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‘A modern lynching song’? Jason Aldean and the most controversial song in country

Star hits back after being accused of writing promoting violence and division with the video for his new track ‘Try That in a Small Town’, writes Joe Sommerlad

Thursday 27 July 2023 05:32 BST
Jason Aldean in the video for ‘Try That in a Small Town'
Jason Aldean in the video for ‘Try That in a Small Town' (Jason Aldean/YouTube)

Country music star Jason Aldean is facing a storm of criticism after releasing a new music video for his song “Try That in a Small Town”.

The clip features alarmist news footage of violent clashes between demonstrators and police officers, petty crime and flag burning, seemingly to make an impassioned point about the extent of current political divisions within the United States.

An increasingly vocal conservative since the final year of the Trump administration, Aldean is perhaps best known to non-fans for being the act who was on stage performing when mass shooter Stephen Paddock opened fire on revellers attending the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip on 1 October 2017.

Paddock attacked the crowd with a 1,000-bullet hail of gunfire from the balcony of his 32nd floor suite at the Nevada gambling Mecca’s Mandalay Bay Hotel, killing 60 people and injuring 413 before turning his assault rifle on himself.

His motive for carrying out the worst gun massacre in American history has never been established.

Aldean himself was not hurt in the incident and posted on Instagram that evening: “Tonight has been beyond horrific. I still don’t know what to say but wanted to let everyone know that me and my crew are safe.

“My thoughts and prayers go out to everyone involved tonight. It hurts my heart that this would happen to anyone who was just coming out to enjoy what should have been a fun night. #heartbroken #stopthehate.”

However, rather than make a compassionate appeal for gun control in light of having witnessed such a traumatic episode, Aldean instead appears to be doubling down on his Second Amendment advocacy in this new single from his upcoming 11th album.

Here’s why the song (and its new music video in particular) is so contentious.

What is ‘Try That in a Small Town’ about?

The lyrics for Jason Aldean’s new track depict America’s major cities as liberal havens for anarchy and street crime, characterised by disrespect for authority and contempt for traditional values.

Like Bruce Wayne at his most embittered and dismayed, Aldean denounces small-time urban thugs who “sucker punch somebody on a sidewalk”, “carjack an old lady at a red light” or “pull a gun on the owner of a liquor store”. Or, even worse, “cuss out a cop” or spit on the Stars-and-Stripes.

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He challenges the perpetrators in macho fashion to “try that in a small town”, which, by contrast, is more likely to be populated by “good ol’ boys, raised up right”, meaning well-armed with licensed weapons and good manners and unafraid of a fight.

On the subject of gun ownership specifically, he sings:

“Got a gun that my granddad gave me,

“They say one day they’re gonna round up,

“Well, that s*** might fly in the city, good luck.

“Try that in a small town,

“See how far you make it down the road,

“Round here, we take care of our own.”

Why has the video been criticised?

The single’s new video, directed by Shaun Silva, overtly aligns Aldean’s societal concerns with the sort of hysterical anti-Antifa paranoia peddled by right-wing cable news channels, bringing together a collage of real news footage taken from recent New York political protests to paint a disturbing vision of hooded youths engaged in wanton destruction, looting and anti-patriotic vandalism, which overworked law enforcement are seen to struggle to contain.

More troublingly, it also features a morose Aldean and his leather-jacketed, Stetson-wearing bandmates performing in front of the Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tennessee. This is the site of a notorious lynching in 1927 when Black youth Henry Choate, 18, was hanged from a second storey window by a white mob after being dragged along behind a car.

What has been said about it?

Among those denouncing the three-minute promo was Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, who tweeted that Aldean, despite his ordeal in Las Vegas, had written a song “about how he and his friends will shoot you if you try to take their guns”.

Chris Willman of Variety meanwhile called the track “the most contemptible country song of the decade” and commented: “For Aldean, it’s about how tiny burgs are under the imminent threat of attack from lawless urban marauders who will have to be kept at bay by any means necessary – meaning, pretty explicitly, vigilantism.”

Fellow country icon Sheryl Crow likewise accused Aldean of inciting violence, telling him on Twitter: “There’s nothing small-town or American about promoting violence. You should know that better than anyone having survived a mass shooting.”

Jason Aldean (Getty)

Others saw in it an explicit attack on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and called it a “modern lynching song” in light of the choice of setting for the video.

Journalist Matthew Chapman tweeted of “Try That in a Small Town” that it “absolutely captures everything about the American Right, from the paranoid threats of violence, to the irrational fetishisation of communities where everyone acts and thinks the same, to the fact that the singer in fact grew up in a city”.

In the wake of that heavy backlash from social media, the video has been withdrawn from rotation by the country music channel CMT on Monday, according to Billboard and Deadline, although the network offered no explanation of the rationale behind that programming decision.

What has Aldean said in defence of the song?

The singer took to Twitter to issue an angry defence of his song on Monday evening, stating: “In the past 24 hours I have been accused of releasing a pro-lynching song (a song that has been out since May) and was subject to the comparison that I (direct quote) was not too pleased with the nationwide BLM protests.

“These references are not only meritless, but dangerous. There is not a single lyric in the song that references race or points to it – and there isn’t a single video clip that isn’t real news footage – and while I can try and respect others to have their own interpretation of a song with music, this one goes too far.

“As so many pointed out, I was present at Route 91 – where so many lost their lives – and our community recently suffered another heartbreaking tragedy. NO ONE, including me, wants to continue to see senseless headlines or families ripped apart.

“‘Try That In A Small Town’, for me, refers to the feeling of a community that I had growing up, where we took care of our neighbours, regardless of differences of background or belief. Because they were our neighbours, and that was above any differences. My political views have never been something I’ve hidden from, and I know that a lot of us in this country don’t agree on how we get back to a sense of normalcy where we go at least a day without a headline that keeps us up at night. But the desire for it to – that’s what this song is about.”

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