Jason Aldean spent his summer in iconic football and baseball stadiums, from Pasadena to Yawkey Way -- and damn, it was weird.
Growing up in Macon, Georgia, Aldean could have hardly dreamed of scoring a ticket to sit in the highest reaches of Fenway Park or Wrigley Field or the Rose Bowl. Now, the country music star can't get used to the concept of folks spending hard-earned, not-so-expendable income buying those seats to see him.
"Growing up, you'd see video and pictures of people like the Beatles playing Shea Stadium, and that seemed like it was just impossible," Aldean recently told me during a tour stop in Canada. "You've got to be the Beatles for that to happen, or Elvis.
"And to be a guy to go out and do it ... I love it, and can't believe it. It's strange for me to look out and realize that we're actually playing our show here."
The numbers are ridiculous. On his current Burn It Down tour alone, Aldean sold more than two million tickets. He played to more than 45,000 fans at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, to 47,000 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and to 53,000 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He also became the first co-headliner in the country music format to perform at the Rose Bowl and broke Pink Floyd's decades-long attendance record at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, playing to more than 57,000 fans.
In addition to the success of his live shows, Aldean has sold more than 10 million albums and has produced 16 No. 1 singles over his career. He says he can't fathom that those numbers are his reality.
"The fact that it's me -- that's what's strange! Me!" he said. "I had a record deal and lost a record deal before I even recorded one song. And to take that and turn it into what it is, is strange, in a good way. In the early days, we had everything stacked against us that you could have."
Aldean recently sat down with us and thumbed through a stack of photographs that he believed captured the essence of the tour and what he sees when he stops long enough to take it all in.
Levi's Stadium (Santa Clara, California)
Bay area ink
"This reminds me of a Dale Murphy autograph I got when I was a kid. I went to spring training, and he was my guy, so I waited it out as those guys were coming out of the clubhouse. I was probably 7 or 8 years old. I still have that autograph.
"This was from the first show of the tour. It was the first time I had ever been to Levi's Stadium and the first show Kenny Chesney and I ever did together, so that was very cool.
"It took us some time to get going out there on the West Coast, especially when things were clipping along pretty good back at home. We could go to Texas or the Midwest, Southeast and do great. But we'd go out to California and it was still a little slow for us out there.
"Once we caught on, though, we can go out there and do it on the same level as everywhere else. San Francisco is great to us.
Gillette Stadium (Foxboro, Massachusetts)
On top of the world
"This is one of the coolest shots. It puts our show into perspective. That's a lot of damn people. This shot is what I mean about that old footage of the Beatles playing stadiums. That's what I think about. You have to sell a lot of tickets to make a picture look like that, and not a lot of people get to experience it. And to be one of the few that gets to do that is a great feeling. That vision, that sight, will never get old.
"Something like this was never on my to-do list. I wanted a record deal and to record an album, tour and play shows. I wanted to make a living doing something I liked. That's what it was about for me. Even when we started talking about going out and playing stadiums, I said, 'Man, I don't know. I don't think so.'
"I never dreamed we'd do it on this level. But once you do it, you're hooked. There's nothing like it. Especially being a sports fan and playing those stadiums."
The long walk
"This is a transition point in the show. That's me coming from playing a song out on the thrust - it might be after the song 'The Truth.' I'm coming back to the band, here. Most shows, that thrust, the catwalk, it's a long way down there, like 50 yards! It's an even longer walk back, because I always feel weird when my back is turned to the crowd. I try to never do that unless the lights are out or really low. I never want it to look like I have my back to them. ...
"At this moment in this picture, I'm probably thinking about how long that walk was, and probably trying to figure out what the next song is. There's a setlist that's on the ground by my microphone, so I'm probably trying to sneak a peek at the ground to see what the next song is."
