Country music has long idealized the gun-owning lifestyle. From Johnny Cash in “Folsom Prison Blues” to Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead” and Blake Shelton’s “Granddaddy’s Gun,” the genre’s stars have harnessed gun imagery to bolster their outlaw credibility, connect them with kindred fans and conjure a specific image of Americans – self-reliant and violent.
But after a mass shooter killed himself and at least 58 people at Las Vegas’ Route 91 Harvest country music festival, voices questioning loose gun laws have emerged from within the country music community, even at the risk of alienating fans.
“I’ve been a proponent of the 2nd amendment my entire life. Until the events of last night,” Caleb Keeter, guitarist for the Josh Abbott Band, wrote on social media after the shooting. “I cannot express how wrong I was.” He had been on Route 91’s main stage just hours before the killing began.
Rising country singer Margo Price, in an interview last week, said she is a longtime gun owner – she used to live in a tent in Colorado and kept a shotgun to protect herself. Still, she said the shooting may finally lead country artists to speak out.
“No one I hang out with thinks that a random person on the street should be able to buy a machine gun,” said Price, whose sister is a performer on the Las Vegas Strip. Country artists, she added, need to use their credibility with rural and right-leaning voters to advocate for stricter gun control.
“Politicians offer ‘prayers and thoughts’ but then take money from the NRA. People have had all these opportunities to speak out, and instead say vague things like, ‘This is a song against hate’ but not talk about reforming gun laws. They’ve got to get their heads out of the sand,” Price said.
Such divergence from the pack can have consequences, as Texas trio the Dixie Chicks learned when singer Natalie Maines told a crowd during the Bush administration in 2003 that she was “ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” Within days, much of commercial country radio had stopped playing the platinum group’s songs.
Maines wasn’t silenced. After a 2015 theater shooting in Louisiana, she posted on Twitter, “The NRA has such a hold on our politicians, we’ll probably be issued guns at movie theaters before they’ll up gun control.”
Singer Jason Aldean, who was onstage Oct. 1 as bullets flew, struck a balanced tone on Instagram.
“Something has changed in this country and in this world lately that is scary to see,” he wrote on in the aftermath of the shooting. “This world is becoming the kind of place I am afraid to raise my children in. At the end of the day we aren’t Democrats or Republicans, Whites or Blacks, Men or Women. We are all humans and we are all Americans and its time to start acting like it and stand together as ONE!”
He reiterated that call for unity on last weekend’s “Saturday Night Live.”
“This week, we witnessed one of the worst tragedies in American history. Like everyone, I’m struggling to understand what happened that night and how to pick up the pieces and start to heal,” he said during the show’s cold open. “So many people are hurting. There are children, parents, brothers, sisters, friends – they’re all part of our family. So I want to say to them: We hurt for you and we hurt with you. But you can be sure we’re going to walk through these tough times together, every step of the way, because when America is at it’s best, our bond and our spirit, it’s unbreakable.”
He then performed a rendition of the Tom Petty’s song “I Won’t Back Down,” which also paid homage to Petty, who died Oct. 2 at 66.
Compared with other genres, country music holds an honored position within the NRA. Rock and pop musicians tend to be liberal and pro-gun control. Gunplay is a staple of hip-hop, but those artists haven’t been embraced by the NRA.
Given the demographics of its fans – many of them conservative and from rural regions – country music and guns is a natural fit.
Vanessa Shahidi, director of NRA Country, told the Nashville Tennessean in 2015: “If you poll our (NRA) members, they love country music.” NRA Country, which was started in 2010, promotes the work of NRA-card-carrying country music artists including Big & Rich, Gretchen Wilson, Florida Georgia Line, Trace Adkins and dozens more.
Normally an active presence on Twitter, NRA Country hasn’t posted since the shootings. Nor has it responded to repeated requests for comment.
Country duo Big & Rich performed at Route 91 a few hours before headliner Aldean’s set was interrupted by gunfire. The group’s John Rich, who owns a Las Vegas Strip bar called the Redneck Riviera, said he was at the bar that night when they learned of the shooting, according to his account on Fox News.
An off-duty police officer approached Rich and asked him if he was armed. Rich told the officer, “I have my conceal and carry permit and yes sir, I am armed.” The officer borrowed the gun, and for about two hours, recalled Rich, “without flinching this guy kept a point on that front door just in case somebody came through.”
Representatives for Rich did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement on Twitter, the band wrote: “Unreal, tragic and sad beyond belief. We are all in shock from the senseless massacre that took place in Vegas last night at the Route 91 Fest.” (Of the nearly two dozen NRA Country-supported artists contacted by The Times, none was available for comment.)
On NRA Country’s website, however, artist-advocates have expressed their devotion to the NRA. “I understand the price of freedom,” wrote country singer Pete Scobell. “I fought for it as a member of our armed forces. The freedoms we are granted as Americans, especially our Second Amendment freedom, is something I do not take for granted.”
“I am extremely honored to be named an NRA Country Featured Artist,” wrote Texas singer Aaron Watson, adding that the NRA “fights for my right to enjoy hunting with my family, but more importantly, my second amendment right to bear arms and protect my family if need be.”
Artists in country’s more progressive circles, many of whom are younger and rose not through the Nashville label system but independently, hinted that they are prepared to advocate for one of the most contentious issues in American society.
Guitarist Keeter wrote that the band and crew felt powerless and terrified during the shooting, and that crew members who had concealed carry permits couldn’t use them for fear of being mistaken for a shooter. (Through representatives, the Josh Abbott Band declined an interview request after the shooting.)
“We need gun control RIGHT. NOW.” he wrote. “My biggest regret is that I stubbornly didn’t realize it until my brothers on the road and myself were threatened by it.”
Given the NRA’s power, that’s no small gamble. The organization has kept tabs on its critics in the form of a document that identifies entertainers of all genres who have spoken against the NRA. Among those listed are Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow and Missy Elliott.
The Las Vegas shooting wasn’t the first time a country act spoke in favor of gun control. In 2015, singers Tim McGraw and Billy Currington were booked to perform at a benefit for Sandy Hook Promise, which advocates for tighter gun restrictions.
The response from the right was swift. When the far-right site Breitbart.com reported on McGraw’s plans, it did so with a scolding that “gun control renders law-abiding citizens defenseless, but it does nothing to stop criminals from carrying out their treachery.”
The backlash prompted Currington to cancel his appearance. In a Facebook post at the time, he stressed that he felt strongly “about honoring and supporting the Sandy Hook community.” However, he added, “I am choosing to step aside from this fundraiser and will focus instead on the rest of the tour dates.”
The more established star McGraw wasn’t cowed.
“I don’t put a political blanket on what I’m doing,” McGraw told ABC News Radio in 2015. “This is about helping people and leading with your heart. I think that that’s what I try to do, and we’re doing things (that) are earmarked for a lot of good in the community.”
The Washington Post contributed to this report.
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