I've spent more time thinking about Jason Aldean over the last 42 hours than I have over my last 42 years.
Songs about small towns are nothing new, and country music loves its small town songs. Heck, Millbury's unofficial theme song by Tommy Remick is a country-fried love letter to our own hometown (even though I think Mulhane's is the only still-active callout left in the laundry list of landmarks). At least prior to last week, when I thought "small town" and "song," it was John Mellencamp's 1980s classic, which I still think captures the "warts and all" mentality of finding identity in your roots.
In a lot of ways, though, the urban/rural divide feels precarious today in a way ol' Johnny Cougar only hinted at 40 years ago. The terminology itself even introduces its own baggage, intentional or not. While there's an ugly history of using the term "urban" or "big city" to refer to certain racial identities and cultures, it should be obvious that most people who fear their hometowns becoming something like the cities they actively choose to avoid are doing so for reasons with nothing to do with hate. Unfortunately, the narrative surrounding Aldean's (somewhat) new song, "Try That in a Small Town," definitely thinks it's a callback to those days, and ends up resurfacing a lot of that mentality on both sides of the spectrum.
"Try That" is a fever dream of a song, where cities are a Mad Max-style wasteland of crime and disrespect while the generational firearms and familial "good ol' boys raised up right" keep small towns as a safe haven for the rest of us. The video drives the point home; various clips of protests, criminal activity, and outright riots interspersed with images of home videos, hunting, and farming. It is a brickbat of a song: small towns good, cities bad, fight me. It's fine if that's your thing - for me, the country music Jason closer to my tastes has the last name Isbell - but it pulls no punches even as it outright solicits them.
Of course, the internet is all ablaze over it, as one might expect. Tennessee Representative Justin Jones referred to the song as a "heinous vile racist song that is really about harkening back to days past," with some on Twitter claiming the song is "pro-lynching," in part because of the courthouse where the video was filmed. That's probably the more polite of the critiques, as this has gone full culture war with the removal of the song from the Country Music Channel video rotation and opinions from musicians becoming the latest litmus test in what is "real country," what level of free expression we're willing to tolerate, and so on. The outrage machine must be fueled, after all.
I have no skin in the game here, outside of, well, living in a small town. Aldean ain't my cup of tea, strident political anthems not generally what I look for when searching Spotify. All that said, "Try That" does make me think, though: what if they did? The "small town" of Uvalde, Texas, home of an absolutely tragic school shooting last year, has approximately 15,000 residents. The shooter did "try that" in their small community, and the police department absolutely did not "take care of [their] own." Not to mention that Aldean was on stage during the 2017 Las Vegas incident, which at least might explain the appeal of this particular song.
It goes further than that, however: if you look at the opioid crisis, for example, rural areas experience a heavier impact. Millbury is not immune to this, and yet in 2017, when we were given a chance to make a statement about helping those in need, we stood up and said "no." When discussion about overdue renovations to Windle Field popped up at Town Meeting, the questions were less about how to play Pickleball and more about how to keep the homeless population away. I'm not saying we're a bunch of awful people who need to be shamed, I'm just noting that we don't always live up to the standard I believe we wish to set.
I love Millbury. It's where I've settled down, started a family, and my plan is that this is my last stop whenever it's time for me to shuffle off this mortal coil. It doesn't mean, however, that we can't do better. In fact, it's not an issue of "can't," because we have the resources and the capability. It's that we should do better. We shouldn't need to wait until someone starts burning flags to have a dialogue, and we shouldn't wait until someone carjacks your grandmother on Elm Street to support each other.
As John Mellencamp said, I "got nothing against a big town." It's just that when I think "small town," I think "potential." It's the potential to do great things, to be more, to not be burdened by big city politics and big city problems - or as John Mellencamp said, " and to create a welcoming and caring community that can avoid carjackings and cussing out cops.
Put another way, Aldean sings "You cross that line, it won't take long / For you to find out, I recommend you don't." I'd like us to go a step further and perhaps not even consider "that line" at all. Let's build Millbury up instead of tearing everyone else down.