John Rich — one half of the country duo Big & Rich — had finished the pair’s main stage set at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, prior to Jason Aldean taking the stage. The musical partners had made plans to entertain fans after their performance at Rich’s Redneck Riviera honky-tonk at an after party later that night. Just minutes after arriving at the venue, Rich was informed of the shooting incident happening at the venue they had just left, which ultimately claimed 59 lives and injured more than 500 others in the worst mass shooting in modern United States history. Here, Rich relays his thoughts on the tragedy to Billboard as he recounts what happened that night.
John Rich: We played about 90 minutes or so prior to the shooting. We had 30,000 fans singing “God Bless America” in unison. You think about going from that scene to what transpired less than two hours later; it’s just an unthinkable thing. We — [Big] Kenny and I, [rapper] Cowboy Troy, and the band — left the venue and headed over to a little bar I own there in Vegas to play an after party for the fans, and while we were there someone tapped us on the shoulder to tell us what was going on.
At that moment they were telling us that they thought there were multiple shooters and that they were fleeing through Vegas. We shut the music down, told everyone there what was going on and moved them to a safer spot inside my bar there. Then I reached out to Dee Jay Silver, who had just been playing with Aldean [as his DJ], and he tells me in this broken, panicked, out-of-breath voice, “They just threw me and a bunch of other guys into pickup trucks and they’re just screeching out of this parking lot. There are bodies everywhere.” He said that the bullets were coming through the stage, through the buses, through the instruments; everything was just riddled with bullet holes. It was just absolute complete panic and fear going through everyone there.
I think it’s an absolute miracle that Jason Aldean, standing there in the spotlights, was not a casualty. It’s unbelievable. The thought of that just makes your skin crawl. My daddy is a preacher and there is a verse that he would preach many times that said, “The Devil roams the Earth, seeking who he may destroy,” and that’s just what he does. This was nothing short of absolute devilish behavior out of someone. It’s an inhuman thing to do. It’s so far out of what any of us can comprehend.
I think you’re going to see some pretty drastic changes in the way that people tour, maybe the way crowds are gathered, where they are gathered. I think there are a lot of changes coming. I think more [safety] measures are going to be taken, because obviously there are people in the world who are becoming more and more and more aggressive and they are basically hunting these situations to find them. The reason bad guys do stuff like this is to shut us down, and by “us” I mean your everyday American who celebrates the freedom to hold these music festivals, or the rights to enjoy our lives together.
When I looked out at all of the people singing that night — there’s no politics in that, there’s no religion in that, there’s no race in that. It’s just Americans singing about their country, feeling patriotic and celebrating the fact that they get to live here. To me, that’s the overriding comment to make: this is America, those are the people and this the spirit of our country. Whether we all agree about everything or not, that goes to the sideline. We’re all Americans first, and America was attacked.
You still have to walk out and do your shows, or do whatever it is that you have to do, but you’re still keeping an eye out at the same time. How could you look at it any different at this point? I think everyone will have an eye out now, even the fans. You know how country-music fans and country-music singers are so tight-knit. They’re like our families out there: we hang out with them, we talk to them, have a good time with them. It’s not like we’re some untouchable thing out there onstage; it’s the absolute reverse of that.
There was one 25-year-old guy who came through our meet-and-greet that night, it was his first time seeing Big & Rich, and he was just wide-eyed to be hanging out backstage with us. He was one of the first casualties [that] night. It’s beyond words.