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How Jason Aldean's controversial hit song became a cultural flashpoint


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Amna Nawaz: One of the most popular country music hits of the summer is "Try That in a Small Town." But the song has ignited controversy and faced backlash from fans, who say the lyrics encourage racism and violence.

Jeffrey Brown has more for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: The song is by Jason Aldean, one of country music's biggest stars. The video includes footage of violent protests and vandalism and was filmed in part at a courthouse in Tennessee, which was the scene of race riots in 1946 and where a Black man was lynched in 1927.

Critics, including singer Sheryl Crow and Margo Price, say the lyrics promote violence with verses that include "Try that in a small town. See how far you make it down the road. Around here, we take care of our own."


Jeffrey Brown: Following an outcry, the original video was slightly re edited to remove some of its controversial images. Small protests have taken place at several of Aldean's concerts. But the song's popularity has only grown, jumping to number two on Billboard's country music charts last week.

Joining me now to tell us more, Marcus K. Dowling. He's the country music reporter for The Tennessean in Nashville.

Thanks so much for joining us.

When this song was released, it wasn't that big a hit. It got more attention with the video. Why do you think it has become such a cultural flash point?

Marcus K. Dowling, The Tennessean: I'd say that there is a growing or there has been a long existing conservative base in country music that is being positioned via this song to have a certain moment.

And I feel like those fans are regular streamers now. They regularly engage with content online, as well as with physical purchases too. So they're willing to support a song like this because it plays right into their demographics and ideals.

Jeffrey Brown: And tell us, what -- I mean, what are they hearing and what are they seeing?

Marcus K. Dowling: Well, I think that they're hearing this pay on to small town values and the thought that America is at a place where it's more divergent and diverse and dynamic than ever before.

So, for a lot of people, it feels like maybe they're being lost in the larger conversation. And so something like this sort of stems the tide, for lack of a better term.

Jeffrey Brown: Jason Aldean himself has been outspoken in his conservative views, certainly on social media.

Tell us a little bit more about him. And what has been his response to the outcry now?

Marcus K. Dowling: Well, he's definitely been in support of his own song. And he's been willing to continue to play it live.

And it plays with where he's been headed as a artist on social media for roughly the last five years. He and his wife have come out as notable conservatives, and they're willing to do that because they feel as though, with the upswell of the more liberal left in country music and related spaces, that there just isn't a space to be notably conservative, in that -- in that vein and to have that voice and be willing to stand up and articulate your own beliefs.

Jeffrey Brown: You know, as I said, there have been some small protests at concerts, but the song has only gained popularity

How is that being seen or read in the industry itself? Is it support for the views? Is it curiosity, a mix of both?

Marcus K. Dowling: I'd say that it's a mix of everything. It's not just a mix of both.

This is a very broad issue. In country music currently, you have every type and stripe of political, social and musical background apparent in the genre in a manner that hasn't been seen in 50 years in the space. So that's everything from progressive house to hip-hop all the way through to country's Western swing and folk and blues-driven roots.

The whole -- the whole space is represented. And, in that sense, because the whole space is represented, like -- a song like this plays into certain parts of that realm. And everybody being seen, they're willing to be supportive as well.

Jeffrey Brown: Well, I want to pick up on some of what you're seeing there. This becomes part of a much larger cultural and political divisions in country music and in our society at large.

I cited some criticisms from some leading figures in Nashville, but how strong are those divisions within country music itself?

Marcus K. Dowling: I'd say that, within country itself, you're looking at both country and Americana across the board, to speak to this broader platform that I'm speaking of, in the sense that you have people who traditionally have played towards more conservative arms of the sociopolitical spectrum for years, others, artists like Cody Johnson and others who are Western in their background and have historically always felt to be more libertarian, for lack of a better term, in their views.

So they have been willing to support. As well, you have the Margo Prices, the Jason Isbells, who are more Americana-driven and more bent towards a sociopolitical left-leaning notion in their beliefs.

Jeffrey Brown: You know, I mean, I know from some of my own reporting over the years that -- the criticisms that have hit the industry about how inclusive it is, how tolerant it is.

You're saying there has been change? How much change have you seen even in recent years?

Marcus K. Dowling: Well, I will say that one of the great bellwethers of this is that, in the past three to five years, there have been five African American males who had number one singles on country radio, as well with, within the Americana ranks, there's artists like Allison Russell, who is a queer African American female.

And there's been trans artists. There's a woman named Mya Byrne who recently played on stage at Bridgestone Arena. So, again, it's just -- it's a it's a wide open space currently in these realms, where artists who were traditionally marginalized are experiencing greater visibility.

And when you see us a song like "Try That in a Small Town," it notes the fact that, for as far left as country has leaned and Americana has leaned, it's also leaning far right too. So, there's a -- there's a balance in the democratization in this space, for sure.

Jeffrey Brown: OK, Marcus K. Dowling of the Tennessean in Nashville, thanks so much.

Marcus K. Dowling: Absolutely. You're welcome. Any time.

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