An A&G Coal mine in Southwest Virginia, July 2019. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)
Country singer Jason Aldean has reaped a whirlwind of big-media scorn for his intemperate new hit titled “Try That in a Small Town.” As he should.
The seething tone of the lyrics alone are an unvarnished and bellicose call for vigilantism by “good ol’ boys, raised up right” in towns and crossroads outside America’s cities and suburbs.
It widens the troubling geographic and cultural fissure between urban America and its leafy, prosperous bedroom communities and the struggling rural towns that feel they were denied growth and opportunity in recent decades, a split Virginia illustrates well.
Aldean’s lyrics inventory a litany of violent street-level crimes such as sucker-punching someone on a sidewalk, carjacking senior motorists, robbing a liquor store, desecrating the American flag or cursing and spitting on police. Then this warning:
Well, try that in a small town
See how far ya 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.
Aldean’s video, however, is far more menacing and malignant. That’s why I’m not linking to it.
He and his band were filmed outside the Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tennessee, infamous as the site where a white mob lynched a Black teenager named Henry Choate in 1927. Accused, without proof, of attacking a 16-year-old white girl, Choate was seized from his jail cell, beaten with a sledgehammer and dragged through Columbia’s streets behind a car before he was hanged from a courthouse balcony.
Interspersed throughout Aldean’s video is footage of riots and confrontations with police juxtaposed with heartwarming scenes of downhome bonhomie: men hunting ducks, crops being harvested, flags being raised, home movies of backyard football, youth baseball and such. Together, it evokes the sort of unsettling moral dissonance one might experience from watching bits of Ronald Reagan’s hopeful 1984 “Morning in America” reelection ad spliced randomly into “Full Metal Jacket.”
In three minutes and nine seconds, the video crystallizes America’s intractable tribalism that threatens the stability of the republic. It manifested itself Jan. 6 2021, when a mob, exhorted by a defeated president, overran the U.S. Capitol in a failed bid to subvert an election’s legitimate outcome.
CMT, the country music cable network, pulled the tune from its lineup. The mayor of Columbia, where the video was shot, told Billboard that he hopes the next video shot in his city will “seek a more positive message.” Rocker Sheryl Crow, who grew up amid the soybean, cotton and corn farms near Kennett in Missouri’s rural Bootheel, tweeted that the video is “not American or small town-like. It’s just lame.”
The scorn, however, will supercharge the song and video in segments of rural America via streaming platforms and small-market radio. It thrives there because of its defiant message to urban and suburban America whose denizens, on average, are more liberal, more affluent, have higher levels of educational attainment and enjoy more stable employment.
The imbalance, regardless of its reasons, is real, and Virginia illustrates the disparity well with its suburban/exurban “Golden Crescent” that arcs from Northern Virginia south to the Richmond region, then southeast down the Peninsula to the thriving cities and counties of Hampton Roads. Comparable pockets of prosperity are clustered around major university towns such as Charlottesville, Harrisonburg and Blacksburg.
Little of the recent development, job creation and population growth those regions enjoyed reached the rural farming, factory and mining communities in Virginia’s fertile Southside and the mountainous Southwest that were the commonwealth’s economic engine for most of the 20th century.
Global trade deals and U.S. policy decisions during the past 30 years hastened the decay of many rural areas. International trade agreements made after the Cold War — the North American Free Trade Agreement (or NAFTA) and China’s admission to the World Trade Organization — sent U.S. manufacturing jobs to cheaper overseas labor markets and helped turn once-bustling textile and furniture factories in cities like Danville and Martinsville into derelict husks.
The decline in domestic cigarette use gradually curbed demand for the cash crop on which Virginia was founded. The tobacco-growing Southside bore the brunt of it.
Clear and present climate concerns have animated a move toward less-polluting energy sources and away from coal. Southwestern Virginia’s landscape is pocked with abandoned mines and the depleted mining communities that once bustled.
While the digital “knowledge economy” flourished in Virginia’s most populous regions where broadband internet abounds, rural areas found themselves left behind. Promises of high-speed digital service, made decades ago, and the jobs they can bring are only now slowly being honored in those areas.
It’s jarring for state policymakers in Richmond to hear that the vast outlands of Southwest and Southside Virginia are their afterthoughts, but driving through those towns and seeing the bare foundations and blank windows of shuttered factories and storefronts speaks a discomfiting truth.
Research by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service shows that 18 localities lost one-tenth or more of their population from 2000 to 2022. All of them, except for Accomack County on the Eastern Shore, were in Southside or Southwest Virginia including Buchanan County, which decreased by 28%. Conversely, 60 localities grew by 10% or more, including 44 with a growth rate at or above 20% in the past 22 years. Northern Virginia exurb Loudoun County saw its population balloon by nearly 2 ½ times since the turn of the century.
Rural areas are not without hope. A 2021 national Gallup survey showed that 48% of respondents prefer to live in small towns or rural areas if possible, up from 39% three years earlier. People are indeed moving to the country, particularly since the pandemic, said Cooper Center demographer Hamilton Lombard. Many rural areas have done a good job attracting, he said, but not at a rate that equals or exceeds death rates from the older rural populations.
“In some rural counties, there are two or even three times more residents in their sixties than in their twenties. For me, the most significant gap that has opened up between rural and urban Virginia has been the age gap,” Lombard said in an email.
The Cooper Center’s projections for future growth suggest the gap will widen. By 2050, the populations of 14 rural counties — again, all in Southside or Southwest Virginia — will drop by one-fifth or more, with Buchanan projected to hemorrhage by 51%. At the same time, 37 localities are projected to increase by 20% or more, with Loudoun expected to increase by 77%. Only one — the Richmond exurb of Powhatan County — could be marginally construed as being in Southside Virginia.
That, along with seeing their small-town folkways and mores mocked in pop culture, makes some rural audiences receptive to hustlers exploiting grievance for their own gain.
There’s only so long that the have-nots can watch the haves enjoy the growth and prosperity they’ve missed before disappointment ossifies into overt hostility. Sadly, as Aldean cynically proves, there’s more money to be made from widening that chasm than from bridging it.
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