Toby Keith, Willie Nelson, Jason Aldean & Country ‘Lynching’ Songs

Before anyone misunderstands the motivations of this, let’s establish that in the opinion of Saving Country Music, Jason Aldean’s song and video for “Try That In A Small Town” is a clownish, poorly-written, trite and reactionary piece of audio refuse that can’t even claim to be “country” since it’s outside of the genre’s established sonic parameters.

“Try That In A Small Town” is an embarrassment to Jason Aldean, an embarrassment to country music, and deserves to be admonished both as a work of art, and as a poorly-attempted cultural statement that has clearly proven itself as counter-productive to its mission already, aside from making Aldean, the song’s four writers, and his label Broken Bow Records lots of money.

Also, due to Jason Aldean’s careless calculations and the oversight of his production crew by staging the video at the The Maury County Courthouse where a lynch mob strung up and murdered an 18-year-old Black man Henry Choate on November 13, 1927, he’s not only opened himself up to scrutiny, but all of country music by proxy.

If you want to read more of country music’s detailed opinions on the song itself, CLICK HERE.

But the seething contempt and hyperbole associated with the backlash to this song based on patently incorrect assertions is dangerous in the way it attempts to impinge on the creative expressions of an artist (albeit, bad ones), as well as setting up a “boy that cried wolf” scenario if a song that actually does what the press is accusing this one of doing ever materializes.

The idea that the song is actively condoning or encouraging the lynching of Black people is beyond ludicrous and based in absolutely no factual information. It is the frothing, reactionary opinion of a groupthink lynch mob who will continue to ratchet up the rhetoric against Aldean until he’s forevermore extricated from popular society, which is never going to happen.

Furthermore, these excessive and distorted characterizations are only fueling a counter backlash that will take a mild, late career pseudo radio hit for Aldean to a Song of the Summer-level smash. That’s already happening as the song has rocketed to #1 on iTunes, and will surely show new significant traction on the next update to the charts due to the controversy. The Streisand Effect is in full force as we speak.

But while the prudish pearl clutchers of the politically correct class writhe and seethe over this song, there is actually another country music song that without having to make any leaps of faith or draw any conclusions from inferences in the lyrics can objectively be concluded to be about lynching and vigilante justice.

Unlike Jason Aldean’s “Try That In A Small Town” though, there was no cancellation attempt against this song. In fact, it was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Country Song in 2003. Unlike “Try That In A Small Town,” it wasn’t banned by CMT. Instead, the cable television station actually stepped up to release an entire movie around it in 2008. And unlike “Try That In A Small Town,” nobody asserted the song was racist, nobody said it was an attempt to portray a white supremacist/white nationalist view of the United States, or anything similar.

“Beer For My Horses” was written by Toby Keith and Scotty Emerick, and released as a duet with Willie Nelson in 2003. The song went straight to #1, marking Willie’s first #1 in 14 years at that time. It was also Willie’s last #1 in country, and it also made him the oldest artist to ever have a #1 country song (he was 70 at the time).

“Beer For My Horses” also got to #22 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100, marking a return for Willie on that chart as well, and a career high for Toby Keith at that time. It spent a whopping six weeks at #1 in country, and ended up being the 2nd most popular country song in 2003.

Compared to the potentially problematic lines for Jason Aldean’s “Try That In A Small Town” that require inferences or blanks to be filled for it to advocate for lynching, (and it doesn’t mention race whatsoever), “Beer For My Horses” leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination.

Similar to the Aldean song, Toby Keith starts off “Beer For My Horses” singing about crime, and is eerily similar with the lines about the perpetrators not getting away. In “Try That In A Small Town,” Aldean sings,

Cuss out a cop, spit in his face
Stomp on the flag and light it up
Yeah, ya think you’re tough
Well, try that in a small town
See how far ya make it down the road

In “Beer For My Horses,” Toby Keith sings,

Said somebody’s been shot, somebody’s been abused
Somebody blew up a building, somebody stole a car
Somebody got away, somebody didn’t get too far, yeah
They didn’t get too far

Then Willie Nelson comes in and says everything and then some that certain people are trying to pin on Jason Aldean’s “Try That In A Small Town.”

Willie Nelson sings,

Grandpappy told my pappy, back in my day, son
A man had to answer for the wicked that he done
Take all the rope in Texas find a tall oak tree
Round up all them bad boys, hang them high in the street
For all the people to see

Later in the song, Willie and Toby Keith trade off the lines,

We got too many gangsters doing dirty deeds
Too much corruption, and crime in the streets
It’s time the long arm of the law put a few more in the ground
Send ’em all to their maker and he’ll settle ’em down
You can bet he’ll set ’em down

It’s also worth pointing out that similar to Jason Aldean today, Toby Keith was an extremely polarizing character in 2003 after he’d released the very controversial “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” just the year previous. “The Angry American” had Keith being accused of jingoism, inciting violence, and racism against Muslims for its incendiary language. Arguably, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” was the most controversial song released in popular country music in the modern era up until “Try That In A Small Town.”

