May 21, 2024

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Buzz The Music

As Aldean and Combs top country music charts, the genre’s Black history reemerges

Just a few weeks ago, country music star Jason Aldean released a new song, Try That In A Small Town, to relatively modest fanfare. 

Then its controversial music video was released, juxtaposing real-life footage of city vandalism, theft and violence — and clashes between Black Lives Matter protesters and police — with the lyrics “That might fly in a city / But try that in a small town / See how far you get.”

From left, Luke Combs and Jason Aldean. (Illustration by Allison Cake/CBC)

Critics have said the music video threatens vigilantism and promotes racial violence, pointing to the use of Black Lives Matter protest footage — and the fact that part of the music video was filmed in front of a courthouse known for being the site of the 1927 lynching of a Black teenager.

WATCH | The controversial video for Try That In A Small Town:

All the while, another popular American country singer named Luke Combs released a recording of Tracy Chapman’s 1988 hit, Fast Car. The song has soared to the top of the country charts, but some listeners have lamented that Combs’ success is built on a Black woman’s artistry. 

The success of each song has prompted discussion of who country music is for and what kinds of artists succeed in the genre.

“Country often does not recognize the impact or influence of Black artists in the genre,” said Christopher Wares, a Canadian professor and assistant chair of the music business management department at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

He said both Aldean’s music video and Combs’ recording are “bringing up some very important conversations about recognizing the influence of Black artists and Black culture and history in country music.”

Black country artists not recognized, says professor

The genre has a long history of institutional and systemic racism that can be traced back to the 1920s and 30s, Wares said, when music created by Black artists was dubbed “race records” and music by white artists was called “hillbilly records.” 

The latter category was a precursor to modern country, leading to the perception of country music as being created by white artists for a white audience — even though, like rock ‘n’ roll, its influences are often rooted in music by Black artists.

“Many of the biggest country artists were mentored by Black musicians … Even the banjo, which is a cornerstone in bluegrass and country music. That instrument was based off of a West African instrument,” Wares said.

As a result, radio stations and record companies often didn’t know how to market Black country artists, making it difficult for Black artists to break back into the mainstream institutions of a genre that they played an important role in creating, he added.

The discussion around Combs’ cover of Fast Car relates to “a historical issue in the music business about credit and recognition, where across all genres, Black artists have consistently been unrecognized,” Wares said.

WATCH | Luke Combs’ cover of Fast Car:

Chapman herself has commented on Combs’ cover of her song, saying in a rare interview: “I never expected to find myself on the country charts, but I’m honoured to be there. I’m happy for Luke and his success and grateful that new fans have found and embraced Fast Car.”

Combs — who covered the song as a fan favourite in live performances for years before making his own recording — has previously said that Chapman is receiving royalties.

Fans aren’t disputing Tracy Chapman’s success, explained Jada Watson, an assistant professor of digital humanities at the University of Ottawa.

Chapman — who is a Black, queer woman, but is not considered a country artist — won a Grammy for Fast Car in 1989. Rather, some have questioned whether a Black, queer woman who is a country artist would have as much success re-recording Chapman’s hit for a country audience as Combs has, given that he is white and male.

“The conversation is the fact that this is an industry that won’t create spaces for Black women, especially Black queer women,” said Watson, who researched the exclusion of Black, Indigenous and racialized artists from country music in a March study called “Redlining in Country Music 2.0.”

14:45Jason Aldean’s big controversy with Try That In a Small Town

Journalists Andrea Williams and Emily Nussbaum join Commotion guest host Amil Niazi to discuss the polarizing reactions to Jason Aldean’s latest single, Try That In A Small Town.

Examining the representation of artists on mainstream country music in the United States, the study found that Black and racialized country artists were vastly underrepresented on label rosters and by awards bodies. In 2022, Black women received just 0.03 per cent of country radio airplay, none of which occurred during daytime hours, the study said. 

While Black artists like Darius Rucker, Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen have achieved mainstream recognition — Mickey Guyton’s 2016 tune Heartbreak Song marks the last time a Black woman made it on the country charts — and that doesn’t translate into radio play, which is traditionally the barometer of a country artist’s success.

