By Chris Edwards
Last week, pop country brand-name Jason Aldean generated a good deal of mainstream news coverage, not to mention big sales/streams, of his latest single “Try That in a Small Town.”
The headlines mostly centered on the fact that Country Music Television (CMT) dropped the video from its playlist, and according to the network, and many other outlets, the song is allegedly racist and “pro-lynching.” As a sidenote, it was big news to me that CMT actually still played videos.
Anyhow, being the curious bee I am, I listened to the song and watched the video, in that order. Another sidenote: I’m not a big fan of music videos. Occasionally, one transcends the song and stands as its own piece of art, but I enjoy songs for the sake of the song, and don’t like having an image locked forever in mind not of my own choosing when I hear a certain song.
The song makes no mention of race at all, but the reason why that aspect of this “controversy” came into being centers on where the song’s accompanying video was filmed. The Maury County Courthouse, in Columbia, Tenn., figures prominently as the backdrop. It was the site of a lynching, in 1927, of Henry Choate, an 18-year-old Black man.
The video’s locale is likely of no concern to Aldean, the song’s mouthpiece. Film production companies tend to use certain locations time and time again, and, well, many areas are afforded tax breaks through certain designations that make them attractive to filmmakers.
Aldean really doesn’t seem that involved in the creative process of his records, either. A dive into the credits of Aldean’s discography reveals that throughout a span of 10 studio albums, since 2005, he has had a hand in writing exactly four songs.
Of course, Jason Aldean just happens to be the brand name to deliver the lunkheaded lyrics of the song. It was written by a committee of four: Kelley Lovelace, Kurt Allison, Neil Thrasher and Tully Kennedy. For those who are unfamiliar with the process, most of the songs you’ll hear on pop country radio playlists are seldom written by the recording artist, and usually co-written between several people.
Now what follows might make me sound like the “dinosaur” that Hank Williams Jr. famously sang about many moons ago, but be that as it may, I’ll ask this question: whatever happened to solid, great songs that don’t insult the intelligence of the audience, withstand the test of time and don’t rely on controversy?
The Def Leppard-lite sounding guitars on Aldean’s song and the elementary melody would not be recognizable as “country music” to a time traveler who visited from, say, Hank Williams’s heyday. Now I’m not one to dwell on shoving music into the filing system that is genres. I prefer to think of it all in terms of songs: good songs vs. bad songs, however, what used to be marketed as country music and played on country stations was art. It was an artform that expressed the commonalities of working-class people, told stories and made statements that stuck with the listener.
Country music was about uniting through those shared experiences of the human condition. “Try That in a Small Town” does nothing of the sort. If anything, lines like “Around here, we take care of our own…
For you to find out, I recommend you don't” drive home an “us versus them” narrative that does nothing but push an angry chip-on-shoulder posture that is anathema to how most of us small town folks really are.
In 2016, in an interview with the Guardian, Aldean admitted that the songs he chooses to record as not “too songwriterly or too clever,” and he also eschewed anything that a potential audience might have to give multiple listens to in order to “really get it.”
When I came upon those comments, I almost spit coffee at my monitor. Whatever happened to challenging your audience and creating something that holds up to multiple listens?
Some of the greatest songwriters in American music history are part of that country music tradition, folks like Guy Clark; Kris Kristofferson; Tom T. Hall; Townes Van Zandt and Roger Miller. None of them went out of their way to be complicated, but they were able to weld amazing lyrics to catchy melodies to create songs that, mostly all, spoke from a rural perspective, and stood out as high art, which could be enjoyed by people of all ages.
Guy Clark, especially, was a true master of elegant simplicity. His song “Texas, 1947,” depicts an incident in the small West Texas town where he grew up, when most everyone in the whole town showed up to see a streamline train coming through for the first time.
Although the actual “train time” in the song lasts but a few seconds, Clark describes the fanfare with which the townspeople show up to greet the train with such a vivid sense of detail, and told through his own eyes as a six-year-old at the time, that the listener feels present and captivated by the train that, in its passing through town, has changed things forever, with the future speeding through everyone’s lives.
More recently, artists like Josh Grider mined small-town living for a great song, “The Smallest Town on Earth,” and the late, great Hal Ketchum hit paydirt in the ‘90s with “Small Town Saturday Night.”
Both of those songs are among hundreds of incredible country songs that depict rural living in ways that unite and provide some positivity, and humor, as well.
Aldean, too, can make music that withstands the test of time. Instead of focusing on the “us versus them” construct and aiming for the junior high demographic, he could put his time and effort into writing and finding great songs that actually say something; songs that do not need controversy to reach the public’s ear.
In the meantime, there is a wealth of great artists and bands out there deserving of a larger audience and writing and singing songs from a true rural perspective. From the pure small-town poetry of Michael O’Neal, who primarily writes songs about work, family, friends and of his upbringing, to the honey-sweet vocals and magic presence of Jamie Lin Wilson, whose songwriting brilliance is matched by her amazing voice, there’s great music waiting beyond the controversy-driven viral streams.
The brilliant Walt Wilkins; Charley Crockett; Gabe Wootton; James Steinle; Flatland Cavalry; Mike Ethan Messick; Country Willie Edwards and Cody Widner also spring to mind, and those are just a few off the top of my dome. In the world of the more mainstream side of music, there is hope. Not all of the current big-name, big-selling country music scene is full of dumbed-down dreck. There’s the brilliant Chris Stapleton, who keeps the bar high for quality, as well as Tyler Childers and the mighty Turnpike Troubadours, led by a true rural poet genius, Evan Felker, has a long-awaited new album out next month.
I am but one listener, but I am putting forth a challenge to Jason Aldean: write a song, or find one to record, that celebrates the good things we rural Americans enjoy, and don’t make me feel like I’ve just wasted three minutes of my life.
Call me old-fashioned, but I believe the sounds of fiddles, steel guitar, harmonica and acoustic guitars framing sturdy songs that actually say something would do the general public a world of good to become reacquainted with.