'Enough Is Enough': After Borderline Shooting, Country Artists Begin Speaking Out On Gun Control

Alysse Gafkjen
Brothers Osborne

At least a dozen families spent Thanksgiving with an unoccupied chair at the table and an empty place in their hearts following the slaughter of 12 people at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

The Nov. 7 attack marked the 307th mass shooting in the United States in the first 311 days of 2018.  The Country Music Association acknowledged the tragedy as Garth Brooks led a moment of silence for the victims at the start of the CMA's 52nd annual awards on Nov. 14.

In contrast to that silence, the Borderline incident seems to have made country artists more vocal about the subject of guns. Most of them on the red carpet before the CMA Awards -- and the ASCAP, BMI and SESAC songwriter awards that were held the three preceding nights -- were willing to address the issue, revealing a mix of sorrow, rage, fear and resignation. Beyond their concern for the victims, they addressed their own worries about stepping onstage and how the shootings affect them and their fans.

Much like the nation at large, the artists don't have a single, easy solution to fix the ongoing problem, but their willingness to at least field questions represented a remarkable change in attitude in the past year.

"The fact that it's even being uttered in conversation is some sort of step forward," said Maren Morris on the CMA Awards red carpet.

Indeed, artists' responses to questions this year about the issue are a sharp reversal from the 2017 CMA Awards, which occurred 39 days after the massacre at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas, where 58 country concertgoers were killed and another 441 were injured. With the industry's emotions still raw, the CMA initially threatened journalists last year with expulsion if they asked artists on the red carpet about gun violence. It rescinded that order after Morris and Brad Paisley publicly criticized the policy. Regardless, most artists shied away from the subject or spoke in general "thoughts and prayers" platitudes if reporters asked. Few journalists did.

This time, artists were willing to speak in greater depth, and some even expressed gratitude for the chance to discuss the issue.

"That's the most important question I've been asked all night," said Margo Price on the SESAC red carpet.

Country artists typically avoid politics for fear of offending the conservative elements in their fan bases, but few topics make them go silent as quickly and completely as gun control. The genre's very roots include singing-cowboy movies, where such good guys as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry policed the West with a big iron on their hip. A chunk of the country audience embraces gun culture and passionately defends the Second Amendment, but the number of artists who recently had a cozy relationship with the National Rifle Association has dwindled. From 2010 until the Route 91 shooting, the NRA had partnered with performers through its NRA Country arm, a soft-sell lifestyle brand meant to attract younger NRA members, by featuring a different artist each month on its website. Such stars as Alan Jackson and Jon Pardi played its conventions and trade shows, which have become increasingly controversial as the mass-shooting epidemic continues.

The Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999, is a significant marker in the timeline. Some 13 victims were gunned down in what seemed to be an aberration at the time. But in the ensuing 19 years, the number of incidents has increased dramatically while gun rights activists -- led by the NRA -- have largely refused to compromise on most prevention measures, stoking fears in their base that their rights to own firearms might be taken away.

As mass shootings have increased, the country industry has typically addressed the issue by performing at vigils or holding benefits for survivors, but with the Harvest 91 tragedy, artists themselves were survivors. Jason Aldean, Chris Young, Luke Combs and Jake Owen -- all whom were onstage or backstage when the shooting began in Las Vegas -- have the horrors of that night etched in their memories. Artist links and references were soon scrubbed from the NRA Country website.

Now with the Borderline shooting, the country industry and its fans are feeling more and more under siege.

"The thought [of a concert shooting] goes through my mind every single night," said Lindsay Ell. "It's sad that we live in a day that we need to think about it, but it's true. Any time you're in a room full of people -- especially when you're on a stage or walking a carpet and brought to attention -- anybody's in jeopardy."

The artists recognize that it's increasingly important to discuss the issue if they intend to see a change.

"The fact that more people are willing to talk about it shows that progress is being made -- small progress, but it's still progress," said Brothers Osborne guitarist John Osborne prior to the ASCAP Awards. "If people keep talking about it, I think healthy change will be made."

Cultural changes were already underway before Borderline. In addition to country's reduced involvement with the NRA, some corporate partners ended relationships in the last year with the organization, which is now struggling financially. Polls show that many voting blocs -- including suburban females, who proved key in the November midterm elections -- favor legislation that would tighten gun ownership laws. Voters in Washington State approved new restrictions on assault weapons.  Additionally, numerous candidates, even in such traditionally conservative states as Kansas and South Carolina, won at the ballot box while pledging to fight for stricter gun laws.

"A lot [of voters] in Georgia were talking about [gun control], and people who weren't even politicians were running on it," reflected Sugarland's Kristian Bush on the BMI carpet. "Thank goodness people are talking about it, because conversation makes it go forward."

Outsiders have criticized the country music industry for dragging its feet on the topic, even in the past few weeks. The New Yorker chastised the CMA Awards for shying away from politics under the headline "The Scripted, Gun-Free Escapism Of The Country Music Association Awards." A story in The New York Times proclaimed that "Country Music Will Talk About The Hurt, But Not The Politics."

Some artists did, in fact, discuss policy on the red carpets. Price, Lee Brice and Drake White specifically advocated for tighter background checks.

