On July 14, country singer Jason Aldean released the video for his song “Try That in a Small Town” (YouTube). Over footage of violent crime and the 2020 George Floyd Rebellion, Aldean warns listeners to “try that in a small town and see how far you make it down the road.” Aldean brags about his grandfather’s gun and the “good ole boys” who “take care of [their] own.” “Try That in a Small Town” has been denounced as a pro-lynching “ode to a sundown town,” while Aldean has countered that “there is not a single lyric that references race” (Yahoo! News). Country Music Television stopped playing the video in response to the backlash, while Donald Trump called Aldean a “fantastic guy who just came out with a great new song” (Yahoo! News).
• Support the Rural Organizing Project, Rural Coalition, Alabama Love, or other pro-people, small-town organizing initiatives.
• Consider: How does your community welcome people of color? How might it dissuade visitors and new residents? If you live in a predominantly white community, ask why Black and Brown people are absent.
Though Jason Aldean doesn’t explicitly mention race, the melody is practically drowned out by the number of racist dog whistles. Aldean says he’ll defend his small town from someone who’d “sucker punch someone on the sidewalk,” which Michael Harriot points out refers to the media uproar around the “Knockout Game,” where Black youth competed to knock out unsuspected white pedestrians for fun (Twitter). The Knockout Game doesn’t actually exist (NPR). He later takes aim at people who’d “cuss at a cop, spit in his face, stomp on the flag and light it up” while footage of Black Lives Matter protests plays. Like the fictional Black teenagers ambushing white pedestrians as a team sport, racial justice protesters better not “try that in a small town,” Aldean tells us. In case we’re confused as to what the consequences of “trying that” might be, he then mentions his gun and the “good ole boys” ready to take on anyone “looking for a fight.”
“Try That in a Small Town” has inescapable racial overtones because of the legacy of sundown towns and lynchings in the United States. Sundown towns across the country prohibited non-white people from remaining within city limits after dark. Black travelers often passed signs that read “Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here, Understand?” and “Whites Only Within City Limits After Dark.” There were an estimated 10,000 towns like these in 1970. Sundown town researcher James W. Loehen says, “very few overwhelmingly white towns or suburbs are that way by chance.” In other words, most very white municipalities today had racist sundown town laws in the past (SPLC).
Police often had help from white vigilantes in enforcing sundown town laws. Those who violated the norms of all-white small towns sometimes faced extrajudicial killings: lynchings. Some lynchings would be done secretly at night for a body to be discovered in the morning. Some were popular public events where people would gather for the occasion, buy souvenirs, and take photos with the victim. Lynchings were often permitted or even encouraged by local law enforcement (The Nation). The perpetrators of lynchings were rarely punished. Although initial reports estimate over 4,500 racial terror lynchings in America between 1877 and 1950, a report by the Equal Justice Initiative, a 31-year-old legal advocacy group, found that there were actually 2,000 more. You can read the full report here. In 1927, an 18-year-old Henry Choate was lynched at the Maury County Courthouse in Tennessee—the location Aldean and his band performed in the “Small Town” video (Billboard).
None of this is ancient history. In 2017, NAACP issued a travel advisory for Missouri urging visitors and residents “to travel with extreme CAUTION “because “race, gender and color based crimes have a long history in Missouri” (NAACP). Every night, a former sundown town in Nevada still sounds the red siren once used to alert Native Americans and non-white people to leave the town before nightfall, despite requests by tribal members in the community to stop (Denver Post). And on May 1, a Black unhoused man Jordan Neely was killed in a Manhattan subway car after another rider held him in a chokehold for several minutes (New York Times). What was Neely’s, who was Black and unhoused, offense? Being hungry, thirsty, loud, and “fed up.” Daniel Penny, the rider who took his life, is a white Marine veteran who said he had acted in self-defense when he went behind Neely and pinned him down (NBC News). Coverage of the incident painted Neely as “unhinged,” “vagrant,” and “aggressive” and Penny as a “hero” who stepped in to help in a city plagued by rampant crime. A legal defense fund set up for Penny raised millions of dollars (NBC New York).
The ongoing legacy of racial violence makes Jason Aldean’s ode to small-town vigilantism sound ugly. Ironically, Aldean isn’t from a small town at all. He grew up as one of the 150,000 residents of Macon, Georgia (AllMusic). Many residents of actual small towns are fighting back against systemic oppression and discrimination. Small towns, suburbs, and rural cities displayed some of the most courageous and fierce resistance during 2020’s George Floyd Rebellion (BBC News, It’s Going Down, CNN, Time). Communities in rural areas are mobilizing to eradicate anti-Blackness, defend immigrant rights, protect LGBTQ+ youth, and stamp out the reactionary ideas that Aldean is peddling in his song.
• Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” praises vigilante violence while deploying racist dog whistles.
• The geography of the modern U.S. is shaped by the legacies of sundown towns and lynchings.
• Aldean isn’t actually from a small town but misrepresents them nonetheless. Across the country, small-town residents are organizing for justice.