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Jason Aldean thrives on controversy, but can the rest of country music?

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Anyone who has seen country star Jason Aldean in concert knows that he’s generally not a big talker between songs. That all changed this summer.

“What a crazy-ass thing that happened to us here over the last couple months,” Aldean said during a tour stop Sunday night at the Wharf Amphitheater in Orange Beach, Ala. Fans eagerly hit the record buttons on their phones, because they knew exactly where he was going with this.

Aldean, of course, was referring to the mid-July release of the music video for his new single “Try That in a Small Town,” which paired lyrics about vigilante justice (warning that those who rob liquor stores, carjack old ladies or burn flags in small towns will be met by armed “good ol’ boys” who “take care of our own.”) with footage of crime, riots and Black Lives Matter protests. Social media erupted as critics said the song contains coded threats against Black people; CMT stopped airing the video. Aldean vehemently denied the song had anything to do with race, and told one concert crowd, “I think if you really look at the video with an open mind, you’ll see there’s a lot of different races in there doing stupid s—.”

Aldean, 46, one of Nashville’s most successful contemporary acts, has been embroiled in several controversies over his nearly two-decade career — but never to this magnitude, as the headlines and debates consumed the internet, cable news and talk shows. The publicity sent it rocketing to No. 1 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 chart and reached 120 million streams on various platforms. Aldean’s No. 1 sat next to Morgan Wallen (who has had his own controversies) with his smash “Last Night” at No. 2, and Luke Combs’s cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” (which sparked discussions about diversity in country music) at No. 3; it was the first time in the chart’s history that country songs landed the top three spots. Throw in the out-of-nowhere success of Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond,” dubbed a working-class anthem and easily animating right-wing personalities, and presto: a whole summer of debates and think-pieces about hot-button songs.

For Aldean, this contentious flash point had been building for years. Not only has he made an abrupt shift to become extremely outspoken about his conservative views — a rarity in a genre that urges its stars to stay silent on politics — but “Try That in a Small Town” hit nearly every polarizing issue that modern country music has been dealing with internally and publicly, including race, guns, “cancel culture,” and an increasingly politically divided industry both within the fan base and in Nashville itself.

Throughout tour stops in late July and all of August, Aldean has been delivering speeches to rile up his fan base with the tone of a political rally, repeatedly thanking them for their support and “seeing through the bull—-.” The lines vary but the themes stay the same, and in Orange Beach, his monologue hit all the points he usually likes to make.

First, Aldean explained why he recorded the song and video, saying “I turn on the TV every night, I look and see a bunch of ass—– destroying our cities, mom-and-pop stores.” Next, he slammed those who called him racist, which he said is “definitely not the case,” and echoed an earlier statement that rebutted that the song is “pro-lynching”: “We got accused of being ‘pro-lynching,’ which — that went out in the 1800s, I don’t even know what that means.” (The video was filmed at the Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tenn., where a mob hanged a Black teenager in 1927; the production company said Aldean did not choose the location, a frequent filming spot.)

Then, taking a page from the playbook of former president Donald Trump, whom Aldean has spent time with lately at Mar-a-Lago, he blamed the media for the whole mess. Or more specifically, “All my media people out there who have never met me in their life, don’t know anything about me … you can take your narratives and shove them all the way up your ass.”

Aldean, whose publicist declined to comment for this story, has never been known as the friendliest artist (“It sounds awful, but I’m not a warm and fuzzy kind of guy,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016), but those in Nashville describe him as laid back behind the scenes — “just a very chill guy,” said one person who has crossed paths with the singer about a dozen times. However, the aggressive rhetoric onstage appears to be a natural evolution in Aldean’s instinct to be defensive and unapologetic when faced with criticism.

He didn’t care when his rock-centric debut single “Hicktown” and rap-infused smash “Dirt Road Anthem” were considered polarizing. In 2014, he told critics to “get over it” after he got engaged to his now-wife Brittany, whom TMZ caught him kissing while he was still married to his first wife. He flatly shot down concerns from his team when they worried about him releasing a sex song, “Burnin’ It Down,” amid his “divorce brouhaha,” as Billboard reported. When he wore blackface for Halloween in 2015, he offered a “sorry if you were offended”-type apology, saying, “I get that race is a touchy subject, but not everybody is that way.”

The defiant attitude continued when Aldean started sharing his political views, a rarity in a genre that encourages silence, so as to not alienate fans. In the 2016 Rolling Stone interview, Aldean spoke admirably of Trump but wouldn’t talk about his own voting record: “That’s one subject I do stay away from. Politics is a no-win.” But around the 2020 presidential election, Aldean changed course. He posted a meme that questioned the election results, cheered on Brittany as she dressed their toddlers in “Hidin’ from Biden” T-shirts, partied at Mar-a-Lago with Trump and spoke out against coronavirus vaccine mandates in schools and masks.

His current concert speeches also reflect this, as he reassured the audience in Hershey, Pa., that he didn’t “cave” when he had to edit out six seconds of a Black Lives Matter demonstration from his music video; rather, it was for legal copyright reasons. “The only person I bow down to is God,” he said.

Chris Willman, Variety’s chief music critic who has covered the country music genre for years, authored the book “Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music” in 2005. People always ask him when he’s going to update it, he said, but country stars have become much less overtly political; Aldean’s bluster and rhetoric stands out, especially among Nashville hitmakers.

