When singer Meghan Linsey first started her country duo Steel Magnolia, a partnership with the National Rifle Association was suggested as a way to grow their audience.
The proposal, which she refused, was a commonplace example of how intertwined gun ownership is with country music.
The mass shooting on the final day of Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas has emboldened some country musicians to call for gun control, even as many others declined to weigh in. Plenty of artists avoid the issue because there’s a real risk of backlash as gun lobbyists have bolstered a connection between the patriotic themes found in country music to gun ownership in recent years.
“I just feel like you’re so censored as a country artist,” said Linsey, an independent musician who took a knee after singing the national anthem at an NFL football game. “I feel like the labels like to keep you that way. They don’t want you to speak out. They don’t want you to say things that would upset country music listeners.”
She added: “People worry about being Dixie Chick-ed.”
The Dixie Chicks still loom large as a lesson in country music politics. The hugely popular group was boycotted after lead singer Natalie Maines criticized then-President George W. Bush on the eve of the Iraq War in 2003.
The National Rifle Association has further strengthened the relationship between guns and country music with its lifestyle and music brand called NRA Country. NRA Country has sought to tie the music to gun-linked activities like hunting or outdoor sports, but without mention of political issues.
Since about 2010, the NRA Country brand has been placed on country music tours and concerts, merchandise, an album called “This Is NRA Country,” a music video and more. It features performers such as Hank Williams Jr. and Trace Adkins. It’s unclear how much the NRA has spent on the brand, and representatives of the group did not respond to requests for information from The Associated Press.
Country duo Big & Rich, who have performed at NRA-sponsored events, were at the festival just hours before Stephen Paddock began firing from his room at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino. They said it wasn’t the weapons that were the problem, but the man using them.
“I think if a man has ill will in his heart, then there’s weapons everywhere,” Big Kenny said. “I mean he can pick up a — anything — make a bomb, put it in his shoe. We have somebody trying to blow up stuff on trains constantly.”
The shooting changed the mind of Caleb Keeter, a guitarist for the Josh Abbott Band, who was among those at the festival during the attack. He wrote in a widely shared tweet that he had been a lifelong Second Amendment supporter: “I cannot express how wrong I was.”
Keeter said that a single man laid waste to a city because of “access to an insane amount of firepower.” Paddock had 23 guns in his room, some of which had attachments that allow a semi-automatic rifle to mimic a fully automatic weapon.
Others, including Jennifer Nettles of the band Sugarland and Sheryl Crow, have joined the call for gun control.
But there are risks.
When country artists have in the past tried to wade into gun politics, it can turn into a no-win situation.
Tim McGraw had to defend his participation in a benefit concert for victims of a mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut after criticism from gun rights advocates. His opening act, Billy Currington, pulled out of the performance over the controversy.
“As a gun owner, I support gun ownership, I also believe that with gun ownership comes the responsibility of education and safety — most certainly when it relates to what we value most, our children,” McGraw said in a statement in 2015. “I can’t imagine anyone who disagrees with that.”
Many artists expressed grief over the Las Vegas killings without wading into politics. Alongside her husband Vince Gill, Amy Grant led a prayer at a vigil in Nashville on Monday, a day after the shooting, while Maren Morris released a song called “Dear Hate,” in which she but declares “love conquers all.” Eric Church angrily said “no amount of bullets” was going to take away his memories of those fans killed, before debuting a song written in memory of the victims called “Why Not Me.”
John Osborne of the duo Brothers Osborne was in tears on national radio talking about the deaths of fans who they considered family. Keith Urban struggled to talk about the shooting to his 9-year-old daughter.
Jason Aldean, who was on stage at the festival when the shooter opened fire, said, “This world is becoming the kind of place I am afraid to raise my children in.”
Many others have donated to funds set up to help the victims and countless other selfless acts have brought the community even closer to support one another.
Singer Rosanne Cash, a longtime gun control advocate, called on the country music community to do more in an op-ed in the New York Times.
“It is no longer enough to separate yourself quietly,” Cash wrote. “The laws the N.R.A. would pass are a threat to you, your fans, and to the concerts and festivals we enjoy.”