It doesn’t seem like it was just a couple weeks ago Jason Aldean released a music video to expand on the lyrics of his now widely popular and equally controversial hit “Try That in a Small Town.”
Nor does it seem like a week has passed since I penned an article here at Baptist News Global, raising my eyebrow in suspicion along with my concerns about the video’s problematic message. I was as surprised as anyone at how the piece resonated with readers.
I gathered as much while browsing my own social media feeds. Most comments were supportive; others, well, they politely disagreed, only they held the politeness like some folks hold the ketchup on a hotdog.
A childhood friend who still lives in our small hometown shared the spiciest thread I encountered. The heat rose so fast that I decided to finally stop reading. People have a way of getting riled up when you bad-mouth what they think is Mayberry. Hell, just because it’s Sheriff Andy doesn’t mean he gets a pass.
So as the week went by, I kept receiving messages and emails about the piece, and “Try That in A Small Town” continued to rack up views on YouTube.
And then the universe did a funny thing in the form of Tyler Childers and his new song.
For those ears not blessed to have heard the wailing ginger from Lawrence County, Kentucky, I’ll add you to this week’s prayers and concerns list. I caught wind of Childers a few years ago, drawn to his storytelling and songwriting abilities.
Yes, Childers writes his own music. (Entertainers from Macon take note of this fact.) His songs reflect an upbringing in the Bluegrass State, producing a sound so naturally Southern you’d think cicadas were brought into the studio.
There’s just something real there. A level of authenticity missing from most of what comes out of Music City. Growing up within earshot of Loretta Lynn’s Butcher Hollow home might have something to do with Childers being considered the genuine article.
The song “In Your Love” was the raised flag announcing Childers’ new album arriving in September. The lyrics are raw, vulnerable and relatable to anyone who’s come face to face with love only to limp away in a Jacob-like fashion, wholly changed by it.
I will wait for you
‘Til the sun turns into ashes
And bows down to the moon.
I will wait for you;
It’s a long hard war
Ah, but I can grin and bear it
‘Cause I know what the hell I’m fightin’ for
And I will wait for you.
Now if you’re a fan of popular country music, you might close your eyes and see images set into motion by such words. Perhaps a dirt road with a long fence running beside it. Every so often, a broken post or two blows by here and there. The camera pulls back, and a beat-up truck winds through the hazy debris. Inside the cab is a young man making a surprise return home. He’s still in his military uniform, but the bag on the seat beside him lets you know he’ll be staying awhile. He smiles when the tiny house comes into view. That’s when the scene changes, and we see the woman, maybe one or two kids, getting ready to sit down for an evening supper.
We were never made to run forever;
We were just meant to go long enough
To find what we were chasin’ after.
I believe I found it here
In your love
There’s a knock at the door, the woman answers, sees her partner and collapses into his arms. The kids drop their spaghetti-filled forks, and the Golden Retriever you didn’t know was there (but you knew had to be) comes running out of nowhere, jumping and licking this perfect Hallmark family. The scene ends with fireworks erupting over the house because, surprise, it’s also the Fourth of July.
“The scene ends with fireworks erupting over the house because, surprise, it’s also the Fourth of July.”
Doesn’t that sound like a modern-day country music video? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen something like it before because, let’s face it, there’s a hungry audience out there for it.
We could ride on this dead horse again, but Childers rescues us from such an experience. He saves us by enlisting the help of a fellow Kentuckian, author and activist, Silas House, as creative director. House, along with Jason Kyle Howard, co-wrote the story for the video. The creative duo instead gives the world something else — a more accurate and honest retelling of marginalized lives in the small rural towns of Appalachia.
A place where two young men fall in love in the coal mines of the region. They find each other and battle the bigotry of being gay by those who join them down in the darkness of the mountain. Forced to leave, they find a small farm and start anew. There they garden, invite family and friends over and begin a life together until tragedy strikes the way it does for those who’ve spent too much time around the fine particles pillaged out of the deep earth.
It’s not your typical love story associated with country music, and that’s precisely why it needs to be told.
“To our knowledge, it is the first-ever country music video with a gay storyline to be released by a major label,” House told his Instagram followers. That’s a massive accomplishment, but Childers, House and the talented folks who made this video possible invite the masses to reconsider what we think we understand about the places we are from.
Where Aldean tells his listeners what kind of people should live in a small town, Childers nudges us to look around and see the beautiful diversity and worthy “others” we’ve missed or kept silent. It’s a message laced with atonement, ensuring these stories need hearing and aren’t shoved purposefully aside into some clandestine corner.
“It’s not your typical love story associated with country music, and that’s precisely why it needs to be told.”
While the video suggests a more remote section, the cultures of Appalachia are significant in scope and uniquely different depending on where you find yourself in it. Don’t believe me? Do yourself a favor and visit Appalshop or listen to Black in Appalachia, Read Appalachia or the Trillbilly Worker’s Party podcasts. You’ll get the sense quickly that no group outright owns rural America and that J.D. Vance’s version isn’t the only one out there.
This differs considerably from the type of people depicted in “Try That in A Small Town.” Where Aldean sings of a place where you can’t dare be different, where things must stay the same, where you must assimilate or else, Childers’ art reminds us that minority and fringe groups have and still do share this space. It’s theirs too. Their voice, presence and perspective make it richer.
“In Your Love” warns us against the damage done when constructing communities of nothing but quaint white fences protecting heteronormative cisgender white faces. A combative gatekeeping ensues and never stops.
I’ve watched Childers’ video several times now. I wonder if I’m being moved by its beauty or if the Holy Ghost is convicting me to work harder to ensure a world like that can exist because that’s the kind of world I want to hear about and live in.
It’s the kind of world I want to help create. A world where having neighbors like the young lovers in the video is seen as a blessing. Neighbors who don’t have to look like me or feel pressured to join a socially accepted idea of normal.
I’m looking for something other than a society run like an aggressive home owners association, and instead something more akin to the Beloved Community, an inclusive space where the kin-dom of God is seen and felt. Where everyone is welcomed and conformity goes to die.
I’d take something like that over certain small towns any day.
Justin Cox received his theological education from Campbell University and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is an ordained minister affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and enrolled in the doctor of ministry program at McAfee School of Theology. Besides reading, spending time in the kitchen and amateur gardening, Justin spends time with his spouse, Lauren, and their two daughters. He began his tenure as senior pastor of Second Baptist Church in Suffield, Ct. in August. Find his ramblings at blacksheepbaptist.com.
‘Try That in A Sundown Town’ | Opinion by Justin Cox