Country music star Jason Aldean is facing immense backlash over his music video “Try That in a Small Town,” which critics accuse of containing coded threats against Black people.
The official YouTube video for the song was quietly edited to remove a news clip of violence that took place during Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Atlanta. A portion of that clip was originally projected onto the exterior wall of a Tennessee county courthouse where a Black teen was lynched in the 1920s, which Aldean used as a backdrop as he sang about crimes that would not be tolerated in a small town:
“Try that in a small town/ See how far ya make it down the road/ Around here, we take care of our own.”
“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.”
But Aldean, who insists the song has nothing to do with race, has also gained prominent conservative defenders and massive popularity for “Try That in a Small Town,” which cinched a No. 2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 amid surging sales.
The music video was edited to remove Black Lives Matter imagery
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The video is made up largely of video clips showing protests, riots and police confrontations in cities. The original version contained portions of a Fox 5 Atlanta news segment depicting violence during Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020. Other clips show an attempted convenience store robbery and other apparent crimes.
These alternate with shots of Aldean and his band performing in the public square of Columbia, Tenn. — a town about 45,000 where several historic incidents of violence against Black people took place.
“Cuss out a cop, spit in his face/ Stomp on the flag and light it up/ Yeah, ya think you’re tough,” he sings, and at another point:
“Try that in a small town/ Full of good ol’ boys, raised up right/ If you’re looking for a fight.”
After receiving criticism that the music video’s effect was to threaten Black people from visiting majority-White towns, the YouTube version was quietly edited to remove the news clips related to Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Atlanta and several other images.
Aldean’s record label, BBR Music Group, said in a statement that “the video footage was edited due to third party copyright clearance issues,” but did not elaborate.
The Maury County Courthouse was the site of a lynching
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Some who accuse the video of racism point to its setting in downtown Columbia — the site of historical acts of violence against Black people.
Aldean’s performance backdrop is the Maury County Courthouse, which at times appears to be on fire as images of burning American flags are projected onto it. It’s the same building where a mob hanged 18-year-old Henry Choate from the balcony in 1927. The teen had been accused of attacking a White girl who never identified him as her assailant, and whose mother begged the mob to let him stand trial.
Columbia is also the site of an infamous 1946 race riot that nearly resulted in the lynching of future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.
This small town “full of good ol’ boys,” as Aldean sings, is in his home state of Tennessee, which was scandalized in the 1990s by an annual law-enforcement gathering called the “Good Ol’ Boys Roundup” that featured racial slurs and a simulated lynching.
While Aldean highlighted Columbia and its courthouse in a behind-the-scenes feature, the music video’s producers say he didn’t choose the location, which they portrayed as innocuous.
The production company TackleBox said in a statement to The Washington Post that the video was shot at a “popular filming location outside of Nashville” that has also been featured in the Lifetime movie “Steppin’ Into the Holiday” and Disney’s “Hannah Montana: The Movie.” (Both movies were filmed in Columbia, according to local news reports. The Tennessee Entertainment Commission did not respond immediately to a request for comment.)
The company emphasized that Aldean did not choose the location, and said “any alternative narrative suggesting the music video’s location decision is false.”
Aldean defends ‘Try That in a Small Town’
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The singer, however, has stood by the song and its video.
“In the past 24 hours I have been accused of releasing a pro-lynching song … and was subject to the comparison that I (direct quote) was not too pleased with the nationwide [Black Lives Matter] protests,” Aldean tweeted on July 18. “These references are not only meritless, but dangerous. 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.”
Aldean also noted that he survived a mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas in 2017, in which dozens were killed and hundreds injured. “Our community recently suffered another heartbreaking tragedy,” he tweeted. “NO ONE, including me, wants to continue to see senseless headlines or families ripped apart.”
The song, he said, “refers to the feeling of a community that I had growing up.”
“My political views have never been something I’ve hidden from, and 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,” he wrote. “But the desire for it to- that’s what this song is about.”
Aldean’s wife, Brittany, criticized media coverage of the song, saying on Instagram that there should be more focus on “real” stories such as child trafficking.
Representatives for Aldean pointed to the singer’s social media statement when asked for comment.
The country music world and conservatives react
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“Even people in small towns are sick of violence. There’s nothing small-town or American about promoting violence,” the country star Sheryl Crow tweeted. “You should know that better than anyone having survived a mass shooting.”
Country Music Television confirmed to The Post that it has stopped airing the music video, which Billboard reported was previously getting heavy play on the channel.
