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Critics of country singer Jason Aldean’s “Try That In a Small Town” music video say it pushes a message of gun violence and lynching. Aldean and his band performed the song in front of an American flag-draped Tennessee courthouse that critics noted was the site of a famous 1927 lynching.
Aldean denied the lynching message and defended his video: “There isn’t a single video clip that isn’t real news footage.” Clips of violent protest scenes, burning American flags and crime were interspersed throughout the performance.
We found six of the clips in stock footage catalogs, one of which also was used in the fictional 2021 Netflix movie “Don’t Look Up.” The clips came from real events or news footage, but many did not take place in the U.S. They included scenes of protests in Ukraine, Spain, Germany and Canada, one as far back as 2010.
In "Try That in a Small Town," country singer Jason Aldean sings about big city violence and rural intolerance of such violence. His music video shows Aldean and his band performing in front of an American flag-draped Tennessee courthouse — the site of an infamous 1927 lynching and a 1946 race riot that The Washington Post once reported led to the near lynching of future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
"Pull a gun on the owner of a liquor store," Aldean sings, or "cuss out a cop, spit in his face … Yeah, ya think you're tough / 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."
The video flashes through what looks like real footage from violent protest scenes. People ignite and toss Molotov cocktails. American flags burn. Masked robbers bash in a glass case in a business. An armed gunman storms into a convenience store. Near the video’s end, that chaotic imagery is contrasted with serene farmland sunsets, video of men raising rifles over empty marshland and audio from a 2013 news report about Wisconsin farmers helping a fellow farmer following a tragic accident.
In a lengthy July 18 tweet, Aldean, who grew up in Macon, Georgia, rebutted the notion that his video was "pro-lynching" or that any lyric in his song referenced race. He said the video "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."
"There isn’t a single video clip that isn’t real news footage," he said.
In the past 24 hours I have been accused of releasing a pro-lynching song (a song that has been out since May) and was subject to the comparison that I (direct quote) was not too pleased with the nationwide BLM protests. These references are not only meritless, but dangerous.…— Jason Aldean (@Jason_Aldean) July 18, 2023
PolitiFact dissected the video and found that although many of the clips we were able to verify do come from news footage of real events, many of the scenes depicting crowd violence are from outside the U.S., including Ukraine, Germany and Canada, with one dating as far back as 2010.
We also found clips available on stock footage websites, including one from what appears to be a real event and also appeared in the 2021 Netflix movie "Don’t Look Up."
This is not the first time Aldean has come under controversy. In 2015, a photo surfaced showing Aldean, who is white, dressed for Halloween in blackface as Black rapper Lil Wayne. He later told Billboard that he had "zero malicious intent."
Officers are on guard in Public Square in Columbia, Tennessee, after an outbreak of rioting, Feb. 27, 1946. The Maury County courthouse is in background. (AP)
The Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tennessee, plays a central role in the video. Its clocktower is the first image and videos of violence and destruction are repeatedly projected onto its facade. Almost any time we see Aldean, he is standing in front of the courthouse.
The courthouse was built in 1906. Henry Choate, an 18-year-old Black man accused of assaulting a white teen girl, was lynched there by a white mob in 1927. Nearly 20 years later, a white mob gathered at the courthouse before the 1946 Columbia race riot. The incident started with a dispute over a radio repair and led to the near lynching of Marshall, then a defense attorney representing two Black residents.
We reached out to Tacklebox, the production company behind Aldean’s video, but didn’t immediately hear back. The company told USA Today and Fox News Digital that the courthouse is a popular filming location in Tennessee. It said several movies and music videos have been filmed there. Aldean did not choose the location, it said.
"Any alternative narrative suggesting the music video’s location decision is false," the company told Fox.
Aldean, who was performing in Las Vegas when a gunman opened fire on the crowd in 2017, killing 60 people and injuring about 500 others, rejected the idea that his video promoted violence. He referenced the mass shooting and said "No one, including me, wants to continue to see senseless headlines or families ripped apart."
Aldean’s record label, BBR Music Group, did not respond to PolitiFact’s request for comment.
Scenes of protests and police confrontations intersperse Aldean’s video. But eight of the scenes come from outside the U.S., including Germany, Canada, Spain and Ukraine. Some of the video clips were too brief or lacked unique characteristics necessary to identify their origin.
Woman flipping off police officers (0:27): This footage was captured in Berlin in 2017, according to the stock footage website Pond5 where we found it posted for purchase.
"Girl messes with riot police during the Revolutionary May 1st Demonstration on labor day in Berlin," read the video description. Rioting in Berlin on May 1 is "a regular tradition," reported German news outlet Deutsche Welle, and there were protests on May 1, 2017.
This footage was also used in a 2019 music video: "Eyes Closed" by Danish artist Mads Langer.
Woman shouting in officer’s face (0:32): This comes from a Nov. 4, 2020, protest in Manhattan, a New York City borough. In the full video, Devina Singh, 24, shouts expletives at a police officer and spits in his face before he grabs and arrests her. She was charged with obstruction of governmental administration, resisting arrest and harassment, the New York Post reported.
Protesters were calling for all 2020 presidential election votes to be counted before a winner was declared, Spectrum News 1 reported. About 50 protesters were arrested after clashes with police. The protests were a response to then-President Donald Trump saying Nov. 4, 2020, that he wanted the Supreme Court to stop the counting of ballots in some states.
"Protestors riot burning small isolated fire in intersection on street at night to protest police killing of George Floyd in New York City NYC," read the Shutterstock description.
The clip was also used in the 2021 Netflix film "Don’t Look Up," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep. In the movie, the clip appears briefly during a montage in which (spoilers) a comet hits the earth, around two hours and two minutes into the movie.
