Creating An Unwanted Stereotype Of Small Towns
By Reed Anfinson
A country life promoter, supporter of rural romantic nights, farmers, the good life in a small town, and the value of America’s Heartland, Jason Aldean has earned a place in the hearts of country music fans.
Like many music stars, he has the voice, musical talent, and stage presence to be the entertainer, but his music and lyrics are often written in collaboration with others. Songwriters Kelley Lovelace, Neil Thrasher, Tully Kennedy, and Kurt Michael Allison wrote the music and lyrics for his recently released “Try That in a Small Town.”
The song debuted in May but only in recent weeks was it not only pushed to the top of the charts but also the editorial pages of newspapers and the online music critic sphere. It has divided musicians and fans who once supported his songs.
It is the combination of the lyrics and music video that caused a “swift and severe (reaction) with CMT pulling the video mere days after it debuted,” Skylar Baker-Jordan, a graduate student in Appalachian studies and Aldean fan who lives in Tennessee, wrote in the Daily Yonder.
His video highlights the lyrics, marrying each line with disturbing visuals:
“Sucker punch somebody on a sidewalk
Carjack an old lady at a red light
Pull a gun on the owner of a liquor store
Ya think it’s cool, well, act a fool if ya 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”
‘Round 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
None of us supports violent protests where rioters and looters smash store windows, start police stations on fire, take baseball bats to police squad cars, spit in the face of law enforcement officers. They are inexcusable acts.
While the video has carefully excluded any images of race, you would have to be naïve to not see the connections. Mounted law enforcement officers, burning buildings, and confrontations with the police – we’ve all watched the scenes too often in recent years. Many have followed the shooting of another Black youth.
Aldean sings the lyrics in front of the Maury County Courthouse in Tennessee. We’ve been told it was an unfortunate mistake. The music video’s producers say they had no idea it was where a mob lynched an 18-year-old Black youth accused of attacking a White girl in 1927. The girl never identified him as the supposed attacker.
After a couple minutes of scenes of violence in big cities, we see the inclusion of images of idyllic country life. And, of course, men carrying guns and hunting. The visual emphasizes the lyrics:
“Got a gun that my granddad gave me
‘They say one day they’re gonna round up
Well, that sh… might fly in the city, good luck
Defending his song
Aldean says the song “refers to the feeling of a community that I had growing up,where we took care of our neighbors, regardless of differences of background or belief.” Aldean is hardly a small-town boy. He was born and raised in Macon, Georgia, a city of 150,000 people. He now lives in Nashville.
Aldean’s fans and supporters of the song don’t see implied violence in its lyrics. They see it as a protest against vandalism, looting, crime in big cities, and acts they see as unpatriotic.
“In the past 24 hours, I have been accused of releasing a pro-lynching song,” Aldean says. He has been accused of attacking the Black Lives Matter movement. “These references are not only meritless, but dangerous. There is not a single lyric in the song that references race or points to it,” he says.
“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,” he wrote, referring to the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas. “No one, including me, wants to continue to see senseless headlines or families ripped apart.”
Out of tune
Lyrics protesting violence with implied violence in return strike a sour chord. We believe it is out of tune with what rural America should strive for to not just survive, but flourish in the coming years.
While Aldean’s lyrics may seem flattering to small towns, they do the opposite. They do damage to our efforts to be welcoming communities. The song doesn’t inspire, it divides. It doesn’t promote small towns, it stereotypes and diminishes them.
Portraying small towns as “Full of good ol’ boys, raised up right” ignores the fact that our rural courts have their share of these “boys” charged with a wide variety of crimes. There are plenty of these “boys’ who show little respect for law enforcement, their neighbors, or their community. Those “gold ol’ boys” can be seen as a group of white males filled with prejudices and ready to run those out of town who disagree with them.
“Small towns contain multitudes. Black people live in small towns,” Baker-Jordan writes. “Gay people live in small towns. Progressives live in small towns. They have never been the sole purview of conservative white men like Aldean who have an ax to grind against anyone who doesn’t believe just like them. Small towns belong to us all.”
Small towns are changing. The infestation of our homes with televisions, computers, and smartphones has turned us inward. We interact with our neighbors far less than in rural America’s idyllic past.
Our brothers, our son and daughter, who live in metropolitan cities have neighborhoods of their own. They have friends they can rely on.
We certainly have pride in our small towns, but it isn’t built on threats of violence toward those who don’t act and think like we do. It is built on a welcoming and inclusive community.