Exclusive: Jason Aldean and the Songwriters of “Try That in a Small Town” Share the True Story Behind the Song — “We Always Knew What We Were Trying to Convey About the Song”

Jason Aldean found himself in the middle of controversy following the release of his 2023 hit song “Try That in a Small Town,” which references crime, the deterioration within our cities, and how residents of smaller towns will take matters into their own hands.

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Written by Kelley Lovelace, Kurt Allison, Neil Thrasher, and Tully Kennedy, the track was the lead single off Aldean’s 2023 album, Highway Desperado. While the song caught some pushback over the lyrics that were perceived by some to provoke gun violence, it wasn’t until the video was released that an onslaught of backlash occurred over the connection to the video’s location and violence. However, as Aldean and the song’s creators put it, the tune was not intended to cause negativity and came from a positive place.

“It’s just how we grew up. We’ve got each other’s back. That’s not going to fly in a small town and I was really proud of that,” Kennedy tells American Songwriter. “A lot of people from home called me and [the song] resonated with them. The song was all about positivity of like, “We’re not going to stand for that.” It’s obvious things that are wrong. People can find negativity these days and if they want to, they’re going to find it. This song was not written, recorded, or released with negative thoughts. It was all about trying to fix the things that we thought were messed up. Like what do we believe? It’s important to have that and stand firm on that.”

[RELATED: Jason Aldean’s Controversial “Try That in a Small Town” Hits No. 1 on Hot 100]

Despite the backlash, or maybe because of it, the song raced to the No. 1 spot on the country charts, garnering support from country fans across the nation, and, in a first for Aldean, reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, a feat that was recently celebrated at a No. 1 party at The Eighth Room in Nashville.

Prior to the celebration, for the first time speaking as a group, Aldean, Lovelace, Thrasher, Kennedy, and Allison, sat down exclusively with American Songwriter to share how the song originated, what it means to them, and why this No. 1 track hits a little different than the rest.

“For me, [‘Try That in a Small Town’] said a lot of the things that I wanted to say at the time and I think captured the way I felt about a lot of things that were going on,” Aldean shares American Songwriter. “It said a lot of things that I was feeling that I wanted to say and it hit me immediately. I think I called or texted these guys, probably within five minutes after getting it going, and said, ‘I think we got our first single.’”

Check out the conversation below.

American Songwriter: Jason, “Try That in a Small Town” is your 28th No. 1 single, how does that feel to you?

Jason Aldean: Yeah, number 28, obviously it’s great. I think about all the years that I’ve been in town and that we’ve been doing this stuff, and all the years I’ve known these guys and just … I don’t know, we were so excited when we had the first one and to think about almost 20 years later, and we’ve almost got 30 of them, just it’s pretty wild.

AS: Are you going for No. 29 and 30? Is that next?

JA: Thirty is my number right now. We’ll get there and then we’ll set a new goal.

AS: What drew you to “Try That in a Small Town” that made you want to record it?

JA: I was driving in my car one day and these guys got the demo back, sent it to me and I felt like this was one of those songs you listened to once, and, for me, it said a lot of the things that I wanted to say at the time and I think captured the way I felt about a lot of things that were going on. Just to me, it said a lot of things that I was feeling that I wanted to say and it hit me immediately. I think I called or texted these guys, probably within five minutes after getting it going, “I think we got our first single.” It was a no-brainer for me.

[RELATED: Jason Aldean Responds to Backlash to “Try That in a Small Town” Video]

AS: You connected with it right away?

JA: Right away. First time listening, I think sometimes you have songs that do that, and sometimes songs take a while to grow on you. And I think for this one, it was immediate for me.

AS: Tully and Kurt, you are in Jason’s band, so when you were writing the song did you know you were immediately writing this song for Jason?

Tully Kennedy: Me and Kurt, for a while, and Jason too, have been talking about trying to write something that was our kind of “A Country Boy Can Survive” [by Hank Willims Jr]. And it was something that was in the back of our heads. It’s hard to set out and do it. It’s like every time you try to do it, never comes out how you’re hearing it. Then one night, I’m sitting in the house and Neil [Thrasher] texted me, and he said, “Hey, me and Kelly are working on an idea.” And I said, “Well, let’s hear it.” And he sent me the idea they’re working on and within three seconds I called him. And when we had the song done, it was almost like Jason was with us the whole time doing it because it was his song. It’s what we all wanted to say, what he wanted to say. And when that happens like that, that’s how I think that you’re onto something—when everything just happens, and it’s smooth and it’s easy. And I think it’s a really special moment.

