It was just about the golden hour when Kacey Musgraves played her set on Sunday night during the first weekend of Lollapalooza. “Thank you,” she said to the crowd gathered at the Chicago festival. “Not only for supporting my music, but to everybody out here who has the bravery to show up and come to a large music festival.” She was referencing not only the mass shootings that weekend in El Paso, TX and Dayton, OH, but the shooting in 2017 at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, where 58 people were killed and 500 more were injured — the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history so far. “I can’t even believe we’re having to process the shit that’s happening in the last 24 hours, much less everything that’s happened in the last 215 days in America,” Musgraves continued. She then led the crowd in a cathartic yell, when she asked them to scream with her: “Somebody fucking do something.”
The next day, Musgraves gave the world some idea of what she’d like to see done. She tweeted that although she usually keeps politics out of her music, for her, gun violence is no longer a political issue. It’s about “fundamental human rights.” Still, someone tweeted a reply telling her to stick to singing. And then it got a little threatening when they asked, “You do realize your fans are packing at your shows, don’t you?”
I love keeping things about the music and usually stay out of politics publicly UNTIL it barrels past political party preference points and dangerously encroaches on fundamental human rights. It’s then not political issue anymore. It’s a matter of heart. Of humanity. Of survival.— K A C E Y M U S G R A V E S (@KaceyMusgraves) August 5, 2019
Let me be clear - I’m from Texas. I grew up around hunting and guns. There’s a time and place for that and even self protection in ways..but this is different. The system is majorly flawed and NOBODY NEEDS ANYTHING REMOTELY AUTOMATIC. PERIOD. They’re mass killing machines. https://t.co/C4JvQWykRO— K A C E Y M U S G R A V E S (@KaceyMusgraves) August 5, 2019
You could take that as a reminder of who the country music fan base is (conservative Americans from red states), or you could take it as a terrifying threat. The thing is, in a lot of states where country music is most popular, there are lax enough gun laws that someone probably thinks they could bring their gun into a concert. (They can’t; guns of any sort are not allowed in the vast majority of venues and festivals, and many of them use metal detectors to enforce that restriction.)
For its part, the conservative establishment responded via Fox & Friends, who feigned outrage that Musgraves had dropped an f-bomb, with one host wringing her hands over the children who were exposed to such vulgar language, rather than the children lost to gun violence.
However you take it, that reply — along with several others — indicates that Musgraves wasn’t changing a lot of minds with her tweet or her speech. Fans who already agree with her on gun violence prevention jumped in to defend her, and fans who don’t jumped in to explain what they think she got wrong about automatic and semi-automatic weapons. John Livesay, the author of Better Selling Through Story Telling, says there’s a better way to get a point across to fans: Make it personal.
“Storytelling is literally in our DNA — we used to sit around the glow of campfires and tell stories,” Livesay told Refinery29 on a recent phone call. “If you want to get people to change their behavior, you need to tell them a story...Tell the story of one person, that's what people relate to.” For Musgraves, that’s worked in the past, when the story was in a song. She got country fans talking about accepting same-sex relationships with her single “Follow Your Arrow.” She did the same for the conversation around legalizing pot with “Merry Go ‘Round.” If a song isn’t the thing, though, Livesay recommends taking a story, like that of the two-month-old baby whose parents were both killed in El Paso, and personalizing it, rather than focusing on a vague idea around policies.
Since the Las Vegas shooting and the 2018 shooting at a country bar in Thousand Oaks, CA that killed 12, more and more country stars have been speaking out about gun control. Most without mentioning voting or political affiliations — and with a pro-Second Amendment stance tempered by a call for limitations. The topic has turned up, minus any anti-Trump/Republican politics, over the last few years in songs by Kane Brown (“American Bad Dream”) and Carrie Underwood (“The Bullet”), two of the biggest chart-toppers in the genre. For country music, those are big statements that sidestep being political while creating a sense of empathy for the victims of gun violence and not glorifying guns, which many past country songs have done.
“Whether it's someone putting out a political statement or anything controversial that doesn't fit what they think the audience wants — the truth is, people buy authenticity,” Livesay said. “While you might turn off some people, you might pull in other fans who know that about you. People will respect your bravery and authenticity to not be afraid of rejection.”
And the rejection is real — the fear of getting Dixie Chicked (rejected by the audience and banned from radio for expressing an unpopular political opinion) is strong. Facebook watchdog groups have formed to track “anti-gun” country artists. The narrative that speaking out can get you canceled has kept a lot of country stars complacent for the last 15 years. But in the wake of all this gun violence, some of which has directly targeted their audience, stars from Dierks Bently to Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line to Garth Brooks to Maren Morris have been speaking out by partnering with gun control campaigns to supporting the March for our Lives to writing songs that change the way we think about guns. But it’s a long and ongoing conversation, both for the artists and their audience.
“Realize that everything is a process. Literally, you're asking people to take baby steps. Be open, be curious to find out more or what it would mean,” Livesay suggested. “When people see themselves in the story, they remember it and you connect with them emotionally. Emotions cause people to buy, to change their behavior. Then, you back it up with logic.”