With tall casino buildings surrounding him, Matt Farmer stood near the sound booth watching country star Kip Moore perform a 90-minute set outdoors on Las Vegas’ famed Freemont Street. At one point, Farmer, a local entertainment manager, looked up at the hotels.
“Is that a sniper up there?” he wondered, pointing to the top of a nearby casino.
This curiosity wasn’t something that really ever crossed his mind before October 1st. Farmer was at the Route 91 Harvest festival that evening when a gunman opened fire on the crowd from a 32nd floor window at Mandalay Bay, killing 59 people and injuring more than 500 before taking his own life.
Farmer helped a friend to safety after she’d been shot in the hand and buttocks.
Since that day, the city of Las Vegas has been struggling to heal from the worst mass shooting in United States history. The words “Vegas Strong” are seen all over town; there have been fundraisers featuring the city’s showroom headliners; Vegas bands like Imagine Dragons and the Killers held other benefits.
With the exception of a few shows, country music had been largely absent from the city in the wake of the shooting. However, the genre returned to Las Vegas in a big way during the 10-day National Finals Rodeo, the annual rodeo competition that brings both fans of the sport and country music to town. George Strait, Dierks Bentley, Cole Swindell, Dustin Lynch, Dwight Yoakam, Gary Allan, Alabama, Easton Corbin, Chris Janson and Carly Pearce were among the headliners this year.
“We’re here for y’all,” Swindell, a staunch advocate for the U.S. military, told the crowd during his indoor concert at the Cosmopolitan. “No one knows more than Vegas that evil isn’t just overseas.”
Swindell didn’t shy away from the tragedy, even visiting a local fire station full of first responders. At both of his concerts he also prefaced his performance of his hit ballad “You Should Be Here” with a tear-jerking video of Route 91 shooting victim Brennan Stewart singing the song.
“This is what Vegas strong looks like,” Swindell said near show’s end. “I like it.”
Midland’s Mark Wystrach embraced the city’s motto, too. “I know Vegas is Vegas Strong,” he said during a performance by the “Drinkin’ Problem” trio. “We’ve never stopped coming out here and playing this city. Some of the best fans in the world are in Las Vegas.”
Dierks Bentley has a more personal connection to Las Vegas and the tragedy. He met his wife and got engaged in Las Vegas and has co-hosted the Academy of Country Music Awards, which take place in Vegas, for the past two years. He also played the first year of Route 91 in 2014.
On Friday and Saturday, he performed at the Cosmopolitan’s Chelsea theater.
“Every country singer has a special connection to this town,” he said while wearing bracelets with the words “Vegas Strong” and “Pray for Las Vegas.” “I think about what happened every single day.”
In an impromptu moment, he changed up his set list to include the inspirational “Riser.”
“This song is all about people that rise up, the people that run toward danger,” Bentley said onstage. “These are the kind of people I want to be like, that I aspire to be like, all the first responders … They are the risers amongst us, so we send this out to them.”
This actually wasn’t Bentley’s first time to Vegas since the shooting. Just a week after the tragedy, he flew his own plane to Las Vegas to visit with victims and perform for first responders at University Medical Center.
“I’ve played Red Rocks [amphitheater] in Colorado, I’ve played football stadiums with Luke Bryan, I’ve had a chance to play the Grand Ole Opry, I’m a Grand Ole Opry member, but this show at UMC has had the biggest effect on me of any show I’ve played over the past 15 years,” he said on Saturday. “To look out over that crowd, this wasn’t victims, this was just the people that were involved trying to help people. A lot of tears, a lot of people who were happy to see me, a lot of people who were just too caught up in the grief. It’s affected me and it will forever.”
Bentley added that it’s encouraging to see Las Vegas country fans smiling again.
“When we played here last night … to see people have a great time, that’s why we do what we do,” he said on Saturday. “Some people have vices. In Vegas, people gamble, do drugs or do crazy shit, but country music fans love country music and this is how they cope with shit – they go to a concert.”
It’s been more than two months since the Route 91 shooting and Las Vegas is still coping and processing, but with every new country concert, the city is also healing. And NFR was the welcome-back party it so desperately needed.