Jason Aldean’s Town Without Pity

Jason Aldean’s Town Without Pity

The country star’s new single and video cash in on long-running racial resentments.

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In the wake of the backlash to Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town,” the country star and his video-production company have tried to walk back the bellicose song and its racially charged video. In separate statements, both Aldean and Tacklebox Films denied that either the song or video is in any way pro-lynching. Generally speaking, you’re not having a good week as an entertainer when you have to put out that particular fire. Still, if the Trump era proved anything in politics and entertainment, sending out racist dog whistles to the far right is no longer a career ender; it’s a marketing tool.

“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,” Aldean said in his statement. “But the desire for it to—that’s what this song is about.” Many of Aldean’s critics point to the central location of the video, where he performs the song, as the clear signal of what it’s really about: the Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tenn., the site of the lynching of Henry Choate in 1927. Aldean’s director, Shaun Silva, fills the rest of the video with incendiary ignite-the-right imagery: big-city Black Lives Matter protests, cops flipped off and screamed at, smash-and-grab store robberies, convenience store hold-ups. In the midst of all this, the footage pointedly returns several times to Aldean and his bandmates performing defiantly in front of the courthouse.

The song itself is the internal monologue of a man winding himself up just thinking about what he’d do if anyone tried that in his town. “Try That in Small Town” is what you’d get if Travis Bickle wrote country music.

Even taking the denials of Aldean and his production team at face value, it’s been a long week of conservative white men denying they knew anything about anything when egregiously racist symbols pop up in their work. Last week, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis fired a campaign staffer, Nate Hochman. Hochman sent out a video that included a pagan Nazi symbol, a Sonnenrad. Hochman, who worked with neo-Nazi and Kanye entourage member Nick Fuentes, claims that, despite his close ties to actual Nazis, he had no idea what the sonnenrad represented. Oops.

And this weekend, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. tweeted (or “xeeted,” as per the site’s dog-whistling virtuoso Elon Musk) that the Secret Service rebuffed his requests for protection as a presidential candidate. RFK Jr. wrote that the “typical turnaround time for pro forma protection requests from presidential candidates is 14-days. After 88-days of no response and after several follow-ups by our campaign, the Biden Administration just denied our request.” Fourteen eighty-eight may have been subtle coding 10 years ago, but now it’s as blunt a Nazi symbol as a DeSantis Sonnerad, combining a reference to the 14 words making up a white supremacist maxim with 88—the place where the letter H falls in the alphabet, and thus an acronym for “Heil Hitler.” Of course, Kennedy could always blame a social media staffer (maybe he had already hired Hochman), insist that the numbers just happen to be true, or that he had no idea what it meant.

Did he know or not? In strict messaging terms, it may not matter all that much. People use dog whistles to reach out to the worst elements for support, count on the ensuing public outrage to amplify their message, and then claim plausible deniability after the target audience has been reached.

The same holds true for Aldean’s overtures to the white nationalist segment of the entertainment market. When you listen to “Try That in a Small Town,” you won’t hear any overtly racist language. Still, the song unmistakably sets us in the far right’s dystopian vision of an America under threat from the malevolent of forces of deep-state liberalism:

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

Aldean himself has said that “it’s too easy get guns” and called for background checks in the past, but here he plays to the NRA talking point that that the government will take all our guns away. This soft-focus vigilantism isn’t a dog whistle per se—just a sideways appeal to the insurrectionary ethos of the militia right. Aldean strikes the same chords when he hymns an American interior “Full of good ol’ boys, raised up right / If you’re looking for a fight.” Good ol’ boys—not the law enforcement whom he feigns reverence for in the video but street goons—are lionized here as the bulwarks of the Real American Republic. The narrator in Aldean’s song clearly can’t wait to put his grandad’s shotgun to good use before Joe Biden takes it.

In Silva’s opening shot, Aldean and his band stand in front of the courthouse, backlit to obscure their faces in shadow, coming into the light as menacing figures of vengeance. Silva’s smoke machines give the impression there’s a BLM protest nearby, with the air full of tear gas and smoke from burning buildings. Then Silva dissolves to a line of black-helmeted cops on horseback during an actual Black Lives Matter protest, before delivering images of burning flags and tear gas. Silva populates his violent city with a diverse group of anti-police protesters. By stark contrast, when Silva depicts his ideal small town, one untouched by division or mayhem, he only shows us nice white folks—farmers, girls playing hopscotch, and color-faded, nostalgia-tinged home movie footage of white families and folks raising American flags, not burning them.

