The country music industry and the National Rifle Association (NRA) has had a very close interconnected relationship for the past decade with stars such as Blake Shelton, Lee Brice, and Florida Georgia Line.
The NRA Country director stated in 2015 that it’s no surprise about the connection as “most of their members love country music.”
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.”
Now, less than a week after the deadliest shooting in modern American history took place at a country music festival – 58 people were killed and more than 500 were wounded at Las Vegas’ Route 91 Harvest fest by an attacker firing from 32 floors above – country artists seem, at least for the moment, less willing to openly embrace the NRA. Media outlets attempted to contact 37 of the artists featured on the web site of NRA Country, the organization’s music-affiliated offshoot. Three of those acts – Florida Georgia Line, Thomas Rhett, and Luke Combs – clarified that they have no ongoing partnership with the organization. Representatives for several artists, such as Blackberry Smoke and Sunny Sweeney, declined to comment; reps for more than two-dozen artists – including Justin Moore, Hank Williams Jr., and Jon Pardi – did not respond. After more than 24 hours, only one group, the Nashville duo Love & Theft, would confirm they remain partnered with the organization.
“What you’re seeing with the country music community right now is that everybody is just laying low,” says Don Cusic, professor of music industry history at Belmont University in Nashville. “They are stalling for time.”
Over the past week, several of the organization’s most successful artists have decided to clarify that they are not presently affiliated with NRA Country, including Florida Georgia Line, the platinum-selling bro-country duo behind hits like “Cruise,” and Thomas Rhett, the fast-rising country superstar whose song “Die a Happy Man” was one of the single biggest hit country songs of 2016. Both artists partnered with NRA Country in 2013 as the organization’s featured Artist of the Month, participating in a variety of promotional campaigns, including ticket giveaways, videos, and lyric contests.
As one of the genre’s most prominent stars, Blake Shelton has long been one of NRA Country’s flagship artists, hosting shooting events in 2011 and 2012. “This is about a right that I want to support and that I believe in,” he said of a skeet shoot event in 2012, “and if I can have fun while doing that, that’s even better.” NRA Country has continued to promote their partnership with Shelton in recent years, even though last year Shelton’s representative declined to clarify his relationship to the organization (He was removed from NRA Country’s website not long after the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting). But this week, the representative finally did clarify: “Blake does not have a partnership with the NRA.”
The NRA and NRA Country did not respond to a request for comment.
NRA Country has fostered close commercial ties with many of country music’s biggest stars in recent years and has been seen as a valuable platform for up-and-coming country acts. Its biggest promotional tool is the organization’s Featured Artist of the Month campaign; the sponsorship encourages country artists to have their name associated with the NRA in exchange for the advertising of an artist’s new album amongst the promotional channels of the NRA, which boasts millions of dues-paying members. Its platforms include NRATV, the organization’s digital television network, and American Rifleman, the NRA’s flagship publication. The Featured Artist Campaign has brought about successful partnerships in recent years with up-and-coming artists like Chase Rice and Lee Brice.
Those artists were among those who did not respond when asked if they are still involved with the NRA. The apparent hesitance comes after Rosanne Cash urged artists to disavow the organization in a New York Times op-ed Tuesday morning. “I encourage more artists in country and American roots music to end your silence,” she said. “The laws the N.R.A. would pass are a threat to you, your fans, and to the concerts and festivals we enjoy.”
Caleb Keeter, guitarist for the Josh Abbott band, a group who performed in Las Vegas this past weekend, spoke out the day after the shooting on Twitter. “Until the events of last night, I cannot express how wrong I was,” said Keeter, a self-described second-amendment supporter.
Most haven’t gone that far, instead offering ambiguous expressions of frustration with the status quo of gun violence. “It is beyond time for our country, and the world, to unite and do whatever we can to stop all this madness,” Kid Rock tweeted on Monday.
The last time NRA Country faced any degree of scrutiny came after 2012’s Sandy Hook elementary-school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Within several months of Newtown, the names of the organization’s two most popular partnered artists – Luke Bryan and Shelton – were removed from NRA Country’s website.
In recent years, however, NRA Country has experienced some degree of success at making continual inroads with the mainstream country music industry. NRA Country has found new ways to access some of country’s biggest names via indirect channels like its recent online TV show, “On Location.” The show, hosted by an NRA-supported up-and-coming country singer named Morgan Mills, has succeeded in expanding the NRA’s visibility and exaggerating NRA Country’s mainstream viability in Nashville by scoring red-carpet interviews and face-time with artists – including Tanya Tucker, Lauren Alaina, and Cole Swindell – who are otherwise not associated with the organization.
Although many of NRA Country’s artists remain unproven niche genre artists with little national visibility, over the last two years the organization has fostered early promotional partnerships with upstarts Jon Pardi and Luke Combs, partnerships that have paid off for the organization as the singers have become two of the industry’s biggest breakout stars. When young artists like Pardi and Combs go on to become major names in country music long after partnering with NRA Country, the organization enjoys the credibility-boosting stamp of approval that comes with listing those artist’s names as “Featured Artists” on its website. This week a representative for Combs confirmed that the singer is “not an officially partnered artist with NRA Country.” Rather, his affiliation with the group, like the other featured artists, is only for a set period of time. In Combs’ case, it was November 2015.
In the coming months, Cusic speculates that the decision to partner with NRA Country for new artists may become that much more difficult.
“I don’t think anybody is going to be making that decision in the short term,” he says. “In the beginning stages of a career, it’s an advantage to have an organization like the NRA behind you. The problem is, when something this controversial comes along, then it flips.”
On Monday morning, NRA Country’s website listed 39 artists who have partnered with the organization over the years. As of press time, the number of NRA Country partnered artists on the site had shrunk to 37. The names of Thomas Rhett and Florida Georgia Line were nowhere to be found.