"This is the very end of the show, the last song. My microphone stand is on fire right in front of me. The sparks you see coming down end up being like a curtain. This is a really cool thing to see from the crowd, visually. Only problem is, those sparks actually burn a little bit, so after a while, I had to take them out of the show. Some of the sparks were getting down into my shirt and actually burning me. Luckily, I have a hat to cover up my hair."
The Rose Bowl (Pasadena, California)
The hat dance
"That's what's you do it for, right here - people like that dude holding the cowboy hat in the air, right down front. As a kid watching videos, you'd see people on stage playing these live shows -- and the coolest part about it was the sea of people watching them. That's what that looks like to me, that sea of people. I never dreamed that many people would come watch our show -- and I mean just those in the frame of the picture. That's just a quarter of the stadium.
"There were a couple places we played this year that were very special. Hell, I'd never even been to the Rose Bowl. The first time I stepped foot in there, I walked in and our stage was set up in the end zone. That was a surreal feeling. You never know how many times you'll get a chance to play those places. And even if you never play them again, you're one of the few who has the chance to do it in the first place. It's one of those things, the history, you think about that. It hits you - everything that's [happened] on that field."
"This is the end of our show. This is the grand finale, the very end, just after we play 'She's Country.' We're getting ready to get off stage. Looking at this makes me think back to the days of us having no special effects. It was just us and some guitars and some microphones. That's it. No bells or whistles. Now, there's flames and fire shooting everywhere, and fireworks exploding.
"To see how big it looks shows how far we've come -- I remember when we had nothing. We could pull every piece of gear we had in a 12-foot trailer behind the bus. Now, we have 12 semi-trucks carrying all this stuff. That's what 10 or 12 semis looks like, right there."
MetLife Stadium (East Rutherford, New Jersey)
"That's sound check, an empty stadium. It's cool to go out at that time of the day, because you get a chance to get a different perspective on where you are. And then, a few hours later, you go out and every seat is full. ... That's when you can go out and take it all in, sit on the edge of the stage and really realize how big those places are. They look a lot bigger when nobody's in them. It's a chance to reflect.
"During the show, it's all adrenaline and liquor. When you're out there alone, you actually have a moment to take it in. When there are people out there and it's show time, it's go-time. There's not time to stand around and look. Sound check, the early part of the day, is the time to have a 'wow moment' about how huge the place is."
"I look really small out there all by myself! There's one big-ballad moment in the show, a moment when we bring it all down a little bit. Most of our show is heavy guitars and a lot of rock and roll, but this is a part when it is a me-and-a-guitar moment, all by myself on an island.
"I try not to play a lot of ballads or slow songs. I try to keep it up-tempo. But there's a couple that were big radio hits and you want to play them for the fans. It's a traditional country song, one of the very few traditional country things we've ever done. But the reaction it gets every night is really good -- I don't want to say it's shocking, but this song is way different and it gets a huge response."
"This is 'Dirt Road Anthem.' At the end of that song, we get everybody to put their hands in the air and start waving their hands. When you look out there and there's a stadium full of people doing that, man -- you think 'The Wave' looks cool at a sporting event? No, this looks way cooler. ... It's one of my favorite moments in the show, a very special time for us."
"To me, this is just our show, right here. This is what I look like 90 percent of the show. I like to play guitar and add to the band. I'm not a guy that goes up there and strums a guitar that's not plugged in or just runs around with a microphone for 99 percent of the show -- me and my guys that are in my band are just that, a band. We play everything. We don't have vocals on a track or any of that. We're a band. I'm part of that.
"One other thing: I love that guitar. It's badass the first time you get a guitar with your name on it and you didn't write it there. For the longest time, I'd see guys that would have their names on the pick guards or guitars, and I wanted one so bad.
"Then we finally teamed up with Gibson, and I had them do one guitar. It was black, but then came back and made me this blonde one. ... Over the years, I've accumulated four or five of them with my name on them. One got destroyed at the iHeartRadio Awards. I got caught up in the moment at the end of the show, so I'm light one guitar after I smashed that one."