One of the many absurdities of present political discourse is that the people who most obnoxiously declare their love for America hate most of its institutions, people and traditions. The latest example of the right-wing contradiction between sentimentality and substance is country singer Jason Aldean’s statement that he is a “proud American.” “I love our country,” he said, before eloquently adding, “I want to see it restored to what it once was before all this bulls**t started happening to us.”
It is not only easy to find better politics in small towns, but also better music.
Aldean was defending and explaining his new hit single, “Try That in a Small Town.” Written by Kelley Lovelace, Neil Thrasher, Tully Kennedy and Kurt Allison, “Try That in a Small Town” has Aldean adopting a vaguely threatening posture, telling listeners that if they “cuss out a cop” or “stomp on the flag,” they are likely to suffer the penalty of vigilante violence. “You cross that line,” Aldean snarls in an unconvincing and boring attempt at bravado, “It won’t take long for you to find out . . .”
Aldean is fond of wearing muscle shirts even though his arms have no size or definition. His wardrobe is emblematic of his music and politics – a costume suggesting strength, but exposing that there’s nothing really there. It is tempting to leave it at that, but Aldean has millions of fans who have shot the song up to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, all while he whines about “cancel culture.” The song provides an insight into the paranoia, hostility and estrangement that define contemporary Republican politics.
To what exactly is Aldean referring when he decries “bulls**t”? He mentions flag burning – something that may or may not offend people – but, like cussing at a cop, is protected by the First Amendment of the United Constitution. Evidently, the “bulls**t” goes back to the founding of the country when the constitutional framers wrote down the words of the Bill of Rights. In the second verse, he sings not about gun control, but a favorite and asinine conspiracy theory of the paranoid right: “Got a gun that my granddad gave me / They say one day they’re gonna round up / Well, that s**t might fly in the city, good luck.”
There is no “they” planning a gun confiscation program. Gun control is another matter. Perhaps, Aldean has forgotten that the March for Our Lives mass demonstration that took place in 880 cities, many of them small towns, across the United States on March 24, 2018 was organized by survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooting. Parkland has a population of 35,000 people. There are many people in small towns who don’t like the idea of risking violent death every time they attend class, shop in a grocery store or attend a county music concert in Las Vegas (where Aldean was a performer).
The video for “Try That in a Small Town” signifies the less obvious, but more insidious message of the song. It originally included footage from Black Lives Matter protests – now edited out – and shows Aldean and his band performing at the steps of the courthouse of Columbia, Tennessee – the site where a racist mob of terrorists lynched Henry Choate, a Black teenager, in 1927. It is plausible that Aldean and his brain trust did not know of the lynching when they selected the location, but the ugly coincidence demonstrates the danger of what Sheryll Cashin, professor at Georgetown Law School, calls, “boundary maintenance” – that is the “intentional state action to create and maintain a racialized physical order.” The state action, as Cashin explains, produces attendant social and cultural effects.
“Try That in a Small Town” amplifies the “Real Americans” cliché that Sarah Palin used to animate the Republican electorate in 2008, and now functions as right-wing dogma. One lyric brags that the town is full of “good ol’ boys raised up right.” This nonsense implies that American authenticity exists only in a small exurb somewhere far from “the city” where white people dutifully file into the megachurch every Sunday morning. A Puerto Rican lesbian who works as a nurse at New York hospital is, somehow, less of an American than the white guy fondling his “granddad’s gun.” CMT has refused to play the “Try That in a Small Town” video, and in response, South Dakota governor, Kristi Noem, and governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis – two proud America-haters – have come to his defense.
It is not only easy to find better politics in small towns, but also better music. One of the most influential songs to depict small town life is John Mellencamp’s 1985 hit, “Small Town.” Taking inspiration from his hometown of Seymour, Indiana, Mellencamp sings about a beautiful and hospitable community. Over a sparse, roots rock arrangement that bounces along with an infectious melody, Mellencamp boasts that in the “small town” of his youth, “People let me be just what I want to be.”
The song is one of the most dramatic moments on his record, “Scarecrow” – a collection of songs that protest big agriculture’s destruction of the family farmer, racism and American indifference to poverty. The record juxtaposes protest with celebration of individual courage and compassion. In “Small Town,” the singer announces an undying love and loyalty for those whose kindness and support helped shape him. A tribute to his grandfather, “Minutes to Memories,” makes use of a rock-meets-twang guitar riff and big Motown drum beat, to praise the integrity of those who believe “an honest man’s pillow is his peace of mind.”
Mellencamp’s thoughtful love for his “small town” . . . provides an artistic model for how to balance patriotism and protest.
In the same year that Mellencamp released “Small Town,” he collaborated with Willie Nelson and Neil Young to found Farm Aid – an annual benefit concert and organization committed to assisting family farmers. Unlike Aldean’s posturing, Mellencamp’s activism has directly benefitted those struggling with hardship and deprivation in states like Indiana, and Aldean’s native Georgia.
