Excessive drinking, public indecency and fighting are nothing new at concerts. Who hasn't seen a sloppy brawl break out in the beer line between two overserved fans? But the incidents that have occurred this past summer at a number of high-profile country shows had even the most seasoned concertgoers shaking their heads.
In June, Luke Bryan's That's My Kind of Night Tour touched down at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Fans left parking lots strewn with trash and debris after all-day tailgating and proceeded to cause a number of disturbances inside the stadium, home of the NFL's Steelers. Emergency operators fielded 150 calls, with ambulances transporting 34 people to hospitals.
Later in the summer, on July 26th, incidents at a Boston-area date of Keith Urban's Raise 'Em Up Tour at the XFinity Center in Mansfield, Massachusetts, were even more severe. With upwards of 50 people taken ill with alcohol sickness, authorities declared a mass casualty event and requested assistance from ambulances in neighboring communities. Most alarmingly, an 18-year-old man was charged with raping a 17-year-old fan on the lawn. (Update: According to the Boston Globe, the charges have since been dropped.)
Afterwards, Urban released a statement saying, "My team and I were horrified to learn of the events reported in Boston this past weekend and our hearts and prayers go out to all those affected. This type of behavior stands in stark contrast to the spirit of our shows."
On August 17th, a 55-year-old male fan was rushed to the hospital after being pushed and hitting his head on the concourse during a Hank Williams Jr. concert in Michigan. The man later died.
Tragically, more than his peers, Jason Aldean has seen firsthand what can happen both on tour and at large-scale concerts. With four incidents over the past year at his shows — including three deaths — the hard-touring artist has been seemingly snakebit on the road.
In October 2013, Aldean's bus struck and killed a man who walked onto a highway in Indiana. The singer was onboard the coach at the time; his driver was not at fault.
At Aldean's July 18th performance at Progressive Field in Cleveland, 22-year-old fan Cory Barron vanished from the ballpark. Apparently somehow falling down a trash chute, his body was found five days later in a county landfill. The cause of Barron's death is still undetermined.
In a scarcely reported incident, a man committed suicide in the men's room of the Lakewood Amphitheater in suburban Atlanta during a May 16th concert by Aldean. According to an emailed statement from Atlanta Police Department spokesperson Kim Jones, "a janitor found an unresponsive male in a bathroom stall at the Lakewood Amphitheater during a concert. The male was found with a belt wrapped around his neck with his back against the stall door…. The scene was consistent with a suicide."
Aldean also confirmed the Lakewood incident during a recent interview with Rolling Stone Country. "That was a pretty interesting year as far as that stuff goes. I saw some stuff during all that that I don't ever care to see again," the singer says somberly. "It was something that was really weird. It seems like we had a streak of things like that happening to us this year."
The bad luck culminated in August, with a drunken driver striking a motorcycle cop after a performance by Aldean in Hartford, Connecticut. The singer says alcohol is often the lubricant for many of the episodes, but doesn't think the recent spate of concert misbehavior is unique to country music.
"Bottom line, when people go to a show or do anything like that, like it or not, drinking is part of it. People are going to drink and they're going to have fun," Aldean says. "I don't know what you really attribute it to other than anytime there is alcohol involved, stuff like that is going to happen. Even if you're at a ballgame. Or a nightclub. Or wherever. You can't really say, 'It's country music.' That's ridiculous."
Eric Church, who launched his massive Outsiders World Tour last week in Bossier City, Louisiana, admits his crowds can be particularly rowdy. He's also keenly aware of the tightrope one walks as a performer in encouraging their fans to let loose, but not at the expense of those around them. Or their own personal safety.
"You want them to express themselves. You want them to get involved in the moment. Just like we do. But at the same time, you want to make sure that they're all leaving with the same experience," Church tells Rolling Stone Country. "When you have some who are affecting other people's experience, that's when you have to get involved. You want to make sure it's all equal for everybody. They can go as crazy as they want to, as long as they don't start affecting other people's crazy."
Church, who started his career playing dive bars and rock clubs, believes the increasing draw of country music dovetails with the uptick in unfortunate occurrences.
"The popularity of country may be underestimated a little bit there. I don't think we've ever dealt with an era where it was as popular as it is numbers-wise. When you start putting 20, 30,000 people in a place just like it used to be with rock and pop, you're going to have some incidents," he says.
Aldean, however, doesn't think the size of the crowd factors into the publicity the events receive. He cites a more modern-age reason.
"I don't care if you're playing to 30,000 people or to 500 people in a club. I've played clubs back in the day where people get stabbed or shot in the parking lot. I don't attribute that to there being more people [at country concerts]," he says. "Things like this have happened for years, like people getting trampled at shows. It's such a high-profile thing because of social media and the Internet."
There's also the perception of what country music has traditionally been about, as well as who listens to the genre. While the cornerstone subjects of country songs include drinking, cheating and even murder, the country of the Nineties and onward favored a sunnier, more family-friendly approach. To some, it became "soccer mom music," which makes the recent concert issues feel all the more out of place.
"I think it's seen more out of the norm because of historically what country has been known as," agrees Church.
In the end, both artists strive for a safe and inclusive experience.
"It's something that hopefully we can manage the right way that people, no matter your age or demographic, can still come and enjoy the show," Church says.
"You want people to come out to your show to enjoy it and everybody to wake up the next day and talk about what a great time they had. You don't want somebody to come to the show and never make it home," says Aldean. "Unfortunately that kind of stuff is out of our hands."
He also offers his own public service announcement.
"People are adults and are responsible for their own actions," he says. "You come to a show and plan on drinking, get a driver. Call a cab. That's things that adults should just know. We can't make people do that stuff."