US & World

Guest Column: ‘Small Town’ Song’s Cancel Culture Context

“Whatever this city boy is trying to sell me, I ain’t buying it.”

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by JOEL SAWYER

I largely stay away from manufactured culture war controversies. As soon as I see the same cast of characters crowing about owning libs on one side, versus the crowd who claims math is racist on the other side, I kind of tune it out as grift-y nonsense aimed at generating clicks and cheap merchandise sales.

The controversy over Jason Aldean’s song, “Try That In A Small Town” hit me a little differently, because far from being confined to a made-for-Twitter drama, one of my kids brought it up to me. So I felt compelled to dive in.

For transparency’s sake: Country music is not my cup of sweet tea. I like and appreciate a lot of older country music, but the vast majority of country music produced since the mid-1980’s is manufactured, soulless, inauthentic garbage. The meta-joke added to the end of Steve Goodman’s “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” when David Allan Coe covered the song in 1975 has proven a bit on the nose. Songs about trucks, drinking cheap domestic beer from the can, and fishing are written and performed by folks who drive luxury cars, drink IPAs from a glass, and probably don’t have a clue how to bait a hook.

Put simply, the pop-country genre Aldean represents is inauthentic drivel masquerading as authenticity, harkening back to a time that never existed for many of its purveyors, and increasingly, seems to not have existed for a lot of its fans either.

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So to start, let’s dispense with the idea that there is anything authentic about this song, or about Aldean as it relates to this song. Though to his credit he has written a number of his own hits, this isn’t one of them. Attesting to Coe’s prescience regarding country hits needing to check certain boxes, this Aldean song was written by a team of four songwriters, and Aldean isn’t among them.

As for lionizing small town America, I’m a proud small town boy myself (Lyman, South Carolina, population hovering around 1000 when I was a kid). I’m not sure which small town he’s talking about in the song, but Aldean hails from Macon, Georgia – a city bigger than literally any city in my state.

Whatever this city boy is trying to sell me, I ain’t buying it. Momma and Daddy taught us small town boys to not get suckered by city slickers cosplaying as one of us. 

Digging into the lyrics of the song, it’s hard to oversimplify the pablum being pedaled here, but at the risk of doing so, the song is fundamentally about vigilante justice. The lyrics mention a litany of behaviors that Aldean believes wouldn’t fly in a small town, ranging from actual crimes like carjacking (note: to be clear, crimes are bad) to Constitutionally protected free speech like yelling at a police officer or burning an American flag.

Aldean’s lyrics (I’m going to call them his lyrics because he sang them, even though he didn’t write them) seem to intentionally conflate crime and protected speech into a weird mishmash, while suggesting that the answer to dealing with both is “a gun that my granddad gave me.”

Jason Aldean (YouTube)

I’m a conservative, and two ideals I hold in higher regard than almost any other are respect for the rule of law, including due process, and protecting free speech – even speech I might view as unpatriotic and disgusting like burning an American flag. I find it baffling that anyone who hails from a conservative political tradition would find either vigilantism or violent suppression of free speech laudable or song-worthy, but I suppose that’s the world we live in today.

So while I find the song hackneyed, fake, and anathema to my values, the video accompanying it is absolutely contemptible.

Let’s start with the location, the site of the infamous lynching of Henry Choate in 1927. I use the words “infamous lynching” purposefully, because of the thousands of lynchings that occurred between the end of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Act, many of those names have been lost to history, simply disappearing, while others have certainly been lost to the public consciousness.

Henry Choate is not one of those names. He was accused of raping a white teenage girl, without evidence. The girl herself did not identify him as her attacker.

Henry Choate was dragged out of his jail cell by a mob of 250 men. He was murdered feet outside his cell with a sledgehammer to the head. His dead body was tied to a car and dragged through the streets, before it reached its final destination – hung from the courthouse balcony, a location prominently featured in Aldean’s video.

This is the location chosen for a video celebrating small-town, vigilante justice.

(Click to View)

Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tennessee (Jake Brewer/ Flickr)

Now, I’m not suggesting for a second the choice was made intentionally. I’m suggesting that it was made out of completely avoidable ignorance and a raging case of tone-deafness – as evidenced by the production company’s response, in which they noted among other things that the Hannah Montana movie had been filmed there. I’ve never seen the Hannah Montana movie, but I’m fairly confident in assuming it in no way celebrates small town residents solving their problems with violence.

Jason Aldean didn’t pick the location. He doesn’t own that decision, but he owns his response. He could have said, “Yeah, we absolutely should have picked a different location given the racial violence that occurred where we filmed.”

