Magazine Feature

Nashville's Tight-Knit Music Community Is Still Feeling the Aftershocks of the Route 91 Massacre

Remie Geoffroi


Chris Lisle wasn't in Las Vegas the night of Oct. 1, 2017, but like so many others in Nashville, the touring-industry veteran was devastated by the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting. “I wanted to throw up,” he says about first hearing the news. “I felt like I got shot at.” A 45-year-old lighting and production designer who’s designed stages for headliner Jason Aldean, the fourth-generation Nashvillian had many close friends and colleagues working at the show. After months of listening to what they witnessed, Lisle says, “I feel like I’ve lived it. It crosses my mind every day.”

The Nevada attack took place 1,800 miles and six states west, but the tragedy was deeply personal to Nashville. Launched in 2014 as Vegas’ first country music festival, Route 91 Harvest was a Sin City showcase of Music City’s top artists, co-founded and shepherded by Live Nation’s Nashville-based president of country touring, Brian O’Connell. The evening of the shooting, the closing main-stage performers -- Aldean, Jake Owen, Big & Rich -- were acts who, along with many of their band and crew members, hailed from Nashville. Sonny Melton, a 29-year-old concertgoer who died shielding his wife Heather, was Tennessee’s sole fatality, but reports put at least 150 others from the state on the ground during the bloodshed.

“People outside our world underestimate how tight our community is, but when something happens to a few of us, it happens to all of us,” says Miles Adcox, CEO/owner of Tennessee-based therapeutic retreat center Onsite and a member of the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music. In Route 91’s immediate aftermath, Adcox says he and his network of trauma experts debriefed hundreds over the phone or in person shaken by the mass shooting, including many artists, managers and crew members who weren’t in Vegas. “Trauma has a ripple effect, and it rocked our community pretty hard.”

Two days after an Oct. 2 candlelight vigil for the victims took place in Nashville, the industry more privately mobilized with “What Next? Surviving the Trauma of Las Vegas,” a Music Row town hall that brought in counselors and Eagles of Death Metal touring drummer Julian Dorio, who survived the Bataclan shooting in Paris in 2015. “There was a lot of hugging and crying,” says Adcox, whose organization co-sponsored the event with MusiCares. Over 175 attended, many of whom had just returned from Route 91. O’Connell says that Live Nation also brought in grief and trauma counselors for its festival and touring teams. He adds that in case any staffers thought seeking help was a sign of weakness, “I went in first. Because I needed it.”

Nashville isn’t the only distant area that has grappled with the psychological toll of Route 91. The tragedy claimed five victims from Bakersfield, Calif., a city with half of Nashville’s population, and left 10 severely injured. Four died from Riverside, Calif., two from Anchorage, Alaska. Survivors have banded together locally on Facebook, forming Route 91 support groups by region (the East Coast, the OC), state (Montana, Idaho) and area code (805).

But nowhere else did it affect so many, on so many levels. “Everyone shares musicians, everyone knows each other’s tour managers,” says Tatum Hauck Allsep, founder of the Nashville-based Music Health Alliance, a nonprofit that’s helped industry freelancers navigate the murky channels of healthcare since 2013. Since the shooting, MHA has helped facilitate long-term counseling for 110 on-the-ground survivors. It also dealt with the emotional aftermath directly: A staff member’s husband who worked for Aldean had called from the shooting, unsure if he was going to make it. “We had to learn how to navigate horrific stress from mass violence from a clinical perspective,” says Allsep, “but also personally and professionally.”

Six months later, the repercussions are still being felt. When Aldean returned to the road after Route 91, his team brought counselors on tour. The 2017 Touring Career Workshop, an annual conference co-founded by Chris Lisle that was held three weeks after the tragedy, added a last-minute session on roadie first aid that included a lesson on how to slow a gunshot wound’s bleeding. Other changes have been less palpable. “When you’re saying farewell to your brothers on the road, the goodbyes are more heartfelt these days,” says local Americana artist Boo Ray. “And the welcome-backs are more sincere.”

This article originally appeared in the April 14 issue of Billboard.