Drew Baldridge was conflicted. The young country singer was shaken from having performed at Las Vegas' Route 91 Harvest Festival just two days before 59 people were killed at the concert in the deadliest shooting in modern American history. Now, a few days after the October 1st tragedy, Baldridge had to figure out whether or not he should continue his partnership with NRA Country, a subset of the National Rifle Association that promotes the NRA to country music fans.
Baldridge was set to be NRA Country's Artist of the Month for October, the first singer to be featured in the campaign since the Vegas massacre.
"This was already set up before [Las Vegas] happened, and it was a little scary for us," he says. "We knew it was going to probably be somewhat of an issue."
Baldridge decided to continue with his partnership, and within weeks NRA Country was promoting his latest single – titled "Guns and Roses" – on social media. Baldridge's predicament is illustrative of a larger debate happening in country music, which in the weeks since the Route 91 shooting has had to reckon with its deep cultural and economic ties to the gun industry.
Immediately after the shooting, the country music community was overwhelmed with a prevailing sense of silence on the issue of guns, with nary a single recording artist willing to speak publicly about the topic.
Since then, Nashville has slowly, if hesitantly, begun to reflect upon its relationship with firearms. Rolling Stone spoke with a dozen artists and industry veterans about their evolving, often conflicted feelings about country music's economic and cultural relationship with the gun industry, a relationship informed and made complicated by country's formal ties to the gun lobby via NRA Country.
Although every artist interviewed for this piece stresses that they'd like to see changes in the nation's gun laws, they all expect any change in country's ties to gun culture to be gradual, slow and subtle. "I know the NRA works with artists, and I also know that many artists love to hunt and none of that is necessarily going to change after Las Vegas," says songwriter Lori McKenna, who's written hits for Little Big Town and Hunter Hayes. "We can't change the things that are threaded inside of us that quickly."
Rosanne Cash hoped to speed the process along, writing a New York Times op-ed in the days after Las Vegas that implored mainstream country artists to "end their silence" on the issue of gun control and the NRA. Few, if any, heeded her call.
"Many people in the pop/rock/alt-country world reached out in support and voiced their agreement," Cash says of her op-ed a few weeks after it was published. "But the silence from mainstream country artists has been deafening."
It's not hard to understand why. Guns have long existed as a guiding symbol in country music, playing a large role in the genre's outlaw mythology, from the classic "Folsom Prison Blues," by Rosanne Cash's father Johnny Cash, to contemporary songs like "Gunpowder and Lead" by Miranda Lambert. Despite an increasingly diversified audience in recent decades, the core country music fan base still holds its firearms dear, a sentiment expressed in recent songs like onetime NRA Country artists Luke Bryan's "Huntin', Fishin' and Lovin' Every Day" and Blake Shelton's "Granddaddy's Gun."
Even the Country Music Association is aware of the connection and is seemingly wary of rocking the boat and alienating fans by putting artists on the spot. The week before November's 51st CMA Awards, the organization distributed a set of media guidelines barring journalists from asking questions on the red carpet or in the press room about guns and the Las Vegas shooting. Following an online bashing by members of the press, as well as the CMA Awards' own co-host Brad Paisley, the CMA quickly rescinded the rules.
"If you poll our members, they love country music," said Vanessa Shahidi, the director of NRA Country, in 2015, highlighting the relationship between gun lovers and country fans.
In its early years, NRA Country – founded in 2010 as part of the NRA's larger efforts to "show a softer side" of the NRA, as one NRA spokesperson once put it – made their first inroads with country music by partnering with artists like Hank Williams Jr. and Trace Adkins and co-sponsoring celebrity skeet shoots hosted by Blake Shelton with the Academy of Country Music. ("Anytime I can be involved with the NRA and do something that they ask me to do, I'm going to do it every time," Shelton said in a video interview at the 2012 event.)
Today, the organization continues to court artists. In February, NRA Country will present a concert by Granger Smith and LoCash, two NRA Country Artist of the Month alumni, at the Great American Outdoor Show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
As part of its larger marketing strategy to expand its membership beyond its aging male base, the organization has also made a concerted effort to partner with younger, female artists. "They're really wanting to tap into the female market just to really express their support for female gun owners," says an industry source who's worked with the organization. To date, just four of the 37 partnered artists listed on NRA Country's website are women.
It's the Artist of the Month campaign that remains the lifeblood of NRA Country. The partnership offers up-and-coming artists free promotion and advertising to its five million members – which can include NRATV, the organization's digital television network, and American Rifleman, the NRA's flagship publication – in exchange for taking part in a publicity campaign. Usually that means donning some NRA Country merchandise and posing for a photo.
"The NRA provides media help on their part and then in return they receive the association with country artists," says Peter Hartung, the manager of Justin Moore and Dustin Lynch.
Many artists say yes to the arrangement in the early stages of their careers, while some outright refuse the wooing.
"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," says Nashville singer-songwriter Will Hoge, who eviscerated Congress for their inaction in the gun-control anthem "Thoughts & Prayers," written after the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church massacre in November. "When you're a young artist and you can't get anybody to even review your record, you look at [NRA Country] 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 sportsmen 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."
"The goal with NRA Country," says the industry source, "is to find a positive way to talk about gun ownership, because the NRA is very aware that there's a lot of controversy surrounding the NRA. Their mission is to make it more of a light-hearted, fun and open conversation about the outdoor lifestyle and not so much about the controversial, heated conversation about the Second Amendment."
NRA Country has eschewed the hardline legislative messaging of its parent organization, instead framing the NRA purely as a lifestyle organization that supports "traditional values, American pride, freedom, respect, hunting, fishing, the great outdoors and country music." At its onset, the organization enlisted Justin Moore to record the organization’s theme song "This Is NRA Country," along with a music video full of patriotic imagery of soldiers and people of all ages and ethnicities pledging their support for their organization.
