By Elissa Yancey
In a hot, hot summer when the stereotypically brutal movie “Deliverance” turns 50 and a Jason Aldean hymn to small town violence tops the charts, we at the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition and all who feel the love of the mountains deep in our veins—and, to be honest, also those folks who chant “U.S.A” repeatedly at Aldean’s concerts—need the small town values and Appalachian realities illuminated by the musician Tyler Childers and writers Silas House and Jason Howard.
The serendipitous pre-release of Childers’ newest song “In Your Love” in late July provides an answer to Aldean’s righteous rage. Childers’ song and video provide an eyes-wide-open intent on painting a powerfully real, and finely layered, picture of Appalachian life.
Let us contrast this with Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town.” For a moment, let’s assume the best of intent behind his praise for “small town” values. For a moment, let’s brush aside the images of violence and destruction chosen as the cinematic backdrop for his homage to the “sense of community and respect” he speaks of on social media and in his concerts. For a moment, let’s assume his not-so-small-town upbringing in Macon, Georgia, and education at the state’s Bibb Academy, which was founded in 1970 as a segregation academy, don’t disqualify him from opining on small town folks’ dedication to taking care of their own—meaning family, friends and neighbors of all kinds.
Now comes the hard part: assuming the best of intent when listening to the lyrics of the song that shot Aldean to the top of the Billboard rankings last week: “Try That in a Small Town.” The song begins with a punch—a sucker punch, specifically—and then moves on to carjacking an old lady and pulling a gun on a liquor store owner. I’ll leave it to a real resident of a small town, Terra Vance, a brilliant West Virginia writer who you can support here, to detail just how far these lyrics stray from real small town life via her Facebook post.
To be clear, Aldean didn’t write the song, though I’ve never seen him defer the writing credits to his songwriters. What Aldean’s video does, though, is double-down on a mythology of small-town toughness that celebrates fighting over understanding and that praises divisiveness rather than the common bonds of community. Community bonds include rich and complicated layers of struggles and triumphs, strengths and weaknesses. They come in all shapes and shades, and they represent all of humanity’s complexities. One thing that unites residents of small towns is being misunderstood, flattened by narratives like those peddled by folks like Jason Aldean, who can claim being both “cancelled” and more successful than ever before in a single breath.
Thankfully, Tyler Childers’ love song is intentional; the story its music video tells is a thoughtful collaboration between Childers, House and Howard, fellow Kentuckians and friends. Silas House also happens to be the Kentucky Poet Laureate, the National Endowment for the Humanities Chair in Appalachian Studies at Berea College, and a staunch advocate for other Kentucky and Appalachian writers. Working with Childers, House and his husband, Jason Howard, a journalist, essayist and editor of Berea’s Appalachian Review, came up with a four-minute story for which “In Your Love” serves as a heartfelt soundtrack.
Set in the 1950s, the video portrays two gay coal miners, highlighting not only the toughness of their jobs and rural lives, but also their love for one another and their devotion to family, to hard work and, importantly, to standing their ground. As Childers sings: “I will work for you, Til my hands are tired and bleeding, I know what it is from us I’m needing, I will work for you.” This is mountain toughness—these men taking care of their own, these men building a supportive family that is loving and accepting in the face of bullies and hate. It is a representation of reality and love created with so much depth and so much clarity, it took my breath away.
Apparently, I am not alone. YouTube’s official video page for “In Your Love” has garnered 88,000 “thumbs-up” and no dislikes, as of this reading. One of the most powerful comments on that page is this: “The double wedding ring quilt shown in the last scene is a traditional wedding gift in Appalachia, usually given by the mother to her child on the wedding day. This was a couple deeply cherished and celebrated by their local community.”
What stays with me long after Childers’ last chord fades is a feeling of what love and devotion look like in a warming world filled with hard work and struggles—and it turns out that they don’t look much different, whether you live in a holler or on a busy city street. They look like a meal shared with chosen family where everybody brings a dish they love; they look like kicking back to relax and listen to music after a long day’s work; they look like a deep kiss and sharing in the unexpected luck and joy of finding a four-leaf clover. They look like pain and comfort, like making love and saying goodbye. In Childers’ world, and in that of House and Howard, we don’t have to assume the best of intent; all we have to do is recognize it—and with it, the radical toughness it has always taken to love, and love in, a small town.
UACC Core Member Elissa Yancey, MSEd, is a lifelong storygatherer, sharer, educator and entrepreneur. She serves as Executive & Creative Director at the nonprofit A Picture’s Worth, where she works alongside a team of narrative change agents to amplify community voices and stories, to support community leadership development and to build narrative literacy, and bridges of understanding, across divides. She is also the author of Grab Happy: The Serendipitous and Surprising Sides of Caregiving and Survival. Born and raised in Norwood, Elissa is a proud urban Appalachian.