JA: I think too, one of the things that was really important for me was, at this point in my career—And this was a conversation I had with my record company where I was like, “Hey, we can give you guys another fastball down the middle radio candy song that’s going to do fine, it’s going to do what it does. Or we can give you something that actually says something, that actually means something.” And at this point in my career to be able to say something that matters and really has some meaning to me, versus just, “Hey, here’s a cool song.” That meant a lot to me in the sense of like, “Hey man, this is different. This is different than just putting out a normal single. This one’s got some weight to it. And it’s going to stir the pot a little bit, I think, and make people reassess maybe, hopefully, the way they think about some things.” So that was the intention I think for me recording it, and knowing these guys like I do, probably writing it as well.

Photo by Justin Mrusek

AS: So the song originated with Neil and Kelly [Lovelace]. How did you come up with the idea?

Neil Thrasher: Yep, it was Kelly’s idea. [Turns to Kelly] Tell them how you got the idea, where it came from.

Kelly Lovelace: I watch a lot of news, just around the clock and stuff like that. Sometimes you get ideas that way, but I was watching it before I was going outside. I was going to do some sort of workout…

NT: No, no, you were a power walking (laughs).

KL: No, I called it a prayer walk, not a power walk. It’s not out there like that, not that there’s anything wrong with that. But anyway, I was watching that before I went out, and there’s just this montage that the station had going where I saw this little lady just walking down a sidewalk in some big city; I’m not sure which one it was. And the guy just comes over and just punches her directly in the face and she’s out. She’s completely out and then it goes to the next frame, another sidewalk somewhere, where just a complete stranger comes up behind somebody—doesn’t even know, full-on hip turn, an aluminum bat in the back of the head, just out.

And they were just doing little clips, and then you get other clips of six people beating up one person. It’s like all this stuff. Anyway, so I went outside and I did my prayer stuff and all that, so I was in a good place then. It was a beautiful day and I was like, “All right, thank you Lord for … Forgive my sin, in Jesus’ name, amen.” So I was feeling really great. Then all of a sudden I just started rewinding all that and started getting madder and madder and madder. I just got really angry and I said, “Try that in a small town.” And I was getting really pissed. Then as soon as I did, it was a Tuesday, it was a beautiful day, and usually [Neil and I] either ride or play golf on Tuesdays, depending on the weather. So I called Neil because I said, “Okay, this could be something.”

NT: I had my golf clothes on. I’m ready (laughs)

KL: He goes, “Hey, Kel. I think it’s a good day to play some golf.” And I said, “I don’t know.” I said, “I think I might write something.” And he goes, “What do you got?” And I just told him. [Turns to Neil] You can take it from there.

NT: He told me what the title was and I was like [Wow] … Then he told me about what he saw on the news and I’m like, “That’s the first line of the song.” Sucker punch somebody on the sidewalk, it’s got to be that literal. You can’t write that song any other way. And I told him, “I got to call Tully and Kurt.” I said, “There’s only one way to write this song and there’s only one artist on the planet that would even consider putting it out or cutting it.” And this guy [Jason], he was the only one. He’s the only one.

TK: Yeah, because if it’s not him, it never gets heard. And that’s the thing about these kind of songs. You could write them and if there’s no voice to carry the message—That’s when it turns to his song. That’s the magic of it.

NT: Most writers wouldn’t even attempt to write it. They would say, “Man, that’s a cool title. We can’t write that. It’s never going to see the light of day. Nobody would cut it.” There’s too much around it.

JA: Well, nobody wants to get too political. Almost everybody in the entertainment industry, maybe except for if you’re in LA, but everybody else is like nobody wants to get involved in that stuff. But for me, like I said, it was things that were important to me. It’s the way I feel about the state of things. So I don’t know, that’s why it kind of resonated with me so much.

[RELATED: Travis Tritt Defends Jason Aldean in Wake of “Try That in a Small Town” Controversy]

AS: When you had the idea and thought about writing it, did you know, I don’t know how anybody could have predicted what it would turn into, but did you feel it was a hit or that the song would maybe hit a nerve?

KL: I knew I was passionate about it as long as we’ve all been doing this, when you think of anything, writing anything, recording anything, that actually continues to move us, then you know you have something. Whether somebody records it, we have zero say. Just the idea, I was elated that day, just the idea of it. Because a lot of times as a Christian or a conservative, we’re not the loudest. You’re mainly getting yelled at, but this is a way not to yell at anybody. This is what I believe and I want somebody to hear what I believe. And even when we write it, the only way they can hear what is in your heart is if you have somebody like Jason to record it and say, “Man, is he actually going to do that?” You’re so excited because the artist is going to carry just all the pressures of that. And huge credit to Jason because you took some continued fire.