Five people walking with flares, baseball bat under an overpass (0:49): We found this clip in a catalog of Adobe Stock footage.
"Group of young men in balaclavas with red burning signal flare walking on the road under the bridge, slow motion," read the video description.
Very similar stock footage from the same Adobe series appeared in guitarist Tom Morrello’s 2021 "Raising Hell" music video.
"State of emergency declared in Georgia" chyron (1:22): This video comes from a January 27 report on the LiveNOW from Fox streaming service that used the chyron, "State of emergency declared in Georgia." The news story was about Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp declaring an emergency in anticipation of protests against the construction of a police training facility and the shooting death of an environmental activist who was said to have shot a state trooper. The Aldean video also uses an image of a car burning at the 0:15 mark that’s from the same Fox video.
Protesters run down fiery street (1:35): We found this stock footage available to purchase. It originates from a 2019 protest in Barcelona, Spain, according to a 2020 NBC News article. NBC reported that the clip was used misleadingly at the 2020 Republican National Convention in a video that criticized crime and rioting as a "taste of Biden’s America."
This video was featured at the 2020 Republican National Convention. It used stock footage from a 2019 protest in Barcelona, Spain, to illustrate potential crime under a Joe Biden administration. The same footage was also used in Jason Aldean's "Try That in a Small Town" music video. The Trump video also includes footage from a 2020 street protest in New York City that was used in the movie "Don't Look Up" and featured in Aldean's video as well. (Donald J. Trump, YouTube)
Masked protester in blue puffer jacket throwing item at police (1:38): This comes from a 2013 protest in Kyiv, Ukraine. Reuters photographer Stoyan Nenov captured a still image of the same person. The photo was embedded in an article from French news service Radio France Internationale, with the caption, "Protesters storm the presidential administration building."
Man swinging at police officer (1:52): This is body camera footage released in July 2022 that showed a robbery suspect in downtown Cincinnati swinging a metal pipe at officers who were trying to arrest him, according to a local Fox affiliate. The suspect faced multiple charges after injuring two officers during the arrest, but was found not guilty by reason of insanity in 2023.
Police charging at crowd of protesters (1:54): Using the hotel name, Hotel de l'ITHQ, and a reverse-image search, we tracked this clip to a stock image website and to a YouTube video of a 2013 protest in Montreal, where riot police charged a group of students protesting a rise of tuition fees in Quebec.
Police car driving through protesters (1:56): This is from May 2020 in Los Angeles when a California Highway Patrol vehicle drove away with several people on its hood after being surrounded by people protesting the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
A video clip of this protest — showing just an aerial view of the crowd on the freeway — was also used earlier in the music video, at the 0:52 mark.
Protesters in Los Angeles smashed the window of a California Highway Patrol vehicle in May 2020 after surrounding it during protests over the killing of George Floyd. (Screenshot from KTLA-5)
People pulling on gate (1:58): The footage of a crowd of people wrestling with police for control of a gate appears to be from a 2013 protest near the Kyiv City Council in Ukraine. Two of the men in the Aldean video can be seen in a photo in this article in RIA Novosti, a Ukrainian news site, and archived on its newsbank website.
Police car burning on street while others jumped on another burned car (2:00): This clip is from people protesting a G20 summit in Toronto in 2010. A Getty Images photo captured a similar scene and shows one of the people seen in the Aldean video wearing a white shirt and jumping on the same burned-out car.
Protesters holding green gate (2:05): People crouch behind a green gate and carry it forward in this clip from Kyiv, Ukraine, in 2014. PolitiFact used a reverse-image search to find the Jan. 20, 2014, video available for purchase. "Protesters attacked police during clashes in Kiev on the street Grushevskogo, throwing stones, set(ting) cars alight," read Shutterstock’s description.
The protest happened during a period of political upheaval in Ukraine and appears to have been partly a response to the Ukrainian parliament rushing the passage of tough anti-protest legislation.
Police clashing with protesters (2:07): This brief clip of police clashing with an unseen crowd appears to match images from a 2013 protest in Kyiv. The buildings and yellow buses in the background can be seen in photos from this 2015 article on InfoKava.com.
Aldean’s video shows scenes from actual crimes in progress in Fresno, California; Yuma, Arizona; and Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Liquor store robbery (0:23): The Fresno Bee shared footage of this robbery in 2018. The Bee reported that police were searching for a man who was suspected of robbing Dan’s Liquor in Fresno on Nov. 25, 2018. The suspect, who was armed with a revolver, jumped on the counter and told the store clerk, "Don’t be a hero," the Bee reported.
Masked people breaking glass case (1:33): Surveillance video shows two masked people destroying and robbing jewelry cases in 2017 at Nouri’s Jewelry Store in Fort Lauderdale. CBS News Miami and other news stations reported that at least three people were involved in a heist, stealing more than $200,000 of jewelry within seconds. One of the suspects was arrested not long after the robbery.
A former U.S. Marine disarmed and detained a suspect in an attempted robbery at a Chevron Yuma, Arizona, gas station in 2021. (Screenshot from Yuma County Sheriff's Office)
Convenience store attempted robbery (1:44): Security video shows a convenience store customer in a blue T-shirt disarming a would-be robber seconds after the gunman entered and pointed his weapon toward what appears to be the store counter. This video was released by Yuma County Sheriff’s Office on Oct. 20, 2021. According to a department press release, the customer had served in the U.S. Marine Corps. The incident took place at a Chevron in Yuma, a city with a population of about 97,000 people. Three suspects, all juveniles, were arrested.
PolitiFact Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
UPDATE: The Washington Post reported July 26 that Aldean’s video was edited to remove some video clips, including a news report about a state of emergency being declared in Georgia and a news report about Wisconsin farmers described in this story.
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