But “Beer For My Horses” faced no significant backlash. There was nobody drawing conclusions that it was actively attempting to condone the lynching of Black people, even though the act of lynching appeared directly in its lyrics. Willie Nelson still regularly sings the song in concert today. It’s part of his common repertoire. So what’s the difference 20 years later?

The difference is in 2003, people understood that it was just a song, and art. It was a work of fiction and personal expression. Granted, “Try That In A Small Town” strikes a slightly more angry tone, and undoubtedly some may pick up on America’s troubled history with race when they hear the lyrics. But if we can’t separate personal expression from the personal responsibility everyone has for their own actions, the indictment of songs will spread much farther into music, and if anything, affect Black creators and hip-hop disproportionately.

We have entered a new phase of uptight cultural prudeness indicative of Tipper Gore’s PMRC and the “Explicit Lyrics” sticker era. As terrible as “Try That In A Small Town” might be, it is in no way so out of bounds to be receiving the kind of ubiquitous and irresponsible backlash that will only fuel its ascent. But as we’ve seen with similar incidents, the press and supposed activists just can’t help themselves.

Undoubtedly, Jason Aldean and his label knew “Try That In A Small Town” would be controversial. That was likely part of their calculus. They may have even been disappointed it didn’t stir more controversy when it was released two months prior. By the press and pundits decrying this song, Americana artists like Jason Isbell and Margo Price calling it out, Adeem The Artist making a parody of it, they are simply fueling this fire that has already spread out of control.

The amount of extra attention and revenue that “Try That In A Small Town” will generate will be directly proportionate to the amount of hyperbolic coverage and criticism it receives, and the additional undue attention it racks up from the outrage and counter-support from fans, with Jason Aldean and BBR reaping huge rewards.

Meanwhile, anyone who points this economic reality out will be called racist and complicit with Aldean and this song, just like what happened with the Morgan Wallen situation. But even Black performer Breland was later forced to admit in an op/ed for CMT how the attempted cancellation of Morgan Wallen made him a bigger star. Yet here we are again, making these same exact mistakes.

Jason Aldean is not going to be cancelled, and neither is this song. Though CMT dropping the video is significant symbolically, that cable station lost its relevance over a decade ago. But it’s also interesting that CMT not only vetted the video and added it to their rotation, they actually collaborated with Aldean’s label BBR to premier the video.

According to a press release disseminated on Friday July 14th, “[Paramount] world premiered the music video to his current radio single today via Paramount’s Times Square Billboards and CMT.”

Similar to the lack of controversy around “Beer For My Horses,” the fact that “Try That In A Small Town” was out there in the wild for two months without any criticism, and then CMT—which is known for taking very left-leaning stances on their coverage and promotion of country music—vetted the video and agreed to premier it across their platforms really speaks to the uneven and flimsy premise of why this song should be removed from public consumption.

The whole linchpin of the controversy is the revelation of the The Maury County Courthouse where the video was shot being the site of a lynching. But all evidence points to this being an oversight as opposed to an active effort to underpin Aldean’s song and video with a more surreptitious message. It’s a media “gotcha” as opposed to a substantive criticism. The Maury County Courthouse is just a courthouse located conveniently to Nashville.

As the production company TackleBox has pointed out, the location has been used to film scores of films and videos without controversy, including 2009’s Hannah Montana: The Movie with Miley Cyrus, a 2022 holiday film, A Nashville Country Christmas with Tanya Tucker, and another 2022 holiday film, Steppin’ into the Holiday with Mario Lopez and Jana Kramer.

Opportunistic and bad faith attacks on “Try That In A Small Town” are only strengthening Jason Aldean’s position, and allowing right-wing media to exploit the poor reporting and portray Aldean as a victim.

Everyone has a right to criticize “Try That In A Small Town,” and it most certainly deserves scrutiny as a song and composition. But asserting the most extreme viewpoints in hopes of shutting it down are already backfiring. Think pieces, wild-eyed assertions, and aggressive Tweets are what are fueling this episode.

Ultimately, it’s just a song, just like “Beer For My Horses” was. And whether you think it is good or bad, everyone should believe it has a right to exist as a piece of artistic expression. Because attempting to stifle people’s expressions is a slippery slope the United States as a collective has chosen not to go down, whether it’s burning flags or criticizing police like Jason Aldean attempts to decry in “Try That In A Small Town,” or Jason Aldean’s right to criticize these exercises of speech himself.

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