Courtney E. Smith is a music writer, editor at Refinery29, and former music programmer. She wrote the book Record Collecting for Girls and her writing on country music is featured in the anthology Woman Walk The Line. The views expressed are her own.
I went to my first beer joint when I was five. It was a weekend visit with my dad, after my parents got divorced, in the tiny East Texas town where he lived. He took me with him, in violation of several laws, and we danced to what was playing most nights: country and southern rock. That was the night I learned to two-step (sort of, there was a lot of standing on people’s feet). It was one of the most memorable nights of my life, and certainly the most fun. Were there guns there? Probably, in the gun racks of some pickup trucks in the parking lot. It was illegal to bring a gun into a bar then...not to mention, bad manners.
The country music I knew as a kid wanted me to believe that you couldn’t trust someone from a big city who didn’t own a gun or drive a pickup. As a little Texan, I always adored the romantic cowboy songs of George Strait — it was practically mandated by the state. I loved the women who dominated country music in the ‘90s. Faith Hill, Shania Twain, Wynonna Judd, Pam Tillis: They sang songs about being independent women, about taking revenge on cheating men, about how hard it was to be a wife, and about falling in love. It was different from rock, less political; but still dealt with serious issues, albeit in a lighthearted way. The Dixie Chicks' “Goodbye Earl,” for example, is about a woman killing her abusive husband but the video is comic — neither as powerful nor personal as, say, Courtney Love crooning “Someday you will ache like I ache.” But the guns were always there.
Guns mostly make their appearance in country songs via murder ballads. These songs, often pulled from old folk tales, can date back hundreds of years, like that Louvin Brothers classic, "Knoxville Girl," or modern stories told in the first person, like Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead.” Some artists take it a step further. Justin Moore crooned an actual ode to firearms called “Guns.” That 2013 song is full of racist tropes and a longing for some small town life where backroads mean freedom and hunting makes you a man. “When I was eight I used a muzzle loader to kill my first doe / These days I go down to Walmart and they set 'em in the back / Some people wanna take 'em away / Why don't you go bust some boys that’s sellin' crack,” the first verse goes, with a chorus that extols the listener that they’ll have to kill him to take his guns.
It’s not just the lyrics. The lifestyle that goes along with country music has a long history of being intertwined with support for the Second Amendment, too. Johnny Cash boasted he would shoot anyone who burned his “Ragged Old Flag” in a memorable 1974 concert. In July of this year, Jamey Johnson canceled a concert in South Carolina when the House of Blues wouldn’t allow his team to bring guns backstage. Brantley Gilbert has a tattoo celebrating the Second Amendment that covers his entire back. Gun rights activists attacked Tim McGraw for performing at a benefit concert after Sandy Hook, despite his position that gun ownership should be legal. Even Jason Aldean, who was the artist performing when a gunman opened fired at the Route 91 Harvest festival, has posted several photos of himself hunting on social media and, along with Luke Bryan, has an endorsement deal with the hunting company/TV show Buck Commander (owned by the Duck Dynasty family).
Then there’s the NRA, which has a lifestyle offshoot, called NRA Country, a marketing portal and web presence that aligns itself with country music fans and stars that they use, among other things, to sponsor artists.
All of this is part of the reason why this week's mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas is so hard to process. Being gunned down by a semi-automatic weapon isn’t the experience country songwriters mythologize. It’s not the poetry of country music. It’s high-tech warfare.
While there’s no way this incident will make country music give up its guns entirely, there is a big question around how this might change the culture around guns. Will country music artists and fans rise to support tougher gun regulations? Will they perform for Everytown for Gun Safety, or use their clout to stand against the NRA?
It is unclear, but so far I have little hope because most of what I've heard from artists who were there are empty platitudes. On CBS This Morning, Jake Owen, who performed before Jason Aldean that night and was present during the shooting, said, “All I think we can do right now as a country is come together.” Come together and do what?
Maren Morris, a Grammy-award winning voice of modern young women (and of whom I am a huge fan), released a song called “Dear Hate,” the day after the shooting but it was one that she had written a few years back with bluegrass and country legend Vince Gill. “Hate is everywhere, and I’m sick of not doing enough. In the darkest tunnel, there is still love and music,” she wrote in a note accompanying the song, adding that all proceeds from purchasing the song would go to the Music City Cares fund, created to help with the immediate and long-term needs of victims of the shooting.
"Dear Hate" is a gorgeous track, but it implies that we can love gun violence away. Like many in country music, it gives me the impression she’s afraid to touch the third rail by saying something political, for fear that it will end her career.
Then there is Aldean, who was on stage when the shooter started firing into the crowd at Route 91 Harvest. A day after the shooting he issued a statement condemning hate. He describes a changed world, a place where he is afraid to raise his children. And then this: “At the end of the day we aren’t Democrats or Republicans, Whites or Blacks, Men or Women. We are all humans, we are all Americans and its [sic] time to start acting like it and stand together as ONE! That is the only way we will ever get this Country to be better than it has ever been, but we have a long way to go and we have to start now.”
What does standing as one look like to Aldean? I have no idea. He ends his statement by saying it’s time to come together and “stop the hate,” but he never says how we should do that. It’s a series of platitudes that offer no real resolution, no suggestion on our next steps, and completely fails to address the issue of guns. It shouldn’t be that hard.
As far as the fans go, we shall see how they react. Not all country fans are advocates of broad Second Amendment rights. Country has been growing its fan base for years, extending its reach from rural Americans into suburbs and urban areas, which means other people who think like me are part of this world. The Country Music Association (CMA) says 107 million people over age 12 listen to country — that’s about one-third of the population. They don’t all live on a backroad and drive a pickup truck.
If there is one glimmer of hope, it came from Caleb Keeter, the Austin-based guitarist for the Josh Abbott Band. Shortly after the shooting he tweeted a message, typed on his iPhone notes:
"I've been a proponent of the Second Amendment my entire life," Keeter wrote. "Until the events of last night. I cannot express how wrong I was. We actually have member of our crew with [concealed handgun] licenses and legal firearms on the bus. They were useless....We need gun control RIGHT. NOW."
His words about writing a living will on the spot because he thought he would be killed in that field, while members of his crew took shrapnel from bullets that flew through the crowd, brought tears to my eyes. I am blown away that the events of the night completely changed his mind about being armed with the intent to defend oneself.
Maybe there is time for country music to come around, after all. Even if it has to be one person at a time.
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