Over the last several weeks, two country music videos containing completely different political messages have been a big topic of conversation.
One video is a vulgar display of flag-waving jingoism and white supremacy, generically titled “Try That in a Small Town” and sung by right-wing “pop” country singer Jason Aldean. The other features Tyler Childers’ song “In Your Love,” and exhibits a story of class struggle and LGBTQ2S+ liberation. Both videos and songs received strong reviews and stirred up passionate debates. For that reason, they are both worth analyzing.
Aldean: an anti-worker bigot
Even though the song “Try That in a Small Town” was released as a single in May of 2023, controversy started when Country Music Television (CMT) publicly announced it was pulling the video from its playlist in mid-July. The video includes clips of a carjacking and equates that with footage from the nationwide peoples’ rebellions against police brutality after George Floyd’s murder during the spring of 2020. It also shows images of U.S. flag burnings, followed by lyrics threatening people who oppose imperialism and neo-colonialism.
The major reason for CMT’s decision to remove the video from its archive has to do with its filming location at the Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tennessee. The Courthouse is infamous for being the site of the lynching of Henry Choate, an 18-year-old African American youth, by a racist mob in 1927.
Columbia is also the site of an act of racist terror carried out by white residents in 1946, in response to a fight between Black WWII veteran James Stephenson and a white, petty-bourgeois shopkeeper. Stephenson physically defended his mother, who was being verbally abused by the shopkeeper who knowingly sold a radio she had dropped off previously for repair. (BlackPast, Aug. 29, 2019)
Aldean lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and grew up in Macon, Georgia, a town of close to 154,000 people. Neither Nashville nor Macon are “small towns.” The fact that the provocative video was filmed in front of the Maury County Courthouse is no coincidence.
Aldean and his spouse Brittany Aldean have a history of reactionary pandering. She is often seen wearing pro-Trump apparel and the couple once showed up at a Halloween party in 2015 wearing “blackface.” Anti-racist country musician Margo Price posted an article on Twitter about the incident immediately after CMT announced it was taking down Aldean’s video as a reminder of his bigoted past.
It should come as no surprise that the racist, chauvinist Aldean is also anti-worker. In 2017, he ordered 60 burritos at a restaurant following a concert in Charleston, West Virginia, and left only a small tip. The restaurant was about to close and the total order came to around $500. One of the restaurant workers spoke out through social media, which prompted Aldean’s lawyers to contact the restaurant owners and the worker was fired. (TMZ, Sept. 13).
Tyler Childers: a refreshing contrast in country music
Unlike Aldean, Tyler Childers is from a small town — the rural, Eastern Kentucky town of Louisa. The message behind Childers’ video is a refreshing contrast to the bootlicking propaganda put out by Aldean.
Released July 27 — two weeks after CMT pulled “Try That in a Small Town” — “In Your Love” depicts a romantic relationship between two male coal miners, played by actors Colton Haynes and James Scully. The story takes place in a small, Appalachian community in the 1950s. The video illustrates the harsh reality of “black lung” disease — a dangerous respiratory condition common among coal miners even to this day — as well as violent homophobia.
“In Your Love” is not Childers’ first video featuring social justice commentary, and it will likely not be his last. In the wake of the uprisings in response to George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Childers released a politically charged country song called “Long Violent History.” The lyrics connect the multinational coal miner uprisings in Appalachia — such as the Battle of Blair Mountain — with the courageous protesters seeking justice for George Floyd and all victims of racism and police murder.
Shortly after releasing “Long Violent History,” Childers posted a video on YouTube where he explained why he wrote the song as a white, anti-racist ally from rural Eastern Kentucky. In it, Childers makes a powerful statement when he demands “Justice for Breonna Taylor” and points out she was “a Kentuckian like me.” Taylor was a Black health care worker who was murdered by Louisville, Kentucky, police in the spring of 2020.
‘Which side are you on?’
Country music, especially in the U.S., has a sordid and complex history. Aldean is certainly not the first country singer to spark controversy for being a bigot, even in recent times, and that gives country music a false reputation of being inherently right-wing. The same country music fans who were quick to defend Aldean’s video are the same ones who criticized Childers’ video for showing two men kissing.
Bigots would boycott country music altogether if they knew its whole history.
Country music would not exist without blues musicians and other African American artists. For instance, Jimmie Rodgers, the person credited as the “first country singer,” was most influenced by Mississippi John Hurt and Delta blues musician Tommy Johnson. The roots of the “outlaw” country sound, often associated with musicians such as Willie Nelson — also known for social activism — and the late Waylon Jennings, can be traced back to Louisiana blues musician Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, as well as the communist Dust Bowl folk singer Woody Guthrie.
Childers is not the first left-wing country singer from Appalachia to publicly take a progressive stand on societal issues. Sarah Ogan Gunning, Aunt Molly Jackson and Jim Garland were all musically talented siblings from Eastern Kentucky who were associated with the Communist Party USA and recorded official music for the National Miners Union. The last line of Gunning’s haunting classic “Come All Ye Coal Miners” is, “I am a coal miner’s wife, I’m sure l wish you well. Let’s sink this capitalist system in the darkest pits of hell!”
Another left-wing Appalachian musician was Florence Reece. Reece and her spouse Sam Reece were Tennesseeans who helped organize coal miners in Eastern Kentucky in the 1930s and they were revolutionary Marxist-Leninists until the day they died.
Reece was the author of the popular labor song “Which side are you on?” and was an influence on other political folk-country musicians, such as Pete Seeger and Hazel Dickens. Dickens was another Appalachian singer who wrote songs about women’s liberation, migrant rights and class struggle, and opened the door for many women country musicians who came after her.
Country music: a vehicle for social protest
On one rare occasion in country music history, the late singer Johnny Cash was asked to perform at the White House in 1970 and accepted the offer. Then- President Richard Nixon requested Cash play several country songs and Cash agreed to sing all but two, because the two he refused were not his own and they both contained very reactionary lyrics that conflicted with his own beliefs. Instead, Cash played an anti-war song entitled “What is Truth” as a form of protest against Nixon and the imperialist war in Vietnam. (cheatsheet.com., Oct. 2, 2021).
Those familiar with Cash’s songs should not be surprised to learn that one of his fellow bandmates in the Highwaymen, Kris Kristofferson, wrote a song entitled, “Sandinista,” which is dedicated to the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua.
Women have played a leading role in country music. There is a recent collaboration of African American, female banjo players known as Our Native Daughters, who released a politically charged concept album in 2019. Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell are the artists behind the group and their songs are about struggles for liberation.
Another collaboration among four women in country music is the group, The Highwomen, which is an updated take on the Highwaymen mentioned above. The Highwomen’s self-titled song tells a few stories about women’s oppression, sung from the perspective of a Nicaraguan migrant woman escaping the U.S.-backed contras; a woman in Salem, Massachusetts, facing charges of witchcraft; and a Freedom Rider in the racist Jim Crow South, among others.
There are plenty of country and country-style musicians worth listening to who are not xenophobic, white supremacist chauvinists. Country music, like all styles of music, should be an expression of the working class and oppressed, rather than be a tool for fascist vigilantes and the billionaire class.
Artists like Tyler Childers and many others have decided to provide entertainment that resonates with a multinational, multigenerational and multigendered crowd — a healthy alternative to performers like Aldean who have chosen to push propaganda in the service of bigotry and the bourgeoisie.
The writer is a union representative in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky.