The Troubling Connection Between The NRA And Country Music

Sara Boboltz

Days after a man opened fire on a country music festival in Las Vegas, the National Rifle Association is following its usual protocol in the wake of a mass shooting on U.S. soil ― that is, to hide.

There’s been nothing but radio silence from the organization that lobbies to ensure Americans have access to firearms powerful enough to kill nearly 60 and injure over 500, as Stephen Paddock did Sunday night during the Route 91 Harvest festival, when he opened fire on music fans from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel. 

The NRA has issued no statement or social media posts about the shooting, even though it’s been trying to link itself to everything country music for years. 

Take, for example, NRA Country. Formed in 2010, the gun lobby’s so-called lifestyle brand recruits icons within the country music industry to promote a “softer side” of the organization, The Guardian reports. A mission statement positions NRA Country as “a celebration of American values” such as “respect,” “honor” and “freedom.” The brand seeks to “empower” its “artist friends who promote these values to encourage our next generation of leaders.” 

Its sparse website lists over three dozen such artist friends, a group mainly comprised of men like Trace Adkins, Craig Campbell, Craig Morgan, Luke Combs, Hank Williams Jr. and Jon Pardi. Some of these musicians have provided entertainment for attendees of the NRA’s Annual Meetings and Exhibits conferences and its Great American Outdoor Show.

“[The NRA is] simply using the lifestyle brand as an inroad to reach out to that broader demographic to build their support and build their membership,” Greg Reish, director of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University, told HuffPost. “The idea being that ... if you like country for these reasons, the NRA speaks your language.”

But canned statements from many of the artists posted on NRA Country are absent of language explicitly promoting firearms. Adkins supports the group “because they share my love of the outdoors and my wish to safeguard America’s hunting heritage.” Colt Ford vibes with it because the group shares the “core values” he learned from his parents: “love of God, family, friends, America and hard work.”

Instead of seeing posts on pending gun legislation or arguments against gun control, like those that appear on the NRA’s official Facebook page, NRA Country’s 115,000 Facebook followers get updates on affiliated artists. Fans are encouraged to support these “friends” of the NRA, like Miranda Lambert (who has spoken favorably about the group in the past), by buying their music or concert tickets

Across social media, NRA Country’s lighthearted tone stands at odds with the often heated language of the official NRA page, where a call to “stop kneeling on behalf of your elitist anti-patriot comrades” earned over 100 “angry” reactions. 

“I don’t think it’s more about normalizing guns or gun culture, but normalizing the NRA,” Violence Policy Center Executive Director Josh Sugarmann told HuffPost about the effort. Using celebrities to whip up support is a common marketing strategy; PETA maintains a page of celebrity partners similar to the one found on NRA Country’s site. There aren’t nearly as many names linked to the pro-gun rights group, though.

“The NRA is very self-conscious that it has a celebrity gap,” Sugarmann continued. “If you look at the NRA’s publications ― the statements that come across on their online outlets ― beneath the distaste they show for Hollywood and other celebrities is a very clear green line of jealousy that they don’t have a stable of high profile supporters for their cause.”

Country music is one of the most popular radio formats in the U.S. And, according to an NRA spokesperson, many of the gun lobby’s members count themselves as fans. A partnership between the NRA and country musicians could benefit both parties, helping the stars connect with their fans and helping the NRA seek out new members. Exactly how much support the NRA has among country fans, though, is unclear.

When Tim McGraw backed a pro-gun control Sandy Hook benefit, he found himself defending his decision to some pro-gun rights fans. Yet NRA Country’s published list of affiliated artists has seen some names, including Andy Griggs and Mickie James, disappear for unknown reasons. More recently, Florida Georgia Line dropped off the page after a web crawler captured the duo’s name there Oct. 3. Thomas Rhett disappeared sometime after July.

“It’s been years since they’ve crossed paths,” Rhett’s representative told HuffPost over email of her client’s erasure from the NRA Country site.

Imagery championed by the NRA ― cool cars and trucks, gritty physical labor, men enjoying the country’s pristine outdoor landscape ― continues to mirror the lyrical pictures painted atop country charts, thanks to the immense popularity of “bro country,” as Reish calls it. Led by majority white male artists like Jason Aldean, Sam Hunt and Luke Bryan, lyrics extol America, its open roads, women, beer and red plastic cups.

“Sunday morning, man, she woke up fighting mad / Bitching and moaning on and on ’bout the time I had,” Luke Combs, an affiliate of NRA Country, sings in “When It Rains It Pours,” which has racked up more than 24 million YouTube views. “So I went for a drive to clear my mind / Ended up at a Shell on I-65 / Then I won a hundred bucks on a scratch-off ticket / Bought two 12-packs and a tank of gas with it.”

The fact that Combs doesn’t mention firearms doesn’t seem to concern NRA Country.

“There aren’t really that many songs in country music these days that are about guns, or that make passing reference to guns, but they’re trying to make the association between the imagery,” Reish said of NRA Country.

The tragedy in Las Vegas, however, has some asking country musicians to throw their support behind the very opposite of the NRA’s efforts: gun control reform.

In a Tuesday op-ed for The New York Times, Roseanne Cash, the daughter of country icon Johnny Cash, called on musicians to “pull apart the threads of patriotism and lax gun laws that it has so subtly and maliciously intertwined. They are not the same.” 

“I encourage more artists in country and American roots music to end your silence,” she wrote.

Another musician, the Josh Abbott Band’s Caleb Keeter, took to Twitter on Monday to explain how witnessing the violence in Las Vegas changed his mind on the issue of gun control. His band had performed hours before at the Route 91 festival.

“We need gun control RIGHT. NOW,” Keeter wrote, after recounting the barrage of bullets he experienced. 

But statements explicitly calling out the role of guns in Sunday’s violence were not widespread among country music stars. At least one, Kenny Alphin of the duo Big & Rich, said he still doesn’t see guns as a problem, proclaiming, “It’s just the good and evil.” Meanwhile, many others expressed condolences, bafflement and messages of resilience without mentioning guns at all, or how stronger laws might have prevented such an extreme loss of life.

Combs, who was in Las Vegas during the shooting, told the “Today” show Monday that “we need to be able to move forward and not let something like this affect our daily lives.” In an Instagram post, he asked people to “keep Vegas, these fans, and all of the country music community in your thoughts and prayers, we could sure use it tonight.”

Aldean, who was on stage when the gunfire began, posted an emotional note to Twitter that similarly didn’t mention the issue. “Something has changed in this country and in this world lately that is scary to see,” he wrote, ending with a call to “stop the hate.”

“I don’t even know anymore ... Why?” NRA advocate Blake Shelton wrote on Twitter

There are already more mass shootings in the U.S. than any other country in the world, and according to one researcher, these incidents are becoming more deadly. Whether country music stars will face backlash over their apparent refusal to support gun control ― or separate deadly weapons from the country lifestyle they love ― has yet to be seen. But, according to Reish, at least, the tide may be turning.

“Now that this has affected the country music industry directly, I think it’ll be a little bit harder for artists and fans alike to keep their heads in the sand about the gun issue,” Reish said. “And I hope people will start to question more country’s link to the NRA.”

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.