The Country Music Association aired prerecorded footage of Aldean playing “Try That in a Small Town” during its “CMA Fest” broadcast Wednesday evening. The ABC show, however, did not include the music video.
Many conservatives, on the other hand, have rushed to defend Aldean and his music video.
Former president Donald Trump called Aldean “a fantastic guy who just came out with a great new song” in a Truth Social post Thursday. Trump’s rival for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, had previously tweeted that Aldean had nothing to apologize for. “When the media attacks you, you’re doing something right,” DeSantis wrote.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said Aldean was the victim of “cancel culture,” and South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem posted a video defending the singer and his wife as “outspoken about their love for law and order and for their love of this country.” The singer has generally been lauded by conservative pundits on Fox News.
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Aldean’s conservative history
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Aldean, a 46-year-old Georgia native, is successful in the country music industry as well as the broader music scene.
He has been nominated for five Grammys, twice for best country album in 2012 and 2014. His song “Dirt Road Anthem” — which was his only song to crack the top 10 for the Billboard Hot 100 before “Try That in a Small Town” — was nominated for best country solo performance in 2012.
Aldean used to keep his political beliefs largely private. It’s “one subject I do stay away from,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016. “Politics is a no-win.”
But he became outspoken about his right-wing views during Trump’s presidency. He has attended a party at Mar-a-Lago with Trump, posted a photo where his children wore anti-President Biden T-shirts, and praised fans at a 2021 concert in New York for not wearing masks during a coronavirus surge.
His wife, Brittany, has shared similar political views on social media, including a post showing Vice President Harris pushing Biden out of a wheelchair and off a cliff.
Last year, Billboard reported that Aldean’s publicity team dumped him after he supported transphobic comments made by his wife.
The song is charting on Billboard
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While the music video for “Try That in a Small Town” is being pulled from some platforms, the official version on YouTube has been viewed more than 19 million times.
The song soared to the top of some streaming charts in the week after the video was released, and on Tuesday broke into the No. 2 spot of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, racking up a massive radio audience and sales.
It has also ranked highly on many streaming charts, and Aldean has been highlighting the track in live performances.
“Artists are often caught between pursuing sales and airplay — the commercial side of music — and taking a stand and representing their personal beliefs,” said Don Cusic, a professor of music business at Belmont University and country music historian. “Aldean may believe he has accomplished both with this video.”
Destinee Stark has gone viral for deconstructing the video on TikTok
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Destinee Stark, a 31-year-old activist in Ohio, has also gained massive popularity for TikTok videos in which she researches the images Aldean used to depict big-city violence — several of which she discovered originate outside the United States.
Stark traced a clip that appears early in the music video — of a woman flipping off a line of armored police — to footage of a 2017 demonstration in Berlin. A clip of someone jumping on a destroyed car while a nearby police car burns appeared to have been taken during a Group of 20 summit in Toronto in 2010. Footage of protesters pulling on a gate held by police and a clip of people guarding themselves with a green gate are both from political protests in Ukraine.
“It’s very clear from the American flag [draped over the courthouse behind Aldean in the music video] … he’s talking about American small towns. So why is it relevant to use protest footage from other countries such as Ukraine, Germany?” she told The Washington Post.
Other images in the music video are from the United States, including the now-deleted news segments from Atlanta and a bird’s-eye shot of a small, isolated fire in a crosswalk, which is advertised on Shutterstock as originating from New York in 2020, during a riot provoked by the police killing of George Floyd.
Stark, whose TikTok video about “Try That in a Small Town” has been viewed nearly 3 million times, said she used to be a fan of Aldean before learning he wore blackface for a Halloween costume in 2015.
His fans are “consuming all these images of what they think are likely BLM protests of people throwing molotov cocktails and setting things on fire and burning cities down,” she said. “They have a right to know if that’s not accurate.”
This article has been updated.
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Written by Kelley Lovelace, Neil Thrasher, Tully Kennedy, and Kurt Allison; Try That in a Small Town was released to country radio back in May as the lead single for an upcoming eleventh studio album. It's about protests and riots in large cities, with Aldean saying that behavior wouldn't fly in small towns.Where did they shoot Try That in a Small Town? ›
Some also pointed out that the the site where the music video was filmed was at the town square in front of the Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tennessee, where the Columbia Race Riot began in 1946 after a struggle between a Black World War II veteran and a white shopkeeper.