Jason Aldean's 'Try That in a Small Town' controversy, explained

Jason Aldean in concert
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Jason Aldean's latest music video is shaping up to be the year's most controversial. The country music star is facing significant backlash from critics who say his new video is racist and pro-lynching. Aldean has denied the allegations and defended the song, but days after his video's release, one channel has already yanked it.

What is "Try That in a Small Town"?

In May, Aldean released his latest single, "Try That in a Small Town," from his upcoming album. In it, he sings about anyone who might "sucker-punch somebody on a sidewalk," "carjack an old lady at a red light," "pull a gun on the owner of a liquor store" or "cuss out a cop, spit in his face, stomp on the flag and light it up," warning them to "try that in a small town" and "see how far ya make it down the road."

Aldean, who was performing at the Las Vegas music festival where a deadly mass shooting took place in 2017, also sings about how he has a gun and warns that trying to "round up" firearms won't "fly" in a small town. "Around here, we take care of our own," he sings. The song was written by Kurt Allison, Tully Kennedy, Kelley Lovelace and Neil Thrasher.

On July 14, Aldean released a music video for the song, and it uses footage from actual protests. The video, directed by Shaun Silva, was filmed at Tennessee's Maury County Courthouse, which critics noted is where Henry Choate, an 18-year-old Black man, was lynched in 1927. TackleBox, the production company behind the video, told the Nashville Tennessean that Aldean didn't pick the location and pointed out that numerous other music videos and movies have been filmed there.

What was the reaction to the song?

Shannon Watts, an activist and the founder of the anti-gun violence group Moms Demand Action, argued the song is an "ode to a sundown town" that suggests "people be beaten or shot for expressing free speech" and "insinuates that guns are being confiscated, the penalty for which is apparently death." Rep. Justin Jones, a Tennessee state representative, condemned Aldean's "heinous song calling for racist violence," describing it as a "shameful vision of gun extremism and vigilantism." Sheryl Crow also tweeted that there's "nothing small-town or American about promoting violence," and Aldean "should know that better than anyone having survived a mass shooting."

What has been Aldean's response?

Aldean defended the song and denied that it's racist or pro-lynching. "There is not a single lyric in the song that references race or points to it - and there isn't a single video clip that isn't real news footage - and while I can try and respect others to have their own interpretation of a song with music - this one goes too far," he tweeted.

Noting that he was present at the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, the singer continued that "NO ONE, including me, wants to continue to see senseless headlines or families ripped apart," but he said 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." When the video was first released, Aldean described it as being about the "sense of community and respect" that comes with growing up in a small town, which he feels has "gotten lost."

Aldean was previously dropped by his publicity firm in 2022 after his wife made controversial comments that were criticized as transphobic.

What fallout has there been?

On July 18, Billboard confirmed that Country Music Television had pulled Aldean's "Try That in a Small Town" music video, though the network didn't comment on this decision. The video had reportedly been in rotation since its release through July 16.

This move, though, prompted its own backlash from Aldean's supporters. Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy suggested the singer was being "sacrificed at the altar of censorship & cancellation" for "defending the values that ALL Americans used to share - faith, family, hard work, patriotism." He also promised that "we'll do our part & play it at our rallies." South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) similarly said she was "shocked" by "people attempting to cancel this song," which she praised for talking about the "value of small towns and how we have our priorities right."

What's next?

The question now is what additional fallout, if any, there will be and whether country music radio stations might also pull the song from the airwaves. At Variety, music critic Chris Willman wondered if the song was partially Aldean's reaction to not receiving more awards attention for his work, leading him to pivot into trying to court "anger among his audience." But if country radio doesn't "take his bait" and fails to embrace the song, this would send a message that "this is not who we want to show the world we are," Willman argued. On the flip side, conservative commentator Steven Crowder called on his followers to help "get this video to number one on the charts" in response to CMT's move.

This was also the latest controversy in the world of country music after Morgan Wallen faced backlash in 2021 when he was caught on video saying the N-word. Wallen, who apologized, was suspended by his label, and his music was pulled from country radio. But his album sales spiked during the controversy, and by 2022, he was welcomed back to the ACM Awards, when he won Album of the Year.

Amid the backlash to "Try That in a Small Town," on Wednesday, the song was No. 1 on iTunes' songs chart.

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