I want to take a short break from the Saving the Court project to share a few thoughts about country music star Jason Aldean and his controversial song, “Try That in a Small Town.” But first, let me tell you about Henry Choate.
In 1927, Henry Choate was 18-years-old. He was a black man living in Tennessee and working on a road construction crew. That November, Henry visited his grandfather for Armistice Day. Henry’s grandfather, who was 85-years old and a former slave, lived near Columbia, Tennessee, about an hour south of Nashville.
While Henry was at his grandfather’s home, a young white woman in Columbia claimed she had been attacked by a black man. The local sheriff undertook a manhunt and arrested Henry, throwing him in jail. While there, a gang of approximately 250 vigilantes broke into the jail and kidnapped Henry. They beat him with a hammer, tied his body to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him through the streets of Columbia, and then lynched him from the second floor of the Maury County Courthouse. Accounts later revealed that the sheriff had likely arrested an innocent man. No one was ever arrested for Henry Choate’s murder.
What does this have to do with Jason Aldean? Let me tell you.
If you’re not familiar with Aldean’s song, “Try that in a Small Town,” then you may not know that in the song, Aldean threatens to shoot anyone who tries to take his guns, conflates legal protests with property damage and looting, compares burning the American flag to carjacking and spitting in the face of a cop, and threatens that if you do any of the things he sings about in his song, you won’t get very far before some “good ol’ boys, raised up right,” will track you down.
The song is disturbing. This trope that someone is going to try to take away our guns is tired and overused. For more than a century, reactionary extremists have predicted that the government is coming after their guns. Of course, it’s never actually happened. In fact, we have more access to more kinds of guns today than we ever have. But that doesn’t stop Aldean from threatening violence.
The song is also disturbing because Aldean doesn’t seem to understand (or doesn’t care) that protesting and burning the flag are both Constitutionally protected acts. He lumps those actions in with carjacking, robbing a liquor store, and spitting in a cop’s face, and threatens anyone that does any of these things. Aldean has not been shy about his political beliefs. He’s a proud conservative (some would say “extreme right-winger”) who has wrapped himself in the flag and proclaimed his love for the Constitution. It would seem that his love doesn’t extend to the entire Constitution, just certain cherry-picked parts.
Perhaps most disturbing is that Aldean decided it was a good idea to film the video for his controversial song in front of the Maury County Courthouse; the same courthouse where Henry Choate was lynched. Is that just a coincidence? I don’t think so. I think it was a warning to anyone so bold as to step outside the lines that Aldean and his ilk have drawn, and a reminder of what happens to anyone who forgets their place.
Aldean’s song hits a definite sour note, attempting to point out the nobility of small towns, but instead painting them as intolerant and violent. Of course, Aldean actually doesn’t know about small towns. He’s never lived in one. So, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that he gets it all so wrong.
Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Sheryl Crow also thinks Aldean got it wrong. On her Twitter feed, Crow took Aldean to task, saying “I’m from a small town. Even people in small towns are sick of violence. There’s nothing small-town or American about promoting violence. You should know that better than anyone having survived a mass shooting. This is not American or small town-like. It’s just lame.”
That’s right. Aldean was on stage for a concert in Las Vegas when a lone gunman shot into his audience with a high-powered rifle, killing 60 people and wounding more than 400. It’s nice to see that the experience didn’t sour Aldean on guns and deadly violence.
Aldean has a history of making ugly, controversial statements about vaccines and transgender youth, so it’s not surprising to hear him make the threats contained in “Try That in a Small Town.” Even so, we can’t become numb to such hate or allow it to be normalized. It’s wrong and it shouldn’t be allowed to exist without some pushback. That’s why I was happy to see that Country Music Television (CMT) has decided not to play Aldean’s hateful video. I’d like to think that country radio stations will follow suit, but I doubt it. Unfortunately, there are too many people who listen to those stations and feel exactly the way Aldean feels. And maybe that’s the most disturbing thing of all.