Washington Post music writer Emily Yahr was tapping her foot on Thursday...waiting for the country music industry to abandon its entertainment mission and end its shameful silence on gun control, after dozens of country music fans were murdered by shooter Stephen Paddock in Las Vegas: “Country music avoided politics this year. Then Las Vegas happened. Will anything change?”
She opened on country star Jason Aldean, who was on stage on the Vegas strip when Paddock began shooting into the crowd of fans at the Route 91 Harvest festival.
In the days after the horror, Aldean visited victims in the Las Vegas hospital and appeared on “Saturday Night Live” to perform Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” He was now back in Nashville, and all eyes were on him. During commercial breaks, fellow country stars swarmed around his table. A prominent radio executive gave him a hug.
The mood of the annual event, which the network declared “a night of hope and healing” instead of the usual lighthearted trophy ceremony, was compassionate and somber -- and, unlike nearly every other award show in 2017, completely devoid of politics.
In a year when it felt like everything in pop culture became a political flash point -- TV sitcoms, the NFL, the Golden Globe Awards -- country music managed to not say much of anything at all. This surprised no one familiar with the Nashville industry’s whispered advice about political beliefs: Avoid making them public.
But after the Las Vegas massacre, the format was suddenly linked with the contentious gun control debate. On Wednesday, millions will tune into the 51st annual Country Music Association Awards, the genre’s biggest night in the national spotlight. Can country music singers still get away with not voicing an opinion?
Who’s to blame for the silence? The liberal media’s Public Enemy #1 came into the crosshairs: The NRA.
The answer is “probably,” and the reasons are complicated -- especially for a genre that has become more mainstream and gotten more popular in liberal-leaning cities, but whose fan base is considered largely conservative. Not to mention the format’s ties to the National Rifle Association.
Margo Price, a country singer and songwriter who broke out with an acclaimed debut album last year, was horrified when she saw the news about Las Vegas. The next day, she took to Twitter.
“We need stricter gun control, plain and simple,” she wrote. “And I say that as someone who owns a firearm. . . . But no one with mental health problems should be able to get his hands on a machine gun.”
Yahr didn’t question Price’s dubious tweet (hardly anyone can get their hands on a “machine gun,” nor did Paddock).
The Dixie Chicks (The country band liberals pretended to like for a few months in the early 2000s) enjoyed another round of political martyrdom.
The common assumption is that country singers don’t talk politics because they’re terrified of ending up like the Dixie Chicks, who criticized President George W. Bush on the eve of the Iraq War in 2003 and wound up essentially blacklisted from the industry. Although that situation was an unusually perfect storm primed for controversy, the fear lingers, particularly with an issue so complex. Often, singers think they don’t have the authority to say anything at all.
The other root of the issue, of course, is financial -- singers don’t want to risk losing their livelihoods by potentially alienating fans. The demographics of the country audience have changed over the years, with popular artists (Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt, Carrie Underwood) singing about small-town life with a pop-centric sound that easily fits into the mainstream music scene; cities from New York to Boston to Los Angeles all have solid country fanbases. Still, country music has a massively devoted rural audience.
It’s one of the reasons that NRA Country, the “lifestyle” arm of the NRA, sees value in partnering with Nashville singers, many of whom are avid hunters and conservationists. Artists perform at NRA Country-sponsored concerts and events, while the organization promotes new albums and features artists on its website and online TV show.
NRA Country, which did not return multiple requests for comment, isn’t seen as the end-all, be-all of promotional opportunities -- although it does offer a connection to millions of the organization’s members. Bill Werde, the former editorial director of Billboard magazine, recalled hearing about a country star whose music was going to be used to help publicize a “gun safety” issue. Then, he said, when the NRA became aware of it, the big plan suddenly became much smaller.
“The NRA can make your life miserable,” said Don Cusic, a country music historian and professor at Belmont University. “And they would.”
At no point does Yahr confess that no gun-control plan put forward would have stopped the massacre in Las Vegas.
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Some, however, see country music singers’ reluctance to speak on anything related to guns, even education and safety, as a missed opportunity. Werde points to a recent NPR-Ipsos poll that showed the majority of Americans, no matter what their political party, are in favor of tighter gun restrictions.
This anecdote from a singer was more revealing about the media’s hostile stance toward guns than the reporter seems to realize:
Jordan Mitchell, a new singer-songwriter and Las Vegas native who moved to Nashville 2½ years ago, was backstage at the festival when bullets started flying. She and her band members hid first between Aldean’s tour buses, and then ran to an airport hangar, where they stayed for hours.
She was grateful for the support she received when she got back home. The only place she’s heard the gun control debate brought up is from the news and reporters who contacted her.
In other words, country music’s gun-control “controversy” is largely a creation of liberal journalists.