Jason Aldean’s ‘Try This in a Small Town’ is shameful. Naturally, it’s the right’s song of the summer

A person with a guitar points his right index finger to the sky.
Jason Aldean performs at the 58th Academy of Country Music Awards on May 11.
(Chris Pizzello / Associated Press)

For Jason Aldean, the only thing better than having CMT play his new music video is having the country-music cable network refuse to play it.

That’s what happened this week when CMT said it had pulled the clip for “Try That in a Small Town,” Aldean’s latest single, in which the country star lays out a vision of urban chaos — an old lady getting carjacked, a holdup at a liquor store, a cop being spat on — before more or less threatening to kill anyone who might attempt to bring such behavior to a place “full of good old boys raised up right.”

“Try that in a small town / See how far you make it down the road,” he sings over slashing guitars and booming drums, “Around here we take care of our own / You cross that line, it won’t take long for you to find out.”


In the video, directed by the singer’s longtime collaborator Shaun Silva, Aldean and his band perform in front of the Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tenn., as violent news footage — including scenes from what appear to be Black Lives Matter protests — is projected onto the building. After premiering Friday, the video drew immediate criticism on social media for its embrace of vigilantism and for its conspicuous use of a location known to historians as the site of a lynching of an 18-year-old Black man in 1927.

“As Tennessee lawmakers, we have an obligation to condemn Jason Aldean’s heinous song calling for racist violence,” state Rep. Justin Jones, a Democrat, wrote on Twitter. Among the other prominent voices denouncing “Try That in a Small Town” was Sheryl Crow, who tweeted that “there’s nothing small-town or American about promoting violence.”

Sheryl Crow has labeled the message of Jason Aldean’s new song, ‘Try That in a Small Town,’ as ‘not American or small town-like.’

July 19, 2023

CMT hasn’t explained its decision to stop airing the video, though it’s easy to assume that the network was seeking to distance itself from the widening backlash against Aldean (at a moment when its corporate owner, Paramount, is already facing scorn amid the Hollywood actors’ and writers’ strike).

But whatever exposure he’s losing on CMT — an asset of debatable value in the YouTube era — Aldean, 46, is more than making up for with the hubbub over its being yanked: Nearly two decades into a Nashville career that’s seen him top Billboard’s Country Airplay chart a whopping 25 times, Aldean has happily taken up the role of bomb-throwing right-wing culture warrior, one for whom each attempted cancellation by the so-called elites of music and media only boosts his appeal among those who’ve stuck with him.

To be clear, Aldean, who’s on the road this summer ahead of the release of his 11th studio album, doesn’t see himself as a villain. In a tweet on Tuesday he denied that “Try That in a Small Town” had anything to do with lynching and that the song “refers to the feeling of a community that I had growing up, where we took care of our neighbors, regardless of differences of background or belief.” (In a statement, Shaun Silva’s production company, TackleBox Films, said the courthouse is a “popular filming location outside of Nashville” — it pointed out that parts of “Hannah Montana: The Movie” were shot there — and said Aldean didn’t choose the location.)

Indeed, the thrust of the singer’s messaging about the controversy is that he’s the victim of a hysterical woke-ocracy — a familiar notion amplified predictably Tuesday night by the Fox News host Jesse Watters, who said on his show that Aldean’s single “carries a simple message: Small-town America doesn’t put up with what they put up with in the city. But the media won’t allow the truth to come out about what happened in the summer of love,” Watters continued, referring sarcastically to the racial justice movement that swept the country in 2020.

On Wednesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis chimed in on Twitter, saying, “When the media attacks you, you’re doing something right,” and adding that Aldean “has nothing to apologize for.” Fellow Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy joined in too with a tweet saying that Aldean “writes a song defending the values that ALL Americans used to share — faith, family, hard work, patriotism — only to be immediately sacrificed at the altar of censorship & cancellation.”


Yet “Try That in a Small Town” is just the latest volley from Aldean, who despite his insistence that his “political views have never been something I’ve hidden from” has in fact become far more vocal in the years since Donald Trump’s election. In 2021 he and his wife, Brittany Aldean, a conservative influencer, dressed their young children in T-shirts that read “Hidin’ from Biden”; last year the couple feuded with Maren Morris over young people seeking gender-affirming healthcare.

For ages, country stars avoided politics, aiming for a squishy ideological middle ground with no risk of offending anyone who might buy a record or a concert ticket. As Emily Nussbaum details in a New Yorker story published this week, though, acts in Nashville are increasingly sorting themselves into opposing camps: one more liberal (in both a political and musical sense), the other more conservative (ditto).

As in America more broadly, this polarization seems due in some part to social media, which has empowered artists to speak more directly to their fans without fear of being misrepresented. But there’s also a business component: If you’re unlikely to connect with a mass mainstream audience — as with Kid Rock, who recently shot up a case of Bud Light to protest the beer’s association with the trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney, or Aaron Lewis, the Staind frontman who’s gone on to a solo country career and who railed against woke-ism in 2021’s “Am I the Only One” — it makes sense to super-serve your base.

In 1973, music mogul Lou Adler and a dream team of bizzers opened the Roxy Theatre. 50 years later, the club’s still going strong, as is the 89-year-old Adler.

July 18, 2023

Is it accurate to say that Aldean, one of the most reliable hit makers of the 2010s, no longer sits at the center of country music? Nashville insiders I’ve spoken to disagree on the matter. One high-level exec told me Aldean is irrelevant today — “a sideshow all the way”; others in town point out that radio stations still add his new singles (including “Try That in a Small Town,” which Spotify put on its popular New Boots playlist) and that he was just nominated for entertainer of the year at May’s Academy of Country Music Awards.

By Wednesday afternoon, “Try That in a Small Town” had ascended to the No. 1 spot on iTunes’ songs chart — hardly the perch it was in the pre-streaming days but an indication of a strongly devoted core still willing to pay $1.29 to download three minutes of music.

Still, there’s no disputing that Aldean — not unlike other male stars his age such as Eric Church and Luke Bryan — has been pushed aside to some extent by the younger likes of Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen, the latter of whom enacted a kind of torch-passing moment when he made a surprise appearance at an Aldean concert last year at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.


What’s clear about the country musician, who touched down Saturday night at Arena for the first of two sold-out concerts, is that being caught on video drunkenly using the N-word has not derailed his career.

Sept. 25, 2022

“He’s in a medium state where he’s had bigger moments,” said Shane McAnally, the veteran songwriter and producer who’s helped create dozens of hits for Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt, Keith Urban and Old Dominion, among many others. “Everybody plateaus or declines. But in my mind, he’s like, ‘If I can’t be the best, I’m just gonna be the worst.’”

Which isn’t to suggest that Aldean’s hard-right turn is an act. He’s given no reason to believe he’s not sincere in his political opinions. But there’s a point-of-no-return quality to “Try That in a Small Town,” as though Aldean had concluded that the only path available to him was going all-in on the MAGA rhetoric.

Many critics online were particularly galled by the song’s pro-gun spirit — “Got a gun that my granddad gave me / They say one day they’re gonna round up / Well, that s— might fly in the city, good luck” — given that Aldean was onstage during the 2017 mass shooting at a country festival in Las Vegas that killed 58 people. McAnally said he was “gobsmacked” by Aldean’s decision to release the song just months after a shooting at a Nashville elementary school in which three children and three adults were killed.

“It just feels so intentional,” McAnally said. “And so on the wrong side of history.”