Until a week ago, country music singer Jason Aldean’s planned performance at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia would have stood out for his relative stature among the venue’s summer lineup — a mix of rock, country and folk acts that are not household names, somewhat obscure or out of their prime.

Aldean is one of country’s bigger stars and an impressive score for the 19,000-seat amphitheater.

But Aldean’s latest song, “Try That In A Small Town,” and particularly the accompanying music video released last Friday, set off a widespread controversy that has eclipsed standard news of his concert tour. Backlash over the song’s lyrics and video have been intense, as many find both to be racist and promoting vigilantism and gun violence. The video, which has garnered more than 9 million views on YouTube, was pulled by Country Music Television after one weekend in response to the outcry. Merriweather Post Pavilion has not yet responded to a request for comment.

“Try That In A Small Town” debuted in May without unusual fanfare, but the video attracted much more attention with its imagery: Aldean and his band perform in front of what appears to be a government building at night, lit by streetlamps, an American flag hung vertically on its front. It didn’t take long for the building to be identified and its painful history recounted: The backdrop is the Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tennessee, site of a 1946 race riot and the 1927 mob lynching of an 18-year-old Black man named Henry Choate.

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Among many who have condemned the song is Rep. Justin Jones (D-Tennessee), who called it a “heinous, vile, racist song” in an interview with CNN. The mayor of Columbia, Tennessee, Chaz Molder (D), more gently chided Aldean, writing on Twitter that he hoped his next video “can highlight peace, love, and all the things that are great about Columbia, Tennessee.” The town’s district attorney, Brent Cooper, along with Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn, quickly rebutted Molder on social media.

Country singer Luke Bryan, in solidarity with Aldean, pulled his videos from CMT and stirred up talk of boycotting the channel, though not all his colleagues are sympathetic. Musician Sheryl Crow addressed Aldean on Twitter on Tuesday, saying: “I’m from a small town. Even people in small towns are sick of violence. There’s nothing small-town or American about promoting violence. You should know that better than anyone having survived a mass shooting.”

Aldean was on stage in 2017 at the Route 91 Festival in Las Vegas, the site of one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history. “Small Town” includes a lyric that seems to be aimed at gun control: “Got a gun that my grandad gave me/ They say one day they’re gonna round up/ Well, that shit might fly in the city, good luck.”

National politicians have voiced their support for Aldean’s position, including Republicans Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas, Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, and Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado. GOP presidential candidates Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy recently played “Try That In A Small Town” at campaign events in South Carolina and New Hampshire, respectively.

The lyrics of the song talk of crimes such as assault, robbery, carjacking and acts of civil disobedience, like burning the flag and defying police, inferring these actions would not be tolerated “in a small town.” The song also implies veiled threats of violence, although it never specifies the form: “Well, try that in a small town/ See how far ya make it down the road/ ’Round here we take care of our own/ You cross that line, it won’t take long/ For you to find out, I recommend you don’t/ Try that in a small town.” The idea is fairly clear to many: Don’t try to stir up trouble in a small town because its citizens will meet you with force.

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What is open to interpretation, and at the center of the controversy, is what kind of force and what kind of trouble, and at whom exactly the lyrics are directed. The video features footage from Black Lives Matter protests, although it does not identify it as such, and the faces that are easily identifiable by race are white. There are images of police in riot gear, along with people looting and throwing Molotov cocktails, all occurring in what look like cities.

The denizens of Aldean’s hypothetical “small town” appear to be exclusively white, including duck hunters and farmers who get a voice-over in the video.

Aldean responded to criticism Tuesday on Twitter: “In the past 24 hours I have been accused of releasing a pro-lynching song (a song that has been out since May) and was subject to the comparison that I (direct quote) was not too pleased with the nationwide BLM protests. These references are not only meritless, but dangerous. There is not a single lyric in the song that references race or points to it- and there isn’t a single video clip that isn’t real news footage -and while I can try and respect others to have their own interpretation of a song with music- this one goes too far.”

Much of the criticism of the video is centered on the choice of the public square in Columbia, Tennessee, and the courthouse as the main setting. In 1927, Choate was accused of attacking a white girl, though she never identified him as her assailant. He was removed from his jail cell by a mob of hundreds of white people, dragged behind a car and hanged in front of the courthouse where Aldean sings.

Aldean’s producers said he did not choose the location, nor was it picked for any nefarious reason. Aldean has been transparent about his politics, which lean conservative. In 2015 — already a top-selling singer by then — he dressed in blackface as Lil Wayne for Halloween, offering a qualified apology a year later. He has been known to wear shirts bearing the Confederate flag even as other artists have refrained from displaying the image. Aldean has been a vocal supporter of former President Donald Trump; he and his wife Brittany Aldean have a public friendship with Trump, playing golf with him and visiting him at his home.

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While he has put himself at odds with the mainstream and even those within his industry, Aldean has remained a popular and prolific act, releasing 10 albums since 2005. Half have gone platinum. He has been nominated for a Grammy five times, including twice for Best Country Album.

In his Tuesday Twitter post, Aldean gave his view of his newest song.

“Try That In A Small Town, for me, 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. Because they were our neighbors, and that was above any differences. My political views have never been something I’ve hidden from, and I know that a lot of us in this Country don’t agree on how we get back to a sense of normalcy where we go at least a day without a headline that keeps us up at night. But the desire for it to- that’s what this song is about.”

Tickets for his performance at the Merriweather Post Pavilion are still available.


Hugo Kugiya is a reporter for the Express Desk and has formerly reported for the Associated Press, Newsday, and the Seattle Times.

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