Despite a distance of 1,800 miles, the horror of Sunday night’s deadly mass shooting in Las Vegas hit close to home in Nashville. The domestic terror attack claimed the lives of at least 59 country music fans attending the Route 91 Harvest Festival, leaving another 515 wounded at an event that almost exclusively featured Nashville-based artists like Jason Aldean, Jake Owen and Big & Rich, along with their Music City-based road crews and scores of Music Row and country radio insiders, whose work combines forces with the dedication of country music fans to make the genre the juggernaut it is.
“Even though the events of last night took place in Las Vegas, the repercussions are felt so strongly right here,” Grand Ole Opry executive Sally Williams, visibly holding back tears, told a hundreds-strong, somber crowd of mourners at a drizzly candlelight vigil Monday evening at Nashville’s Ascend Amphitheater. The gathering featured speeches of condolence from Nashville mayor Megan Barry and actor and singer-songwriter Charles Esten, along with acoustic performances by Keith Urban, Vince Gill and Amy Grant, and Allison Krauss and the Cox Family.
“We’re here to wrap our arms around Las Vegas, and all those who have suffered from this horrific and heartless attack,” Nashville star Esten said at the start of the quickly organized event. “We’re here to lift up those who are mourning as best we can in this moment. We’re here to support the larger community of Las Vegas. We’re here to support the larger community of country music and country music fans and artists, who together have been shaken by this event.”
As much as those words came of comfort to country music fans like teary-eyed 28-year-old Nashvillian Scotty, an aspiring musician who told Rolling Stone Country, “I questioned staying at home, but then I realized it does matter to come out and support the community, and get together with people and have this shared experience,” it was music that provided the greatest healing. As Vince Gill, singing loudly and strumming delicately, started into the second verse of his 1994 ballad “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” mourners, lit candles in hand, slowly began rising out of their seats one by one, two by two and then in groups, in silence, without needing to be told.
“Our friends live in Nashville and they said this was happening tonight, so we felt like we kind of wanted to be here,” Wilson, New York, resident Linda, 56, who happened to be passing through Nashville by way the Cumberland River on a four-month family boat trip, told Rolling Stone Country.
Keith Urban, who told the crowd he was “shell-shocked” upon learning of the shooting Monday morning, sang loud enough to be heard across the Cumberland when delivering a devastatingly emotional version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which included a brief, blink-and-you’d-have-missed-it tease of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” – a subtle tribute to the late rock legend.
Urban spoke of explaining the Vegas shooting to his 9-year-old daughter on the drive to school. “These were innocent people, horrifically taken,” he recalled explaining. “They’re like family. It’s the one thing about country music that’s always been at the center of it, and that it is [a] community, it’s about community. And so I did know those people in that way, and it just really hit me.”
Joey, a 35-year-old aspiring Nashville musician had a similar reaction when he woke up to the same news as Urban. “Immediately I thought about all of our friends in this town that I know were there working,” recalling how he promptly got on Facebook to make sure his friends had checked in safe, and thankfully found that all were accounted for. “Honestly, as a performer, these scenarios go through my head all the time. I hate that my nightmare came true for other people,” he said, adding that, had he been in Vegas, he “absolutely” would’ve attended Route 91 Harvest, but said he wasn’t going to let that keep him away from public gatherings. “I don’t care, if someone wants to shoot us up down here, we’re going to come here and stand up for our freedom to go out and enjoy country music and be one together.”
By the time Gill – whose wife, fellow country star Amy Grant, led the crowd in prayer and a moment of silence – was performing the first of two renditions of “Amazing Grace” (which Krauss and the Cox Family would close the 35-minute presentation with later), strong winds had blown out the candles. But Esten reminded mourners that didn’t matter. “Those aren’t the lights that matter. Why don’t you go out and you be the light, ” he said before seeing the crowd off by urging them to donate to the Music City Cares Fund, a charity set up by the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee to aid victims of the shooting in Las Vegas.
“Death visited two places where people were simply doing the things that give life meaning and give life joy,” Mayor Barry said of Vegas, also noting this was the second week in a row members of the Music City community had congregated to mourn victims of a mass shooting. The previous Sunday, a lone gunman opened fire on worshippers at a church in the Nashville suburb of Antioch, killing one and wounding eight others. “We shouldn’t have to worry about gunfire in those places,” Barry continued. “And you certainly shouldn’t have to worry about dying.”