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Jason separated himself from the pack by ignoring conventional country boundaries, first with a duet with Kelly Clarkson on “Don’t You Wanna Stay” and more aggressively with the country–rap “Dirt Road Anthem.” His willingness to take risks, and his commitment to those risks, is surely playing into his success.

“A lot of creative types can live in the ‘gray,’ and Jason’s very ‘black and white’ about things,” says manager Chris Parr at Spalding Entertainment. “That’s a really strong thing, to understand who you are as an artist, and you can extrapolate that to your music, to appearances, to whatever different requests you might get. He’s like, ‘if I’m gonna do it, we’re doing it, we’re all in,’ which fits well, because [Spalding Entertainment president] Clarence [Spalding] and I are the same way, we don’t like to stay in the ‘maybe.'”

For his fifth album, Night Train (out Oct. 16), “maybe” duties went to Aldean’s producer Michael Knox, who tells Billboard he went through about 5,400 songs for this record. “The job that I have now is making sure the quality of songs he picks from are where they need to be.”

Theirs is a melding of ’70s and ’80s arena rock with contemporary country vocals and arrangements spiced with wailing guitar solos and the occasionally foray into rap and pop power ballads that fans have embraced and radio accepted. Beyond that, it’s delivered with a rawness that comes from road–seasoned musicians in the studio and Aldean’s way with a vocal that makes everything he sings believable to fans. Aldean is dead–set on his musical vision, and Knox is the tireless seeker of songs and the mad scientist in the studio that brings that vision to life.”

“One thing I’ve never wanted is for my records to sound like every other male act that’s on the radio,” Aldean says. “I don’t hear anybody’s record and say, ‘man, I want my record to sound like that.’ I want my record to sound like me, what it sounds like when I’m on stage. The best way to do that is have my guys playing. The session players in Nashville are some of the best players in the world, but they don’t always play what I want to hear.”

In the end, the two ended up with a record that stays true to Aldean’s sound and still manages to move that sound forward sonically, vocally and lyrically. “The big progression we made this time was more in the lyrical aspect than like ‘Dirt Road Anthem’ when we had never done anything like that, or when we did ‘Don’t You Wanna Stay,’ he had never done that big pop power ballad before,” says Knox. “Now it’s more of a lyric thing, where he has something he wants to say and he’s out there looking for it.”

Which songs on Jason’s Night Train are standouts? Check out Billboards track–by–track breakdown of the album here.