Jason Aldean’s musical love letter to the far right

(From left) Toby Keith, Willie Nelson, and Jason Aldean stand with the “good ol’ boys.” 


Aldean: “Cuss out a cop … well, try that in a small town!”

I just watched the video for Jason Aldean’s new song, “Try That In A Small Town.” The video itself is a love letter to reaction and white supremacy—with images of robberies, civil unrest, and flag burning juxtaposed against positive images of white families playing in their yards or hunting and farmers helping each other. And there are lots of U.S. flags.

According to Rolling Stone, “In the video for Aldean’s single ‘Try That in a Small Town,’ the singer performs in front of a courthouse in Columbia, Tenn., the site of a lynching in 1927 and a race riot in 1946. The lyrics reference ‘good ol’ boys’ ready to fight criminals who stick up liquor stores and disrespect cops and the American flag. Aldean even threatens to use a gun his grandfather gave him.”

In the same article, Rolling Stone highlights Aldean’s wearing of blackface to a Halloween party in 2015, his wearing of Confederate flag t-shirts on stage, and his espousal of far-right ideas and anti-vaccine rhetoric. Country singers like Lee Greenwood, Luke Bryan, and Travis Tritt were quick to defend Aldean. So were far-right politicians Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, among others.

In the song, which Aldean didn’t write, he sings, “Cuss out a cop, spit in his face /
Stomp on the flag and light it up / Yeah, ya think you’re tough / Well, try that in a small town / See how far ya make it down the road / Around here, we take care of our own / You cross that line, it won’t take long…”

Aldean, of course, denies that the song is an allusion to lynching, but the lyrics seem unmistakable. For example, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, tried jogging in a small town in Georgia and was murdered during a racially motivated hate crime. Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney tried registering voters in a small town and didn’t make it far down the road when some of Aldean’s “good old boys” took care of their own. It didn’t take long. Author Shannon Watts called the song an “ode to a sundown town.”

“Don’t let the sun go down on you in this town.”

In the not-so-distant past, the U.S. had thousands of so-called “sundown” towns. These exclusionary zones were not restricted to the South but existed all over the country. The message was clear: “Stay out of this town after dark.”

James W. Loewen, the author of the book Sundown Towns, wrote, “From Maine to California, thousands of communities kept out African Americans (or sometimes Chinese Americans, Jewish Americans, etc.) by force, law, or custom. Some towns are still all white on purpose. Their chilling stories have been joined more recently by the many elite (and some not so elite) suburbs like Grosse Pointe, Michigan, or Edina, Minnesota, that have excluded nonwhites by ‘kinder gentler means.’ When I began this research, I expected to find about 10 sundown towns in Illinois (my home state) and perhaps 50 across the country. Instead, I have found more than 440 in Illinois and thousands across the United States.”

These racist “sundown” towns were maintained legally and extra-legally through terror and lynch law. The regime of lynch law aimed at Blacks and other minorities was not restricted to the South, but the South is where the majority of lynchings occurred.

According to James H Cone, “Lynching as primarily mob violence and torture directed against Blacks began to increase after the Civil War and the end of slavery, when Congress passed the Reconstruction Act granting Black men the franchise and citizenship rights of participation in the affairs of government” (James H. Cone, “The Cross and The Lynching Tree”).

In the U.S., there were as many as 5000 lynchings from 1882 to 1968. Many of these happened in small towns. These were often not secretive events but were advertised in advance in local papers and at times led by local politicians or Christian clergy. The victims were shot, dismembered, and burned, often while still alive. Local photographers took pictures of the lynchings and made postcards as mementos.

Lynching was a spectacle calculated to instill terror in Black communities and served to enforce the racist Jim Crow order. Like sundown towns, lynching wasn’t restricted to the South, and there were reported lynchings in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Kansas among other states. The highest number of lynchings were in Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas.

Nashville has killed country music

Jason Aldean in blackface, 2015.

Today’s bro-country singers are a long way off from the roots of country in “hillbilly” music and the blues. The conservative evolution of the genre in recent decades parallels the rightward drift of U.S. politics. Nashville has reinforced this trend by putting more emphasis on artists who sing countrified pop songs about the “traditional way of life” and the way things “used to be.” Country music’s conservative evolution has also reinforced the country versus city divide in politics.

Nashville’s conservatism was displayed in the blacklisting of the Dixie Chicks after they criticized George W. Bush’s conduct of wars overseas. Singer Chris Stapleton suffered a backlash from fans after he said, “Do I think Black lives matter? Absolutely … I don’t know how you could think they don’t.”

At the same time, although much of the fan base of Country music considers the genre to be “white” music, some Black artists have managed to carve out a niche in Country. Rhiannon Giddens, Darius Rucker, Kane Brown, Gangstagrass (blending hip-hop and bluegrass), Mickey Guyton, and Brittney Spencer are just a few examples. In her song, “Black Like Me, Guyton sings, “If you think we live in the land of the free, you should try to be Black like me.”

References to lynching in country songs isn’t new. The Toby Keith song from 2003, “Beer for my Horses,” which Keith performed with Willie Nelson, has the lyrics “Grandpappy told my pappy, back in my day, son / A man had to answer for the wicked that he done / Take all the rope in Texas find a tall oak tree / Round up all them bad boys, hang them high in the street / For all the people to see”

It’s tempting to compare Aldean’s song to Keith’s. In “Beer for my horses,” Keith and Nelson sing about similar themes but more explicitly:

“… the 6 o’clock news

Said somebody’s been shot, somebody’s been abused

Somebody blew up a building

Somebody stole a car

Somebody got away

Somebody didn’t get too far, yeah

They didn’t get too far”

In the final analysis, the imagery in Aldean’s video coupled with the lyrics parlay into far-right themes of violence and revenge—revenge against people who dare to resist police violence or try to upset the status quo. In comparison, Keith’s song sounds more like cowboy nostalgia, admittedly problematic, than a call for “good ol’ boys” to attack people whose ideas they don’t like. It should be noted, nevertheless, that just a year before he sang “Beer for my Horses,” Keith released “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” for which he was roundly accused of promoting jingoism and racism against Muslims, and for inciting violence.

David Allan Coe, who wrote the outlaw country hit “Take This Job And Shove It,” made famous by Johnny Paycheck, also released two extremely racist, misogynist, and homophobic albums in the early ’80s with song titles like “Ni###r F###er.” Coe, of course, denied that he’s a racist (he’s got a “Black friend”), but he continued to sell his racist songs on concert merchandise tables.

Country music is a contradictory mix of often-backward ideas on class, patriotic, and social issues. Still, it’s a genre that speaks to many working-class people. Socialists can grasp that fact without falling into stereotypes about rednecks and hillbillies.

The brightest future for Country is outside Nashville, which has homogenized the music to the point of being unlistenable. Artists and bands in the music industry are less dependent on record companies and radio play. Country artists just might rediscover their own roots and take the music back to where they can stop singing about beer, girls in shorts, and pickup trucks and start singing about the realities of working-class life.

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