“Well, I was born in a small town
And I live in a small town
Probably die in a small town
Oh, those small communities.”
That’s what John Cougar Mellencamp sang about small-town living back in 1985.
The same goes for me, Mr. Mellencamp. I was born and raised in a small town back in Minnesota. The sleepy little town of 1,200 souls is in the Mississippi River valley surrounded by bluffs. So, ending up settling down in a town named Red Bluff makes me feel oddly comfortable. I am no stranger to small-town living.
When the former Jonny Cougar fought the music industry and started using his real name of John Cougar Mellencamp, he started putting out albums that sprung from his life, growing up in a rural, agricultural community. But you can find references to small towns in his earlier work, especially in his classic “Jack and Diane”.
Back when MTV was only music videos, I used to wait for Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” to air in the rock rotation. The video features a madly in love, elderly Black couple as the iconic line “I can remember when you could stop a clock” is sung in the background about the Black man’s wife.
In 1985 Mellencamp’s major opus “Scarecrow” album was released. The message of the album was the destruction, at the time, of the family farm in the Heartland. In the album he sings about protesting banks repossessing family farms
John Mellencamp also created Farm Aid! concerts along with people like Neal Young and Willie Nelson which, to date, has raised 60 million dollars to save family farms.
Mellencamp, along with other artists like Neal Young, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen created their own genre of rock. Heartland Rock is often characterized as a straightforward folk/blues/country/rock fusion style, often with a focus on blue-collar workers and farmers. They had the conviction that rock music has a social or communal purpose beyond just entertainment.
I have recently been made aware of another song about small-town living that has become popular. It is Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town.” I knew who Jason Aldean was due to the fact he was the performer on stage during the Vegas Massacre back in 2017. We all remember that shooting where a deranged white man broke the windows out of the Mandalay Bay Resort and shot 1,000 rounds of bullets at the people enjoying the concert below him before taking his own life.
This deranged white man killed 60 people and wounded 463 people. The panic to get out of the concert area brought the total injury list up to at least 867.
Given the Vegas Massacre as a backdrop for Aldean’s small-town song music video, I decided to watch it. As usual, I got to the controversy a bit late. My mind immediately made me think of Mellencamp’s “Small Town” music video, so I watched them back-to-back for comparison.
Aldean’s small-town song is laced with racial violence and white supremacy. In the video, a small town courthouse is shown multiple times. That same courthouse was the site of a lynching by a racist white mob. Henry Choate, an 18-year-old Black man, was hung outside the Maury County Courthouse in Tennessee in 1927 after he was falsely accused of attacking a young white girl. Tell me please, why would Aldean include shots of that courthouse in his video? To me, there’s only one reason for purposefully displaying that courthouse in the video.
Aldean’s official music video is filled with people of color looting and burning cities and inner-city violence. His lyrics are confrontational and laced with violence and testosterone. Aldean sings, “Try that in a small town. See how far ya make it down the road. Around 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”
Aldean had little to say after the Vegas shooting. But he does talk about guns in his small-town screed including,
“Got a gun that my granddad gave me
They say one day they’re gonna round up
Well, that shit might fly in the city, good luck”
It makes me wonder why Aldean would sing that when he was personally a witness to the largest mass murder in the United States? You would think that he would be a bit more tolerant of those of us who would like to see a few more restrictions on the ownership of guns, I guess not.
Yes, I much prefer John Mellencamp’s song about living in a small town. He doesn’t have to put down city living to highlight small town living. Mellencamp writes, “I have nothing against the big town.” Clearly, Jason Aldean isn’t as tolerant as John Mellencamp.
Mellencamp’s song isn’t laced with Proud Boy gusto. Mellencamp writes purely about his love of his small town. He sings, “No, I cannot forget from where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I want to be.”
There is a lesson here. A lot has changed since 1985 when Mellencamp wrote his “small town” song and 2023 when Aldean released his own “Small Town” song. Mellencamp’s song is about saving farms and a love for small-town living. Aldean’s song and video is about vigilante justice.
In my view, Mellencamp’s song is much more accurate about small-town living than Jason Aldean’s chest beating.