The Country Music Association probably wasn't expecting the very public pushback they got when they released their guidelines for journalists covering their awards show this year. When it came, it was swift and fierce.
The guidelines asked journalists to avoid politically charged subjects such as the Las Vegas mass shooting, politics, and the subject of gun control as a whole. The instructions were to be adhered to under the threat of media credentials potentially being "revoked via security escort." So, they were not "guidelines" in the traditional sense of the word, but rules to direct the discourse of the evening. Country singer, and co-host of this year's CMA Awards, Brad Paisley took the CMA to task on Twitter calling the guidelines "ridiculous and unfair.”
Following harsh criticism for their restrictive press guidelines, the CMAs reversed their ban on Friday.
Artists of all genres sometimes feel the need to remain silent on hot-button issues for fear of alienating their fanbase. Following the shooting in Las Vegas, some country artists have come forward with their opinions on gun control and politics and more undoubtedly want to, on a platform as big as an awards show. To ban these topics from the conversation is heavy-handed at best, and verging on censorship at worst. This event offers an opportunity for country artists who believe in gun control to speak out about the issue. Rather than infantilizing the artists and silencing the media, an open and honest discourse should be encouraged.
Country is one of the most popular music genres in the United States, and festivals like Stagecoach, CMA Music Fest, and Taste of Country draw millions of fans each year. A little-discussed secret is that the National Rifle Association has enjoyed a successful and close relationship with the country music industry for the past decade. They have partnered in cross-promotional campaigns with massive country stars likes Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan. The Director of NRA Country told Rolling Stone in 2015, "If you poll our members, they love country music." Given this long-standing relationship, it complicates things for country artists who do wish to speak out about the subject of gun control.
Others, including CMA host Paisley, feel compelled to take the audience’s political preferences into account when they speak out on the issue. "There's pressure if you don't handle it right," country singer Brad Paisley told Rolling Stone in an interview following the mass shooting at Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas. "If you deal with it wrong, there's an enormous amount of pressure."
We shouldn’t allow the First Amendment to be encroached upon simply because a polling sample of the audience is in favor of the Second Amendment or for the sake of "comfortable conversation." Despite pressure from fans and institutions, the conversation on the intersection of gun control and country music has already begun. Within a week of the shooting, some of the NRA's biggest country music artist partners had confirmed with Rolling Stone that they were no longer affiliated with the group.
But this tragedy seems to have been a turning point for many artists and their opinions on gun control. Following the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas last month, Caleb Keeter of the Josh Abbott Band, who played the festival that weekend, spoke to his fans on Twitter saying, "I've been a proponent of the 2nd amendment my entire life. Until the events of last night. I cannot express how wrong I was." He went on to make a case for gun control expressing regret for not coming to this conclusion until he felt personally threatened by it.
Singer Maren Morris also played the three-day festival and said she was shocked by the news. "As a country music artist and someone who loves country music and grew up in it, I hope that artists become braver on their stances with it," Morris said in an interview with The Kansas City Star in response to whether her thoughts on gun control and the Second Amendment had been affected by the event. Her song, "Dear Hate," which begins, "Dear Hate, I saw you on the news yesterday," was written in response to a 2015 shooting that happened in Charleston, SC, speaks widely to the issue of gun violence in the news.
She's right: artists shouldn’t feel censored when it comes to speaking about anything outside of their own music. It strips them of their agency and right to free speech. Having an opinion and expressing it shouldn’t be perceived as an act of defiance and risk. If anything, their silence might perpetuate the idea that the vast majority of country music listeners aren’t open to talking about gun control. Times are changing, and everyone should be allowed to talk about it if they want to.
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