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Jason Aldean's 'Small Town' is part of a long legacy with a very dark side

Jason Kempin
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Getty Images

Jason Aldean's "Try That in a Small Town," which ignited controversy this week over claims that the song and its new video promote white supremacy and violence, is far from the first country song to attack cities using racist dog whistles. "Try That" is most clearly a descendant of Hank Williams Jr.'s "A Country Boy Can Survive" (1982), which claims, "You only get mugged if you go downtown," while warning: "I got a shotgun, a rifle and a four-wheel drive, and a country boy can survive." But Aldean's latest release invokes and builds on a lineage of anti-city songs in country music that place the rural and urban along not only a moral versus immoral binary, but an implicitly racialized one as well. Cities are painted as spaces where crime, sexual promiscuity and personal and financial ruin occur, while the "country" is meanwhile framed as a peaceful space where happiness reigns.

The urban-versus-rural divide, and the antithetical moral characteristics projected onto them, is not unique to country music and has roots hundreds of years deep, at least. Raymond Williams's 1973 book, The Country and the City, analyzes this binary in literature dating back to the 16th century. The Bible contains cautionary tales against leaving home in search of indulgence, as described in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

The discourse over city and country has evolved over time, and taken on its own identity within country music. Songs that pine for an idyllic rural past have been a part of country music since the genre was first invented as a marketing category for rural white Southerners in the 1920s. Some of the earliest country songs, like Fiddlin' John Carson's "Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane," recorded in 1923 and often celebrated as one of the first country records, yearns for a rustic home. Carson's song, like many others in popular music at the time, was a minstrel tune, commonly performed in Blackface, and written in 1871 and presented from the perspective of a former slave who longed for a pre-emancipation past. Carson also regularly performed at KKK rallies.

Animosity towards urban areas in country songs grew particularly pronounced in the post-World War II decades — just as the majority of country listeners urbanized. Songs like Ray Price's "City Lights" and Stonewall Jackson's "Life to Go" (both recorded in 1958) depicted cities as dirty, lonely, violent places. Cities outside the South were a frequent target, as in Bobby Bare's "Detroit City" (1963), Ben Peters's "San Francisco is a Lonely Town" (1969), Buck Owens's "I Wouldn't Live in New York City (If They Gave Me the Whole Damn Town)" (1970) and George Jones and Tammy Wynette's "Southern California" (1977). Most often, the city was framed as a place that led to immorality for women, as heard in Bare's "Streets of Baltimore" (1966) when a man takes his woman to the city but she's left "walking the streets of Baltimore." Elsewhere, one could only expect to find murder, heartbreak and decay in the city. The country, as described in hits like Dottie West's "Country Sunshine" (1973), Merle Haggard's "Big City" (1982) and up to more recent years in songs like Tim McGraw and Faith Hill's "Meanwhile Back at Mama's" (2014), continued to be depicted as idyllic.

The rise of anti-city songs during the affluent, post-World War II era coincided with a moment when the formerly rural and heavily white country music audience was rapidly suburbanizing and achieving social mobility through home ownership. At the same time, selective availability of home loans in suburbs and racially restrictive housing covenants in cities furthered white flight, making cities synonymous with non-whiteness.

By the mid-1960s, an accelerating civil rights movement provided opportunities for conservative politicians like George Wallace and Richard Nixon to capitalize on white anxieties surrounding urban centers. Following racial uprisings that occurred through the second half of the decade, what came to be referred to as "law and order" politics were deployed to quell these uprisings, and social protests more broadly. At the end of that decade, Merle Haggard released perhaps the most famous anti-city country song, "Okie from Muskogee," which celebrated small-town life and lambasted college protests, anti-war demonstrations and those who let their "hair grow long and shaggy like the hippies out in San Francisco do." While some argue Haggard's lyrics were tongue-in-cheek, generations of country music fans since, along with presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who both invited the singer to perform at the White House, have not taken it as such.

While "Try That" echoes the anti-urban sentiment of "Okie," it goes further, imagining city folks invading the country and expressing a desire to assert control over them and defend the small town from city influence. The song addresses those who might "carjack an old lady at a red light" or "pull a gun on the owner of the liquor store," and footage in the video makes clear references to Black Lives Matter demonstrations. As Andrea Williams, a Nashville-based author, journalist and cultural critic, told me, "The video reflects a desire to control the actions of people in and outside of these towns, people who have grown tired of the exclusionary, oppressive antics of Aldean and his ilk — people who are, most often, Black."

Such a message reflects Tennessee state-controlled efforts to control local politics in Nashville (including efforts to shrink the city council, andcontrol the Nashville airport), and events such as the recent vote to expel Tennessee house members Justin Jones and Justin Pearson — two Black men who represent areas in Nashville and Memphis, the state's two largest cities — from the legislature.

"Try That" 's invocation of "law and order" politics also distinguishes it from "Okie From Muskogee." Kevin Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton University who specializes in 20th-century America with a particular interest in the making of modern conservatism, says that "Try That in a Small Town" builds on and evolves from common conservative rhetoric, but where the song departs is in its demands. "He's calling for people who aren't law enforcement to mete out violence against people who haven't broken any laws," Kruse explains. "This sounds like a 'law and order' appeal, but it's actually a call to lawlessness." Such calls vividly echo events such as the January 2021 insurrection that have come to define modern, far-right extremism.

Controversy surrounding "Try That in a Small Town" comes as the country music business has been pressured in recent years to reckon with systemic racism that's defined the genre throughout its existence. Despite claims that the industry is working to make country music more inclusive to artists and fans of color, news that the video for "Try That" was filmed at the Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tennessee, where a lynching occurred in 1927, suggests the country music business is at worst deeply complicit in maintaining the genre's racist reputation, and at best woefully inept to correct it.

It should not come as a surprise that the Maury County Courthouse has such a horrific history. As Betsy Phillips, a writer for the Nashville Scene and a historian and author of the forthcoming Dynamite Nashville: The FBI, The KKK, and the Bombers Beyond their Control, explains: "There were at least two lynchings in Columbia, but I can't stress enough that there were many, many lynchings in the surrounding counties."

Asked whether she believes Aldean had direct knowledge of the Maury County Courthouse's frightening history, Phillips points to interviews where Aldean has boasted, "I haven't read a book since high school." Regardless, Phillips describes a long legacy of white supremacy in Columbia and neighboring communities — including Pulaski, Tenn., where the Ku Klux Klan was founded — that should not have escaped the consideration of the robust music industry personnel behind the video.

The controversy over "Try That in a Small Town" is prompting yet more pleas for the Nashville music industry to take greater care in making it a more inclusive space. But given how such controversies have evolved in recent years, Williams predicts little will change, saying those in the industry "who ignore the daily, slow-simmering racism and emerge only when the pot boils over will go back to whatever else they were paying attention to before."

When we think of "Try That in a Small Town," as completely unique, as another pot-boiling-over moment, we lose sight of how neatly it and Aldean actually fit within deeper country music traditions, and why country music continues to be a frightening space for marginalized communities.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Amanda Marie Martínez