The message in Aldean’s ‘Try That in a Small Town’ is clear

by Francis Wilkinson

Country singer Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” is far from the worst agitprop ever to hit the American scene. But the song hunkered down in the trenches of the culture war this week, which seems to have been its destination all along.

Cuss out a cop, spit in his face

Stomp on the flag and light it up

Yeah, ya think you’re tough

Well, try that in a small town

See how far ya make it down the road

Around here, we take care of our own

You cross that line, it won’t take long

For you to find out, I recommend you don’t

Try that in a small town.

In case any listener is too dense to catch the “us against them” vibe of Real Americans versus urban others, Aldean also assures us that his grandpappy’s gun, which we are given to believe shall be pried from only the coldest and deadest hands, is ready for deployment in the cause of taking care of our own.

Small-town America is a staple of American popular song. Somehow singers from velveteen Bing Crosby to gnarly Steve Earle and transcendent Dolly Parton have managed to conjure it without invoking vigilantism or reaching for their firearms. Aldean’s lyrics — written by a team that did not include Aldean — are accompanied by the kind of six-string screech familiar from halftime ads for the December sales event. The generic twang of the guitars underscores just how discordant the words are. Variety critic Chris Willman described the package as “close to being the most cynical song ever written about the implicit moral superiority of having a limited number of neighbors.”

The song, which was released in May, only seems to have caused a fuss once the video was released earlier this month. (We are a visual culture.) The video offered another chance to drive home the divisive plot line, and Aldean and his colleagues seized it. Shot in front of a courthouse in Columbia, Tenn., the site of a mob lynching of an 18-year-old Black teenager in 1927 and a race riot in 1946, it shows Aldean and band singing. It also features footage of visceral conflicts between protestors and police, interspersed with footage of criminal acts. Apparently, no one in the editing room pondered whether exercising First Amendment rights and jacking an old lady’s car might be dissimilar activities in some important respects. The whole thing brought to mind some vintage rhymes from George Wallace’s 1972 presidential campaign:

Crime and riots must go out,

Wallace is the name you wanna shout.

Georgie! Georgie Wallace! Leader of our land!

Whether Aldean’s song intentionally evokes “sundown” towns, which required Black people to be good and gone by nightfall, at which point White residents had license to let their worst impulses run wild, or is instead just a heartfelt paeon to violence against all, regardless of skin color or social station, who dare bring their citified ways across a small town’s borderline, is probably not worth an argument.

For his part, Aldean says it’s all a big misunderstanding. He released a statement complaining about his critics and noting, “There is not a single lyric in the song that references race or points to it.”

Perhaps Aldean should be granted some slack. Many remarkable songs, especially from the southland, mention nothing whatsoever about race; yet the topic stubbornly asserts itself between the lines. Here’s an example from Mississippi-born Big Bill Broonzy:

When I was born into this world, this is what happened to me,

I was never called a man, and now I’m fifty-three.

There’s no literal race-pointing in those lyrics. Yet race comes pointing just the same.

Bluesman J.B. Lenoir invoked local terroir much like Aldean, although the effect is not quite the same.

I never will go back to Alabama, that is not the place for me,

I never will go back to Alabama, that is not the place for me,

You know they killed my sister and my brother,

And the whole world let them peoples go down there free.

I’ll venture a guess that the Lenoir and Broonzy songs will be kicking around long after the world has forgotten Aldean’s armed and angry little town. It’s a shame that Aldean, who was born and raised in Georgia, seems to have spent little time absorbing the work of the many brilliant musicians whose songs shaped the Southern landscape, and then traveled the world. If he had, Aldean might possess a more holistic view of his own time and place, and what his song’s lyrics convey to listeners outside his imaginary little town. But maybe Aldean knows all of that already, and he just wanted to do some cussing and spitting of his own.

Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. politics and policy. Previously, he was an editor for the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.