EYES WIDE OPEN

Af­ter Ve­gas, Ja­son Aldean car­ries the weight of tragedy

Calgary Sun - - SHOWBIZ - KRISTIN M. HALL

NASHVILLE — Last Oc­to­ber, Ja­son Aldean was in a Las Ve­gas hospi­tal vis­it­ing some of the vic­tims in­jured in a mass shoot­ing at a coun­try mu­sic fes­ti­val a week ear­lier. On that Sun­day af­ter­noon, the coun­try star turned to his long­time man­ager, Clarence Spald­ing. “He looked at me and said, ‘This will be the hard­est thing I ever do,”’ Spald­ing re­called. “And it was.” Aldean — the reign­ing Academy of Coun­try Mu­sic’s en­ter­tainer of the year with a new al­bum, Rearview

Town — has built his ca­reer and rep­u­ta­tion on his live shows that en­ter­tain tens of thou­sands ev­ery year. He had re­turned to meet face-to-face with those who had sur­vived a ter­ri­ble trauma dur­ing his per­for­mance at the fes­ti­val, which had left him with lin­ger­ing feel­ings of guilt.

In one room, a woman was still in a coma as he stood by her bed. Aldean recorded a mes­sage on her cell­phone, promis­ing to bring her to a show when she got bet­ter. Those mo­ments in those hospi­tal rooms were heavy with emo­tion, Spald­ing said.

“Ja­son would walk in and some­body who had been shot in the arm, leg, face or wher­ever would just start cry­ing be­cause it was such an emo­tional thing to see him,” Spald­ing said.

Aldean was on­stage when the gun­man started shoot­ing with high-pow­ered weapons at the fans from ho­tel room win­dow across the street from the out­door Route 91 Har­vest Fes­ti­val. That night in Oc­to­ber, 59 peo­ple were killed and hun­dreds more in­jured in what has be­come the na­tion’s dead­li­est mass shoot­ing in mod­ern his­tory.

The Ma­con, Ge­or­gia-born star has been singing about small-town, work­ing class life since he started in Nashville two decades ago, and said he now feels a con­nec­tion to the sur­vivors of an­other re­cent shoot­ing at a high school in Park­land, Florida.

“Un­less any­body has wit­nessed any­thing like that or been a part of it, it’s re­ally hard for peo­ple to re­ally un­der­stand where you’re com­ing from on that stuff,” Aldean said in a re­cent in­ter­view with The As­so­ci­ated Press. “It’s like the kids from the school in Florida, that shoot­ing. I get it, man. I un­der­stand how they are feel­ing.”

About 40 mem­bers of his band and crew, as well as his preg­nant wife, Brit­tany, were all there at the fes­ti­val. Spald­ing said two of their tour buses were shot, as well as their light­ing board and stage. Aldean’s bass player found a bul­let frag­ment in his bass gui­tar.

The af­ter­math for Aldean has been com­pli­cated. He said he felt thank­ful that his fam­ily, crew and friends weren’t in­jured, but also guilt for all the peo­ple who were there be­cause they wanted to see him play. And then he felt anger and dis­be­lief.

“You start do­ing that thing, like, ‘Man, did that re­ally hap­pen? It seems so crazy,”’ Aldean said. “You just sit there and relive it a thou­sand times a day.”

His re­cov­ery was helped by talk­ing with his wife and his band and crew about what they ex­pe­ri­enced. And then he met those sur­vivors.

“Go­ing back to the hospi­tal, go­ing back to Ve­gas and see­ing those peo­ple. See­ing some of the strength they were hav­ing. Peo­ple laid up in the hospi­tal and smil­ing and laugh­ing and just be­ing glad they were alive. That sort of stuff helped me to look at it in a dif­fer­ent view,” Aldean said. “Those peo­ple are here and push­ing on.”

Two months to the day af­ter the shoot­ing, Aldean’s son, Mem­phis, was born and fi­nally Aldean found some relief from the spi­ral­ing thoughts in his head.

“Re­ally to me, he just gave me some­thing else to fo­cus on. Some­thing else to think about on a daily ba­sis,” Aldean said.

And al­though other coun­try mu­si­cians have spo­ken out about the need for gun con­trol since the shoot­ing, Aldean has avoided wad­ing into the po­lit­i­cal de­bates about guns. “It’s a no-win sit­u­a­tion,” Aldean said. “I think no mat­ter what you say, whether you’re for gun con­trol or not, I mean, you’re set­ting your­self up to be cru­ci­fied in the pub­lic eye or in the me­dia.”

How­ever, Aldean, who is a gun owner, said there are flaws in the na­tion’s laws re­gard­ing gun own­er­ship that need ad­dress­ing.

“It’s too easy to get guns, first and fore­most,” Aldean said. “When you can walk in some­where and you can get one in 5 min­utes, do a back­ground check that takes 5 min­utes, like how in-depth is that back­ground check? Those are the is­sues I have. It’s not nec­es­sar­ily the guns them­selves or that I don’t think peo­ple should have guns. I have a lot of them.”

But his con­cern is that these tragedies are just used as fod­der for the po­lit­i­cal ar­gu­ments that have dom­i­nated any dis­cus­sion about gun con­trol.

“No­body is look­ing at what the ac­tual is­sue is and re­ally how to come to an agree­ment and make a smart de­ci­sion,” Aldean said.

Aldean just re­leased his eighth studio al­bum, Rearview Town, which he had been work­ing on all through­out last year in be­tween tour­ing. It fea­tures his bluesy new sin­gle, You Make It Easy, which was cowrit­ten by Florida Ge­or­gia Line, as well as Drowns the Whiskey, a duet with Mi­randa Lam­bert. Aldean said the ti­tle track ap­pealed to him as a metaphor for his own life.

“Rearview Town just kind of says you’re sort of putting some of the things that have kind of weighted you down and been on your shoul­ders,” Aldean said. “You’re putting that be­hind you and you’re mov­ing on and look­ing for­ward to ev­ery­thing in store.”

Ja­son Aldean holds his son, Mem­phis.

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