For the past decade, the National Rifle Association has had a close, codependent relationship with the country music industry, from partnering with artists such as Florida Georgia Line and Lee Brice for cross-promotional campaigns to throwing annual celebrity skeet shoots hosted by Blake Shelton. “It’s no secret,” the Director of NRA Country said in 2015. “If you poll our members, they love country music.”
But now, less than a week after the deadliest shooting in modern American history took place at a country music festival – 58 people were killed and more than 500 were wounded at Las Vegas’ Route 91 Harvest fest by an attacker firing from 32 floors above – country artists seem, at least for the moment, less willing to openly embrace the NRA. Rolling Stone attempted to contact 37 of the artists featured on the web site of NRA Country, the organization’s music-affiliated offshoot. Three of those acts – Florida Georgia Line, Thomas Rhett and Luke Combs – clarified that they have no ongoing partnership with the organization. Representatives for several artists, such as Blackberry Smoke and Sunny Sweeney, declined to comment; reps for more than two-dozen artists – including Justin Moore, Hank Williams Jr. and Jon Pardi – did not respond. After more than 24 hours, only one group, the Nashville duo Love & Theft, would confirm they remain partnered with the organization.
“What you’re seeing with the country music community right now is that everybody is just laying low,” says Don Cusic, professor of music industry history at Belmont University in Nashville. “They are stalling for time.”
Over the past week, several of the organization’s most successful artists have decided to clarify that they are not presently affiliated with NRA Country, including Florida Georgia Line, the platinum-selling bro-country duo behind hits like “Cruise,” and Thomas Rhett, the fast-rising country superstar whose song “Die a Happy Man” was one of the single biggest hit country songs of 2016. Both artists partnered with NRA Country in 2013 as the organization’s featured Artist of the Month, participating in a variety of promotional campaigns, including ticket giveaways, videos and lyric contests.
When reached by Rolling Stone, a representative clarified that Florida Georgia Line “do not have a present day association with the NRA,” while a representative for Thomas Rhett stated that the singer “has no current affiliation with the NRA.”
As one of the genre’s most prominent stars, Blake Shelton has long been one of NRA Country’s flagship artists, hosting shooting events in 2011 and 2012. “This is about a right that I want to support and that I believe in,” he said of a skeet shoot event in 2012, “and if I can have fun while doing that, that’s even better.” NRA Country has continued to promote their partnership with Shelton in recent years, even though last year Shelton’s representative declined to clarify his relationship to the organization (He was removed from NRA Country’s website not long after the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting). But this week, the representative finally did clarify: “Blake does not have a partnership with the NRA.”
The NRA and NRA Country did not respond to a request for comment.
NRA Country has fostered close commercial ties with many of country music’s biggest stars in recent years and has been seen as a valuable platform for up-and-coming country acts. Its biggest promotional tool is the organization’s Featured Artist of the Month campaign; the sponsorship encourages country artists to have their name associated with the NRA in exchange for the advertising of an artist’s new album amongst the promotional channels of the NRA, which boasts millions of dues-paying members. Its platforms include NRATV, the organization’s digital television network, and American Rifleman, the NRA’s flagship publication. The Featured Artist Campaign has brought about successful partnerships in recent years with up-and-coming artists like Chase Rice and Lee Brice.
Those artists were among those who did not respond when asked if they are still involved with the NRA. The apparent hesitance comes after Rosanne Cash urged artists to disavow the organization in a New York Times op-ed Tuesday morning. “I encourage more artists in country and American roots music to end your silence,” she said. “The laws the N.R.A. would pass are a threat to you, your fans, and to the concerts and festivals we enjoy.”
Caleb Keeter, guitarist for the Josh Abbott band, a group who performed in Las Vegas this past weekend, spoke out the day after the shooting on Twitter. “Until the events of last night, I cannot express how wrong I was,” said Keeter, a self-described second-amendment supporter.
Most haven’t gone that far, instead offering ambiguous expressions of frustration with the status quo of gun violence. “It is beyond time for our country, and the world, to unite and do whatever we can to stop all this madness,” Kid Rock tweeted on Monday. (Rock is a vocal gun-rights advocate who once told Rolling Stone he purchased a semiautomatic weapon when Obama took office for fear that the President would “ban guns.”)
The last time NRA Country faced any degree of scrutiny came after 2012’s Sandy Hook elementary-school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Within several months of Newtown, the names of the organization’s two most popular partnered artists – Luke Bryan and Shelton – were removed from NRA Country’s website.
In recent years, however, NRA Country has experienced some degree of success at making continual inroads with the mainstream country music industry. NRA Country has found new ways to access some of country’s biggest names via indirect channels like its recent online TV show, “On Location.” The show, hosted by an NRA-supported up-and-coming country singer named Morgan Mills, has succeeded in expanding the NRA’s visibility and exaggerating NRA Country’s mainstream viability in Nashville by scoring red-carpet interviews and face-time with artists – including Tanya Tucker, Lauren Alaina and Cole Swindell – who are otherwise not associated with the organization.
Although many of NRA Country’s artists remain unproven niche genre artists with little national visibility, over the last two years the organization has fostered early promotional partnerships with upstarts Jon Pardi and Luke Combs, partnerships that have paid off for the organization as the singers have become two of the industry’s biggest breakout stars. When young artists like Pardi and Combs go on to become major names in country music long after partnering with NRA Country, the organization enjoys the credibility-boosting stamp of approval that comes with listing those artist’s names as “Featured Artists” on its website. This week a representative for Combs confirmed that the singer is “not an officially partnered artist with NRA Country.” Rather, his affiliation with the group, like the other featured artists, is only for a set period of time. In Combs’ case, it was November 2015.
In the coming months, Cusic speculates that the decision to partner with NRA Country for new artists may become that much more difficult.
“I don’t think anybody is going to be making that decision in the short term,” he says. “In the beginning stages of a career, it’s an advantage to have an organization like the NRA behind you. The problem is, when something this controversial comes along, then it flips.”
On Monday morning, NRA Country’s website listed 39 artists who have partnered with the organization over the years. As of press time, the number of NRA Country partnered artists on the site had shrunk to 37. The names of Thomas Rhett and Florida Georgia Line were nowhere to be found.
This story has been updated to clarify the length of Luke Combs’ relationship with NRA Country.