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Op-Ed: How country music can help America get back to normal

Eric Church performs at the 56th annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Nashville.
Eric Church performs at the 56th annual Academy of Country Music Awards on Apr. 16 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. He is featured in an ad about the importance of getting the COVID vaccine.
(Amy Harris / Invision via Associated Press)

I’ll never forget the feeling of pure joy I had attending my first country music concert in more than 15 months. It was the Gulf Coast Jam in Panama City Beach, Fla., in June, with more than 20,000 fans in attendance. It was the first time in a long time that I felt like we had returned to “normal life.”

That feeling of jubilation and relief stayed with me during the Fourth of July weekend when I visited Nashville and joined more than 350,000 people on Lower Broadway to celebrate the reopening of America.

I was so eager to make up for all those lost months that I attended seven live concerts in four states in the span of 30 days. For a few hours each night, it was as if time had been suspended, like the last 15 months didn’t happen. And then it occurred to me: For many of my fellow country music concertgoers, the pandemic wasn’t real. The prevailing sense I kept running into was that the COVID-19 restrictions — lockdowns, social distancing, masks — were all just government overreach. It was clear that folks in this demographic didn’t believe the precautions were necessary.

The facts speak for themselves. Recent data revealed three states: Florida, Texas and Missouri account for 40% of the new coronavirus cases in America. Southern states such as Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas are among the least vaccinated in the country. And while it’s easy to argue about political affiliation and vaccine hesitancy, it’s more productive to look at cultural relationships.

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Our collective goal has to be to get as many people vaccinated as possible. That is the only way we can fend off the spread of the Delta variant and maintain a return to normality in our lives. Already, we are seeing some mask requirements being reinstituted. This has set off an understandable feeling of anger and resentment toward the unvaccinated. But attacking them will not fix this problem.

That’s where country music comes in.

The country music industry — built on live music — was brought to a halt during the COVID-19 lockdown. The inability to tour and perform live affected thousands of people, including stage techs, bus drivers, caterers and musicians. Few industries have as much riding on getting life back to normal. That’s why this community should become the loudest promoter of vaccinations.

The people who go to these concerts — the people who cheer loudest for lyrics about “freedom,” “liberty” and “America” — don’t want to be told what to do by politicians or government officials. They just don’t trust them. They need to hear this message from people they idolize and believe.

This is a moment when country music can show leadership in saving this country from itself. At every live concert, screens in the amphitheaters could be used to play public service announcements, such as the ones the Academy of Country Music produced earlier this year featuring Darius Rucker, Eric Church and Ashley McBryde. In between acts, they could be playing video clips such as the one with Dolly Parton getting vaccinated and singing “Jolene” as “Vaccine.”

Headlining tours can reach tens of thousands of fans in dozens of cities nationwide with a pro-vaccine message. Arena parking lots could easily be used as mobile vaccination sites. Venues could offer vaccinated fans a free beer. Heck, promoters could offer vaccinated fans a free general admission ticket. Whatever the cost, it would be much less than having to absorb the burden of another shutdown. How would we feel if things closed again when we could have prevented that?

My love of country music came from experiencing it live. The passion, energy and authenticity of the songs, performers and stories moved me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard songs that try to inspire feelings of patriotism and the American spirit. Well, at this moment, the most patriotic thing any of us could do is get the shot, and the most meaningful thing an artist can do is encourage their fans to do the same.

Kurt Bardella is a contributing writer to Opinion and the creator and publisher of the country music tip sheet The Morning Hangover. @KurtBardella


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