims injured in a mass shooting at a country music festival a week earlier. On that Sunday afternoon, the country star turned to his longtime manager, Clarence Spalding.
“He looked at me and said, ‘This will be the hardest thing I ever do,’” Spalding recalled. “And it was.”
Aldean, the reigning Academy of Country Music’s entertainer of the year with a new album out this Friday, has built his career and reputation on his live shows that entertain tens of thousands every year. He had returned to meet face-to-face with those who had survived a terrible trauma during his performance at the festival, which had left him with lingering feelings of guilt.
In one room, a woman was still in a coma as he stood by her bed. Aldean recorded a message on her cell phone, promising to bring her to a show when she got better. Those moments in those hospital rooms were heavy with emotion, Spalding said.
“Jason would walk in and somebody who had been shot in the arm, leg, face or wherever would just start crying because it was such an emotional thing to see him,” Spalding said.
Aldean was onstage when the gunman started shooting with high-powered weapons at the fans from hotel room window across the street from the outdoor Route 91 Harvest Festival. That night in October, 59 people were killed and hundreds more injured in what has become the nation’s deadliest mass shooting in modern history.
The Macon, Georgia-born star has been singing about small-town, working class life since he started in Nashville two decades ago, and said he now feels a connection to the survivors of another recent shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
“Unless anybody has witnessed anything like that or been a part of it, it’s really hard for people to really understand where you’re coming from on that stuff,” Aldean said in a recent interview. “It’s like the kids from the school in Florida, that shooting. I get it, man. I understand how they are feeling.”
About 40 members of his band and crew, as well as his pregnant wife, Brittany, were all there at the festival. Spalding said two of their tour buses were shot, as well as their lighting board and stage. Aldean’s bass player found a bullet fragment in his bass guitar.
The aftermath for Aldean has been complicated. He said he felt thankful that his family, crew, and friends weren’t injured, but also guilt for all the people who were there because they wanted to see him play. And then he felt anger and disbelief.
“You start doing that thing, like, ‘Man, did that really happen? It seems so crazy,’” Aldean said. “You just sit there and relive it a thousand times a day.”
His recovery was helped by talking with his wife and his band and crew about what they experienced. And then he met those survivors.
“Going back to the hospital, going back to Vegas and seeing those people. Seeing some of the strength they were having. People laid up in the hospital and smiling and laughing and just being glad they were alive. That sort of stuff helped me to look at it in a different view,” Aldean said. “Those people are here and pushing on.”
Two months to the day after the shooting, Aldean’s son, Memphis, was born and finally, Aldean found some relief from the spiraling thoughts in his head.
“Really to me, he just gave me something else to focus on. Something else to think about on a daily basis,” Aldean said.
And although other country musicians have spoken out about the need for gun control since the shooting, Aldean has avoided wading into the political debates about guns. “It’s a no-win situation,” Aldean said. “I think no matter what you say, whether you’re for gun control or not, I mean, you’re setting yourself up to be crucified in the public eye or in the media.”
However, Aldean, who is a gun owner, said there are flaws in the nation’s laws regarding gun ownership that need addressing.
“It’s too easy to get guns, first and foremost,” Aldean said. “When you can walk in somewhere and you can get one in 5 minutes, do a background check that takes 5 minutes, like how in-depth is that background check? Those are the issues I have. It’s not necessarily the guns themselves or that I don’t think people should have guns. I have a lot of them.”
But his concern is that these tragedies are just used as fodder for the political arguments that have dominated any discussion about gun control.
“Nobody is looking at what the actual issue is and really how to come to an agreement and make a smart decision,” Aldean said.
This Friday, Aldean is releasing his eighth studio album, “Rearview Town,” which he had been working on all throughout last year in between touring. It features his bluesy new single, “You Make It Easy,” which was co-written by Florida Georgia Line, as well as “Drowns the Whiskey,” a duet with Miranda Lambert. Aldean said the title track appealed to him as a metaphor for his own life.
