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Jason Aldean’s Controversial 2023 Track “Try That in a Small Town” Was Also His Biggest Hit In Nearly A Decade

Jason Aldean's 'Try That In A Small Town'
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When Jason Aldean released the lead single off his eleventh studio album, Highway Desperado, titled “Try That in a Small Town,” in May 2023, it entered the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart at number 35. And then it declined and ultimately dropped from the Top 50. It didn’t even generate too many headlines. But eight weeks later, when the music video hit YouTube, the song hit an unprecedented success for the singer. 

That is, the single’s streaming numbers jumped 999 percent – from 987,000 to a staggering 11.7 million – and landed number two on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 – which was also his highest charting single on the chart and his first since his 2011 track “Dirt Road Anthem.” It beat Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night,” Luke Combs’ cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” and Taylor Swift’s “Cruel Summer” (among a few big hits atop) and followed behind BTS Jungkook’s single “Seven.” A week later, he actually overtook the K-pop star. 

Aside from being a pop hit, it also earned the crown in Country. Aldean grabbed his first number-one hit on the country charts in nearly ten years. And it was definitely a re-defining moment in his career. 

But the song’s success was, unfortunately, not simply a moment of celebration. If anything, the song made waves partly because of its controversial nature, involving topics on gun debate and protest as well as conveying traditionally racist ideas. In fact, CMT pulled out the clip from its rotation just days after it was released. And then, a week after topping the chart, it fell to number 21, one of the biggest drops in the chart’s history. 

Jason Aldean, The Small Town Artist

Aldean grew up in Macon, Georgia. It isn’t a quaint small town, as Arwa Mahdawi of The Guardian noted, as it was a city with a population of about 153,000. 

But in his interview with the Los Angeles Times, he shared that he grew up on its outskirts, in a farm community where he went to a little school and graduated with forty people in his class. It was a place where everybody knew everybody. And whilst he was white, he stated that he wasn’t raised to be a “white person that had all these privileges.” Macon was also a mixed-race area, so he grew up playing music and sports alongside Black people. 

And when he became an artist, he established a reputation for singing about his small-town roots – from life to love – like his “Hicktown” (2005), “Big Green Tractor” (2009), “Church Pew or Bar Stool” (2010), and “They Don’t Know” (2017), to name a few. But “Try That in a Small Town” was the first time he received backlash over it.  

What is controversial about “Try That in a Small Town”? 

So, what exactly was Jason Aldean’s controversy? Let’s dissect it a bit. 

While he didn’t have a hand in the lyrics, as was the case for most of his hits, he was the voice who sang the lines: “Cuss out a cop, spit in his face / Stomp on the flag and light it up.” And to many, it was a clear message inciting violence. Additionally, it also perpetuated the long legacy of the urban-versus-rural divide that Amanda Marie Martinez of NPR described as painting the city as a place where “crime, sexual promiscuity, and financial ruin occur” while framing country as “a peaceful space where happiness reigns.”

And it didn’t help that he later on explicitly said the word “gun” a few times in the song with a sort of vigilantism undertone. Though that one Aldean expected would gain traction. 

Professor of music theory at Hunter College, Philip Ewell, noted that it was also full of anti-Black rhetoric. He explained that race in country music plays out in extremely subtle ways, and the anti-Blackness is “something that kind of comes out in culture” simply because it’s part of how the genre is founded. He pointed out the specific line “pull a gun on the owner of a liquor store,” which showcased the embedded stereotype: the robber was Black. And the store owner was probably Asian or white. It didn’t outright say so, but that was the implication in the American psyche. 

However, what really stirred the criticism was the video itself. 

First, there was real-life footage of protests, vandalism, riots, and police encounters, which left a very bad taste in the viewers as it conflated protests with violence. Second, interspersed between those were shots of Aldean singing with his band, and in the backdrop was the Maury Country Courthouse building in Columbia, Tennessee, with a draped American flag. This was the site of the 1927 lynching of an 18-year-old Black man named Henry Choate and the 1946 race riots. Despite Aldean’s defense that it was just a fact that any small-town courthouse in the South had some sort of racial issue at some point, it still suggested complicity to the genre’s racist reputation. 

What does “Try That in a Small Town” mean?

Jason Aldean wasn’t a stranger to controversies as he had quite a long list, including wearing blackface and public cheating. But the divisive response to his new single left him quite surprised. 

Sharing with The Los Angeles Times, the singer thought it would start a conversation about the country’s state. He said, “It’s just wild stuff that happens, and as blue-collar, hardworking people, you’re watching these things, and you’re like, ‘What is going on?’” 

He said, “The whole idea behind the video was to show the lawlessness and the disrespect for cops and just trashing cities and burning.” And contrary to popular opinion, he is a man who supports law and order. He doesn’t condone lawlessness. Should people set laws aside, it’s chaos; again, he’s not cool with that. And more importantly, as he posted on his Instagram, growing up in a small town meant they all had each other’s backs, and they always looked out for each other. It was an unspoken rule. He continued, writing, “It feels like somewhere along the way, that sense of community and respect has gotten lost.” 

But he felt like the narrative got switched over and was made to be a racial-type thing, which wasn’t their intention. He added that people of all colors in the video were doing all kinds of stuff, and no one group was highlighted. 

Ultimately, he is proud to be an American. “I love our country. I want to see it restored to what it once was before all this bulls—started happening to us,” he said. “I love my country. I love my family. And I will do anything to protect that.”

Why did CMT cancel Jason? 

Country Music Television (CMT) yanked the video out of its rotation and banned it without explanation. But it’s not difficult to arrive at the reason behind it. 

It was simple: the song amassed backlash from country music fans and fellow singers. In a tweet, Sheryl Crow denounced the song, saying that there was nothing small-town or American about promoting violence. And Aldean should know that better than anyone else, having survived a mass shooting. Crow was referring to the Route 91 Festival in Las Vegas, where Aldean witnessed as Stephen Paddock opened fire, leaving 58 people dead and more than 800 injured. 

Politicians and critics also called out the song for being a “pro-lynching song,” among many more. 

Despite the comments, criticisms, and accusations, Aldean defended his track. He pushed back that interpretations of his song had gone too far to a dangerous point. And there was no single lyric that referenced race or pointed to it. It was simply a song about the community he had grown up in, caring for neighbors regardless of differences in background or belief. 

Listen to Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” in the video below, and let us know what you think.