In the wake of the Las Vegas attack at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival, the culture of country music and its relationship with guns has come under a lot of scrutiny as policymakers, the media, pundits, and just ordinary people try and make sense of this senseless act of violence.
Keep in mind that country music had absolutely nothing to do with Stephen Paddock’s motives. In fact, it’s been reported that Paddock booked a hotel room in Chicago that overlooked the Lollapalooza Festival as well as a high-rise condo in Vegas that was near the Life is Beautiful music festival.
Still, last Sunday night’s events have provoked a new conversation about gun rights throughout the country music community.
As this conversation takes shape, there have been a lot of voices from outside the country music genre fixating on country music’s culture, pointing to songs that in their minds glorify guns thereby contributing to an environment that leads to alarming rise of mass shootings.
Billboard’s Melinda Newman asked: “After Las Vegas Shooting, Will Country Music Stick To Its Guns?”
CNN Entertainment posted a story with the headline: “Gun control debate enters country music community: ‘Is this the kind of world we want to live in?’”
Courtney Smith at Refiner29.com declared: “It’s Time for Country Music to Change Its Tune on Guns.”
Many people understandably think of guns as the instrument behind tragedy and violence. But in country music, guns have a very different context and meaning. If you want to change something, it helps to first try and reach beyond the stereotypes to truly understand a different perspective.
I say this as someone who has spent a lot of time in both the political world and the country music community who strongly believes in the urgent need for gun reform. Starting a conversation with an “I’m right, you’re wrong” judgmental tune is the surest way to ensure that conversation is a short one and this is a time when we desperately need a thoughtful and respectful dialogue that results in action.
Missing from the current conversation is a real effort to understand the underlying emotions and sentiments behind the so-called gun culture of country music.
In some cases, reporters are just listing song titles without exploring the meaning of the song and the context in which guns are being invoked. A story by Los Angeles Times reporters Randall Roberts and August Brown cited Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead” as an example of country music “long idealized the gun-owning lifestyle.”
The song however is about standing up to a domestic abuser: “If he wants a fight, well, now he’s got one / And he ain’t seen me crazy yet / He slapped my face, and he shook me like a rag doll / Don’t that sound like a real man? / I’m going to show him what little girls are made of / Gunpowder and lead.”
Also mentioned in that story is a 2013 song called “Grandaddy’s Gun” which appeared on Blake Shelton’s “Based On a True Story” album that represents a gun as a family heirloom: “It’s just a double barrel 12 / The stock is cracked and it kicks like hell / It wouldn’t mean what it means to me to no one /… He taught me a whole lot more than how to hunt / And one of these days I’ll pass it on to my son / Granddaddy’s gun.”
Unsurprisingly, the National Rifle Association’s “NRA Country” brand and the artists associated with it have come under a tremendous amount of scrutiny. In recent days, some of the most prominent artists such as Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett, previously affiliated with NRA Country have backed away from the partnership.
It is never easy to speak out and take a position you inherently know will alienate your base. Every day we see how politicians struggle with this dilemma and more often than not, fail to demonstrate the courage needed to lead.
I’ve spoken to a number of country music artists this week who are trying to find a way to be a productive and positive part of this conversation without experiencing a Dixie Chicks-like backlash.
Perhaps the way forward is embracing a power-in-numbers approach where a large coalition of the genre’s most popular, established and up-and-coming artists speak-out together, in a unified voice. Today’s country music scene is very different than the “Outlaw” country stereotypes from decades ago. There is an influx of young and diverse artists who boast massive social media followings driven by millennials who will support and amplify a message for reform.
Now more than ever we need leadership from every corner we can find it. Staying silent and doing nothing isn’t working.
Embracing reform does not and should not come at the expense of the Second Amendment but that’s a message that gun owners are not going to trust coming from a politician in Washington.
They may trust it if it comes from the country music community.
It’s worth a shot.