When Jason Aldean released “Try That in A Small Town” in May, the response was, well, small-scale.
The song debuted at No. 35 on Billboard’s Hot country songs chart and fizzled out of the Top 50. Then he dropped the controversial music video, eight weeks after the song’s release, and the country star is having a historic run — for more than one reason — on the music charts.
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Streams for the single jumped 999 percent after the music video’s release and the song sold 228,000 copies. It was enough to help the track land at No. 2 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100, giving Aldean the biggest pop hit of his career and only following behind the heavily promoted launch of BTS star Jungkook’s single “Seven.” But a week later, “Try That In a Small Town” continued to dominate through streams and sales, reaching the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100. On the country charts, the song is Aldean’s first No. 1 hit in nearly a decade.
But the moment isn’t particularly celebratory, because the response to “Try That In a Small Town” has been split and caused division. Some have criticized it for promoting gun violence and taking aim at the Black Lives Matter movement. Producers edited the music video to remove news footage of BLM protests due to third party copyright clearance issues. But CMT — which regularly plays country music videos — quickly pulled the clip from its rotation days after its release. Despite all that, the numbers and support are strong, and Aldean’s song has resonated with an audience.
“I felt that Jason Aldean was expressing the feelings that a lot of people in the country audience felt, particularly in the Trump America country audience,” says Don Cusic, a country music historian, author and professor of music business at Belmont University. “The video was just in your face — it was in your face anger, and that just reinforced that anger that is in so much of America today, that big division.”
Cusic adds that the driving support behind Aldean’s song doesn’t surprise him “because there’s a dark side to this country.”
Award-winning music journalist, author and crisis communications consultant Holly Gleason added that “there are a lot of frustrated people, many of whom listen to country radio, and when they hear somebody is being shut down for their beliefs, they will come in mass.”
“This song was struggling at radio [and] once he supercharged his vision for the song with something that felt aligned to his politics and somebody shut it down, everybody who shares his politics showed up,” Gleason continued. “I’m not sure that all the people that took him to No. 1 are necessarily country music fans or even Jason Aldean fans. I think the numbers that he’s doing are people who feel a very strong alliance to either political concepts or being locked out of a system that they believe they should be a part of, and they don’t feel aligned to anymore.”
Aldean has been a platinum-selling success since releasing his self-titled debut album in 2005. The Macon, Georgia-native has launched 10 No. 1 country hits, 21 Top 40 successes on the pop charts, earned five Grammy nominations, collaborated with Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson and Ludacris, and was named artist of the decade at the 2019 Academy of Country Music Awards.
But the star has also been a controversial figure while being a chart-topping singer. In 2015, Aldean dressed as Lil Wayne for Halloween, wearing blackface and a wig of long black dreadlocks. He publicly cheated on his ex-wife Jessica Ussery in 2012 with current wife Brittany Aldean, apologizing for the PDA by saying he “had too much to drink, let the party get out of hand and acted inappropriately at a bar.” And Brittany Aldean has had her share of mishaps, including recent transphobic comments that got her husband dropped by his longtime public relations firm.
Though Aldean didn’t write or produce “Try That In Small Town,” the song includes lyrics like: “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.” Aldean later sings on the song, “Got a gun that my granddad gave me / They say one day they’re gonna round up / Well, that shit might fly in the city, good luck.”
Philip Ewell, a professor of music theory at Hunter College, says the song is full of anti-Blackness rhetoric.
“Right now, in 2023, we’re having these massive disagreements about race and what role it’s played in the history of our country. And in music, it plays out in these extremely subtle ways sometimes. It’s hard to deny some of these embedded stereotypes,” he said. “I’ve listened to some of Jason Aldean’s music — I think he’s a pretty good artist. But it’s just something that kind of comes out in culture, anti-Blackness. Because it’s part of the founding of our country. We shouldn’t run away from that simple fact.”
Ewell points to specific lyrics like “pull a gun on the owner of a liquor store” to drive the point home: “Someone’s robbing a liquor store — in the American psyche, the person who’s doing that without saying it is a Black person, right? It’s just in our minds. It’s supposed to be that way. And when you paint that picture in someone’s mind of someone pulling a gun on an owner of a liquor store, the person pulling the gun is Black. The owner of a liquor store is probably Asian or maybe white. And there are these racial stereotypes that play out in lyrics like this.”
“Anybody really should understand that there’s a strong racial undertone to these lyrics,” he added. “Race is part of the lyrics. I think that’s pretty clear.”
The music video brings the lyrics to life, with images of the American flag burning, protests, riots, looting and more. Aldean, in the clip, performs in front of the Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tennessee — the site of the 1946 Columbia race riot and the 1927 mob lynching of 18-year-old Black teenager Henry Choate.
“What upsets people is the coded language and coded pictures. You got a guy with a hoodie in a violent act, but it could have been a white guy; white guys wear hoodies too. But the implications go far beyond. And if you’re Black, you’re looking at that video a whole lot differently than if you’re white,” Cusic said. “And that’s the dividing factor. Even though I think Aldean was careful, or the production company was careful to have whites in pictures of riots as well as implying Blacks as part of the division in this country, people in the metropolitan areas are looking at it differently than the rural areas. People who are Trump supporters are looking at it a lot differently than intelligentsia.”
The success of “Try That In a Small Town” is momentous for country music on the pop charts, with Luke Combs’ cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” at No. 2 and Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night,” which spent 14 weeks at No. 1, holding still in third place.
Cusic says “country music has a long tradition of extolling the virtues of the rural life as opposed to living in the cities” and Gleason namedrops tracks like Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” Aaron Tippin’s “You’ve Got to Stand for Something” and Darryl Worley’s “Have You Forgotten?” when thinking of songs that are similar to “Try That In A Small Town.”
But when it comes to the video, Aldean had a specific mission in mind.
“You have an artist of very strong convictions who had a song that maybe he felt wasn’t being heard at its full value,” Gleason said. “I think that he wanted to make sure his intentions were clear, and that may have informed the decisions of what the cutaway footage was.”
“They knew what they were doing,” Cusic explained. “They were pushing that button for that. There’s a giant wall in this country now — division. And instead of taking some of the bricks off the top of the wall, I think Aldean added some bricks to that wall, or at least the video did.”
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