The stadium headliner largely finished “Rearview Town” before the shooting so none of the music was inspired by the events on Oct. 1. He will take his new songs — and his new son, Memphis — on the road this summer when his “High Noon Neon” tour launches in Missouri on May 10. Luke Combs and Lauren Alaina will open for him on the tour, which will play Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena on Sept. 7.
“‘Rearview Town’ just kind of says you’re sort of putting some of the things that have kind of weighted you down and been on your shoulders,” Aldean said. “You’re putting that behind you and you’re moving on and looking forward to everything in store.”
Aldean has already shared a few songs from the project and told fans that this record was very much a snapshot of everything he listened to growing up, but when he explained it a little more, it definitely resonated, “A lot of my fans were probably like me growing up, where you listened to music because you thought it was cool. You didn’t listen to just country or just rock or just…whatever. If there was a cool country song on the station, you’d listen to it and when it was over, you’d flip over to the rock station. I think for people my age, we all kind of grew up with different influences and just liking music as a whole and if it was good music, it was good music– it didn’t matter what category it was in.”
He also shared that his seven albums before this had his influences on them, but they all may have focused on one more than another, “We’d had our influences on ’em, but one may be kind of rock heavy, one may be a little more hip-hop heavy, blues, whatever– and I really feel like, for the first time, all those sounds, all those influences for me are on one record. So, it’s pretty cool and for me, I think it’s a pretty different sounding record, but something that is still going to sound familiar to everyone and still have our sound on it. So, I’m excited for people to hear it.”
On April 15, country music’s best and brightest will return to the city for the 53rd Academy of Country Music Awards. Aldean is the academy’s reigning Entertainer of the Year, and his eighth studio album, “Rearview Town,” will be in stores Friday, April 13. He’s nominated again for Entertainer of the Year — the show’s top prize — and will perform on the show, which will air live from MGM Grand’s Garden Arena at 7 p.m. on CBS.
Academy of Country Music CEO Pete Fisher promised the show would be a “very, very special shared experience.”
“I look at our return to Las Vegas as an authentic emotional commitment to the city and to country music and how we believe we can give back to that city and the fans of country music who will join us in Las Vegas,” he said. “We want to instill hope and healing. The Academy of Country Music Awards are known to love to party and have a lot of fun. We plan on doing a lot of that as well.”
Reba McEntire, who will host the program for the 15th time, echoed Fisher and explained it’s their job to keep their audience in an “uplifted mood.”
“Music is healing,” said McEntire, who also will perform on the program. “The people who were involved that night, it was our country music family. As Americans and country music people and as fans, we will join together and pay homage to them. And then we will go on with the show. As Americans, fear is not going to be something that keeps us away from doing what we are meant to do on this earth, which is to love.”
In addition to Aldean and McEntire, other performers on the show include Kane Brown, Kelly Clarkson, Alan Jackson, Little Big Town, Kelsea Ballerini, Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan, Little Big Town, Florida Georgia Line, Miranda Lambert, Thomas Rhett, Dierks Bentley, Lady Antebellum and Keith Urban.
Aldean is set to perform “You Make It Easy,” the lead single from “Rearview Town.” It’s a rare love ballad that the singer says will become another career song for him. Almost a decade after his genre-bending breakthrough smash “She’s Country,” Aldean still revels in surprising fans and pushing the boundaries of country music. He stands behind his last two albums, but believes they were in large part too safe and predictable. He wanted to shake things up on the radio with “You Make It Easy” for two reasons: It’s a different type of song for him, and Lionel Richie told him love songs never go out of style.
As much as Aldean wants to move past the Las Vegas shooting, the singer said shadows of the day will linger forever. He remembers an outdoor show he played in New Orleans where the stage was situated in the midst of buildings. He knew his crew had the area on lockdown, but he sat there looking in every single window anyway.
“I’ll never forget that night,” Aldean said. “But I’m looking down the road to better stuff. It’s not something that’s going to define my career. It’s something that happened one night out of a million shows I’ve played. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but we’re good and we’re looking forward to getting back on the road.”