How should the Grammy Awards recognize last October’s Route 91 shooting? Perhaps learning from the much-derided missteps of the Country Music Awards — where reporters were initially banned from even mentioning “the Las Vegas tragedy, gun rights, political affiliations or topics of the like” — the Grammys are taking a different approach. Three artists who appeared at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival — Brothers Osborne, Eric Church, and Maren Morris — will do a special performance to honor the victims at the Jan. 28 show.
Fifty eight people were killed and over 500 were injured on the last day of the country music festival last fall. It was among the most devastating slaughters of its kind in modern American history, and it left the country music community reeling. While a few artists publicly proclaimed a change of heart about gun laws, others found themselves scrambling to justify — or, in some cases, distance themselves from — their formal association with the NRA under the banner of “NRA Country.”
Church wrote a song, “Why Not Me,” shortly after the mass shooting; he performed it for the first time at the Grand Ole Opry less than a week after Route 91. He told the crowd that he’d seen a woman, Heather Melton, whose husband, Sonny, was killed at the festival. She was wearing “our Church Choir Tour shirt” when she told Anderson Cooper that she and Sonny went to the festival to see Church’s performance. “And that night, something broke in me, on Sunday night when that happened,” Church said. “And the only way I’ve ever fixed anything that’s been broken in me is with music. So I wrote a song.”
Morris also released a song after Vegas. Hers, called “Dear Hate,” was one she’d written two years earlier, after the Charleston shooting, but she’d waited to release it “because it is such a sensitive subject.” She donated a portion of the proceeds from the song to the Music City Cares fund.
In a statement, Neil Portnow, President and CEO of the Recording Academy, said, “Live music events have always provided a safe space for fans to gather in a shared celebration of music. Sadly, that wasn’t always the case this past year.” His comments presumably allude not just to Route 91, but to the attack at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester last May that killed 22 people. (So far, there don’t appear to be plans to acknowledge the Manchester victims specifically, many of whom were children or teenagers; Grande is not nominated for any awards this year, and is not on the list of previously announced performers.)
Chances are the performance will be solemn, if not galvanizing — more in the key of “thoughts and prayers” than “time to act.” Country music artists, terrified of getting Dixie-Chicked since 2003, are skittish about taking any political stance more radical than your standard-issue patriotic platitudes: They love this country, they support the troops, they eat Girl Scout cookies, and so on.
Savvy country musicians are wary of alienating their largely Republican fanbases or, worse, angering radio DJs who wield godlike power over whose career lives and dies. And heaps of country artists are part of NRA Country, which, as the Washington Post explained in a post-Vegas story, “endeavors to strengthen the gun lobby through partnerships with the country music industry” and calls on its “featured artists” to “present the ‘softer side’ of the gun lobby.”
This branch of the NRA has relationships with dozens of country music stars, though in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, at least one “featured artist,” Florida Georgia Line, insisted “they had no ongoing partnership with the organization.” (Similar “I don’t know her”-style denials came from Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, followed by the swift erasure of their names from the NRA Country website.)
Morris didn’t stray too far from this established script in a conversation about “Dear Hate” with Rolling Stone, describing the song “is really not partisan, it’s just about bringing love and kindness to the world.”
The 60th annual Grammy Awards will air on CBS on Sunday, January 28 at 8:00 p.m.