It is late summer in Georgia, a decade ago, and Jason Aldean is holding a ticket. It’s not the scratch-off type and offers no financial fantasy. But for a poor country boy from Macon, Ga., it is an avenue to dreams far richer.
Aldean’s father acquired the ticket from a friend and knew well its fleeting value. But he couldn’t cash in just then, so he threw his boy a bone only a Bulldog could love.
The ticket granted entrance to a college football game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Clemson Tigers. It included field access, which meant Aldean would walk the famous Sanford Stadium hedge line and achieve a lifelong dream.
He would share that dream with his cousin, Dale. They’re the same age and as close as brothers. Neither had ever attended a Georgia football game, though both were die-hards.
Come game day, there they stood, on the Bulldogs' sideline, overwhelmed by the spectacle of 92,746 brethren.
“It was like going to church,” Aldean says. “I didn’t think it was possible, but I became an even bigger fan after that. Experiencing the players running by you and petting Uga ... it was surreal. It was spiritual.”
Aldean was so moved by the spirit that he wound up on the news later that evening.
With 11:49 remaining in the second quarter, wide receiver Fred Gibson returned a kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown. While watching replays of the game that evening, Aldean noticed himself, jumping and hollering wildly, sprinting all the way down the sideline, right alongside Gibson.
“I made a complete idiot of myself,” he laughs now. “But that’s what happens with Georgia football. I really get into games.”
These days, entrance to games is the easy part. Finding the time to attend is another story. Aldean is among the biggest stars in country music, with a fan base that extends from the lazy Georgia dirt roads back home to the furthest reaches of the FM radio dial.
With that comes the brutal, exhausting, gypsy cycle of touring: Play a show, shuttle off to the tour bus, have a cocktail or two while the roadies pack the gear, roll out to the next town, sleep ’til noon, wake, eat, maybe write a song, maybe find a parking-lot pickup game, hit sound check, grip ’n’ grin with the radio types and the meet ’n’ greeters, go play again.
But Aldean embraces it. He built his career one fan at a time. Georgia football helps him maintain perspective of his position. It reminds him why he does what he does, and how it impacts the folks who buy the tickets and records that got him here.
“Knowing how passionate I am about my teams, my music might be that for them,” he says. “If I’m watching a game and Georgia’s playing like crap, it puts a damper on my whole day.
“It’s the same thing playing a show. When people come out to a show they want to see you at your best, and they deserve that. You want to make them feel like they got their money’s worth.”
He’s doing something right. His latest studio album, "My Kinda Party," has sold more than 2.5 million copies. It was certified platinum with more than 1 million copies sold in just 11 weeks.
His new album, "Night Train," hit shelves last week. The album’s lead single, “Take a Little Ride,” sold more digital downloads in its first week than a single by any male country artist in history. So far, Aldean has sold more than 6 million total albums.
Down a grassy hillside from his home rests Aldean’s version of a Man Cave. It is a Man Barn. It is not dusty, not grimy. There are no hay bales or animals milling about, save for Aldean’s stark-white bulldog, Athens.
There is a pair of televisions in the barn. One is inside the door to the left, above a full bar, and the other, the bigger of the two, is surrounded by leather couches.
The couches, naturally, are separated by a barrel of Jack Daniel’s. Between the bar and the couches sits an old vending machine. Throw in a quarter, and a Coke rolls out. Or a Bud Light if you wish.
And off to the left, beside the television, is a University of Georgia logo, like those you’ll find on the side of the school’s football helmets.
This is the prized possession of the Man Barn.
It is signed by several of Aldean’s celebrity buddies, folks like fellow country singers (and native Georgians) Luke Bryan and Zac Brown. Kid Rock inked it, as did the Lady Antebellum trio, Washington Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche and Boston Red Sox pitcher/Aldean-lookalike Josh Beckett.
If you’re not a Georgia fan, you aren’t likely to get an invitation on fall Saturdays.
“I like to watch with people rooting for the same team,” Aldean says. “People hoping we lose, I ban them from watching games here. I’d rather watch by myself than have them running their mouth about my team.”
Thinking back on his favorite Dawgs memories, he notes the 2002 SEC championship game between UGA and the Arkansas Razorbacks. Aldean’s wife, Jessica, was pregnant with their first daughter, Keeley, at the time, so not only did he have a built-in designated driver, but he also had a built-in cheering section -- including his daughter.
“She would just start kicking really hard,” he says. “I’ll always remember that.”
Then there was the November 2008 matchup with Florida, when running back Knowshon Moreno dove into the end zone for a touchdown, prompting the entire Bulldogs team to sprint onto the field. The reaction was wholly uncharacteristic of a Mark Richt-coached team, which is exactly why it is memorable -- and awesome -- for Georgia fans.
Third, he mentions the moment on Aug. 6, 1980, when 18-year-old Herschel Walker completely ran over Tennessee’s Bill Bates at the 7-yard line.
“Any time you go to Athens, you see that picture,” he says. “Herschel was a freshman when that happened, and he just rolled that guy.
“Man, this is fun. I could go on like this for hours.”
Truth told, he has five minutes. He’s in Cincinnati. And the Riverbend is sold out.