Country's Chaotic Summer: Investigating the Death, Rape and Arrests

Luke Bryan performs onstage during day 3 of 2014 Stagecoach
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Stagecoach

Luke Bryan performs onstage during day 3 of 2014 Stagecoach: California's Country Music Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 27, 2014 in Indio, California.

A death, an alleged rape and arrests mar a season in which acts like Luke Bryan and Keith Urban are drawing massive crowds. What will Nashville do?

After a string of ugly, alcohol-fueled mishaps at major concerts, country music seems to be stumbling into the final weeks of the summer touring season. Two of the incidents are shocking. A man who went missing at a Jason Aldean stadium show on July 18 at Cleveland’s Progressive Field turned up dead days later in a nearby landfill, with police theorizing that he might have tumbled down a trash chute at the venue. Eight days later, at Keith Urban’s July 26 amphitheater concert at Xfinity Center in Mansfield, Mass., an 18-year-old man allegedly raped a young woman in sight of other concertgoers.

Aldean tweeted his condolences to the family of Cory Barron, the man who died, and Urban released a statement saying, “My team and I were horrified to learn of the events” at his Mansfield show, and stressed, “This type of behavior stands in stark contrast to the spirit of our shows.” But there have been dozens of people arrested and sent to the hospital in alcohol-abetted scenes not only at the Urban and Aldean events, but also the Stagecoach Festival, which resulted in 177 arrests during three days in late April in Indio, Calif.; and at Luke Bryan’s June 21 show at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, in which 34 people were hospitalized and 911 received 154 calls. (In the summer of 2013, 73 people were arrested and 150 others treated for injuries at a Kenny Chesney show at Heinz Field that might have been a precursor to the messy 2014 season.)

Clearly, there’s cause for concern in the industry. “Why are there more incidents at this show than that show? We need to pay attention to what’s going on out there,” says Heinz’s executive director of stadium management Jimmie Sacco. Meanwhile, Rod Essig, co-head of Creative Artists Agency Nashville, suggests that fans can be reined in: “Maybe we need to address more security, more checkpoints, cut off beer a little bit earlier.”

Does Country Music Need An Alcohol Intervention?

The genre may be suffering in part from its own success. Country shows produced by Live Nation in North America drew nearly 7 million people in 2013, an increase of 50 percent over 2012, according to the promotion giant’s 2013 annual report. The more people that attend an event, the more potential there is for problems. “I’ve done every act in the business and it’s always been this way when you have a mass gathering,” says veteran concert promoter Louis Messina, head of The Messina Group/AEG and promoter of tours by George Strait, Taylor Swift and Chesney, among others. “It happens in our society. I’m not blaming this on country music or country shows. When 50,000 people show up, something’s going to happen.”

“We have arrests at high school football games,” says Sacco, who adds that half the arrests at Bryan’s show were for scalping, not drunken mischief.

Disorder and tragedy certainly aren’t confined to country. As Billboard recently reported, 14 people have died at festivals, many of them EDM-themed, around the world in 2014 so far. At HARD Summer, the Los Angeles EDM festival held Aug. 2-3, police arrested 114 people. And bizarre, isolated misadventures can play out anywhere: At Beyoncé and Jay Z’s Aug. 2 show at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, a man allegedly groped a woman in the crowd, then bit off part of her boyfriend’s finger when the boyfriend intervened.

But the number of arrests at country events seem out of proportion with other types of shows. At Stagecoach, a three-day outdoor country music festival, there were 177 arrests, up 53 from last year, according to the Indio Police Department. That’s more than double the arrests made during all of Coachella, the alternative music festival held in the exact same location the preceding two weekends. (There were 60 arrests at the rock-leaning Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tenn., this June, and 34 arrests at Chicago’s Lollapalooza at the beginning of August.)

Few would expect this summer’s other stadium tours to draw rowdy crowds. “One Direction is kids, Beyoncé and Jay Z is date night, and Paul McCartney is adult audiences,” says Messina. But country’s booze-positive outlook was being blamed for bad behavior as far back as 2011. After a fan was beaten at a Tim McGraw show in Mansfield, the town’s then-police chief, Arthur O’Neill, told CMT, “Country used to be an easy night for us. Now it’s anything but. Country has just changed. I’m a country fan, but the music and the singers have a party motif about them now. It’s all about drinking. It’s a drinking culture.”

While Brad Paisley says he hasn’t witnessed any increase in troublemaking at his concerts and calls it “ridiculous” to blame any antics on drinking songs, he admits that “we are cultivating the party aspect a lot [more] than we ever did. We were always talking about alcohol, but most of the time it had to do with how that plays into your life. This has to do with, ‘It’s almost the weekend, let’s go do this thing.’ ”

That message may be taken a little too literally by some of country music’s newer and younger fans, suggests Tony Conway, who, as former CEO of Buddy Lee Attractions and now head of Conway Entertainment Group, has been handling country shows for 40 years.

“I think they’re probably drinking the Kool-Aid. They’re wanting to live the lifestyle of the songs they’re hearing about because that’s what they think they’re supposed to do,” he says.

Plus, fans young and old have had plenty of time to imbibe at longer-than-usual shows this summer. “It used to be two acts and they were done,” says Essig. “Now there are four-act shows that open at three in the afternoon. It’s hot and people are drinking a lot of liquor. We can tell when we’re going to have a problem because of the temperature: It’s 97 degrees and people are throwing back beers.” (Aldean’s Cleveland show was a mini-festival featuring Miranda Lambert, Florida Georgia Line and Tyler Farr; Bryan’s Heinz Field lineup packed in Dierks Bentley, Lee Brice and Cole Swindell.)

With the season winding down, Sacco welcomes a review of safety regulations with his colleagues. “I’m open to discuss anything and change policies and procedures -- if we have to shorten the hours people are in the venue, if we have to look at how long alcohol is being sold.”

Venues decide when to end liquor sales, and Essig notes that Boston’s Fenway Park stopped serving during the intermission of Zac Brown Band’s shows on June 27 and 28. “There’s no rule that says you have to serve alcohol until Kenny Chesney says ‘Good night,’ ” says Messina, who has promoted Chesney’s stadium shows for more than 12 years.

Heinz Field ended beer sales before Bryan even took the stage in June, and even by then it seems to have been too late. But Pittsburgh’s mayor, who complained about that Bryan concert, praised Aldean’s PNC Park stadium show on July 27, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that it boasted a “cleaner and safer atmosphere,” due in part to measures implemented after Bryan’s show, including a stronger police presence and increased public transit runs.

“We need to solve this because people need to feel safe or they aren’t going to come to concerts,” says one top country manager. “Parents aren’t going to let their kids go if they think there’s a possibility of them getting harmed.”

Still, Paisley says no one should expect the acts to tone down. “It’s not your job as a performer to say ‘settle down,’ ” he says. “Your job is to fire them up.”

This article first appeared in the August 16th issue of Billboard.