Jason Aldean isn't afraid of the truth.
"I can't tell you I'm a huge fan," he admits about country legend Johnny Cash. "I grew to have a lot of respect for him; but growing up, he's not someone who influenced me."
By itself, the comment might be surprising coming from a rising country singer, but it's hardly heretical. But for a guy whose new hit single is called "Johnny Cash," a song written by Big & Rich's John Rich, the confession takes on a little more weight.
Aldean, 30, knows that. "I cut it in 2003 ... ," he says with a smile at a Mexican restaurant here outside Nashville, shortly before heading west for his show Sunday at the Stagecoach country festival in Indio. "It was a rockin' thing, fun to play -- but, you know, the song doesn't really talk about Johnny Cash. It has that vibe, maybe, of the picture with him flashing the bird, but that's really it."
The unvarnished, unapologetic truth is a lot of what's making Aldean -- whose second album, "Relentless," is due May 29 -- a face to watch. He's not the prettiest nor poppiest, but there's something about the scrappy roughneck from Macon, Ga., that harks back to a blue-collar intensity largely lacking due to country's female-leaning target demographic.
"Not everybody's caught up in the Wall Street, driving-a-Mercedes thing," explains the surprise winner of the 2006 Academy of Country Music top new male award. "People where I'm from are down-to-earth: They're about their trucks, cars, hanging out with buddies, doing a little fishing. It's not for everybody, but it's me."
He was also feisty enough to reject the status quo, giving up a potential career in pro baseball to do four- and five-set nights, 200 nights a year, in a Georgia band playing songs of the Allman Brothers, Alabama, John Mellencamp and Bob Seger.
At a local talent round-up at Atlanta's Buckboard, Mike Knox from Warner-Chappell Music publishing offered a songwriting contract to the kid who was mixing Southern rock with mainstream country. Aldean didn't know what a publisher was -- "but I looked at my options, which were that or nothing." He used the songwriting deal to get to Nashville and into the game.
A record deal at Capitol disintegrated before he got into the studio. Songwriting taught him mechanics, but he lived to play live. "Every label turned me down at least twice," he says. "It was, 'Am I just crazy? Do I not have it? Or do these people not get what I'm doing?' Because aside from having a point to prove, I knew people reacted to this stuff live."
On the brink of "running out of time" -- Aldean's wife had a baby, and he knew "chasing something that might not happen shouldn't take away from my family" -- indie label Broken Bow offered him a deal. People thought he was crazy for taking it. Again, he looked at his options: Broken Bow -- or nothing.
Leading with the aggressive rural manifesto "Hicktown" in 2005, Aldean paved the way for his debut album, "Jason Aldean," to go platinum. The song's "Girls Gone Wild"-in-the-country style video ratified his beyond-the-city-limits lifestyle. Following the aching power-ballad "Why" and the never-say-die farmers' resolve "Amarillo Sky," a million-plus albums were sold, a Rascal Flatts tour offer came and then his upset at the ACM Awards over the category's odds-on favorite, Billy Currington.
Aldean's fan base is "a cross between a traditional country audience and Hank Jr.'s," says Academy President Bob Romeo. "When he won, it surprised people so much ... I wanted to see this guy. I drove half the night from Greeley to a festival to do it.... 2 o'clock under the sun in Grand Junction, Colorado? That's hotter than hell, just brutal -- and he gets a standing ovation! Unheard of -- but he knows how to not just connect, but drive those people. It made sense then, how he won: He was making believers in the field."
Aldean uses that concert as his standard. "I go out to punch people in the face [with the music], because people come out to have a good time. If they do, they'll come back.... They know I'm like they are. ... That was the thing about Alabama, they'd come out in jeans and T-shirts, tennis shoes, and you knew that's who they were."
He doesn't have lofty goals, beyond seeing how far he can go. Otherwise, it's giving a voice to the people often overlooked in the media centers.
"This speaks for the blue-collar, working-class person who grew up on a farm baling hay -- or working in a mill," he says. "A lot of teenagers don't relate to the slickness, it's not their world.... I know, it wasn't mine."
Where: Mane Stage, Stagecoach Festival, 81-800 Avenue 51, Indio
When: 2:40 p.m. Sunday
Price: $167 for two-day (Saturday-Sunday) general admission