Nation

Las Vegas shooting forces country music industry to talk about gun control

WASHINGTON — The mass murder during the Route 91 Harvest festival at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino is dragging the country music industry and its fans into a political debate they’ve long been able to avoid: gun control.

Already one member of a country band who performed on the same stage several hours before the shooting Sunday night has changed his position on guns.

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“We need gun control RIGHT. NOW,” wrote Caleb Keeter, a guitarist for the Josh Abbott Band, in a statement posted on Twitter. “My biggest regret is that I stubbornly didn’t realize it until my brothers on the road and myself were threatened by it.”

And there’s Rosanne Cash, the daughter of country legend Johnny Cash and a longtime advocate for tighter gun restrictions, who penned an op-ed in The New York Times Tuesday arguing the country music industry must stand up to the National Rifle Association.

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“There is no other way to say this: The N.R.A. funds domestic terrorism,” wrote Cash, a renowned singer-songwriter herself..

Rosanne Cash penned an op-ed in the New York Times Tuesday arguing the country music industry must stand up to the National Rifle Association.

Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/File 2016

Rosanne Cash penned an op-ed in the New York Times Tuesday arguing the country music industry must stand up to the National Rifle Association.

Most country musicians are not going so far. They’re instead focused on raising money for the victims and offering condolences in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. But a larger debate is more possible now than ever before, according to several in the industry, who argue that there is a cadre of younger fans less connected to the Republican dogma on guns.

“There is a very active conversation and a lot of soul searching going on right now in Nashville with the artists who have just experienced this and realized it could have been any one of these artists on stage at any time,” said Kurt Bardella, the author of a newsletter for the country music industry called “Morning Hangover.”

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Bardella, who worked for several Republican members of Congress and was a spokesman for Breitbart News before moving to the music industry, said artists he’s talked with are interested in measures like universal background checks and preventing the mentally ill from acquiring firearms.

“The biggest misconception is that all these country artists are right-wing conservatives,” Bardella said. “I can tell you that they are not.”

But, he added, musicians worry about whether they’ll alienate their audience by speaking out on guns. “The soul searching now is what is the most constructive way to talk about this, and talk about it in a way that invites their fans and their audience to be part of the conversation constructively,” Bardella said.

In that, they’ll have their work cut out for them.

Adults who’ve gone to a country music concert in the past year are 68 percent more likely than the average person to own a handgun, 74 percent more likely to own a rifle, and 83 percent more likely to own a shotgun, according to data from GfK MRI, a consumer survey company.

But it’s not a monolithic group politically. Roughly 31 percent of those who listen to country music on the radio are Republicans, according to the same data. And 22 percent are Democrats.

Still, the taste makers who speak to the country music audience have, so far, shown little appetite to talk about gun control.

Rick Burgess, cohost of the “Rick and Bubba Show,” a radio talk show based in Birmingham, Ala., that airs on some of the South’s most important country stations, described the shooter as “evil” — a term many Republican leaders are using.

“I don’t think that adding to gun control is going to stop evil people,” Burgess said. “Maybe if an evil person wants to do something, we can limit how much damage he can do, that has some sense.”

Burgess was clear that doesn’t mean new gun laws — instead he argued for better enforcement of existing laws, a longtime talking point on the right.

He said that Keeter, the county guitarist who now supports gun laws, is an outlier. “He’s been though a traumatic situation. That’s understandable,” Burgess said.

“I enjoy going outdoors, shooting my guns, and stuff like that stuff,” said Luke Combs, an NRA Country artist.

Sanford Myers/Invision/Associated Press/File 2017

“I enjoy going outdoors, shooting my guns, and stuff like that stuff,” said Luke Combs, an NRA Country artist.

In recent years the NRA, which is the country’s largest gun lobby, has forged an alliance with country music figures and sponsored a roster of stars. “NRA Country” includes dozens of country music celebrities, including Trace Adkins, Gretchen Wilson, and Florida Georgia Line, who have endorsed the NRA and appear in concerts and advertisements to benefit the organization.

“I enjoy going outdoors, shooting my guns, and stuff like that stuff,” said Luke Combs, an NRA Country artist, in a video posted on the NRA Country website before the Las Vegas shooting. “There’s an authenticity of being the regular American, and that’s what I view myself as . . . and those values run parallel [with NRA Country].”

Combs, who did not respond to a request for comment, was at the shooting Sunday.

“I’ve been around firearms, and it didn’t sound like gunfire to me,” Combs told the “Today” show Monday. “But then we heard the next burst and it sounded like maybe [the gunman] had put a weapon out of the window, which would completely change the sound.

“At that point,” he recalls thinking, “this is 100 percent gunfire.”

The NRA has been silent since the Las Vegas shooting. In the past, it has said its country music alliance is a “celebration of the bond between the best and brightest of country music and hard-working Americans.”

A Globe survey of the NRA country roster showed that many of the music stars had tweeted good will toward those affected. None mentioned guns or gun control.

“Can’t believe what I’m seeing,” said Chase Rice, an NRA Country artist. “God bless country music and ALL our fans.”

Don Cusic, a country music historian and professor at Belmont University in Nashville, said that while guns have long been part of the American rural tradition — like country music — the NRA has attempted to “buy off” the genre in recent years. By wielding its money, influence, and connections with the Republican Party, the organization has made it very difficult for any individual to speak out in favor of a position the NRA opposes.

“With this community, people are asking, ‘Are they one of us, are they like us?’ And that means are they part of the Republican Party, the conservative viewpoint, do they love the NRA?” Cusic said. “It’s rugged individualism. That’s the theme of country music and that rugged individualism is part of the NRA and Republican Party.”

Cusic cited the Dixie Chicks, the all-women country act that found itself blacklisted after speaking out against then-President George W. Bush and the Iraq war.

That lingers in the minds of any country artist who is thinking about challenging the conservative politics of their audience, Cusic said. For something to change, the industry would have to be challenged by one of the genre’s male megastars — many of whom have been quiet on controversial political topics issues for years.

“Remember Sandy Hook,” he said, referring to the mass killing at a Connecticut elementary school that left 20 children and six educators dead. “It had a tremendous impact for two weeks, and then everything is back to what it was. I hate to say it, but that tends to be the way it goes.”

The Dixie Chicks (left, with Beyonce) found themselves blacklisted after speaking out against then-President George W. Bush and the Iraq war.

Rick Diamond/Getty Images/file 2016

The Dixie Chicks (left, with Beyonce) found themselves blacklisted after speaking out against then-President George W. Bush and the Iraq war.

Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey. Astead Herndon can be reached at Astead.Herndon@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH.
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