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"Hicktown"

Jason Aldean rides a raucous single up the country charts.

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Jason Aldean grew up in Macon, Georgia, population 97,000, give or take a few thousand. That's interesting because it means the city doesn't qualify as a "hicktown," the name of Aldean's stomping country-rock anthem about a deep-fried paradise where grandmas are getting lit before playing bingo and where stripping the gears out of trucks in mud holes is a way of life.

"I grew up on the outskirts of Macon," says Aldean, 28, in town for a show at Cactus Jack's where he'll play songs off his debut album, Jason Aldean. "It was kind of rural. I got the best of both worlds, really. I had farmland all around me, but in 15 minutes I could be in downtown Macon."

This rural/city existence sums up nicely the latest generation of Nashville newbies, who were weaned in part on rock and hip-hop radio and are more than a few steps removed from the sacred Grand Ole Opry pedal-steel tradition of George Jones and Hank Williams. Aldean doesn't even have to open his mouth to show his non-trad ways -- the noticeable earrings flashing from his ears do the trick.

"I don't get a lot of flack anymore about [the earrings]," Aldean says. "I don't really think about it that much. Thing is, hell, I'm not the only one. Keith Urban has about six in one ear."

Aldean grew up under the influence of his father's love for traditional country and with Bon Jovi and Guns N' Roses blaring from boom boxes at high school parties. Aldean, who started performing at Macon's VFW hall when he was 14, gravitated toward the Nashville sound, especially during the time when, as he notes, "the whole world was going country," and Garth Brooks was king.

All this means that Aldean fits right in the current state of country music, which has seen a critical and commercial uptick over the past couple of years. His CD might not have the kick and bite of fellow rookie Miranda Lambert's Kerosene or the consistent songwriting depth of Bobby Pinson's Man Like Me, but its pleasures are earned and undeniable. "Hicktown" is a stone blast, and "Amarillo Sky," an ode to the struggles of farming life, soars. Through it all, Aldean's voice demonstrates seemingly

effortless power.

The other thing that sets Jason Aldean firmly in modern-day Nashville is the veritable army of songwriters employed. Aldean is responsible for some of the songs, but most are penned by several writers, including Pinson and the red-hot John Rich of Big & Rich.

"I actually met [Rich] through the publishing company," notes Aldean. "We were writing songs for the same company. He's one of the best songwriters in town. He's definitely had a good year with singles and songwriting."

That Aldean was allowed to get his vocal cords on songs by Rich indicates the powers-that-be thought highly of the young talent. But there were years of struggle in Nashville for Aldean as he attempted to land a record deal -- a story that's all too familiar to those who know the ways of the cutthroat town.

But now Aldean is reveling in the success of "Hicktown," which has been bolstered by a raucous video (complete with monster trucks in big mud holes) in heavy rotation on CMT. The hit means that Aldean can extend his tour but this time as an opening act for Rascal Flatts. It means that he will likely be invited back to play at the church of old country, the Grand Ole Opry. And Aldean isn't so much a newbie or a rebel to understate or downplay the significance of that:

"Oh yeah, that's something I wanted to accomplish. That's always been a big dream of mine."

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