In his statement, Aldean emphasized that every clip came from news footage, as though he were the entertainment equivalent of a just-the-facts reporter. But of course the origin of the images has nothing to do with their selection—or their editing into a reel of scare footage seemingly cribbed from the One America News Network.

None of the controversy surrounding the video’s release would have happened if Aldean and Silva had simply depicted some residents of their idyllic small town as people of color. Regardless of whether Aldean or Silva knew or not about the ugly history of the Maury County Courthouse, both men have to own that exclusionary choice. Portraying small-town America as a white space is nothing new in our pop culture or politics, but it’s always wrong. It never has been. Black Lives Matter protests did not begin in Atlanta, Detroit, or Chicago. They began in Ferguson, Mo., a small town that is predominantly Black.

Unlike so many country ballads of woe and misery, from Sam Hunt’s “Hard to Forget” to Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” nothing has actually happened to the aggrieved small-town narrator of Aldean’s song. Nobody’s broken his heart, lit his town on fire, or clocked his grandma. He’s just a crank—an extremely online dude mad about the news. And yet he talks like a radicalized MAGA Tom Joad: Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there helping him. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad about beer commercials and Barbie.

In reality, of course, everything that keeps Jason Aldean up all night in “Try That in a Small Town” actually happened in a small town—right there in Columbia, around those same Maury County Courthouse steps. Moms were attacked, store windows smashed, patriots disrespected, mobs in the street, cops shot trying to restore order—and then a group of local good ol’ boys stepped up in the night, the type raised right, to take care of business. The only difference: The out-of-control mob was white, and the locals who had each other’s backs were Black.

In Columbia, Tenn., in 1946, two Black citizens, Gladys Stephenson and her son, James Stephenson, a 19-year-old Navy veteran, went to the Castner-Knott appliance store to pick up a radio they’d brought in for repairs. When Mrs. Stephenson got into an argument over the order with the white repairman, William Fleming, Fleming used racial slurs and, by some accounts, slapped Ms. Stephenson. James, a welterweight boxer in the Navy, then hit Fleming so hard he sent him through a plate glass window, which cut Fleming. After the ensuing street brawl, Fleming ended up in the hospital. Predictably, when the police arrived, they arrested only the Stephensons. Fleming’s brother, a highway patrolman, convinced the police to charge the Stephensons with attempted murder. A white mob soon gathered outside the Maury County Courthouse (with guns, not guitars and smoke machines). The police secretly moved the Stephensons to safety. With no victims close at hand, the mob went to Mink Slide, a Black neighborhood of homes and businesses, to look for some.

Before they could burn a building, loot a store, or find a victim, Black residents, many of them war veterans, were armed and ready. They had been tipped off about the mob and waited. The resulting defense of Mink Slide left four cops and two civilians shot, with the rioters and the local police run out of the neighborhood. The mayor called in a reported 100 patrolmen and 500 state troopers to restore order, which in the Jim Crow South meant cops kicking in doors in Mink Slide, ransacking businesses, and arresting dozens of Black men—but no white men. Then Aldean’s worst nightmare came true: Cops rounded up guns, a reported 200, many no doubt gifted from grandads. OK, maybe not Aldean’s worst nightmare; they only took the guns from the Black men defending their families.

Within days, another nightmare out of Aldean’s song came true: Civil rights activists showed up in a small town. The NAACP dispatched four attorneys, Thurgood Marshall, Z. Alexander Looby, Leon Ransom, and Maurice Weaver, to the scene. Eventually, 25 Black men stood trial, and the NAACP legal team got 23 acquitted in front of an all-white jury. Two were found guilty, but after an appeal, the state declined to retry them for lack of evidence. The verdict surprised Marshall himself—and that night, he barely got out of Columbia after a false arrest and an intense night of police harassment.

While crime might not be as rampant in small towns as big cities, the civil rights movement that appalls Aldean and Silva so much on TV has its roots in small towns. The Edmund Pettus Bridge is in Selma, not San Francisco. By segregating civil rights history out of existence in their paean to masked small-town vigilantism, by showing that only some people want peaceful lives with dignity, Aldean and his video don’t celebrate small-town America; they celebrate Jim Crow.

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