Mellencamp also showcases the maturity necessary to wrestle with the sublime and hideous in his beloved small town America. While songs like “Small Town,” “Cherry Bomb” and “Thundering Hearts” give a romantic view of provincial villages, he also writes and performs music that condemns and mourns the bigotry and narrow-mindedness so often prevalent in those same places. “Jackie Brown” is one of the most moving lamentations of poverty put to record, “Jena,” gives fiery denunciation of a history of hate crimes in Jena, Louisiana and “Melting Pot,” over Dave Grissom’s blistering lead guitar, explores American hypocrisy in public policy and race relations. “Pink Houses,” Mellencamp most famous slice of Americana, balances patriotic celebration with rage against continual exploitation of the poor.
The left too often dismisses patriotism as naïve or central to destructive right-wing politics of hatred and exclusion. But people have a healthy desire to feel proud of their homes and heritage. Mellencamp’s thoughtful love for his “small town,” as opposed to Aldean’s reactionary tantrum, provides an artistic model for how to balance patriotism and protest.
Bruce Springsteen gave equal weight to both impulses in his 2007 song, “Long Walk Home.” Set in a small town with familiar locales – a barbershop, mom and pop grocery store, VFW – Springsteen’s character navigates the American landscape after the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and violation of civil liberties. As the song swells to a triumphant conclusion, featuring a characteristically powerful Clarence Clemons saxophone solo, Springsteen sings,
My father said “Son, we’re lucky in this town,
It’s a beautiful place to be born.
It just wraps its arms around you,
Nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone.
That flag flying over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone.
Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t.”
It’s gonna be a long walk home . . .
Mellencamp is proud of a small town where he can be just what he wants to be, and Springsteen imagines an idyllic setting of communal solidarity and individual freedom. Their small town vision welcomes the Black Lives Matter protester, the trans teenager and the elderly, white Christian. All have a home. The flag, rather than menacing those who oppose official policy, provides security and assurance – representing the Bill of Rights, democratic safeguards, the rule of law and a culture of personal choice.
The unfortunate popularity of Jason Aldean should not deceive the causal observer. As the CMT video ban would suggest, his brand of parochial prejudice is losing in music and politics. Tyler Childers, an neotraditional country and Americana singer/songwriter from Kentucky writes country songs telling the stories of progressive politics and largehearted humanity in rural America. His newest song and video, co-written with Kentucky poet laureate, Silas House, “In Your Love,” beautifully depicts a gay romance. He has previously written rallying cries for racial justice, and protest songs against religious bigotry – all from a small town perspective.
Rhiannon Giddens, one of America’s most exciting and brilliant songwriters, hails from Greensboro, North Carolina – not exactly a small town, but she makes use of pastoral settings to explore racial oppression and indigenous history. As one music critic wrote of her work, it “systematically dismantles the myth of a homogenous Appalachia.”
Childers and Giddens have not commented on “Try That in a Small Town,” but Jason Isbell, who has a storied history of progressive protest songs from a small town vantage point, first with the Drive-By Truckers and now as a solo artist, ridiculed Aldean for promoting violence, and challenged him to “write his own song.”
The hospitality of Mellencamp’s and Springsteen’s small towns are . . . conquering more electoral territory.
Miranda Lambert, one of the most popular mainstream country singer/songwriters, places at the center of her musical and political philosophy, “ya’ll do ya’ll,” expressing support for LGBTQ rights and acceptance, and lambasting laws in Tennessee and Texas that prohibit public drag shows.
The hospitality of Mellencamp’s and Springsteen’s small towns are not only influencing younger musicians, but conquering more electoral territory. Joe Biden became president partially because of strong support in the suburbs of Phoenix, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Milwaukee and Atlanta. Congressional districts representing large metro suburbs continue to turn Democratic. Many of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020 took place in small towns like Valparaiso, Indiana and Havre, Montana. I live in a small town of Indiana with a population of 24,000 people. It has its own Black Lives Matter chapter, and a local environmental group.
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Aldean’s dark and restrictive small town mentality is moving out of the suburbs, especially as they become more liberal, and into exurbia. Further from an urban center and with fewer people and less diversity, exurbia is now the breeding and staging ground of right-wing extremism. The lyrics of “Try That in a Small Town” are shallow, but no more or less foolish and paranoid than the nightly ravings on Fox News or the lies of Donald Trump’s speeches. The reactionary, exurban mentality has turned against the American culture, visible in provincial and urban America alike, of Mellencamp, Springsteen, Giddens and Lambert. It lives in a world of conspiracy and fear, imagining that an America that never truly existed is under assault from a coordinated plot. Multiculturalism, secularism and sexual liberalism are not the hallmarks of genuine, grassroots progress, but evil schemes to undermine white, Christian society.
The reality is that the progressive small town is winning throughout much of America, and those who want to “make America great again” or “restore” the country to what it once was will find that a clock only ticks forward. Willie Nelson has probably forgotten more about small towns and American history than Aldean will ever learn. He might have put it best with a lyric that is both summational and aspirational: “The world’s getting smaller / And everyone in it belongs.”
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