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How Jason Aldean's 'Try That in a Small Town' became a political controversy

Country music singer Jason Aldean, pictured here performing at the Academy of Country Music Awards in Frisco, Texas in May, is facing a mixed bag of backlash and praise for a new music video that openly alludes to vigilante justice.
Suzanne Cordeiro
AFP via Getty Images
Country music singer Jason Aldean, pictured here performing at the Academy of Country Music Awards in Frisco, Texas in May, is facing a mixed bag of backlash and praise for a new music video that openly alludes to vigilante justice.

Updated July 20, 2023 at 5:08 PM ET

Country Music Television (CMT) says it will no longer air the music video "Try That In a Small Town" by Jason Aldean after critics of the video said it contained lyrics that glorified gun violence and conveyed traditionally racist ideas.

A CMT spokesperson confirmed the move to NPR on Thursday, but offered no comment on the reasoning.

Since the video's release on Friday, it's emerged as a familiar kind of political litmus test, with interpretations of its message often falling along voting divides.

Here's an overview of the situation:

What is "Try That in a Small Town" about?

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Aldean, a 46-year-old country singer from Macon, Ga., first released the song in May, but it wasn't until the release of the video on July 14 — as promotion for his 11th upcoming album — that the discourse ratcheted up.

In a statement released alongside the video, Aldean said the song represents an "unspoken rule" for those raised in small towns: "We all have each other's backs and we look out for each other." The singer is not credited as a writer for the song, as has been the case for most of his 27 hit singles.

Threats to outsiders (and the implication those outsiders are from cities) are present throughout the song's lyrics, which begin with a list of crimes that might happen in urban settings ("Sucker punch somebody on a sidewalk / carjack an old lady at a red light") then crescendo into the titular chorus:

"Well, try that in a small town / See how far you make it down the road / Around 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."

Aldean ups the vigilante ante by bridging the second chorus with a reference to gun rights, singing:

"I've 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".

Why is the video so divisive?

Interspersed between shots of Aldean singing are clips of vandalizing, riots and police encounters, much of which is evocative of racial injustice protests.

Some of the scenes bear a Fox News chyron, but others, as some TikTok sleuths have pointed out, appear to be stock footage, in some cases of gatherings from other countries.

But much of the criticism around the video has less to do with these clips than its setting: The Maury County Courthouse building in Columbia, Tenn., which serves as an American-flag-draped backdrop for Aldean and his band.

The landmark was the site of race riots in 1946 as well as a 1927 lynching in which a white mob pulled an 18-year-old black man, Henry Choate, from jail and dragged him through the city by car, according to several media reports, including one detailed account from The Washington Post.

Choate had allegedly confessed to attacking a 16-year-old white girl "to protect his life," even though the girl "could not positively identify him as the assailant," the Post reported.

What is Aldean saying?

On Tuesday, Aldean pushed back hard against accusations he was "pro-lynching," saying such an interpretation "goes too far" and is "dangerous."

"There is not a single lyric in the song that references race or points to it," he wrote on Twitter. "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 neighbors, regardless of differences of background or belief."

"NO ONE, including me, wants to continue to see senseless headlines or families ripped apart," he wrote.

The production company behind the videos, TackleBox, also defended the video's location as a popular filming spot, telling Entertainment Tonight that any "alternative narrative" about the reasons it was chosen were false.

Aldean has received five Grammy Award nominations (including two for Best Country Album) for his two decades of music depicting rural, blue-collar life. And throughout that success, he's rarely shied away from sharing his right-leaning political views.

His wife, Brittany Aldean, and his sister, Kasi Rosa Wicks, launched a conservative clothing line dedicated to trolling liberals. Aldean defended dressing his children in anti-Joe-Biden attire and himself for wearing blackfaceas part of a 2015 Halloween costume. He was spotted golfing alongside Donald Trump and delivered an impromptu performance at the former president's Mar-a-Lago resort.

But, at other times, the singer has tried to walk a more nuanced line toward politics, perhaps most memorably after surviving the 2017 mass shooting at a Las Vegas music festival.

Aldean was performing on stage as the night's closing act when the shooting began. Six months later, he tiptoed through the refreshed gun control debate, saying in an interview that tragedies shouldn't be used as fodder for political arguments, but ultimately agreed that it was "too easy to get guns" in the U.S..

How are other people reacting?

Gun control advocates are among the song's loudest critics, saying "Try That in a Small Town" glorifies a dangerous eye-for-an eye ethos.

Shannon Watts, founder of the group Moms Demand Action, called it an "ode to a sundown town" that suggested "people be beaten or shot for expressing free speech."

Others said the song's hints at violence were clearly racial dog whistles, zeroing in on the song's portrayal of protests like flag-burning. Tennessee state Rep. Justin Jones, a Democrat, summed it as a "heinous song calling for racist violence."

Sheryl Crow and Margo Price are among the musicians who've spoke out against the song. But others, like Travis Tritt and Blanco Brown described the reaction as unfair social commentary.

Political commentators on the right have have held up the country music canon, and Aldean in particular, as a loudspeaker for under-appreciated conservative values.

2024 GOP primary contenders like Trump, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis all defended the artist, with DeSantis saying: "When the media attacks you, you're doing something right."

If attention was his goal, then Aldean might agree: As of midday Thursday, "Try That in a Small Town" was ranked No. 1 in the U.S. on iTunes and was holding the No. 2 spot on YouTube's trending music videos.

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Corrected: July 20, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of the story said that the Washington Post reported that Choate confessed to attacking a 16-year-old white girl. In fact, the Post reported he allegedly confessed to this attack.
Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.