I had the best patty melt of my life last Saturday night in a noisy, badly lit bowling alley in a dying Illinois town. It was possibly the most hostile environment I've ever eaten in outside of a high school cafeteria. Most of the action was on the other side of the room, in the bowling alley itself. As our bartender turned to deal with the thirsty bowlers, her pink T-shirt lit up like a beacon in the dismal “cosmic” glow of the blacklights. Stenciled in baby blue on the pink background was a cattle skull inside a circle, with the words “Try that in a small town” running its circumference and “ALDEAN” in bold, unmistakable letters across the middle.
The shirt, of course, referred to the newest single by Jason Aldean, a generally unremarkable song by an extremely unremarkable pop-country singer. Musically, “Try That in a Small Town” is as generic as pop-country gets. A touch of a hip-hop beat introduces a completely by-the-numbers arena-rock chord sequence, topped by the utterly undistinguished twang of a man who sounds exactly like every other “country” star of the past 15 years. The aggressive lyrics are a fantasy about big-city criminals and/or left-wing agitators bringing their lawless ways to Anytown, USA; the implied result is a lead shower from “a gun that my granddad gave me, they say one day they're gonna round up.”
You could hear these lyrics more or less verbatim from any number of drunk and divorced back-the-blue tough guys in any number of bars on a given night. “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,” set to the same lifeless pop cadence as dozens of other new country songs. It took no less than four “songwriters” to put these lines together, none of whom are Jason Aldean, who, as a son of Macon, Georgia (population 157,346), is hardly qualified to remark on small-town life. The whole thing is a cynical exercise in pandering that's about as authentic as a can of Spam. It's yet another half-assed piece of provocation from a tightly-controlled, ultra-corporate genre that at some point in the last 10 years decided that using pop music with banjos to sell light beer and trucks was not enough, and started pumping its Frankenstein creations with embarrassingly on-the-nose right-wing rhetoric.
Released in May to zero fanfare outside its target market, “Try That in a Small Town” became inescapable after its video dropped on July 14. The whole thing is a pathetic sham from start to finish. Aldean and band aren't exactly dressed for the Opry: four or five dudes clearly in the midst of a rock 'n' roll midlife crisis, replete fresh leather duds and nighttime aviator shades, with their Marshalls set up in front of a gleaming, flag-draped courthouse. It’s basically a Great Value Five Finger Death Punch as filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, with a goony guy in a black cowboy hat front and center, looking like an attempt to clone Randy Quaid from a potato.
The three-minute video is densely packed with clips of violent demonstrations and burning flags, meant to draw associations with the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, even though, as Rolling Stone reported, at least three of the clips (including a shot of a police car on fire) were taken from protests in Toronto and Montreal, in 2010 and 2012, respectively. It also uses what appears to be security footage of masked men pulling guns in convenience stores, which ends in at least once instance with a visibly Caucasian man jumping in and beating the hell out of one of the visibly black assailants. All this is contrasted with wholesome images of a tractor in a field, grainy home-video footage of backyard touch football, and duck hunters at sundown.
Those responsible for “Try That in a Small Town” have been accused of holding and promoting racist views; to be racist requires convictions, and it’s unlikely that these hacks have any convictions at all beyond fattening their back accounts. Aldean is a partner in a company that sells boutique hunting gear, in addition to owning three restaurants and bars. According to Marcus K. Dowling’s April 20, 2022 profile in the Nashville Tennesseean, at the Nashville location one can find “a half-million-dollar John Deere tractor sitting behind the bar in the middle of the main floor of his kitchen and rooftop bar establishment [a reference to his biggest hit, 2009’s “Big Green Tractor.”].” This is to say nothing of his overhead for stagewear. Irish bluesman Rory Gallagher’s sweat was so acidic that it ate the paint off his Stratocaster; unconfirmed rumors claim that Aldean’s catering-table meat sweats, combined with a noxious miasma of Ed Hardy cologne, can eat through three or four leather jackets a month while he’s on tour. These things require a lot of money to support.
