Following the deadly massacre at Las Vegas’ Route 91 Harvest festival on Oct. 1 that killed at least 59 people and injured hundreds, dozens of artists including Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, John Mayer, Carlos Santana, The Chainsmokers, Moby and Vic Mensa took to social media to demand stricter gun laws. Police recovered 23 guns from the shooter’s hotel room and nearly two dozen more in his homes.
Largely missing from the conversation? Mainstream country artists, whose comments leaned toward sending thoughts and prayers, eschewing any mention of gun reform even after the attack on their fans. Maren Morris dedicated the proceeds of her single, "Dear Hate" (featuring Vince Gill) to charities benefitting the victims, but neither the lyrics, which were written following the 2015 Savannah church massacre, nor the announcement from her label, Columbia Nashville, reference gun violence.
But there were two notable exceptions. In an emotional Twitter post on Oct. 2, Caleb Keeter of the Josh Abbott Band, who was caught in the shooter’s crosshairs after taking the stage, tweeted: “I have been a proponent of the 2nd Amendment my entire life. Until the events of last night, I cannot express how wrong I was... we need gun control RIGHT NOW. My biggest regret is that I stubbornly didn’t realize it until my brothers on the road and myself were threatened by it.”
The next day, though, frontman Josh Abbott made clear in a tweet that “WE as a band did not make a political statement. [Keeter] did and that is his right.”
Rosanne Cash also encouraged country artists to speak out against the National Rifle Association, claiming in an Oct. 3 New York Times editorial that the gun rights organization “funds domestic terrorism ... It is no longer enough to separate yourself quietly.”
Country artists notoriously tend to shy away from politics for fear of offending their fan bases, but few topics make them go silent as quickly and completely as gun control, due to much of country music’s embrace of gun culture, the Second Amendment and a cozy, if somewhat uncomfortable, relationship with the NRA. Coming out publicly against guns can be “career suicide” for a country artist, one industry executive tells Billboard.
Following the mass killing at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in June 2016, Billboard ran “An Open Letter to Congress: Stop Gun Violence Now,” calling for reform. Of the nearly 200 artists and executives who signed the letter, only six identified with country: Cash, Cam, Dixie Chicks, Warner Music Nashville (WMN) president/CEO John Esposito, Universal Music Group Nashville CEO Mike Dungan and Big Machine Label Group president/CEO Scott Borchetta.
Billboard reached out to more than two dozen country music acts and executives asking if the Oct. 1 massacre led them to reconsider their gun views. Most declined to comment.
“I believe we can further strengthen gun regulation in this country and, as always, I hope we can have a common sense, national discussion that leads to real change,” said WMN’s Esposito in a statement to Billboard, one of few willing to speak. “There are a wide range of opinions on this subject -- across this country, as well as within the Nashville music community -- and it’s time we all work together to create laws that protect our citizens, our safety and our Constitution, and enforce them.”
Since 2010, the NRA has partnered with country music artists through its NRA Country arm, a soft-sell lifestyle brand meant to attract younger NRA members, with country stars like Alan Jackson and Jon Pardi playing its conventions and trade shows. It holds an annual unofficial breakfast, NRA Country Kegs & Eggs, during CMA Fest. The brand’s mission statement never mentions guns, instead highlighting “American” values like “respect, honor and freedom” and firearm safety. “That’s how they hook people in,” says a Nashville artist manager. “Who’s not for firearms safety? They’re brilliant with that kind of stuff.”
NRA Country’s monthly featured artists have included Tyler Farr, LoCash, Eric Paslay, both Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett early in their careers, and three artists who played Route 91: Lee Brice, Luke Combs and Michael Ray. “Some new acts look at NRA sponsorships as they do a Cracker Barrel sponsorship -- they’re happy to have anyone pay attention,” says a label executive. Brice offered a different perspective.
"Because I grew up in the country, NRA Country represents a back-to-basics way of life," the South Carolina native says. "I have a family and it is the most important thing in the world to me. We camp, we hunt and we fish, spend quality time together; my dad spent this kind of time with me and my brother. It’s [more] about family and tradition.”
NRA Country did not respond to a request for comment. But NRA executives Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox released a statement Thursday afternoon (Oct. 5) condemning the "evil and senseless attack in Las Vegas" and, noting that the shooter had used a device called a bump fire stock to modify his weapon to fire more rapidly, called on the ATF "to review whether these devices comply with federal law.
"The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations," the statement continued. "We urge Congress to pass National Right-to-Carry reciprocity, which will allow law-abiding Americans to defend themselves and their families from acts of violence."
Some country organizations have distanced themselves: The NRA has asked to sponsor events at the Country Radio Seminar and was turned down in recent years, according to a source.
In 2011, the NRA and the Academy of Country Music entered a two-year pact for the NRA Country/ACM Celebrity Shoot, with the 2012 edition hosted by Blake Shelton. However, not long after a gunman fatally shot 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, the ACM board revisited at one of its meetings the organization’s relationship with the NRA.
“Everybody thought it was a really good idea just to put the NRA on hold -- people were adamant about severing ties,” recalls one person in attendance, adding that no one who participated in the “emotional” conversation voiced support for the gun lobby group.
But it didn’t take long for many of the acts represented by the label executives and managers who had attended the meeting to play NRA-sponsored events. The Eli Young Band played an NRA convention months after Sandy Hook, while several others later became NRA Country featured artists.
Acts that have been perceived as supporting gun control have faced harsh criticism. After Tim McGraw pledged to play a benefit for Sandy Hook Promise, an organization that advocates for “sensible solutions that help prevent gun violence,” he received such pushback from gun rights advocates that he issued a statement through The Washington Post affirming that he was a gun owner and that he supported gun ownership. Opening act Billy Currington dropped out of the fundraiser, stating, “I’ve never been one to take on controversial issues.” McGraw stayed true to his word and played the show.
Country music newcomer Jordan Mitchell, who played Route 91’s Next to Nashville secondary stage on Oct. 1, told Billboard that she didn't believe gun laws needed to be re-examined following the attack. “I don’t think this needs to be a gun control issue at all. I don’t think this could’ve been prevented, really,” says Mitchell, who notes that she carries a gun but did not have it with her at the festival. She allows that the “country music community is a little more rural and a little more accepting of gun culture” than the general population.
John Rich, half of the country duo Big & Rich that performed at Route 91, loaned his own gun to an off-duty officer to guard his new Redneck Riviera bar during the shooting. “Anyone who [discusses] politics in the days after a massacre like this in order to score points on political motives is a disgusting [person],” he said. “You’re not going to hear me doing it, and I don’t want to hear anyone else doing it.” He has not always exercised such restraint. Following the Aurora, Colo., movie theater attack in 2012, he tweeted, “Shooting in CO is why [people] should have carry permits. Had I been there I would have unloaded on that maniac till he stopped breathing.”
With over 71 percent of Americans supporting some type of restriction on firearms, according to the St. Leo University Polling Institute, some Nashville music executives hope this latest incident could lead to an environment where artists feel safe to speak out for gun control if they so choose. “A few years ago, some artists made statements [supporting] gay rights, and that was the first time that was addressed,” an artist manager says. “In some ways, that was shocking, and in other ways, I don’t think some of them got much backlash. I don’t know if we can say [gun control] has evolved as much as gay rights, but it could be great if it weren’t such a flashpoint.”