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The delicate dance between country music, gun culture and the NRA

by The Frame Staff | The Frame

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The Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas was the target of a gunman who opend fire on the crowd. David Becker/Getty Images

In the wake of the mass shooting in Las Vegas at the Route 91 Harvest Festival some musicians — including Roseanne Cash and Caleb Keeter — are calling for the country music community to rethink its relationship with gun control and the National Rifle Association.

Keeter, lead guitarist for the Josh Abbott Band, had been on stage at the Vegas festival just hours before the shooting began.

Caleb Keeter (second from left) of the Josh Abbott Band called for stricter gun control after the shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival, where the group performed.
Caleb Keeter (second from left) of the Josh Abbott Band called for stricter gun control after the shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival, where the group performed. Jason Merritt/Getty Images

The following day, he made news when he tweeted how the experience profoundly changed his perspective on gun control:

Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash — a longtime gun-control activist — wrote an op-ed column in the New York Times titled, "Country Musicians, Stand Up to the N.R.A." She put out a call to her fellow musicians: "I encourage more artists in country and American roots music to end your silence. It is no longer enough to separate yourself quietly. The laws the N.R.A. would pass are a threat to you, your fans, and to the concerts and festivals we enjoy."

Rosanne Cash wrote an op-ed column in the New York Times calling for artists to stand up to the NRA.
Rosanne Cash wrote an op-ed column in the New York Times calling for artists to stand up to the NRA. Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Americana Music

In an op-ed article in the Washington Post titled, "Country artists have the ear of American gun culture," pop music critic Chris Richards specifically calls attention to NRA Country. He says the initiative is "an extension of the National Rifle Association that endeavors to strengthen the gun lobby through partnerships with the country music industry."

Among the other thoughtful people who are examining the relationship between country music and gun culture is NPR music critic Ann Powers, who sent out a pair of tweets the day after the massacre.  

Powers is a Seattle native who has lived in Nashville for the past 10 years. John Horn spoke with her about Rosanne Cash, Caleb Keeter, the NRA, and the role of guns in the country music community.

(The Frame also invited someone from NRA Country to comment, but we never received a response.)

Below are some highlights from the conversation with Ann Powers. To hear the entire conversation, click the play button at the top of the page.

What people don't understand about country music and gun culture:

I really think there is a lot of judgment about people who love country music — Southerners, rural folk — and their attitudes towards guns. And I'm not saying that country music and the NRA are not intertwined because, in fact, they are. You can go to the NRA's website and they have a whole NRA Country marketing campaign. Many artists are signed on to it. That is real. But I do think that people outside of this world don't really understand how it works — how the connection to guns works. So it's easy to just be dismissive. And I saw a lot of that on social media. 

Since living in the South I have met so many people who grew up hunting. Hunting is a key aspect of how guns work in people's lives and how that's expressed in the culture — and in country music.

Why country artists tend to not take political stances, one way or another:

Country artists, in the mainstream, tend to be conservative — and I don't necessarily mean politically conservative. I mean conservative in expressing any kind of view — left or right, pro gun-control or even pro-gun. I think all of that discussion has become muted in more current country [music].

I would welcome more open, vigorous discussion from every side because what is happening in country [music] right now is people aren't necessarily taking stances. We saw the same thing in the presidential campaign. Of all varieties of music, it was country where people didn't step up for either candidate that much. I think country artists really want to appeal to the broadest middle that they can, and the middle is a lost space in America. You know? What is "the middle" now? And the crisis in country [music] around political issues is the crisis in America around political issues.

Why Rosanne Cash is an outlier in country music:

Rosanne Cash is a great artist and a person I admire a lot. She definitely is an outlier within mainstream country. I think she would say that herself. She lives in New York City and she really operates, at this point, in the Americana world, which tends to be a much more liberal — socially progressive at least visibly and audibly — world than mainstream country. That said, she does have her heritage, her family name, and her long standing stature within both mainstream country [music] and Americana. So I think her voice is definitely one that resonates a lot.

How the 2003 backlash against the Dixie Chicks may scare other country artists:

All we have to do is look at the case of the Dixie Chicks and the history of how they were pretty much roundly drummed out of country music — for really an off-hand comment that Natalie Maines made years about about George W. Bush — to know that the conservative extreme definitely is still a force as a far as how artists' careers are affected.

And I think the example of the Dixie Chicks remains the strongest reason why artists are afraid to speak out. It was kind of shocking how much they were pushed out of mainstream country radio. And that's something we have to remember, too. Country music is one of the genres that still really relies on terrestrial radio. And terrestrial radio in country is corporatized. It's very monolithic in many ways. And unlike genres that rely now more clearly on streaming, it's harder for artists to stand outside of the mainstream ... I think there are some practical business reasons why this is happening ... But I think it's the business of country that keeps people in line with old-fashioned ways.

To hear the full conversation, click the play button at the top of this page. For more content like this, get The Frame podcast on Apple Podcasts.

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