"The branding is genius," says country singer Chely Wright, a harsh critic. "They are really good at what they do. They've somehow co-opted patriotism. Somehow kind of folded that in under who they are and taken it away from the rest of us who might want sensible gun control and also support the troops."
NRA Country is run by a small team of NRA employees at the NRA's Virginia headquarters, including Vanessa Shahidi, who serves as the organization’s director, and Lisa Supernaugh, who, according to her LinkedIn profile, is the executive assistant to Wilson H. Phillips Jr., a top NRA executive.
But despite having its own satellite office on Music Row, the National Rifle Association retains a shadow presence in Nashville, hiring out a host of third-party publicity and marketing firms to do much of NRA Country's partnership outreach in the industry.
Much of that work in Nashville has been carried out by a company called WarpSpeed, which was founded by cause marketing specialist Lou Raiola and employs former country music professional Eric Arnold. Raiola and Arnold have served as key connections between the NRA and the country music industry. (Arnold, Raiola, Shahidi, NRA Country and the National Rifle Association did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.)
A partnership with NRA Country's Artist of the Month campaign doesn't necessarily signify a long-term endorsement, however. In the days after Las Vegas, Shelton, Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett all quietly distanced themselves from the organization. Frankie Ballard recently followed suit.
Brantley Gilbert has a huge tattoo featuring two pistols and the text of the Second Amendment covering his entire back. He's made guns a major part of his image, incorporating pro-gun messaging into songs like "Smokin' Gun" and "Read Me My Rights." At concerts, he has gone on long monologues about the importance of gun ownership. "I'll tell you what," Gilbert has said onstage, to huge applause, "if someone breaks into my house, with my family inside, I will shoot his ass."
Gilbert, a Georgia native, tells Rolling Stone that such a message is simply a product of how he was brought up. "I think its important for people to know that, hey, I'm not just riding around with more guns than I know what to do with waiting for something to pop off. It is strictly for my safety and the safety of my family. I would like to think that if they're applauding that content or that rhetoric, I would venture to say that it's a culturally-based response. They were raised similar and told, hey, if someone comes to harm you or your family, you do what you must to protect yourself and your family."
And despite having performed one NRA Country concert and being regularly referred to as a "friend" of the organization on NRA Country's social media, the singer wants to make clear that he has intentionally refrained from officially partnering with the organization throughout his entire career. "I don't want to draw the line from myself to any other organization to blur the lines with what my moral compass is," he says. "I’m not quite onboard with everything that some people represent, so I do like to stand alone for that reason."
The degree to which fans, artists and industry workers alike have come to view NRA Country as distinct from the NRA, a viewpoint held almost unanimously across political lines in Nashville, is credit to the success of the organization's marketing campaign, which has created a climate in which young artists like Baldridge partner with the marketing arm of a lobbying organization that spent over $50 million dollars in the 2016 elections while still regarding the partnership as apolitical.
"Unfortunately," says Hoge, "you can't separate those two things with the NRA."
In November, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill became the first mainstream stars to heed Rosanne Cash's call and speak out against the NRA in Billboard. "Military weapons should not be in the hands of civilians. It's everyone's responsibility, including the government and the National Rifle Association, to tell the truth," Hill said. "There is some common sense that's necessary when it comes to gun control," added McGraw.
Likewise, Sturgill Simpson, nowhere near as well-known as McGraw and Hill but still an important voice in the genre, spoke out during a Facebook Live Q&A and performance he staged outside November's CMA Awards. "Nobody needs a machine gun," he said, "and that's coming from a guy who owns quite a few guns.”
As the Vegas shooting has receded from national focus in the last few months, more artists on both sides of the spectrum increasingly seem to be willing to at least address the topic.
"It's maybe not the most publicized part of this," says country singer Charlie Worsham, "but in Nashville, we're having those conversations. I've had a lot of meaningful conversations with friends in the business. We all agree on the same values. The places where we disagree, and rightfully so, is how to fix the issue. And I see that respect in the conversations happening here."
"Of course I can level with the idea of trying to see what we can do to try to avoid another tragedy in the future. Is that a gun control thing? Is that a mental health thing?” says Gilbert, who says he hunts with an AR-15. "If you take AR-15s off the market, is that where you draw the line? There are semi-automatic rifles you can buy at Walmart that don't look nearly as intimidating but that can also do irreparable damage from further distances. I'm sure the line needs to be drawn, but that's one of the things everybody’s having a hard time with: Where do you draw the line?"
Nearly every country artist interviewed for this story, including staunch pro-gun advocates like Gilbert, stressed the feeling that there is not enough being done to prevent gun violence. "What I see happening with guns is that we're not even trying," says Worsham, who has owned a 9mm handgun since he was a teenager. "There's a wide margin of options between not doing anything and banning guns."
"Nobody’s trying to take away guns," the country singer Cam recently told Rolling Stone. "Eighty percent of gun owners believe that there should be background checks."
"There has to be rules and regulations on everything," says McKenna. "Most people can agree on that. With the right to bear arms, obviously we all keep going back to the fact that the law was made when it took a damn long time to put a bullet in a gun."
As the conversation surrounding gun control and the Second Amendment continues to open up in Nashville, many are beginning to wonder how likely it is that A-list radio stars will ever raise their voice in the most powerful way they can: in song. To them, country music's longstanding relationship with guns is just too strong.
"There's not going to be a corporate radio artist singing about gun control," says Hoge. "That’s definitely not going to happen."