“We are thankful to get to be a part of country music. We are thankful we get to live in a country where our voices can be heard. We are hopeful that together we can create a better world for our children.”
So wrote Thomas Rhett in an Instagram post just hours before the 53rd ACM Awards on Sunday, a sentiment that was echoed by Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and numerous others with the accompanying hashtag #FansFirst. Artists attending the awards wore a series of pins to acknowledge the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting – the 58 individuals killed, 851 total injuries or a singular 1 for unity. It was a coordinated effort to assure survivors of the shooting that they haven’t been forgotten and a pledge to continue the conversation about the violence, which many artists walking the ACM red carpet agreed was necessary and important.
“I’m here standing with my peers tonight and we’re all here saying we’re not taking these nights for granted in the aftermath of that tragedy,” said “You Broke Up With Me” singer Walker Hayes, adding that Route 91 would affect the way he and others perform from now on. “As an artist, that’s close to home, and if we’re not gonna speak out about it, who is?”
“If anything, I think it’s a time where we do talk about it,” said Lindsay Ell. “As country artists we are part of a family, and the minute one thing happens to one of us it happens to all of us.”
Scotty McCreery, who has typically taken a cautious approach to any kind of political speech, acknowledged that the safety of fans and people in public spaces should be paramount.
“We obviously want to make people feel as safe as they can,” he said. “If they don’t feel that way right now, we need to figure out ways to do that.”
“One Number Away” singer Luke Combs, who was present on the Route 91 grounds when the shooting began, saw his role as being part entertainer and part educator – taking that traumatic first-hand experience and relaying it to help people understand.
“I think it was hard for everyone, especially the ones of us that were there that evening,” he said. “And I think just being there and being present in the moment and making people aware of what happened, and why it happened, and how it cannot happen again from our standpoint is important and that’s what we try to do.”
Others, like Jordan Davis and Carly Pearce, focused on the way that music can act as a balm in times of tragedy. Kane Brown took the idea one step further, pointing out that country performers can bring healing as well as address violence through their music.
“We should just stay strong, trying to keep the community positive,” he said. “Honestly, like Maren Morris did. She wrote a song to [help] people – ‘Dear Hate.’ That’s why I’m in the music industry, is to try and help people.”
For Ell, a native of Alberta, Canada, the frequency of such events in the U.S. was alarming, particularly compared to the country where she grew up. But she also picked up on some telling cultural differences between the countries when she was a teenager.
“I remember going to the Mall of America [in Minnesota] for the first time when I was 15 years old and seeing that sign: ‘You must leave your firearm in your car,'” she says. “I was like, ‘What is that? What does that mean?'”
One phrase that rarely comes up in these exchanges is gun control, even though its unmistakable contours can be felt in many artists’ responses. The list of possible steps that should be taken to prevent mass shootings like the ones at Route 91, Parkland or Pulse remains frustratingly blank, but artists agreed that maintaining levelheaded open dialogue with a variety of opinions would be crucial to making some progress.
“We don’t really know what should be done. We have ideas, but ultimately we know something should be done, not nothing,” said TJ Osborne of duo Brothers Osborne, who have been vocal about supporting gun law reform. “I think if you disagree with someone, or if you disagree with our opinion, those are the people we want to talk to the most.”
“We all end up in echo chambers and we’re constantly agreeing with the people that we’re nearest and we push away the people that we have different opinions with,” added John Osborne. “We all need to come together and have some hard conversations, but be respectful to one another.”