Merriweather Post Pavilion isn’t in a small town, but Jason Aldean tried it anyway.
The country music singer on Thursday performed his latest hit, “Try That in a Small Town,” which some have decried as racist and evocative of Jim Crow-era sundown towns, at the historic venue in Howard County. Critics in recent weeks have said the song has no place in Columbia, a planned community of more than 100,000 long lauded as a model for racial and socioeconomic integration.
Aldean seemed to allude to the controversy early in the show but brushed it off. “We’ve been a little snake bit so far on this tour, I feel like. But I feel like we’ve got a great night ahead of us,” he told the sold-out crowd at the 19,000-seat venue.
Fans came decked in cowboy boots and hats, flannel, paisley and other hallmarks of country music fashion. At the merch booth, fans paid $40 apiece for a T-shirt with the song’s name on the back. The front of the shirt features a smaller image of a raised middle finger underneath the words “cancel this.”
Aldean’s music video, which has garnered 20 million views on YouTube, spliced images from the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 against the singer performing in front of a Tennessee courthouse that was the site of a 1946 race riot and the 1927 mob lynching of an 18-year-old Black man named Henry Choate.
The song’s lyrics also depict cities “looking for a fight,” pitted against small towns “full of good ol’ boys, raised up right.” Six seconds of footage have been removed from the video since its release on July 14, according to the Washington Post.
Before he played the song at Merriweather, Aldean expressed gratitude for the support fans had shown him after “things kind of exploded.”
“It truly has been something crazy to see, and I just want to say, from the bottom of my heart, thank you guys so much for kinda seeing through a lot of the media bullshit and seeing the song and video for what it actually was and what it means,” he said, met with cheers from the audience. “I’ve never been prouder to be a part of country music than I have this week.”
During the song, a fan handed him an American flag, which he draped over his shoulder to big applause. At the end of the song, he signed it and handed it back. The crowd broke into chants of “USA! USA!”
But at least a few concertgoers had been apprehensive about attending after learning about the “Small Town” music video. If Jordanna Shahraki had known about it, the 56-year-old probably wouldn’t have purchased the tickets, she said outside the concert.
”It’s hard to know in this climate where to put your money,” she said. The Howard County mother, who is white, bought the tickets for her two adult daughters and a close family friend, all of whom are women of color.
The four described themselves as a diverse family that considers the controversy around the song to be warranted.
Shahraki’s daughter, Lauren Hall, said images like the ones in the music video make Black and brown people feel unsafe. The 37-year-old didn’t think it was a good idea to attend the concert but said she decided to only because her mom footed the cost of tickets. ”I’ll lose 60 bucks,” she said.
Meanwhile, her sister, Jessica Hill, said she was a “peaceful person” who tries to give people the benefit of the doubt.
Wes Peters, of Catonsville, listened to the song for the first time Thursday. ”There’s a lot worse you can be offended by,” said Peters, who sat on the lawn with his family, including 7-year-old son Eddie Peters. It was Eddie’s first time at a concert.
”I think the message is don’t shoot people, don’t rob people,” he said. “I don’t know how anyone can have a problem with that.”
Officials with the Merriweather Arts and Culture Center, the nonprofit that owns the music venue, said in a statement they were committed to furthering the founding vision of Columbia to be a “garden for growing people.” The statement posted to the nonprofit’s social media accounts Thursday afternoon acknowledged community members’ concerns about the concert.
“While we did not schedule and are not producing or presenting this concert, we acknowledge and affirm the concerns we have heard,” the statement said. “In recognition of our important role as the community’s steward for Merriweather, we have shared our concerns and those we have heard from our community with the venue’s operator and have proposed ways in which we can work together to ensure our goals for Merriweather and its programming are met.”
The organization said its mission is to “build a thriving, inclusive, and welcoming cultural ecosystem” and it would continue to seek artists who are working to move the community and culture forward.
I.M.P., the venue’s operator, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday evening.
Baltimore Banner reporter Hugo Kugiya contributed to this article.