“The idea that it’s a mainstream superstar doing a thing like this and not somebody who is not on the fringe without a lot to lose — that definitely feels different in modern times,” said Willman, adding he felt like the coronavirus pandemic “changed something” when country stars, bored at home and upset about not being able to tour, saw positive reactions from a lot of like-minded fans when they took a stance against masks or vaccines.

“I think that’s what happened with Jason Aldean — he said he was going to be apolitical, but then he was one of those people who got frustrated with masking and not being on the road, and got more emboldened by everyone else,” said Willman, who deemed “Try That in a Small Town” as “the most contemptible country song of the decade” in a recent column. “Obviously, he didn’t feel like he had that much to lose by it.”

While country music has gained more prominence among progressive listeners, its artists are well aware that it’s still a historically conservative fan base. But as the “Try That in a Small Town” controversy blew up, most country singers said nothing either way. A few such as Cody Johnson and Brantley Gilbert expressed support for Aldean during concerts. Blanco Brown, Aldean’s labelmate, wrote on social media that he didn’t like the lyrics or “how it empowers any kind of violence at a time like this” but added that he thinks it was recorded with good intentions and “I don’t feel like Aldean is a racist.”

Industry staffers and musicians contacted by The Washington Post seem ambivalent about Aldean’s song — both the quality of it and how it has landed with listeners. Plenty of people who work in the industry were upset about how it made country music look to the mainstream audience, while one longtime songwriter, who requested anonymity to speak candidly for professional reasons, said he and other writers were shocked by the backlash because “most of America is made up of small towns … so my thought is, most people feel that way.”

Shane McAnally, one of the most prolific songwriters and producers in Nashville, is disappointed that more artists haven’t spoken out against the song, but he knows they have concerns about potentially alienating fans and losing money, as well as being attacked online by swarms of Aldean fans. They saw what happened to country star Maren Morris when she called out Brittany last fall for posting an Instagram caption that was widely criticized as transphobic, an ensuing blowup led to Aldean’s PR firm dropping him, and the videos of Aldean fans booing the mention of her name at one of his concerts.

McAnally has also noticed the pattern where the Aldeans will double down after seeing backlash, and it’s one aspect that has bothered him about the “Try That in a Small Town” situation.

“All they do is defend … ‘The song isn’t this, the song isn’t racist,’” McAnally said. “Basically, I just wish someone would say, ‘That wasn’t our intention. If it hits this many people this way, I’m sorry,’ instead of ‘You’re all crazy.’ If so many people feel that way, it’s hitting something, it’s hitting a nerve.”

Like much of the entertainment industry, country music has been reckoning with its diversity issues since 2020 after the killing of George Floyd and the nationwide protests for racial equality. That summer, the Nashville Music Equality organization was formed, and hosted panels about the experiences of Black singers and executives in the majority-White industry, which has only a few artists of color signed to major labels. While multiple board members of Nashville Music Equality declined to comment on what has and hasn’t changed in Music City since those discussions, board member Beverly Keel, dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University, said that the progress often feels “one step forward, two steps back.”

“Country music makes strides by embracing a bigger tent philosophy where they’re signing more artists of color and embracing more styles of music — but then something like [the ‘Small Town’ controversy] happens and it perpetuates every stereotype that the rest of the nation has about country music,” Keel said, noting that Black fans and artists have spoken about how they don’t feel safe at country venues. “There may be words or phrases in that song that have a different meaning or interpretation to people of color.”

Keel, like others interviewed for this story, was also taken aback when she first heard the song’s reference to guns, given that it was released shortly after three children and three adults were shot and killed at the Covenant School in Nashville, a tragedy that struck close to home. But that’s another topic that most country stars won’t touch.

Aldean, who was onstage when the gunman started shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas in 2017, the deadliest U.S. mass shooting in history, has talked about what he went through (and performed at a benefit for the Covenant victims last month) but avoids taking a position on gun control. Although, at a July tour stop in Mansfield, Mass., he alluded that gun violence was one of the themes behind the song.

“I know you guys are like me: You want to be able to send your kids to school and not have to worry about something happening while they’re in school, or let them go to a movie on the weekend just like we all did growing up, and not have to worry about, ‘Are they going to come home or not?’” he said.

Another hotly debated topic is whether “Try That in a Small Town” and its video intended to ignite controversy — the songwriters interviewed for this story can’t imagine that anyone sat down thinking they would start a national debate. But it has given Aldean a chance to rail against “cancel culture,” a popular tactic that can lead to sales success. And Aldean, with “Small Town” in the Top 10 at country radio and a new album coming in November, has been anything but canceled.

At his show in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in early August he invited the song’s writers onstage (Kelley Lovelace, Neil Thrasher, his band members Tully Kennedy and Kurt Allison — none of whom has said anything publicly about the backlash and did not respond to requests for comments) and noted they had been “taking a lot of heat,” and had the audience cheer for them, saying they stood up against the “woke mob.”

“You guys know what’s going on, you know what side of the fence we’re on,” Aldean told the crowd. “And I feel like we’re on the right side of the fence, so thank you all so much for standing up for this thing.”

It’s made Aldean more successful, but Nashville insiders worry that the long-term effect will be to alienate potential audiences.

“There are people that have so eloquently brought people to our format over the years, from Garth to Dolly to Taylor Swift to Shania,” McAnally said. “And I feel like that list of people who have done such an incredible job … a lot of their work is negated when something like this happens, because people outside of the format go, ‘Whoa — we can’t be associated with that.’”





POST AUTHOR: Emily Yahr

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