Country music feels unsafe for marginalized fan

Aldean’s Try That In a Small Town hit number one on the Billboard 200 on Wednesday, even as prominent country singers like Sheryl Crow criticized the song, alleging it promotes violence.

“Even people in small towns are sick of violence. There’s nothing small-town or American about promoting violence,” Crow tweeted, noting that Aldean himself is a survivor of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.

Aldean responded to criticism of the music video on social media, saying that there isn’t a single mention of race in the song. Try That In A Small Town “refers to the feeling of a community that I had growing up, where we took care of our neighbors, regardless of differences of background or belief. Because they were our neighbors, and that was above any differences,” he wrote.

The mixed reaction to the track speaks to tensions within American society that bubbled up after George Floyd was murdered and the Black Lives Matter movement reemerged in 2020, said Watson.

“Country is sort of this stronghold of white Southern conservatism even though it has these really deep rich multiracial and multiethnic roots. And so I think when we’re talking about country today, we have to acknowledge where it comes from and the ways in which various moments in its development have replicated that structure,” she added.

WATCH | Jason Aldean responds to criticism of his song: 

Jason Aldean defends song after music video pulled by CMT

CMT has pulled a controversial video by country music singer Jason Aldean for his song Try That In a Small Town. Critics say the lyrics are full of racist dog whistles and problematic anti-protest themes. Aldean calls the criticism meritless.

Some country music artists have defended Aldean, including Blanco Brown, who said in a now-deleted tweet that while he “hated the lyrics” to the song, he doesn’t believe Aldean is racist. A day later, he wrote about Try That In a Small Town again on Instagram.

“It’s a song that a man recorded with good intentions I believe,” wrote Brown, a country/hip-hop hybrid artist whose 2019 song The Git Up went platinum 11 times, its music video amassing more than 173 million views on YouTube since then.

CBC News reached out to Brown for an interview but did not hear back before deadline. Several other artists requested for this story declined an interview or were not available.

Infrastructure dedicated to supporting Black country artists and their fans has emerged throughout the years, including the Black Country Music Association (BCMA), established in the mid-1990s by Cleve Francis and Frankie Staton.

The BCMA is a predecessor to newer groups like Black Opry, a Nashville organization that supports Black artists in country, roots and blues music. But the gains that have been made within this niche are a “smokescreen” that don’t reflect the mainstream industry, according to Black Opry’s founder Holly G.

“There’s been almost like a false perception [of] evolution in country music, because so many people that do want to love country music have been able to kind of create their own spaces,” said Holly G.

“But if you look at the statistics and the institutions that run the mainstream industry, such as the award shows, radio, [and Nashville venue] the Grand Ole Opry, those things have not shown any significant change.”

Front Burner23:53Jason Aldean and country music’s culture war

Jason Aldean is one of contemporary country radio’s most played voices, and he’s no stranger to controversy. He’s been accused of misogynist comments, worn blackface at Halloween, taken an anti-mask stance during the pandemic and, last year, his wife’s transphobic comments got him dropped by his long-time PR firm. Now, his latest single, “Try That in a Small Town” is facing backlash. Depending on who you ask, it’s either an ode to old-fashioned community values, or a racist dog-whistle. Today, Elamin Abdelmahmoud, the host of CBC’s Commotion, is here to talk about the song, where the controversy is coming from, and how it all connects to a deeper divide that’s hounding country music. For transcripts of this series, please visit: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/frontburner/transcripts

When American country music network CMT pulled the video from its rotation, Try That In A Small Town had roughly 346,000 views on YouTube, according to Billboard. As of the first week of August, two weeks since its release on YouTube, the video had amassed more than 24 million views.

After country star Morgan Wallen was caught saying racist slurs on video in 2021, his album Dangerous: The Double Album continued to chart. He also made a surprise appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, leading to swift backlash.

One of the reasons why Holly G. started Black Opry is because she said she felt unsafe in mainstream country music spaces.

“I don’t know how, as a marginalized person, you look at country music and feel that anything about it could be safe if the only thing that you see is when people disparage who you are, they get celebrated even more.”