Dan Piller was a business reporter for more than four decades, working for the Des Moines Register and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He covered the oil and gas industry while in Texas and was the Register’s agriculture reporter before his retirement in 2013. He lives in Ankeny.
A cloud now scarcely capable of throwing shade has the potential to become a thunderstorm when country singer Jason Aldean performs on August 20 at the Iowa State Fair Grandstand.
In case you don’t watch Fox News, Aldean became the center of a music publicist’s dream controversy when the CMT country music channel yanked his “Try That in a Small Town” song/video from its playlist. CMT, with a wary eye on its audience demographic that includes both small town and big-city folks, didn’t say why “Small Town” was objectionable. But anyone who saw the video, with its images of urban rioters superimposed over the bucolic images of small towns, could get the message quickly.
Opinions can vary about the latest round of urban disruptions that began in 2020 with the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, but the idea of small-town vigilantism seemingly endorsed by the song is disturbing.
Sucker punch somebody on a sidewalk
Carjack an old lady at a red light
Pull a gun on the owner of a liquor store
You think it’s cool, well, act a fool if you like
Cuss out a cop, spit in his face
Stomp on the flag and light it up
Yeah, you think you’re tough
Well, try that in a small town
See how far you make it down the road
‘Round here, we take care of our own
You cross that line, it won’t take long
For you to find out, I recommend you don’t
Try that in a small town
In case anybody missed the political point, a later stanza refers darkly to the government “taking away the gun my granddad gave me.”
Those who spend time in a small Midwestern or southern town knows of the near-instantaneous hostility aroused by faraway urban riots, although the fear that big-city rioters would invade and wreck similar damage on rural villages has so far been unrealized. That didn’t stop Governor Kim Reynolds from using scenes of a riot in Chicago (along with an image of a black woman) in her 2022 campaign ads, which otherwise were a paean to rural images of corn fields, churches, cute (white) kids and Main Street parades.
Since most big-city riots have focused around racial issues such as police brutality or uneven justice, an anti-big city riot message like Aldean’s can easily be taken as coded racism. Aldean has vigorously denied the accusation, saying in a social media posting, “There is not a single lyric in the song that references race or points to it- and there isn’t a single video clip that isn’t real news footage.”
Fox News, ever alert to socially-charged controversies around the edges of racial and sexual issues, turned “Small Town” into one of its anti-woke causes. Republican politicians began offering support. U.S. Representative Ashley Hinson declared that “Try That in a Small Town” would be on the playlist at her August 6 BBQ Bash fundraiser in Cedar Rapids.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, perhaps feeling some heat in the vice president sweepstakes after Kim Reynolds’ wildly acclaimed (by right-to-lifers, at least) public signing of Iowa’s new abortion ban, chipped in with a statement of support for Aldean.
Reynolds posted on her political Facebook page July 21, “A good day to play some Jason Aldean!”
Possibly the most significant statement of support for Aldean came from Lee Greenwood, whose “God Bless the U.S.A.” has been a theme song for a generation of conservative flag-wavers. The 80-year-old Greenwood seemingly passed the torch, declaring that Aldean was the “Biggest Patriot.”
All of which raises a question around Aldean’s upcoming appearance at the state fair. Will the concert attract a crowd of beer-guzzling folks fired up by Aldean to dispense that small-town justice on anybody in their sights who rubs them the wrong way, such as a young black man with dreadlocks, a drag queen, or someone wearing a t-shirt with an anti-Trump message?
At a time when some people take offense at even a raised eyebrow or a smirk, nothing can be ruled out.
POLITICAL SONGS IN U.S. HISTORY
Music played a role in American politics before there was even a United States. As far back at the French and Indian War, British officers disparagingly referred to their American colonial troops as “Yankees”—a term of uncertain origin but which they considered a pejorative reference to the appearance and masculinity of Colonial males. Colonials took the lyrics to the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy” as a point of new national pride, and the Brits ended up eating the words at Yorktown.
Eight decades later, Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” mixed scripture with the fervor of Abolitionists to provide the North with a badly needed morale-booster and counterpoint to the Confederacy’s “Dixie.”
In 1917, as the U.S. entered World War I, George M. Cohan’s “Over There” provided the martial spirit to the coming drama in Europe. By then, the term “The Yanks are Coming” was a signal to the Old World that a hardy, new masculine species would arrive soon from the New World to settle things, once and for all.
The Great Depression in the 1930s produced a slew of politically-oriented songs by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, although the best-remembered tunes from the 1930s probably are “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” and Franklin Roosevelt’s contrarian theme song “Happy Days are Here Again.” By the time Americans were fighting again in World War II a decade later, however, American music was less martial and more sentimentally romantic, with “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” among the most popular.
The most durable World War II-era patriotic ballad was “God Bless America,” written before Pearl Harbor in 1938 and made popular by Kate Smith. That didn’t set well with leftist Guthrie, who felt it was too sappy and patriotic. So late in the war in 1944, Guthrie penned “This Land is Your Land,” as a reminder that America belonged to everybody, rich and poor—not just to folks who waved the flag and attended church.
Guthrie aside, it wasn’t until the 1960s and the era of social cause that protest music regained its groove with the twin towers of the civil rights movement and disgruntlement at the Vietnam War. From 1963 to the early 1970s, the Top 40 charts regularly featured protest songs of varying intensity. Aging Baby Boomers still can be found linking arms while singing “We Shall Overcome” and Country Joe McDonald’s “Fixin to Die Rag” lyrics, adapted from an earlier Bob Dylan composition.
CONSERVATIVES EMBRACE POLITICAL SONGS
For most of the postwar era country music lurked in the shadows of popular ballads, rock n roll and jazz. But in 1970, Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” emerged suddenly to starkly voice the frustrations of working class Americans who were, after all, doing the fighting and dying in Vietnam while student protesters enjoyed the good life back in the States. The song presaged the anger of the blue collars at their sociological betters in ways that presaged Aldean’s small-town resentments of 2023.
Richard Nixon, looking for a way to pull the chain of his “Silent Majority,” pronounced “Okie” his new favorite. Haggard, a reclusive personality who had done prison time for armed robbery, declined to be a public musical symbol for the emerging conservative movement, saying “’Okie made me appear to be a person who was a lot more narrow-minded, possibly, than I really am.”
Rock music always has been more attuned to the campus than the union hall, but Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” in 1984 reflected the economic frustrations of the Vietnam vets who came home to a less-than-welcoming country. The song, amusingly, was misinterpreted by President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy, who thought it was for flag-wavers.
Reagan may have missed on “Born in the U.S.A.,” but he got it right with another 1984 hit, Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A,” which was played at the 1984 Republican National Convention and has been a recognizable anthem for Republicans ever since. Conservatives who groused in the 1960s and 70s about the liberal hegemony in music have been more than redeemed by the song’s “I’m Proud to be an American” alternative title.
Unlike Haggard, Greenwood was more than agreeable to being associated with conservative and right-wing politics, and accordingly was handsomely rewarded. A host of country music singers, Aldean being the latest, have imitated the theme of “God Bless,” but it has never been duplicated.
Some will decry the potential politicization of State Fair music when Aldean comes calling, but those protests ring a little hollow when we can expect a steady stream of Republican presidential candidates, most of whom are likely to take up Kim Reynolds’ invitation to chat with her about “who they really are.” When the opening strains of Aldean’s “Try that in a Small Town” waft over the grandstand crowd, we’ll get a better idea of who we really are.