By Paul V. DeMarco
Jason Aldean’s song, “Try That in a Small Town” has become yet another cultural battleground. Rather than talk rationally about what makes small-town living satisfying or depressing, each side has set up a caricature for the purpose of slamming it. I’ve read a number of commentaries, most by writers who have either never lived in small towns or have left them with nothing but harsh memories.
Here’s what I know about small towns: I’m glad I live in one. I came to Marion (population approximately 6,300, about 20 miles east of Florence) because I was obliged to; the state paid my medical tuition for three years of service in a health workforce shortage area. But I stayed because I wished to.
I realize this gives me a uniquely optimistic vantage of my small town. I came as a new doctor into a community that needed one. I was welcomed when I arrived, and have, for the most part, felt welcome here.
I think we can agree that small towns and big cities have their own particular attractions. If you want an easy commute, come to Marion, where mine is traffic-free and downright therapeutic, offering back roads where deer, ducks, herons, and bald eagles are not uncommon. If, on the other hand, you frequently crave late-night home delivery of premium-grade sushi, Marion will disappoint.
Most of the furor over the song derives from its ability to slide easily into each side’s narrative. For liberals, the song is a Lost Cause anthem. The fact that Aldean is a conservative who has not made a secret of his support for Donald Trump has fueled that assessment.
For conservatives, CMT’s pulling of the video is a perfect example of “wokeness” and cancel culture. The left, they would argue, is running out of actual examples of racism, so they invent them.
What some dislike, including myself, is the misplaced bravado in the song, the Hestonian “out of my cold, dead hands” vibe. But I think we need to give Aldean the same poetic license that we give hip-hop artists, who often purposely provoke with their lyrics (and then are rightly criticized). My other criticism would be that while the video shows people of all colors behaving badly, there are no black or brown people in the scenes showing the richness of small-town life.
Aldean is expressing an attitude more than a threat. He’s not planning to murder you if you cause trouble in his town, as some pearl-clutching liberals would have you believe. He’s pointing to a legitimate difference between small towns, not only in the South but in any region of the country, and larger cities.
Aldean’s song is built upon this truth: the structure of a small town makes it impervious to riots and mass violence. Almost everyone who lives in Marion has some connection to Main Street. We shop there regularly and know or are related to the business owners and employees, both black and white (Marion’s population is 70% African-American). We’ve watched them struggle and mostly survive the pandemic. It would be inconceivable for Marion’s citizens to burn down Main Street in protest of anything. Our connections to one another would douse our anger. It’s hard to throw a rock through a window when you know who is on the other side
Aldean’s song asks us to imagine what might have been accomplished if the George Floyd protests had been completely peaceful. BLM’s strength as a voice for the black community would have been immeasurably enhanced. In the aftermath of a year of well-organized, nonviolent marches against racial injustice, those who supported the January 6th Capitol riot would have had no cover. But instead, they have been able to successfully point to the lives lost and the billions in damage caused in the BLM protests as a defense, arguing that violence is an inevitable and necessary part of advocating for societal change.
The South will be forever stained by our history of racial hatred. Small towns in the South, were, and can still be, oppressive and racist. But my sense is that in 2023, the racial barriers that remain in this country do not vary significantly by zip code.
Small towns are, in some ways, better than they have ever been. Although many are poorer than they once were, they have never been more inclusive. My neighborhood, once completely white, is browning. I now have a retired black woman as my neighbor who has become a good friend for my wife and me. Many small towns are redefining their identities after the offshoring of their major manufacturing plants. I would counsel any young person, particularly an entrepreneur, to consider small town life. The internet has done much to ameliorate the isolation of rural places, and has given rural-based businesses a way forward.
So y’all come and visit. If, like me, you end up staying, you will be glad you did.
A version of this column appeared in the Sept. 1h edition of The Post and Courier, Pee Dee.