"If it was harder for me to go get a gun, that's OK with me," said Brice, who is a gun owner. "That background check, it takes about 30 minutes to go in, get it filled out and get a gun. Maybe that's a big first thing to be changed. Maybe you have to wait two weeks to get it back for an extensive search -- or longer."

"I'm a gun owner," said Price. "My dad was a hunter, but we don't need AR-15s, we don't need Glocks to hunt. And I really think that we need to tighten regulations, how people get guns, and gun safety in general."

Others, such as Jerrod Niemann, focused on the mental health aspect of the cultural crisis. Niemann, whose new single "Old Glory" honors the sacrifices of soldiers, spent several hours in a Nov. 13 Facetime chat with survivors from the Borderline shooting. The killer, noted Niemann, was a veteran who may have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"A lot of people don't realize one of our vets commits suicide every 65 minutes," he said. "It seems like it's kind of swept under the rug. There's no excuse, obviously, to ever take innocent lives, but we just need to pay more attention to that."

Only one artist who talked with Billboard outright opposed toughening gun regulations.

"I don't believe in any stricter gun laws," said Craig Campbell. "I don't think that restricting somebody that is [like] the majority [of gun owners] and that has lived and obeyed the law and did everything the legal way, I shouldn't be punished for that."

If the shootings at concerts continue, however, musicians may find their economic futures impaired. New Capitol artist Adam Hambrick opened for the Eli Young Band in San Jose, Calif., on Nov. 8, the day after the Borderline shooting, and he received several notes from fans who canceled plans to attend his show.

"They felt uneasy, they felt unsafe, and that shook me," admitted Hambrick before the ASCAP awards.

In the short run, a few unsold tickets here and there may not be much of a problem. But if the volume of public incidents increases -- at concert venues, churches, movie theaters and schools -- the number of people likely to avoid public events may rise too.

Big Machine Music GM Mike Molinar has discussed that exact issue on a personal level with his wife. Working in a business that requires concert attendance potentially heightens his exposure to gun violence as the number of incidents rises.

"If that sustains itself, the odds are you're going to be involved or someone you love is going to be involved," he said. "I don't know what [the solution] is unless there's a massive shift in perspective and a value of life over our access to guns. There's so much in the middle that we can do, and there's so much room in my mind that we can get better."

Which is why the increased willingness of country artists to talk about gun control is significant, even if they don't have specific remedies. When pop artists in the 1960s protested racism and the Vietnam War, it helped turn the tide.

Hambrick's solution after Borderline is similar to the approach that Bob Dylan, Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young took during that earlier protest period: He channeled his emotions by writing a song.

Some of his fellow country artists likewise addressed gun violence through music following the Route 91 shooting. Morris dedicated the proceeds of her single "Dear Hate" (featuring Vince Gill), written following the 2015 Charleston, S.C., church massacre, to charities benefitting the victims. Eric Church explored survivor's guilt in "Why Not Me," which he wrote and debuted at the Grand Ole Opry in the week after the Vegas tragedy. Carrie Underwood recorded "The Bullet," a song about the long-term pain that gun violence inflicts on survivors, for her Cry Pretty project in reaction to the Las Vegas massacre. Kane Brown's new album Experiment -- released Nov. 9, just two days after the Borderline assault -- includes "American Bad Dream," a song that explores school students' psychological stress in the age of mass shootings.

Meanwhile, unlike Hambrick's fans, artists cannot avoid shows. They are expected to be there for the concert, no matter the intensity of their fears, and to occupy what is arguably the most at-risk position in the venue. That is another reason some cite a reluctance to discuss gun violence.

"I don't want somebody to come and try to kill me because of something I said in the newspaper," noted Cadillac Three frontman Jaren Johnston. "That's scary."

Artists and their bands now have all established protocol for dealing with potential issues, and many venues have increased security procedures, reducing some of the danger. But it doesn't entirely alleviate the acts' fears. And that, in turn, threatens the quality of performances.

"People have paid money to see us play," said Jordan Davis. "The last thing I want to do is give them a half-hearted performance."

Thus, the artists fight through their fear, hoping to inspire a fan base that increasingly shares the acts' uneasiness about the safety of public places.

"We can't not think about it," noted Dan + Shay's Dan Smyers. "But as scared as you might be, it's our duty to be up there entertaining those people, brightening their lives. Somebody might be going through something, and maybe our music is a way for them to escape. Maybe it's an outlet for them to talk or express their feelings for somebody. Music is a good thing, man. It's positivity, and we're going to keep making it."

Only one artist, an independent act still fishing for his first hit, declined to speak about gun violence on CMA-related red carpets this year. Off the record, he said he does not feel he is in the position to publicly air his anger about the situation. But he is now in the minority as country artists address an issue that threatens their bottom lines and the safety of everyone who visits a concert hall.

"It's tough to be a fan, and it's scary to be an artist and put yourself out there so vulnerably," said Morris. "It's a weird world to live in, but the thing that always makes me feel better and hopeful is the fact that we're talking about it, whether that's in an interview, or fan to fan, or fan to artist. People are really shaken up by this and want to do something about it."

"Enough is enough," chimed in Brothers Osborne vocalist T.J. Osborne. "I'm a gun owner myself -- it's gotten ridiculous."


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