Others have accused Aldean and company of promoting lynching, due to the violent history of the Maury County courthouse, where most of the video was filmed. Located in Columbia, Tennessee, not far from Nashville, the courthouse was the sight of the shooting of a black man in 1924 and a lynching in 1927. Given the laziness with which director Shaun Silva chose his stock footage for the video (as Rolling Stone discovered, at least one of the Montreal riot clips can be rented for $70 from an easily accessible online video library), it’s likely that he’s indifferent to or totally ignorant of the history of the site, and probably chose the spot due to its proximity to Nashville (46 miles south). The “small-town” setting (Columbia was just shy of 42,000 people at the last census) is probably the only “authentic” thing about the song or video. As for Aldean, writer Betsy Phillips of the Nashville Scene, speaking with NPR’s Amanda Marie Martinez, shared this chestnut from a past interview: “I haven’t read a book since high school.”
As the music of the “common people,” it's normal for country music to express conservative views. Merle Haggard's 1969 warning that the anti-Vietnam crowd was “Walkin' on the Fightin' Side of Me” was an organic expression of working-class Okie sensibilities (and also, hilariously, uses the phrase “some squirrely guy” as an insult). Aldean is hollowly twanging tired clichés warmed over by no fewer than four “songwriters”: Neil Thrasher, composer of a number of inconsequential songs for Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts, Reba McEntire and others; Kelley Lovelace (primarily known for work with Brad Paisley); and the relative unknowns Tully Kennedy and Kurt Allison. Lovelace's involvement with Paisley is notable given the singer's (or at least his publicist's) participation in the Blackout Tuesday protest on June 2, 2020, joining many other entertainers, public figures, and common Internet users switching his Twitter icon to a black background and posting a pro-Black Lives Matter tweet.
Mainstream country has never cared for risk-taking or change, due to both its conservative ethos and its rigid corporate structure. Given that musical or political statements don't just come up on their own, at least not on the major labels; nothing's getting released until it's passed through marketing. To put “Try That in a Small Town” in context, it's worth looking at the corporate structure that spawned it.
Jason Aldean is the highest-profile singer currently signed to BBR Music Group. Founded in 1999 as Broken Bow Records, BBR and its subsidiary labels were bought out in 2017 by German behemoth BMG, one of the largest music publishers in the world. BMG is reliant on Warner Music Group (WMG) for the bulk of its worldwide distribution. Since 2011, WMG has been owned by Access Industries, a multinational owned by billionaire investor Len Blavatnik, with an 86.3 percent equity stake in the company.
Blavatnik's $33.4 billion fortune puts him at number 42 in the ranking of the world's richest people according to a “real-time” estimate by Forbes. Through Access, the Ukrainian-born Blavatnik snapped up oil and aluminum manufacturers as well as other resources in the former Soviet Union after the collapse of the Soviet regime.
Blavatnik's connections with Russian oligarchs (through his close decades-long friendship and business dealings with Kremlin ally Viktor Vekselberg) and his “friendship” with authoritarian Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu (detailed by Israeli news outlet Haaretz in the midst of 2017 corruption allegations against Netanyahu) are interesting but not entirely relevant to this article. What is relevant is Blavatnik’s status as a major Republican donor. According to a 2019 article by Dan Friedman of Mother Jones: “Blavatnik, long a prolific donor to both Democrats and Republicans, veered sharply toward the GOP in 2016 and 2017, giving $3.5 million to a super PAC tied to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, among others. Through his holding company, Access Industries, Blavatnik also gave $1 million to President Donald Trump’s Inaugural Committee.” Blavatnik has also contributed to Trump's defense fund, attracting the attention of prosecutor Robert Mueller.
I am not suggesting that Len Blavatnik takes a personal interest in the “country” music he distributes (he strikes me as more of a Steely Dan guy). It'd be easy to say that promoting inflammatory music such as Aldean's is an attempt to fuel the out-of-control fires of political discord; ultimately, I am not qualified to make a definitive statement on the matter. It probably just comes down to the huge amount of money to be made off of the people who not only enjoy mainstream country music, but also feel (however wrongly) that their lifestyle is under attack. When an unusually aggressive bit of polemic becomes a major hit for a company held in thrall by its business connections to a billionaire Republican donor, further research is merited.
Bob Dylan's words are as relevant now as they were 60 years ago, in ways that were never intended. Regarding Aldean, his minions, and this entire controversy: “... it ain't him to blame / He's only a pawn in their game.”