When the country music video channel CMT refused to play Jason Aldean’s “Try that in a small town,” they inadvertently caused the song and video to skyrocket to number one. People flocked to “stand with” Jason Aldean, declaring the song an anthem of traditional American values and a better way of life. But all the song really has to offer is a right-wing fantasy of what life is like in a small town.
The song begins with a list of crimes city people apparently commit with no consequences. These include sucker punching people on sidewalks, carjacking old ladies at red lights, holding up liquor stores, cussing at and spitting on cops, and of course…burning the American flag and stomping on it. Of course, the lyrics go on to claim, if you try that in a small town, you will be swiftly and harshly dealt with, because in a small town people “take care of their own.”
And Jason Aldean is absolutely right about that. Somebody who came from outside a small town and committed a horrible crime like the ones described in the song would indeed be quickly stopped and arrested, if not beaten up and chased out of town. But in many small towns, these same behaviors would not only be tolerated, they would be quickly excused and covered up as long as they were perpetrated by someone with the right connections in that small town. And this is not limited to carjacking, physical assault, robbery, and desecration of the American flag. People with the “right” connections can also get away with drunk driving, sexual assault, sexual harrasment, and hate crimes. Small towns are a particularly good place to “try that” if by “that” you mean intimate partner violence, dating violence, child abuse, and elder abuse. In addition to the “that’s the <local old family name> family and we can’t embarrass them or risk their reputation” attitude, many small town officials continue to hold on to the belief that what the rest of us call “abuse,” is just “family business” or “conflict between a man and his wife.”
In the next verse, the song that was just pretending violence only occurred in the big cities and condemning it reverses course and threatens it. According to the lyrics, some unnamed entity is going to round up everyone’s guns some day. City people will just hand them over. But of course, everybody in a small town will rise up with their weapons and fight off that threat. While the song does not directly mention the government, it is typically “the government” people on the political right, like Jason Aldean, believe are coming for their guns. This is another right-wing fantasy. The government is far from perfect, and it is the responsibility of the citizens of this country to keep aware of what they do, and to demonstrate, speak out, and vote them out when they fail to serve the people who voted them into office. But even if rising up against the government with your guns were as noble as verse two of this song makes it sound, it wouldn’t get the desired result. If every citizen of the United States kept a stockpile of weapons in our homes, loaded and ready to take them down we still wouldn’t be able to ward off a government invasion. The government has tanks. They can roll right over any big group of guys with their guns in any small town.
Finally, the song ends with a vague warning that anyone who might “cross that line” will also face the wrath of the “good ol’ boys” who were “raised up right.” Tragically, for many, this verse is completely accurate. Many small towns do have invisible “lines” that outsiders cannot cross, or they will be subjected to one of the crimes detailed above, prevented from finding and keeping safe housing, removed from their job, or harassed and bullied until they quit or move. Precisely what those “lines” might be are entirely up to those “good old boys” in those “small towns.” Often, they include being of a different race, ethnic background, gender, religion, disability status, or sexual orientation than what the “good” people think one should be in that place and time. Lines you can cross in a small town can also include personal style, interests, hobbies, or even mannerisms or speech patterns deemed different than one of “our own.”
Although it is a fantasy, much of the song does indeed reflect the attitudes that often prevail in small towns. And they can keep them there.
Note: The author of this column fell in love with New York City from afar at age four, and currently resides in a suburb of the small city of Utica, New York. Before moving to her adopted hometown of Utica, she had the misfortune of living in four different small towns, one for twenty-seven years.