Predictably, he didn’t apologize and instead doubled down, railing on “cancel culture” during the Riverbend Music Festival in Cincinnati. How he kept a straight face complaining about being “cancelled” – while on stage in front of thousands of fans – is, I suppose, a testament to his range as a performer.

But perhaps the worst part of the entire video is the accompanying imagery, featured in B-roll and projected on the courthouse behind Aldean and his band as they lip-sync the song.

Like with the song’s lyrics, the video conflates acts of violence and property destruction (which again, for the record, are bad things that everyone should be against) with constitutionally protected protest – much of which was centered on the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd. There is no conclusion one can reasonably draw other than it’s all supposed to be equally bad in the eyes of the viewer.

(Click to View)

(Getty)

Weirdly, no footage from the manifestly un-American January 6 riots – where property was destroyed, police were beaten, and Congress was impeded from doing its job – was featured in Aldean’s “bad things” montage. I’d personally like to get back to an America where those criminals would be universally rebuked by both sides of the political aisle, but I digress.

Aldean’s initial response to the controversy was very telling, and as a former public relations flak myself, I did appreciate the sleight of hand his PR team pulls here: “There is not a single lyric in the song that references race or points to it.”

Fair enough, the lyrics don’t – but there’s a problem. The “bad stuff” shown in the video is a multiracial mix of white, black and other minority faces. But when the video closes with a montage of Americana from a small town that Aldean isn’t from – a family playing flag football, old veterans looking up approvingly at the flag, a farmer surveying his field – there is not a single black face to be found. There are a couple of silhouetted figures for whom the race is indistinguishable. But among those who can be seen, the only black people in the video are doing bad, un-American things, and no black people are doing good, pro-America things.

Context matters. You have a song celebrating vigilantism, filmed in front of a courthouse where hundreds of white vigilantes murdered and desecrated the body of black man, accompanied by imagery that features zero black people doing the kinds of things Aldean looks favorably upon.

Does that mean Jason Aldean is a racist? I have no idea. I can’t look into his heart and know one way or another. But to accompany that song with that video, regardless of what’s in his heart, he deserves every bit of smoke he’s catching for it – especially since he’s refusing to acknowledge any of the readily apparent context of combining those lyrics with those images.

One thing I can say for certain that Aldean is not is a victim. By resorting to the all-too-familiar playbook of whingeing about cancel culture, he’ll cash in, likely becoming wealthier than ever before, and even further removed from a life resembling that of the actual small town Americans who do not see through his chicanery.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Joel Sawyer is a political consultant who was Communications Director for former Governor Mark Sanford, and is past Executive Director of the SCGOP. 

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36 comments

davismcclam Top fan July 24, 2023 at 10:01 pm

Garbage

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J Monday Top fan July 25, 2023 at 6:17 am

You just don’t sound very conservative, but okay. You are certainly entitled to your opinion.

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Sally Sinclair Top fan July 25, 2023 at 6:45 am

I had not been keeping up with this controversy so I am glad I read your column to see what it is all about. Thank you for stating your opinion. I agree with it.

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jbl1a July 25, 2023 at 7:33 am

Just another opinion piece by some woke moron who thinks he is a conservative. You, Joel Sawyer, are just another woke liberal who thinks he has a clue. Political hack.

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PepperJack41 December 8, 2023 at 9:11 am

Can you not have an intellectual conversation without insults? Are you just a repeater? Do you have an actual opinion backed by whatever truth you believe? Satan has got you puffed up hard, that pride is causing major fear in you. Which has only led to your hate and division. Which is what the master of lies wants for this World. But if you recognize the fear you have, you will be able to see it for what it is. It’s not real and it’s just an an illusion manufactured so that people become divided. Do not feed into it, you are better than that.

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SWY July 25, 2023 at 7:40 am

“You just don’t sound very conservative.” Good gracious. Nothing in your piece points to that being true.

You sound smart and sensible to me!

It’s possible to be conservative AND have a brain capable of understanding why something like this may be offensive, even if it wasn’t the intent.

Bravo and thank you for the best take on this I’ve seen.

People who can only respond with things like “garbage” probably aren’t big thinkers, or are doubling down on their white supremacy stances.

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VERITAS Top fan July 25, 2023 at 7:58 pm

“What should I be offended about today?” says every woke nut case first thing in the morning.

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Michael Top fan July 25, 2023 at 8:16 am

America used to be a place where “even squares can have a ball.” Now the dominant culture is forcing everyone to their “fighting side.”

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Flossip Top fan July 25, 2023 at 8:18 am

Fantastically well-written piece on this mess.

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Southern Harm July 25, 2023 at 9:22 am

I hope Jason sings his ode to sundown towns with a Klan hood on at his concerts.

