Stagecoach 2012: Backstage with Jason Aldean
Jason Aldean vividly remembers playing the first Stagecoach Country Music Festival back in 2007, when the Macon, Ga., singer looked out on a very different scene than the one that greeted him Friday night as the opening-night headliner for the festival’s 2012 edition.
Five years ago Aldean was one of the opening acts, charged with trying to capture the attention of a relatively sparse crowd under less than ideal conditions. That was well before he had the biggest selling country album of the year, a feat he achieved last year with his fourth release, "My Kinda Party," which also was named album of the year by the Country Music Assn. and has generated four No. 1 hits, the fifth single on its way up the charts now.
"Man, it's a tough gig," Aldean, 35, said on his tour bus a couple of hours before he and his band would perform. “You go out in the middle of the day, it's 100-something degrees. A lot of times when you play early on, not everybody’s at the show yet -- they’re hanging out in their campers or whatever they doing. It’s not like later in the night, when the weather starts to cool down and everybody comes out. It’s a tough gig, to go out and let people see what it is you do. It’s tough for an artist who has to go on early in the day, and we did our fair share of that stuff.”
This year, however, those early slots were left to others — on Friday it was the Eli Young Band, Brett Eldredge and Sara Evans who were on stage before the sun went down on the Empire Polo Club in Indio.
By the time Aldean arrived, Alabama had pumped the crowd up with a generous dose of clap-and-stomp-along hits largely drawn from its heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Aldean and the other performers Friday also had the advantage of no competition or distraction from music emanating from other stages. In expanding Stagecoach from the typical two days to three this year, event organizers served up a low-key first-day offering, with just a single stage up and running and half a dozen acts playing from late afternoon into the evening.
“To come back here a few years later and go from opener to headliner of the show is pretty cool, especially the first night when you know everybody’s excited to get it going,” he said, stretching out in the back of a tour bus parked next to the Mane Stage.
The show was the group’s first after a rare break of about a month -- “I hope we’re not too rusty,” joked Aldean. The bus was not the band’s regular vehicle, which was left at home in Nashville, but one rented for the occasion.
"It’s like an old Western saloon or something’,” Aldean said with a laugh as he surveyed the dark wood paneling lining the interior.
Aldean was clearly enjoying his view from the top of the lineup, though it wasn’t something he's taking for granted as he keeps his focus on the long haul, not the quick burst of success.
“My career, I really couldn’t have mapped it out any better,” he said. “With the first single we had some success, but it wasn’t success on such a level that it was overwhelming, either. I think I had a few years to kind of, for lack of a better term, to get ready for all of it. After being out there for a few years, then all of a sudden put out an album like the  ‘Wide Open’ album that had [hit singles] ‘She’s Country’ and ‘Green Tractor’ was really kind of the beginning of it ….
“Then to have that album and ‘My Kinda Party’ back to back, songs like ‘Dirt Road [Anthem]’ and the duet with Kelly [Clarkson, on ‘Don’t You Want To Stay’], that’s when it really exploded. So I had some time to ease into it and kind of prepare for it instead of it just all happening right off the bat and it being overwhelming.”
Despite coming up in the age of new media, of Facebook and Twitter and other technologies that allow artists to connect with fans in new ways, Aldean has carved out much of his success the old-fashioned way: by touring relentlessly and winning fans over one by one.
“I think that’s the most important part,” he said. “Everybody on my team knew that my biggest selling tool was going to be my live show. That’s what I’ve built my career on, that’s what I’m comfortable doing.
“I really haven’t been a media darling. A lot of people are; they’re almost known more for their media stuff than they are for their actual music. For me, this was about going out, playing our songs, playing our show to let people see what it was that we did.
“Ultimately if people aren’t buying your records and aren’t coming to see you play, you’re not going to have a very long career. That’s just the way it is. I always figured that if for some reason we got to the point where we weren’t selling records, if we had built our fan base up we could still go out and play our shows. It was never about smoke and mirrors.”
-- Randy Lewis
Photos: Jason Aldean headlining the 2012 Stagecoach Country Music Festival on Friday. Credits, from top: Christopher Polk / Getty Images for Stagecoach; Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times