JA: I got a thick skin (laughs). Luckily.

KL: Well, and like you said, you’re not seeing anything that’s outside of your value. So it’s just, “Hey, this is the truth. This is what I believe.”

JA: Well that was it. I never bought in or entertained that, “Hey, somebody’s trying to make this about this or that.” To me, the song was about this, and the video was about this. This is what I saw, this is what I meant by it. If you choose to see something else, then I guess music, videos, and all those things are subjective and that’s your right. I think we always knew what we were trying to convey about the song. And as I said, it was meant to get people’s attention and say, “This is what we’re doing now and this is unacceptable to us. Look in the mirror, everybody, look in the mirror.” And to me, that’s what the song is about. And I’m more than prepared in situations for that to take some heat. I stand very firm. I’m very confident in my decisions and the way I feel about things. So I was absolutely ready for that and it was worth it.

AS: After the song is recorded by Jason, what does it mean to you when you hear it that first time?

Kurt Allison: Not so much what the song means to me, but what the moment means to me is, you had a group of people that believed something. And through all of the journey, and the backlash and all of that, you had a group of people that never wavered from the thought that they had, the belief that they had, obviously led by Jason in a time where you’re told you can’t stand for something or you’re told you need to apologize if you may have offended somebody. I was more proud that we were just all part of a group throughout the process of the song, knowing that it needed to be delivered a certain way and then never wavering from that thought, including the whole process we saw.

JA: I agree with that. I think for me, with a song like this comes a lot of backlash. And you know it’s going to happen, you know it’s coming. And I think it’s like anything these days when people see things, everybody has a different opinion on what color that door is. You know what I’m saying? So it’s a weird time. I think we obviously knew what the song was, it was meant to prove a point and talk about where we’re coming from and how we feel about things. And with a song that comes a lot of bullets. You take a lot of bullets in the media and things like that, but I think as Kurt said, we always knew what the message was for us, what we were trying to say, and felt like the song was just a great song that a lot of people could relate to. And I think we saw that on the road, just the way fans and people rallied around the song after it became this big media, whatever. It just became a life of its own in the media and for our fans and for people to rally around that, and show up to the shows, and turn this song that everybody was scared to have any part of, all of a sudden they kind of lifted this thing up and said, “No, there’s a lot of us that feel that way.” And that was a really cool moment for me during the whole process.

NT: We knew it was going to turn into something that it wasn’t. We knew that people were going to try to turn into something that it wasn’t.

JA: But you know what? I remember turning that song in, and the biggest thing was that it mentions I got a gun that my granddad gave me. And that line in the song, the record companies were like, “That’s going to be the line …” Because there’s been so much crazy gun violence in schools and all this different stuff over the years. So it’s a sore subject, but it’s real. And for us, where we’re from, to me that was such a harmless line in the song. It’s like my granddaddy’s passing this down to me, which I’m named after my grandfather, so anything I have of his is truly important. And that’s what the song meant, but obviously, just the word gun sent everybody into a frenzy. That was the biggest problem until the video came out and then that was a whole different deal.

NT: I cried when I saw the video for the first time. I literally cried. Because I was already high on the song, to begin with, and the record that they cut on the song—I was already high on emotion. It was so good, and then I saw it visually and saw what [Director] Shaun (Silva) did to the video and I was just like —I was overcome with emotion.

JA: And a lot of credit to Shaun Silva on that video too, because that was a thing where having a video director that can really capture the essence of what you’re going for, what you’re trying to convey, that’s a talent in itself. He did a great job I think at capturing that stuff and what we were trying to say. And it was probably my favorite video we’ve ever done.

TK: To your credit [Jason] though, from the minute that we got that song, Jason had the vision for that video. That was the plan. I remember just you telling me, “Here’s what the video’s going to be.” It was a very clear vision and goes back to the timing and the magic of everything and him owning the moment because it’s not easy to do. Like he said, people are going to come at you. Last summer was one of the proudest moments we’ve ever had out there playing the song all summer long and seeing the people react to it.

JA: Week to week, just more and more and more into a frenzy when we would play that thing. And it was just cool to see fans rally around something that everybody, not everybody, but a lot of people were trying to tear down and see them kind of rally around that and let it be heard and have its day. So that was a cool thing. We saw it from week to week one on the road last year. It was crazier and crazier.

