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How Jason Aldean's latest controversy highlights current state of country music

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

"Try That In A Small Town" - that is the title of a single that country music star Jason Aldean released back in May. And the lyrics - well, they're pointed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRY THAT IN A SMALL TOWN")

JASON ALDEAN: (Singing) You cross that line, it won't take long for you to find out. I recommend you don't...

CHANG: The video for that song, which was released on Friday, was pulled off the air by country music television after widespread criticism that scenes featured in it were deeply offensive, especially the setting where the video opens. We're going to talk more about that with Marcus K. Dowling, a country music reporter for The Tennessean. Welcome.

MARCUS K DOWLING: Hello. Thank you.

CHANG: Hey. OK, so we should be clear, the song has been out since May. And there was criticism already about the lyrics, but the criticism - it deeply intensified after release of the video. Can you just walk us through what happened to cause all of the backlash that we are seeing and hearing now?

DOWLING: Well, in all things Jason Aldean, you have to go back to the idea that he's one of the more proudly conservative artists in mainstream country music currently. Aldean released the video with a social media post, and it was kind of, like, saying, well, like, you know, this is my latest single. Check it out. This is talking about being in a small town and my thoughts about kind of where we are as an American body politic. And the video has imaging of violence and perhaps racial tension. Then the tweets began to fire up...

CHANG: Yeah.

DOWLING: ...Because people knew potentially what he was talking about in relation to race.

CHANG: And the backdrop in the opening scene is a very famous courthouse.

DOWLING: Right - where, in a two-decadelong span, there were riots and lynching that occurred over racial background in that space. That caused things to ramp up even further because then the country music community at large, both left and right, began to weigh in and offer comments - positive, negative, criticism, applause. And it just turned into a greater look at where country music is in general - split diametrically opposed down the middle.

CHANG: And how has Jason Aldean responded to all this so far? I saw a very long tweet.

DOWLING: Right. He made a tweet which made a statement in regards to maybe his unawareness and maybe his desire to also want to note that he's not a racist, per se, which is something he had to say explicitly. And I think that that was important to have because you need to have obviously some kind of awareness of the nature and tenor of the situation.

CHANG: Did CMT issue any statement about why it pulled the video off air?

DOWLING: No, they made absolutely no statement. I think that they have no need to make a statement because, potentially, people can read into that that there's something deeper that is at play. Things are said without having to say them at all.

CHANG: All right, so then do you think this incident in any way marks a turning point or at least a moment of some deeper introspection inside this genre?

DOWLING: I will say that since 2020 and the murder of George Floyd that there has been a profound change towards greater accountability and awareness in country music in an unprecedented manner. Since this awareness, five African American males have had No. 1 singles since 2020. Mickey Guyton is a multiple-time Grammy-nominated country artist at this point. She's an African American artist. So there's just a profound sense that change is possible. And there needs to be an awareness of what needs to occur for change to occur.

CHANG: Yeah. Marcus K. Dowling, country music reporter for The Tennessean. Thank you very much for joining us today.

DOWLING: Absolutely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.