On the morning of November 5th, a gunman opened fire on a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, murdering 26 people. Later that evening, singer-songwriter Will Hoge sat down backstage before his gig in Denver and began writing a song about a phrase he could no longer stand to hear.
"I'd been becoming increasingly annoyed by the statement of 'thoughts and prayers' for some time," the singer tells Rolling Stone. "From my own experience, I know that phrase can be a kind and thoughtful way to express sympathy when there is no other way to help, but after these shootings, using that stock response from these cowards on Capitol Hill is incredibly insulting. They have all the opportunities in the world to make a difference, but they do nothing. Then to just send out a phrase like 'thoughts and prayers,' as if we don't all know that there is something they could do? It's shameful."
Lyrics began pouring out of Hoge, the Nashville-area native who has written songs for Lady Antebellum and the Eli Young Band, as he wrestled with his building frustration:
Another politician sitting far away
Doesn't matter how many people got gunned down today
As long as you can keep your re-election bills paid
You're just a whore to the pimp that's called the NRA
Before taking the stage that night, Hoge had finished writing "Thoughts & Prayers" (premiering below). It stands as the very first song from a successful country artist to directly advocate for congressional gun legislation and denounce the NRA since the October massacre at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas that has continued to haunt the country music community.
Rolling Stone recently chatted with the outspoken Hoge – who also called for the removal of the Confederate flag in "Still a Southern Man" – about his new song, the NRA and why the country music industry is reluctant to have a dialogue about guns and the Second Amendment.
Were you scared to write a song that's so explicitly political?
I don't think so. There's a Cesar Cruz quote that hangs in my wife's office that helps a bunch in these moments: "Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." When I have doubts, or fears, or questions, that always shines a bit of a light.
Do you think there will eventually be more artists who will begin to speak out publicly on gun control?
Not every artist needs to be Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie. We need good country heartbreak and whiskey songs. So I truly do understand the artist who doesn't talk about politics and just wants to be an artist that entertains. That's totally fine with me. The issue is the artists who do want to say something being chastised for it. If someone has something to say that is well thought-out and educated and is going to provoke an actual conversation, they should feel comfortable doing that. To have a genre of music where people don't even feel comfortable being able to have that conversation, whether they're pro-gun or anti-gun, it's a sad place to operate from as an artist. Hopefully that starts to change.
Are you hopeful that it might actually change?
You do start to hear more and more people who are, at least in their own small circles, starting to say, 'Man, this is really scary. My guns wouldn't have helped at all in [Las Vegas].' So that's a least a small step in the right direction.
Why did you zero in on the phrase "thoughts and prayers" as a way to discuss this topic?
"Thoughts and prayers" is not a replacement for something actionable that would help keep our fellow Americans and our children safe. I'm curious how these politicians even sleep at night or how they look their kids and grandkids in the eyes anymore.
How deep are cultural ties between guns and country music? Is that why this is so hard to talk about?
That's part of it. It's incredibly ingrained in the culture down here. I think as Americans, we live in a gun culture, whether we like it or not. As a gun owner myself, I'm not anti-gun, but there are just logical things we need to do.
Before Las Vegas, were you aware of NRA Country, the subset of the NRA that forms partnerships with country singers?
I'm very anti-NRA, and I had thought I had made that abundantly clear personally and career-wise, but I had been approached by NRA Country about featuring one of my songs, "Strong," and I wasn't willing to do that. That's not an organization I want anything to do with.
Do you have friends in the business who have worked with NRA Country?
I do, and it's tough. When you're a young artist and you can't get anybody to even review your record, you look at it like, 'Hey, here's a marketing opportunity for me to get in front of millions of country music fans.' I think that's innocent for a lot of people. They're hunters or they're sportsman and they enjoy shooting, and there's nothing wrong with that, but it's exploitative in a lot of ways. The NRA uses you and your image and your music to go out and spout their B.S.
How would you summarize what you are trying to communicate with "Thoughts & Prayers"?
This song is really just me working out my own frustrations about our grossly negligent elected officials and about a fear-mongering, bully organization like the NRA. They are the worst things about America: a rich organization, led by horrible people, preying on some of the best people in our country with fear and lies, just to grow their own profits. I've got to believe that at some point all responsible gun owners will see what a sham that organization truly is. So, if there are any hopes for me in this song, I'd suppose it is that: that maybe just more common-sense gun owners will speak up and stop being used by people who, in the end, care nothing about us or our families.