On Jason Aldean’s 2010 album, My Kinda Party, the country star perfected his image as a champion for small-town America. The record’s final single, “Fly Over States,” placed him on a plane, listening as two big-city businessmen trashed the fields below them. If they could only meet farmers in Indiana or see the moon from Kansas, Aldean reckoned, “they’d understand why God made those flyover states.” Another track, “Country Boy’s World,” finds a similar scenario in a relationship, with a boy showing a doubtful city girl his favorite parts of the country, like smelling wildflowers on a dirt road and drinking sweet tea with homemade ice cream. “She fell in love,” he sings by the end.
Today, Aldean paints a far grimmer picture. His current single, “Try That in a Small Town,” turns those same small towns into communities besieged by violence, laying out in his lyrics a series of crimes that double as racist dog whistles: carjackings, liquor-store robberies, assaults on police. In the chorus, he goads, “Try that in a small town / See how far ya make it down the road.” If you still don’t get the point, he uses the next verse to flaunt “a gun that my granddad gave me.”
The sundown-town imagery went somewhat under the radar when Aldean first released the song in May — the website Taste of Country even celebrated its promotion of “country justice.” But this month, Aldean made his message all the more obvious with an accompanying music video. In it, he and his band perform in front of the Maury County Courthouse — a site where, less than 100 years earlier, a white mob displayed the lynched body of a Black man, Henry Choate — as fiery footage of protestors clashing with police gets projected onto the building. Aldean’s message of who the bad guys are is obvious: He wants viewers to think these clips are from Black Lives Matter protests in America (even though, according to Rolling Stone, a chunk of the footage is actually from Canada). Days after the video’s release, CMT took the rare step of pulling it from the air. Aldean, who wore blackface less than a decade ago, has countered that his song and video couldn’t be racist because “there is not a single lyric in the song that references race.” “Try That,” he claimed, is about “the feeling of a community that I had growing up, where we took care of our neighbors, regardless of differences of background or belief.”
The irony is Aldean doesn’t even hail from a small town, having grown up on the edge of Macon, Georgia, one of the largest cities in the state. But that didn’t stop him from admitting that his 2021 album, Macon (the first part of a double-album, Macon, Georgia), was a tribute to “that small-town vibe that just always sort of burned into me.” Of course, Aldean never digs much further into what that vibe was. He loves to note that some of his favorite musicians (like Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers) grew up in Macon, or that he was a budding baseball star there. When speaking to a local TV station to promote Georgia, the album’s second half, he demurred on his hometown’s influence: “I just tell people it was a great place for me to grow up.”
There’s not much more to be found in Aldean’s music. His hits are the sort of country songs that detractors love to parody, full of dirt, trucks, beer, and country girls. And the small towns that populate his work are often defined by what they don’t have, with their single stoplights and quiet Friday nights. Though he doesn’t write these songs — Aldean has worked with a long list of veteran Nashville lyricists, including Neil Thrasher and Josh Thompson — he’s often spoken of developing a curator’s ear for the sort of music he wants to sing. “There are some really great songs out there, but they are things I’d never say,” he told Hits Daily Double in 2016, shortly after winning Entertainer of the Year from the Academy of Country Music. Earlier in the interview, he explained the ones he does choose are “songs I can relate to, that felt like where I grew up, the experiences I had.” Aldean continued, “I’d be lying if I said it was a conscious effort to go after an audience, or a kind of person. I just sang what I know.”
Getting to do that was a hard-earned luxury. At the beginning of his career, in the early 2000s, Aldean signed to Capitol, which told him not to wear hats and tried to polish his “cowboy” image. Shortly after, he was dropped and signed to the independent label Broken Bow. His first single, “Hicktown,” was a lively party starter, but the lyrics almost felt like a joke: “It gets wild, yeah, but that’s the way / We get down in a Hicktown,” he sings in the chorus, between lines about butt cracks and the boondocks. To Aldean, it was a defiant approach. “The one thing I made sure to stress to Broken Bow was, ‘This is me, this is what you’re going to get. So leave me alone and let me do my thing,’” he told Rolling Stone in 2016.
Living on the outskirts of Macon, Aldean said, “you could go into the city if you wanted to or hang out in the country a little bit down there, where I was at.” Listen closer and you’ll hear this push and pull in many of his songs — that instead of letting small towns exist on their own accord, he feels the need to position them against the threat of the big city, like the businessmen in “Fly Over States” or the girl in “Country Boy’s World.” He went so far as naming his seventh album, in 2016, They Don’t Know. On the title track, he gets a bit clearer about what exactly those outsiders aren’t aware of: “They ain’t seen the blood, sweat, and tears it took to live their dreams,” he sings. “When everything’s on the line.”
More than a place, the small-town caricatures Aldean paints stand in for the bootstrap-pulling values he seems to think are in decline. “That hard work runs in our roots,” he sings on 2019’s “Keeping It Small Town.” “Yeah, we’re all just backbone blue-collar people.” Work is especially sacred to Aldean, who drove a Pepsi delivery truck when he was first trying to make it as a singer. He regularly gets heated talking about how “Fly Over States” is dedicated to hardworking farmers “busting [their] ass” to grow food, and the city people who aren’t grateful for that. On 2021’s Macon, he included a toast to the people “keeping small towns small.” The verses seem to lay out very real anxieties about development, but in the chorus, Aldean reverts to what he’s really worried about: “Let’s keep the red dirt roads red dirt,” he sang. “Keep the little white church, keep keeping God first / Keep dragging that plow, keep the blue on your collar / Keep the sweat on your dollar.” But these towns are just props for Aldean, mirrors that reflect what he wants to see in them. (And when he wants to see it — leave it to the king of vague lyricism to not know the history of the building he’s shooting a music video in front of.) He only cares about the community when it believes the same things as he does, as long as it really is “full of good ol’ boys, raised up right,” as he sings in “Try That in a Small Town.”
Toward the end of the “Try That” video, the horror show cuts out for a different news clip, about farmers helping a man in their community who uses a wheelchair. “It’s what this community, a lot of our community, stands for: If somebody needs some help, you’ll get it,” the man says. We don’t learn anything more about this man, or even what the farmers did to help him. That’s because Aldean has never been interested in the human side of small towns, even if that’s what truly makes these places special. He just wants to preach, and on “Try That,” his message has never been more contemptible.