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Country Music Needs to Examine Its Relationship with Guns and the NRA

For the first time, tragedy has positioned musicians and fans opposite to lobbyists. The question is where they’ll go from here.
Donald Trump parla a una convention della NRA nel 2015. Fotografia: Getty Images

Every year since 1972, country music fans have made a pilgrimage to Nashville, Tennessee, for the Country Music Association's CMA Music Festival. Set around the city's iconic Lower Broadway Street (itself a country music mecca), this year more than 90,000 people endured brutal late-spring temperatures to see free performances by nearly all of the genre's artists over four days and 11 stages. And at the epicenter of this epicenter of country music, at the corner of Broadway and 4 th Avenue, hung an NRA Country banner looming over all.

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At its most basic, NRA Country is propaganda, creating formal ties to a genre to which it has long been casually associated. This is not speculation; the website says it is "a bond between the best and brightest in country music and hard-working Americans." The organization puts on concerts, films video content, and highlights artists either established or up-and-coming. While multiple requests to contact the website were declined, its strategy is evident: partner with these musicians by shooting them wearing the website's emblazoned apparel and get them to speak on how their values align with NRA Country's, which, while shrouded in buzzwords like "respect," "honor," and "freedom," are really just a feeder into the NRA's pro-firearms mission statement linked not far below. It's symbiotic: a country musician gets exposure to the NRA's passionate members, while the NRA, through its subsite, gains both legitimacy and a face.

"NRA Country is about freedom," reads a statement by Platinum-selling artist Lee Brice, which says little of substance while revealing a penchant for dirt roads, America, and "building on a solid foundation." Brice, wearing an NRA Country hat, never mentions freedom from what or whom; in fact, he never mentions guns at all. Instead, he, like NRA Country, talks about them in the oblique.

But Brice, one of four NRA Country "Featured Artists" who performed at Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas where Stephen Paddock allegedly shot and killed 59 country music fans while maiming more than 500, now faces an ethical dilemma: If the very organization from which one has benefited is also currently lobbying for the sale of high-capacity magazines for the same kind of semi-automatic rifles allegedly used by Paddock, what, then, is a country boy to do? The answer to that question will affect not only the genre, but its fans as well.

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On Tuesday, Rosanne Cash, daughter of country legend Johnny Cash and an accomplished songwriter and artist in her own right, accused the NRA of funding domestic terrorism, calling out NRA Country by name in an op-ed in The New York Times. Cash encouraged country artists to speak up on behalf of increased gun control legislation. "It is no longer enough to separate yourself quietly," she writes in direct appeal. "The laws the NRA would pass are a threat to you, your fans, and to the concerts and festivals we enjoy."

The reason for this is simple: Country musicians are rarely outspoken on controversial issues, and if one needs an example as to why, look no further than the Dixie Chicks. The Grammy-winning band was on top of the world in the late Nineties and early Aughts until singer Natalie Maines criticized the U.S.'s invasion of Iraq and then-president George W. Bush at a London concert in 2003. It was subsequently blackballed from country radio, its records publicly burned and itself forced into a near decade-long dormancy until history had, if not vindicated them in the eyes of the genre's fans, at least relegated them to a legacy act and all but irrelevant. But while the Iraq War was waged on the other side of the world, the terror in Las Vegas directly affects country artists and their fans, many of who now have a first-hand experience with gun violence. The NRA can no longer frame what it does in abstract concepts of "freedom" and "respect." The dialogue, for the first time, can now be illustrated in color photographs and red blood. It can be debated in the stark terms of life and death. For the first time, country music artists have reason to take a stand opposite to the NRA over the issue of guns. And their fans have a reason to listen.

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It's started already.

"I've been a proponent of the 2nd amendment my entire life. Until last night . . . . We need gun control RIGHT. NOW," tweeted Caleb Keeter, guitarist for the Josh Abbott Band, which played on Sunday afternoon prior to the shooting.

Keeter is, for now, the first musician from the Las Vegas tragedy with a Road to Damascus moment, and while a band member is much less persuasive than an artist him- or herself, it's a start. (Keeter, through a rep, declined to speak for this story). But while many country stars present in Las Vegas are likely still dealing with post-traumatic symptoms, those not present are coming forward. Margo Price, who gained critical success with her debut Midwestern Farmer's Daughter in 2016, was unequivocal in a tweet Tuesday, writing, "Yes, 59 are dead, 500 plus [sic] injured . . . . We need stricter gun control"

"I am a gun owner," Price told Noisey, "so if people want to get angry at me, it's ridiculous. I have always had guns and I know how to use them. I think people should be educated and I don't think that you should be able to go in and buy a gun with no background check, without taking some kind of personality test."

Price continued: "I know a lot of people get media training, 'Don't say this, and say that.' But nobody's told me to shut my mouth yet. We're in a really different place than when Bush was president. I think that [mainstream country artists] may be scared to say something, or maybe they just don't feel that way. I don't know, maybe they drank the Kool-Aid and don't have any thoughts or opinions of their own. Or maybe they're hearing from their labels, hey, don't talk about that, you might lose some fans."

But the most important voices are those of Brice, Michael Ray, Drake White, and Luke Combs, the four NRA Country allies who performed in Las Vegas. All, through reps, declined speaking for this story, and their reactions to this tragedy on social media are in keeping with their peers: shock, disbelief, and a call for thoughts and prayers. Their eventual sentiments will be significant, as they have both benefitted from a cozy relationship with Big Gun and have now come face to face with its natural byproduct.

Jason Aldean, performing when the shooting started, summed up what many feel in the aftermath: "Something has changed in this country and in this world lately that is scary to see," he wrote via Instagram. "This world is becoming the kind of place I am afraid to raise my children in."

The change is obvious: While the rest of the U.S. has been wrestling with the idea of increased gun control in response to mass shooting after mass shooting, for the first time country music has been confronted with its reality. The repercussions are laid bare. The only question is what they'll do with what they know now.