There is not a more romantic song, at least to my ears, than Jason Aldean’s “Night Train.” About a man who wants to take his paramour on a picnic to listen to the train go by, it reminds me of growing up in rural Kentucky. The clanging of steel, the rumbling of the freight cars, and the blaring of a horn were the soundtrack of my youth. And yes, we really did sit outside just to listen to the night train.
Aldean broke onto the country scene in 2005 with his top 10 hit “Hicktown.” Subsequent songs, such as “Amarillo Sky” (about the plight of farmers), “Big Green Tractor” (another rural date song), and “Flyover States” (an ode to the heartland) cemented his reputation as not only a reliable hitmaker for Music Row, but as a preeminent troubadour for rural America.
So how did his latest offering, “Try That in a Small Town,” get it so wrong?
Aldean dropped the song, his latest single, back in May. It did not come to wider attention, however, until the music video premiered earlier this month. The backlash was swift and severe, with CMT pulling the video mere days after it debuted.
With lyrics like “cuss out a cop, spit in his face/Stomp on the flag and light it up, Yeah, ya think you’re tough,” Aldean and the songwriters position big cities as crime-ridden hellholes where people “sucker punch someone on a sidewalk/Carjack an old lady at a red light/Pull a gun on the owner of a liquor store.” In a small town, though, you can “see how far ya make it down the road” because “’round here, we take care of our own.”
Taking care of our own is a lovely thought, and to an extent it’s true. I think people in small towns genuinely are compassionate and want to take care of their neighbors. I certainly saw that last year as I covered the devastating flooding in my home of Eastern Kentucky. The way the community of Breathitt County rallied around one another amidst one of their worst disasters imaginable was incredibly moving. I was privileged to produce a short documentary, “When the Water Goes Down,” based on their collective efforts to help neighbors recover.
Yet I have also experienced that same sense of community in the big cities Aldean decries. Living in Chicago for seven years, my neighbors were my support system. They made sure I was OK when I was ill, looked after my cats when I was out of town, and genuinely supported me through the ups and downs of life. I hope I did the same for them. It’s what good neighbors do, regardless of where they live.
Aldean would never acknowledge that, though, perhaps because he does not understand it. “Got a gun that my granddad gave me,” he sings, “They say one day they’re gonna round up/Well, that shit might fly in the city, good luck/But try that in a small town.” It doesn’t make any sense, though, when he just sang that the cities were filled with criminals carjacking old ladies and pulling guns on small business owners. Are we to believe that urban criminals will willfully give up their guns but law-abiding small-town citizens won’t? It makes no sense.
Herein lies the problem with Aldean’s premise, and with the song more generally. By pitting urban versus rural, he is not so much extolling the values he grew up with as he is exacerbating the divide already present in our nation. Rather than acknowledging that crime – which happens in rural communities too – is the problem, he blames cities.
In our current political discourse, cities are frequently assumed to be bastions of the left and of diversity; “urban” has long been synonymous with “Black.” It is difficult to believe Aldean and the songwriters did not understand this. That they filmed the music video where they did – in front of a courthouse where an infamous lynching occurred in 1927.
The production company behind the video denies this was intentional, stressing that Aldean had nothing to do with the choice. That image of Aldean playing guitar on the same steps where an 18-year-old Black man was murdered nearly a century ago, though, only adds to the problematic nature of the song.
Indeed, the biggest problem with the song may be who Aldean excludes from small-town life. While he correctly states in a tweet addressing the controversy that “there is not a single lyric in the song that references race or points to it,” he is only technically so. The subtext of the song – intentionally or not – excludes people of color from feeling included in small-town life. The reference to guns excludes anyone who disagrees with him on gun control.
“Try That in a Small Town” is not, then, an anthem for small-town life – or at least not an inclusive one. It is full of aggrievement and animosity toward anyone who disagrees with his political views. Its very lyrics contradict Aldean’s statement that the song “refers to the feeling of a community that I had growing up, where we took care of our neighbors, regardless of our differences of background or belief. Because they were our neighbors, and that was above any differences.”
I disagree with Aldean on almost every political issue. I don’t come away from that song feeling like he cares about me. I come away from it feeling like he’s attacking me. And I’m from a small town, too.
This is important. Small towns contain multitudes. Black people live in small towns. Gay people live in small towns. Progressives live in small towns. They have never been the sole purview of conservative white men like Aldean who have an ax to grind against anyone who doesn’t believe just like them. Small towns belong to us all.
What a missed opportunity this song is, then. Aldean, as I said, is one of the most successful artists to regularly sing about rural life – songs I love, relate to, and will still enjoy despite the outright hostility displayed towards people like me in “Try That in a Small Town.” He could have produced an anthem that extolled the values of neighborliness and collectivism which I would agree our nation needs to return to.
Instead, Jason Aldean recorded an anthem dripping with disdain for half the country and filmed a music video at a site of a racist hate crime. No amount of contextualizing or explaining will change this.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a graduate student in Appalachian studies and lives in Tennessee.