Columbia, Tennessee, is a quiet town about an hour south of Nashville. If one happens to know Columbia for anything, it is more than likely the Mule Day celebration that happens each year in early spring. While the population has grown exponentially over the past decade, the town has retained that classic small-town feel. I’ll be honest in saying that Columbia means quite a bit to me. I am a product of the local schools, graduated from the local community college, and have fostered meaningful relationships with people all over the town. Having spent the majority of my life in the town, I have experienced nearly everything Columbia has to offer.
Recently, country performer Jason Aldean released the music video to his single “Try That In A Small Town.” The lyrics to the hit song, crafted by a team of songwriters sans Aldean, highlight a rural community that is run by a degree of vigilante justice. In the song, any number of transgressions are met with a vague threat of one not making it far down the road thereafter. For many people, it harkens back to the days of “sundown towns” and racial segregation. With the music video being shot with the historic Columbia courthouse as the backdrop, it brought debate and general unease to the Tennessee community. While Aldean undoubtedly has the right to perform any song he wishes, performing this particular song in this specific setting causes a certain amount of concern due to Columbia’s distinct history.
On the national scene, Aldean’s performance has been polarizing and has attracted both supporters and detractors. When the controversy quickly reached the national headlines, several Republican contenders for their party’s nomination, along with some country artists, were quick to support Aldean and his lyrics. Other country artists, such as Sheryl Crow and Jason Isbell, ridiculed Aldean for instigating violence and ignoring racial tensions.
Like many rural southern towns, Columbia has a troubled history with race relations. The county courthouse, which was prominently used by Aldean for his music video, was the central location for the lynching of a young black man in 1927 and other race riots in 1946. Both instances of unrest are still remembered and recounted today, especially by the African-American community.
The lynching of Henry Choate in 1927 is a particularly horrid occurrence. After being accused of raping a 16-year-old girl, Choate was arrested and held in the Maury County Jail. It’s important to note that there was no evidence found that Choate was involved in the crime, but he was detained regardless. While being held in custody, he was removed from the jail by a mob of 250 people, tied to the back of a car, and brutally drug to the courthouse. Choate was then lynched in front of the downtown courthouse.
The tragic case of Choate is merely one example of a lynching in Tennessee during the Jim Crow South. In fact, there were 236 documented cases of racially-motivated lynchings in Tennessee between 1877 and 1950. For many in the current-day South, the memory of the terror inflicted on African-Americans still lives today, and that is certainly no different in Columbia.
Although Aldean is no stranger to controversy, including an odd 2015 Halloween costume that featured blackface, I cannot declare that he personally had ill intent when singing these lyrics in front of the courthouse. With that being said, it is also rather apparent that Aldean and his team are terribly tone-deaf to convey such a message in a southern town with a history that mirrors his violent lyrics. While I believe he has the right to perform these lyrics with the unfortunate local backdrop, it is also apparent that Aldean was oblivious and irresponsible in his decision-making.
The historic Columbia courthouse is more than a chosen prop for an Aldean music video. It is a landmark that reminds people of the troubled history of the county and the lack of justice for so many, including Henry Choate. This is not to say there haven’t been great accomplishments throughout the years, but this does not negate the issues cultivated in the town. Aldean’s lyrics and the accompanying music video agitated residents and reminded many in Columbia of the worst instances in our past.
Seth J. Campbell is from Columbia, Tennessee and is a high school educator. He is a weekly columnist for Main Street Media of Tennessee. He also runs Hound Dog Holler Animal Rescue, which focuses on helping at-risk dogs throughout rural Tennessee. He has degrees from the University of Tennessee and Trevecca Nazarene University.