AS: You’ve all had several No. 1 songs, does this one feel any different than the rest?

NT: Yes.

JA: Oh yes.

AS: OK, Why?

NT: Because it was written from what Jason and everybody else has been saying. It was written from a place that I feel strongly about, that we know about because we’re all from places like that. And we know how it would really be if that evil was brought into that place. And it just meant so much. When I heard the title, I couldn’t wait to jump on it. I couldn’t wait to start writing it.

TK: Yeah, we just said something. And on the road, one of my greatest memories I’ll have forever is the first weekend we played it after some of the controversy stirred up, I think it was in Cincinnati. I still have goosebumps talking about it. We got to that chorus and Jason was singing and somebody had a huge American flag in the front row. He took the flag and put it over his shoulder and sang the whole song with that flag over his shoulder. It’s burning in my mind. It’s like such a moment. And I realized we did something a little bit greater than just release a song. We believe in something and it seems to translate. So yeah, it has a little bit different feeling than—they’re all special, but this one has a little bit bigger deeper feeling than just a song.

JA: I think this one’s different for me, just from a simple fact of, obviously this was a song when I kind of took it into the camp and started playing it, there was a lot of, “Oh, I don’t know,” kind of stuff. I think it’s different for me just because I think we all felt strongly about it. And I went to bat pretty hard for this song to come out and be a single. And the video, it was just a lot of stuff in this song. We just kind of didn’t back off of it. It was like, “Man, this is it. This is what it is.” And when you put something out and you know what it means to you and you see a lot of other people trying to make it into something that it’s not to you, and trying to tear something down, I mean this is what we do. We’re artists. We write songs and sing songs and make these things. And I don’t like people trying to put limitations on what those things are that we can do. So to be able to put that song out and have it go to the top of the charts for not one week, but multiple weeks, that’s pretty special for me, for sure.

KA: One hundred percent it’s different than any other. Jason kind of touched on this, even as songwriters, your job is to write something easy to listen to—palatable candy. You know, “Hey, what do you listen to when you drive your car? Roll your windows down?” Something mindless. And we’ve all written those and I hope we write more (laughs). But we had a chance—it was like a moment in time when we had a chance to do something that was a little bigger than us and to do something we believed in. And that will always be number one. This one will always be the best thing we’ve ever written.

KL: For sure. The exact same, the most meaningful song I’ve ever been a part of for so many reasons. One of the biggest reasons is because it created this. So all of a sudden we’ve never written together before. And I’ve been around Jason for years, we’ve known each other a little bit, but it just brings everybody together into this family. And now regardless, hopefully, we get tons of other things recorded, if not, still the most special song ever to me, to be a part of this and to be a part of that, that we all feel, that millions of people feel, that you had to have one man stand up and say, “Hey, I feel like you. Listen to this.” And that just means the world to me because you just get to say something. It’s just really, really something.

And these guys know, I’ve been recently married, and before this, Neil said, “Hey, Aldean’s going to be looking. We’re going to have to come up with some ideas.” So it seemed like it was a God thing because that built on the other things happening. Then we had written “Tough Crowd,” and “Rather Watch You” (2 other songs on Jason’s album, Highway Desperado); we were just hitting a good lick and all we were thinking about was you (to Jason), period.

JA: And I appreciate that. (laughs)

KL: No, when you have an artist that you know he’s going to be a good listen, it’s going to be the best listen you can get. You’ll either like it or you won’t. It’s motivating, it’s encouraging, and just makes you want to do more and more. So it’s just for all those reasons.

AS: The song also hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, a first for you Jason, making history with 3 country artists at 1, 2, and 3 with Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen. What does that mean to you to be a part of that?

JA: It’s really cool. I mean Luke and Morgan, they’re on fire right now, so they’re kind of leading the charge. And I think for us, we’ve been in a game a long time. So we’ve been around, and I think it’s a testament to these guys as writers and the songs and the things that we’ve done over the years to still be here almost 20 years later and still having songs that top the chart like that, that we’ve never done in my career before, it’s special. It’s a special group and I’m glad to be in the middle of it, you know what I mean? But yeah, to have a song like that, that many years into our career and be up there on the chart with the two of the guys that are leading the charge now is sort of the young guys in country music, it’s a proud moment for me. It’s really cool to be a part of it.

Jason Aldean and Kurt Allison (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

Main image by Justin Mrusek

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