Posted on August 6, 2023

How Jason Aldean Rode Liberal Outrage to the Top of the Hot 100

Chris Molanphy, Slate, August 3, 2023

In the closing weeks of 1969, Merle Haggard took “Okie From Muskogee” to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart for four weeks—and, somewhat more surprisingly, No. 41 on the Hot 100, the closest he’d come to cracking the pop Top 40. The song was Haggard’s eighth country chart-topper but his first single ever to touch the pop chart, despite—or really, probably because of—its anti-urban ethos and vituperative spirit. A piss-and-vinegar ode to small-town life, “Okie” was a chin-out celebration of what rural folk didn’t do: “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/ We don’t take our trips on LSD.” Most especially, the song was a takedown of progressive protest culture: “We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street” and “We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy/ Like the hippies out in San Francisco do.” As Haggard scholar David Cantwell aptly describes it in his book The Running Kind, the song was “a single, ideologically loaded shotgun blast … one early return of fire in what became termed the Culture War.”


Other than a 1973 Christmas record, Haggard never came close to crossing over on the pop charts again. But for a little while in late ’69, “Okie From Muskogee” was the record commanding the zeitgeist—even normie-radical Tommy Smothers was talking shit about Merle Haggard on TV. For its cultural resonance alone, “Okie” probably should’ve been a top-charting pop record. {snip}

Nowadays, America’s charts capture much more finely tuned data that measure songs’ resonance across our populace, for better and worse. And 54 years later, the Hot 100 not only hosts but is topped by another vituperative rural anthem—the words “Small Town” are even right in the title. Only I wouldn’t call it even a little bit funny. Its singer certainly seems deadly serious.

Is Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” a song, or a Fox News polemic set to music? Right up front, let me say that the answer to why this song is No. 1 is the media headlines more than the melodic hooks. (Which, to be fair, are considerable—Aldean’s chorus can really overtake your frontal lobe.) It’s No. 1 thanks to a form of consumer data activism that is becoming ever more commonplace on the charts in the 2020s. Just in the last fortnight—which is when everything about this song blew up—much has been written, tweeted, and ranted about Aldean’s piece of musical agitprop, all of which has fueled digital consumption and hence the song’s inevitable Billboard explosion.

How inevitable? When “Small Town” debuted at a gobsmacking No. 2 last week, behind a No. 1 song by BTS alumnus Jungkook, I waited a week to write this column, as I was convinced Aldean would go the distance to No. 1. Knowing what I know about how the Hot 100 works, I had a sinking feeling the conflagration kicked up by “Small Town” would remain inflamed at least long enough for Aldean to wait out Jungkook. Not unlike the fanbase stirred up by this summer’s stealth movie blockbuster Sound of Freedom, the audience aroused by a new anthem about taking up arms against a perceived woke mob—and aggrieved about Aldean’s dog-whistle warning about those guns being taken away—wasn’t going to back down instantly.


So how did “Try That in a Small Town” pull it off? The big differences between all these singles and Aldean’s are the size of the star and the size of the right-wing outrage (and, you might say, the size of the music video budget).

Aldean has been an A-list country hitmaker for nearly two decades. He broke through on Hot Country Songs back in 2005 with “Hicktown,” which played as a bro-country anthem a half-decade before the bro-country era. Through more than a dozen Hot Country or Country Airplay No. 1s, Aldean has proffered a fairly consistent man’s-man form of 21st-century twang. Interestingly, his music has periodically incorporated hip-hop tropes. His 2011 No. 1 “Dirt Road Anthem,” in which Aldean himself rapped the verses, is considered a signature example of “hick-hop,” and a remix featuring rapper Ludacris even briefly cracked the pop Top 10. And the 2014 No. 1 “Burnin’ It Down” was full-on country trap, with a synthy hip-hop backbeat, years before Morgan Wallen. Through most of these hits, Aldean was a small-C conservative, espousing red-state values (he co-owns a hunting company) with little in the way of overt politics. Even a brush with horrific gun violence—Aldean was the performer onstage at a 2017 festival in Las Vegas when a gunman opened fire into the crowd, killing 60 people—didn’t much change his political profile. Only in the 2020s, roughly around the time his wife Brittany Kerr Aldean became more outspoken about her anti-trans beliefs, has Jason become more tied to political activism.

“Try That in a Small Town” seals the deal. The song appeared back in May as a standalone single and was embraced by country radio like any Aldean single, debuting in the middle of Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. “Small Town” was not penned by Aldean himself. It’s the handiwork of four Nashville journeymen including Kelley Lovelace, who’s written scores of country hits—including, funnily enough, Brad Paisley’s pro-diversity anthem “American Saturday Night.” But in Nashville, songwriters are, pardon the expression, guns for hire, who channel the persona of the front-line star they’re writing for. At first, even with lyrics as incendiary as “You cross that line, it won’t take long for you to find out—I recommend you don’t” and “Got a gun that my granddad gave me, they say one day they’re gonna round up,” the song attracted little attention outside of country circles. And not all that much even there: To this day, “Small Town” still hasn’t risen on Country Airplay above its initial No. 24 debut. (Country radio programmers embrace fiery politics, but only to a point. Aldean is also now an aging hitmaker compared with the likes of Wallen and Combs.)

It was only when the music video materialized in mid-July that all hell broke loose. Even then, it took a few days. Released on Friday, July 14, the video featured Aldean and his band performing in front of the Columbia, Tennessee, courthouse—the same one where, infamously, the 1927 lynching of Henry Choate took place—interspersed with stock news footage of left-wing protests from around the world. Four days later, with little explanation, country video channel CMT pulled the video. The yanking would itself have gone unnoticed if not for a Billboard story revealing it on Tuesday, July 18. That’s when the mainstream media headlines—and the right-wing backlash—finally kicked in.

For chart purposes, these days of the week matter, because that Tuesday news explosion was when sales and streams for the song blew up. Billboard’s chart-tracking week runs from Friday to Thursday, so Aldean had only half a week to leverage the outrage machine. Even with that handicap, the song’s numbers were massive: 228,000 downloads sold for the week—75,000 more than Jungkook’s, and Aldean sold the bulk of his total in half the time. (In the first two days after the newsbreak, Billboard reported “Small Town” was selling more than 100,000 downloads per day.) Those initial numbers rolled into last week’s chart, when “Small Town” went from nowhere on the Hot 100 to an instant No. 2. It probably would’ve taken No. 1 if not for streaming, which gave Jungkook the edge.

One week later, with Jungkook taking the typical K-pop second-week tumble, and Aldean’s single glowing hot from a controversy that was still only days old, “Small Town” had an easy ride to No. 1. Just based on timing, I already expected a full seven days of feverish consumption to give Aldean the win, but then, in the middle of that week, six seconds of Black Lives Matter protest footage were edited out of the video, reportedly due to third-party copyright clearance issues, inflaming right-wing fans anew. As Fox News viewers and TruthSocial denizens continued rallying to buy and stream Aldean’s hit and stick it to the libs (Aldean’s wife is now crowing about how the would-be cancellation of the song “backfired”), “Small Town” sold another 175,000 downloads and more than doubled in streams to 30.7 million. In short, anti-wokeism is big business, and Aldean’s chart command, to be fair to country music, is more about right-wing shit-stirring than country per se.