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VERITAS Top fan July 25, 2023 at 10:15 am

Southern Harm (assuming you’re actually southern), you personally choose to play victim at every opportunity, turning a song about people living simpler lives who don’t appreciate the garbage of woke and dystopian cities. Write your own song and shut up.

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Southern Harm July 25, 2023 at 2:05 pm

“Playing the victim at every opportunity” and complaining about woke in the same sentence. lol

Go make a 40+ minute video about the Barbie movie and shut up.

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Big T July 25, 2023 at 4:42 pm

So you defend pedophilia?

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VERITAS Top fan July 25, 2023 at 7:03 pm

Southern Harm, you are one sick cookie wackadoodle. Woke ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS plays victim.

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Joy Gmmon Top fan July 25, 2023 at 11:29 am

It is a racist cult song threatening gun violence by White Nationalists, I.E., fascists. Enough violent media is charging up stupid people, especially in this neck of the USA. They love this kind of crap and want to commit crimes against people that don’t agree with their bigoted messages. If you, like me, hate that stuff, lock your door and stay at home. Has he been invited to the McMaster “GALA'” for Trump to sing that song? Nothing would surprise me, and Trump would love it.

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O please July 25, 2023 at 11:57 am

Gimme a break. You’re just another liberal SJW. Everyone on the left crying the right is perpetrating racism and violence wilth little to back it up . Yet they are oddly silent on all the riots, violence and looting from groups of leftists in the name of Antifa and BLM. Your only cry is J6 and that was by FBI agents and fringe groups posing as conservatives..Pull your head out your ass…..

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Jake July 25, 2023 at 1:32 pm

Government agents and fringe groups did not start the January 6 attack on the Capitol That was all Trumptards from start to finish, egged on by the chief tard. Not one person has been proven to be a government agent or Antifa member. Also, no riots since Biden was elected, that was all under Trump. And by the way. You nuts all cry about people not being arrested for riots, but actually, nationwide over 10,000 people have been arrested in connection with anti-racism protests under Trump. You would probably know all of this if you did not watch dumbed-down right-wing media, where I believe they think of you as suckers, just like Trump thinks you are a sucker or as I think Fox News referred to you guys “cousin f*&%ing terrorists.”

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Big T July 25, 2023 at 4:45 pm

Why do you hate special needs children? I find your speech disgusting. Can you tell me where you work- so I can ask those who hired you if they’re OK with hate speech against special needs kids?

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Jake July 26, 2023 at 2:01 pm

State Farm, but where did I mention special needs kids?

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VERITAS Top fan July 25, 2023 at 8:25 pm

Jake, calm down. Take your meds. Go to sleep. Tomorrow is another day.

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Fooling Nobody July 25, 2023 at 2:19 pm

“Your only cry is J6 and that was by FBI agents and fringe groups posing as conservatives..”

Basically Sandy Hook Hoax mentality applied to J6. They just sentenced an individual who assaulted a cop with a flag pole to four years in prison. That was a real person they tracked down with evidence and duly convicted in a court of law, not some FBI agent, some Antifa plant, some crisis actor.

Don’t you see guys? Beating someone with a blunt instrument only counts if you’re Antifa or BLM!

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Joy Gmmon Top fan July 25, 2023 at 5:31 pm

In case you don’t know, Antifa means Antifascist. My father fought that BS in WWII. Being a moderate Democrat, I think you should study the fascists in Germany and see how they brought that to the German people. They could not get real news, and now we are being fed a bunch of BS from right-wing media on all levels in the USA; for instance, the enslaved people were brought to the USA on Ocean liners to learn from white creeps how to work. They were abused, beaten, raped, and treated worse than animals by white Christian people. I’m not too fond of Fascism and have been around the sun a few times, Southern style. They were abused when I was a girl and treated like dirt by the Christian White people. It is still going on today. Thanks be to God for Civil Rights that the right wing is trying to take away from diverse people.

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VERITAS Top fan July 25, 2023 at 2:01 pm

How ’bout this Joy. Three years ago, a mob of woke, violent BLM protesters came through our 125,000+ population town and wreaked havoc throughout our downtown area, a town I grew up in, raised my family in, buried our dead in. All we could do was stand back, the police stood back, watching the destruction unfold. The next morning, we cleaned up in silence, all wondering what the whole point was. We are a diverse community with three universities. You tell me, Joy and the rest of you mentally ill crazies, why people who want to just live in peace should stand back and watch “people like you” f – – king destroy our downtown.

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Joy Gmmon Top fan July 25, 2023 at 2:34 pm

He is locked and loaded peeps!

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Stochastic Terrorism July 25, 2023 at 2:57 pm

You construct a system of de-escalation to lower incidents of crime during protests, and a system of law enforcement that specifically detains and charges individual persons committing crimes. That’s what we call law and order.

Hoping that these guys end up in a small enough town where people who are really, really mad can enact what they consider vigilante justice and get violent and/or murderous with protesters in general is just what people with hate boners wish for. It’s honestly kind of sick.

It’s similar to how conservatives love to ramble about “see what happens if these protesters tried to stand in front of my car”. They’re just expressing their hate boners against protesters publicly. Then some jerkoff actually does what they claimed they would do and actually kills someone – Heather Heyer. Not every single person who uttered that line would actually follow through with it, but they don’t have to. It’s violent rhetoric, and repeated enough, spread enough, it will eventually end up in the head of someone who won’t hesitate to follow through.

There’s a term for it.

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Joy Gmmon Top fan July 26, 2023 at 10:04 am

If they would ban Viagra for any man over 40 when the clock is up on their procreation and get guns out of the hands of criminals, older men who can’t do it anymore, so they buy a gun—just looking for someone to shoot. Don’t knock on any doors during this gross rise of Fascism. SC is almost on board with the idiots in Floriduh.

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VERITAS Top fan July 26, 2023 at 6:48 pm

Joy, Joy, Joy … what is your brand of chill pill. Your next prescription is on me.

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VERITAS Top fan July 25, 2023 at 7:13 pm

Joy, get a grip. Country song to KKK and facism. W.O.W.

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The Colonel Top fan July 25, 2023 at 12:24 pm

So was this supposed to be a a music video criticism or just a hit piece on Aldean?
Just for the record he grew up in rural Bibb County on the outskirts of Macon and in Homestead, FL. Charleston, SC has the same population size as Macon though Macon is twice the square mile size of incorporated area – in other words, it’s pretty rural. Homestead is a “giant metropolis” of 80,000 or so spread out over ranches, farms and swamps.

I grew up in Tucker, Georgia in the ‘60s with a cattle farm behind my high school – these days Tucker exists only in memories and the high school’s name as the great creeping kudzu known as Atlanta has subsumed it.

When Aldean’s name was still Aldine, Macon was a country podunk off I-75 and had a population of about 60, 000. Homestead was still mostly farms and ranches. That rural enough for you?

It must suck to be a RINO with your meal ticket out of office for good. Maybe if you’d take a “gravel road” once in a while you’d realize that there are lots of folks that don’t want to live in Seattle, San Francisco or New York (or Charleston for that matter). Those folks are a lot more likely to help you with a flat than your average, urbane, elites and a lot less likely to agree with your world view.

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Big T July 25, 2023 at 4:18 pm

Joel Sawyer is an over-self-important, pseudo intellectual – who thinks he can suck up all the benefits of the moral responsibilities Conservatives adhere to – while bashing what he claims to be when it’s convenient. His ilk will never understand that he is seen as weak, malleable and functionally inarticulate. He’s as big a problem as the Democrat who are destroying this country.

Hopefully- if we win this crucial culture war we’re in – we can purge the Joel Sawyers from the discussion because of their worthlessness. Please pray that happens.

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Sally Sinclair Top fan July 26, 2023 at 7:44 pm

“Purge Joel Sawyers from the discussion “. That’s free speech for you Big T. Keep it up. Eventually fascists will take that from you too.

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Charles Collins Jr Top fan July 25, 2023 at 5:03 pm

Figures don’t lie, but liars figure. Macon, Georgia, consolidated with Bibb County in 2012, prior to which it had a population of 91,351 in 2010, down from considerably fewer than the 120,083 thatCharleston — South Carolina’s largest city — reported in the same year.

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The Colonel Top fan July 25, 2023 at 7:29 pm

Don’t waste your key strokes, he was making a point, doesn’t matter that most of his facts were wrong….

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Mark Houde Top fan July 25, 2023 at 6:45 pm

It’s obvious this writer is smart. A lot of thought went into this opinion. Unfortunately, much of it is so incredibly biased or wrong, it revealed itself as nothing more than a pathetic left wing-ish diatribe. Due to the current state of things, this song resonates with the majority of Americans. Let’s leave it at that.

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Jake July 26, 2023 at 2:06 pm

By most Americans, I assume you mean the 150 to 200 million Trump says are ready to vote for him.

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William Hamilton July 26, 2023 at 2:01 pm

A reasonable statement. The comments, as usual, go bad. Thanks for trying. The song and video are toxic. I find it hard to believe that no one knew about that lynching. Now this video transmits that old message to the entire nation. Someone wanted that to happen.

Note that the early comments support the writer, but later they don’t. That probably means they’re not regular participants on this website but came in from outside.

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