People — non-country lovers specifically — like to joke that modern country music is a repetitive incantation of beer, trucks, girls and American flags, with the occasional sprinkling of Copenhagen or MultiCam thrown in. (And, for the women, there’s an extra dash of marital homicide.)
That’s all part of it, for certain. But a longer pause on the radio dial, or a deeper dive into the genre’s roots, reveals far more variation — different traditions and cultures calling to each other, answering and reinventing themselves as they go.
The struggle for the soul of country music is on full display now as two very different songs have been making headlines. Jason Aldean, one of country music’s biggest stars, has been embroiled in controversy over his single “Try That in a Small Town.” The song contains what critics say are racially charged lyrics, and scenes from the music video were shot in front of a courthouse that was the site of an infamous lynching in the 1920s. The backlash was so complete, CMT removed Aldean’s video from its rotation and the original YouTube version was edited to remove several seconds of protest footage.
Meanwhile, fellow country star Luke Combs has been going viral on social media with his platinum cover of “Fast Car” by famed singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman. Some of the attention has been positive, praising his rendition of the famous ballad and discussing the impact of his homage to Chapman who, as a Black woman and queer icon, is a triple whammy of underrepresentation in country music.
In an interview with Billboard, Combs called “Fast Car” the “perfect song” and Chapman a “supernatural songwriter.”
“The success of my cover is unreal and I think it’s so cool that Tracy is getting recognized and has reached new milestones. I love that she is out there feeling all the love and that she gave me a shout-out! Thank you, Tracy!”
Chapman herself, who is notoriously private with both her personal life and her music rights, also commented to Billboard about the song’s success.
“I never expected to find myself on the country charts, but I’m honored to be there. I’m happy for Luke and his success and grateful that new fans have found and embraced ‘Fast Car.’”
The crossover also made history, cementing Chapman as the first Black woman to have a sole writing credit on a No. 1 country radio song.
Dividing the divisions
Both “Try That in a Small Town” and “Fast Car” have topped country charts in recent weeks. While they represent something of a divide among the genre, they’ve also led to an exploration of finer fissures within. Aldean has millions of supporters who see his ode to small town solidarity as a continuation of what made country music so resonant in the first place: The telling of stories forgotten by the mainstream.
(Small town pride is also a favorite theme of Aldean’s, whose hits include 2010’s “Flyover States” and “Dirt Road Anthem,” and the early hit “Amarillo Sky,” which details the noble struggles of a proud farmer.)
Aside from the controversy of lyrics slamming gun control and threatening people who disrespect police, Aldean’s song set off interesting conversations as people discussed what being from a small town really means, and indeed, what a small town even is. (Aldean himself is from Macon, Georgia, which may seem like the sticks to some people but is, in fact, a mid-sized city that also helped form rock greats like Little Richard and Otis Redding.)
“Try That In A Small Town, for me, 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,” Aldean wrote in a statement defending the song.
As for Combs, the same reasons that attracted praise for “Fast Car” have also attracted criticism. The song, like Chapman herself, has been a lighthouse for people on the margins since its release in 1988, dealing as it does with poverty and loneliness and the universal appeal of getting the heck out of town with your baby by your side. (And, in the process, became a lesbian anthem.) While it’s a very country message, some fans were uncomfortable that a straight, White male singer would add his voice to Chapman’s genius.
“On one hand, Luke Combs is an amazing artist, and it’s great to see that someone in country music is influenced by a Black queer woman — that’s really exciting,” Holly G, founder of the Black Opry, told The Washington Post. “But at the same time, it’s hard to really lean into that excitement knowing that Tracy Chapman would not be celebrated in the industry without that kind of middleman being a White man.”