Country music has long idealized the gun-owning lifestyle. From Johnny Cash in “Folsom Prison Blues” to Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead” and Blake Shelton’s “Granddaddy’s Gun,” the genre’s stars have harnessed gun imagery to bolster their outlaw credibility, connect them with kindred fans and conjure a specific image of Americans — self-reliant and violent.
Whether that remains the case after a mass shooter killed himself and at least 58 people at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas is an open question.
If the National Rifle Assn. has its way, the connection will continue unabated. But there are fissures within the country music community, with voices of dissent questioning loose gun laws, and doing so with full knowledge of likely reprisals by the gun lobby and blowback from some of the genre’s fiercest fans.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Caleb Keeter, the guitarist for the Josh Abbott Band, which performed Sunday at the festival, posted on social media that the tragedy had already changed his mind on the need for gun control.
“I’ve been a proponent of the 2nd amendment my entire life. Until the events of last night,” he wrote. “I cannot express how wrong I was.”
Rising country singer Margo Price, in an interview Tuesday, said that she is a longtime gun owner — she used to live in a tent in Colorado and kept a shotgun to protect herself. But she also said that after Las Vegas, country artists need to use their credibility with rural and right-leaning voters to advocate for stricter gun control.
“No one I hang out with thinks that a random person on the street should be able to buy a machine gun,” Price said. Her sister is a performer on the Las Vegas Strip, and she said the shooting may finally lead country artists to speak out more forcefully.
“Politicians offer ‘prayers and thoughts’ but then take money from the NRA. People have had all these opportunities to speak out, and instead they just say vague things like, ‘This is a song against hate’ but not talk about reforming gun laws. They’ve got to get their heads out of the sand,” Price said.
Such divergence from the pack can have its consequences, as the Texas trio the Dixie Chicks learned when singer Natalie Maines told a London crowd in 2003 that she was “ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” Within days much of commercial country radio had pulled the platinum group’s hit songs from its playlists.
The reaction didn’t silence Maines. In 2015 after a theater shooting in Louisiana, she posted on Twitter, “The NRA has such a hold on our politicians, we’ll probably be issued guns at movie theaters before they’ll up gun control.”
For his part, singer Jason Aldean, the headline perfomer on Sunday who was forced to flee the stage as the bullets flew, struck a balanced tone in a note published to Instagram on Tuesday.
Compared with other musical genres, country music holds a position of honor within the NRA. Rock and pop musicians tend to be liberal and pro-gun control. Gunplay is a staple of hip hop music, but those artists aren’t likely to be embraced by the NRA.
Given the demographics of its fans – many of them conservative and from rural regions -- country music and guns is a natural fit.
Vanessa Shahidi, director of NRA Country, told the Nashville Tennessean in 2015: “If you poll our members, they love country music.” NRA Country, which was started in 2010, promotes the work of NRA-card-carrying country music artists including Big & Rich, Gretchen Wilson, Florida Georgia Line, Trace Adkins and dozens more.
Normally an active presence across social media, NRA Country hasn’t posted anything since the shootings. Nor has it responded to repeated requests for comment.
Country duo Big & Rich performed at the Route 91 festival a few hours before headliner Jason Aldean’s set was interrupted by gunfire. The group’s John Rich, who owns a bar on the Las Vegas Strip called the Redneck Riviera, said he and some of his crew were at the bar on Sunday night when they learned of the shooting, according to his account on Fox News.
While there, an off-duty police officer approached Rich and asked him if he was armed. Rich told the officer, “I have my conceal and carry permit and yes sir, I am armed.” The officer asked to borrow the gun, and for about two hours, recalled Rich, “without flinching this guy kept a point on that front door just in case somebody came through.”
Representatives for Rich did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but in a statement on Twitter, the band wrote, “Unreal, tragic and sad beyond belief. We are all in shock from the senseless massacre that took place in Vegas last night at the Route 91 Fest.” (Of the nearly two dozen NRA Country-supported artists contacted by The Times, none was available for comment.)
On NRA Country’s website, however, artist-advocates have expressed their devotion to the NRA cause. “I understand the price of freedom,” wrote country singer Pete Scobell. “I fought for it as a member of our armed forces. The freedoms we are granted as Americans, especially our Second Amendment freedom, is something I do not take for granted.”
“I am extremely honored to be named an NRA Country Featured Artist,” wrote Texas singer Aaron Watson, adding that the NRA “fights for my right to enjoy hunting with my family, but more importantly, my second amendment right to bear arms and protect my family if need be.”
Guitarist Keeter wrote that the band and crew felt powerless and terrified during the shooting, and that crew members who had concealed carry permits couldn’t use them for fear of being mistaken for a shooter. (Through representatives, the Josh Abbott Band declined an interview request after the shooting.)
“We need gun control RIGHT. NOW.” he wrote. “My biggest regret is that I stubbornly didn’t realize it until my brothers on the road and myself were threatened by it.”
Given the NRA’s power, that’s no small gamble. The organization has kept tabs on its critics in the form of a document that identifies entertainers who have spoken against the NRA. Among those listed are Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow and Missy Elliott.
The Las Vegas shooting wasn’t the first time a country act spoke in favor of gun control. In 2015, singers Tim McGraw and Billy Currington were booked to perform at a benefit for an organization, Sandy Hook Promise, which advocates for tighter gun restrictions.
The response from the right was swift. When the far-right site Breitbart.com reported on McGraw’s plans, it did so with a scolding that “gun control renders law-abiding citizens defenseless, but it does nothing to stop criminals from carrying out their treachery.”
The backlash prompted Currington to cancel his appearance. In a Facebook post at the time, he stressed that he felt strongly “about honoring and supporting the Sandy Hook community.” However, he added, “I am choosing to step aside from this fundraiser and will focus instead on the rest of the tour dates.”
The more established star McGraw wasn’t cowed.
“I don’t put a political blanket on what I’m doing,” McGraw told ABC News Radio in 2015. “This is about helping people and leading with your heart. I think that that’s what I try to do, and we’re doing things [that] are earmarked for a lot of good in the community.”