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Emily Nussbaum on the Culture Wars in Country Music

Emily Nussbaum on the Culture Wars in Country Music

Update: 2023-08-044
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Last month, the country singer Jason Aldean released a music video for “Try That in a Small Town,” a song that initially received little attention. But the video cast the song’s lyrics in a new light. While Aldean sings, “Try that in a small town / See how far ya make it down the road / ’Round here, we take care of our own,” images of protests against police brutality are interspersed with Aldean singing outside a county courthouse where a lynching once took place. Aldean’s defenders—and there are many—say the song praises small-town values and respect for the law, rather than promoting violence and vigilantism. The controversy eventually pushed the song to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The staff writer Emily Nussbaum has been reporting from Nashville throughout the past few months on the very complicated politics of country music. On the one hand, she found a self-perpetuating culture war, fuelled by outrage; on the other, there’s a music scene that’s diversifying, with increasing numbers of women, Black artists, and L.G.B.T.Q. performers claiming country music as their own. “I set out to talk about music, but politics are inseparable from it,” Nussbaum tells David Remnick. “The narrowing of commercial country music to a form of pop country dominated by white guys singing a certain kind of cliché-ridden bro country song—it’s not like I don’t like every song like that, but the absolute domination of that keeps out all sorts of other musicians.” Nussbaum also speaks with Adeem the Artist, a nonbinary country singer and songwriter based in East Tennessee, who has found success with audiences but has not broken through on mainstream country radio. “I think that it’s important that people walk into a music experience where they expect to feel comforted in their bigotry and they are instead challenged on it and made to imagine a world where different people exist,” Adeem says. “But, as a general rule, I try really hard to connect with people even if I’m making them uncomfortable.”

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Emily Nussbaum on the Culture Wars in Country Music

Emily Nussbaum on the Culture Wars in Country Music

WNYC Studios and The New Yorker