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 out this Friday, 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.
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In one room, a woman was still in a coma as he stood by her bed. Aldean recorded a message on her cell phone, 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.
This Friday, Aldean is releasing 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 co-written 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."