Journalists who head to Nashville to cover the 51st CMA Awards on November 8th will be forbidden from asking any questions about guns. That includes — and is almost certainly because of — the mass shooting in Las Vegas last month, when a gunman aimed at a country music festival, killing 58 people and injuring hundreds.
Reporters who ask about the shooting or gun issues should expect to have their credentials “reviewed and potentially revoked” and be booted out of the event “via a security escort,” according to media guidelines distributed by the Country Music Association on Thursday. The “Las Vegas tragedy, gun rights, political affiliations or topics of the like” are off-limits from the red carpet to backstage and everywhere in between:
“It’s vital, more so this year than in year’s [sic] past due to the sensitivities at hand, that the CMA Awards be a celebration of Country Music and the artists that make this genre so great. It’s an evening to honor the outstanding achievements in Country Music of the previous year and we want everyone to feel comfortable talking to press about this exciting time.
“Comfortable” is a telling word here. Country artists have long been comfortable, even cozy, with the National Rifle Association. As the Washington Post noted in the wake of the shooting, NRA Country, a branch of the NRA “that endeavors to strengthen the gun lobby through partnerships with the country music industry,” boasts relationships with dozens of country music’s stars; its “featured artists” include Lee Brice, Gretchen Wilson, and bro-country outfit Florida Georgia Line. NRA Country’s professed goal: “To present the ‘softer side’ of the gun lobby.”
A number of these acts, Florida Georgia Line among them, asserted “they had no ongoing partnership with the organization” after the Las Vegas shooting drew attention to their NRA connection. Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan pulled a similar disappearing act from the same page after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012.
What makes country artists uncomfortable? Politics. Specifically: Veering ever-so-slightly from the Republican party line, at the risk of alienating a largely white, conservative fanbase and the almighty radio DJs who can pull songs from the airwaves faster than you can say “Dixie Chicked.”
The most common response from those in the country community in the aftermath of the Las Vegas slaughter was something close to silence. A pile of thoughts, a bunch of prayers. Instagram posts and tweets and interviews bemoaning how tragic this was, and why can’t we all love each other, and if only there were something we could do, but who even knows what that something could be, better to just not, and anyway let’s not dwell on the details here, the important thing is that this is so sad, what a nightmare, such frowny emoji, etc. Your standard issue post-massacre spiel.
Only a few country artists called for gun reform after the shooting. Singer-songwriter Margo Price tweeted that “we need stricter gun control, plain and simple.” Jason Isbell tweeted that “it simply shouldn’t be that easy to hurt that many people.” Josh Abbott Band guitarist Caleb Keeter, who performed at the festival and survived the attack, posted on Twitter the next day that the harrowing, near-death experience had changed him completely. “I’ve been a proponent of the 2nd amendment my entire life,” he wrote. “Until the events of last night. I cannot express how wrong I was…“We need gun control RIGHT. NOW.”
But Price is on an independent label. And even though her debut LP, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, premiered at no. 10 on Billboard‘s Top Country Albums — the first time in the chart’s 52-year history that a solo female artist debuted in the top ten — she has yet to get a single CMA nod. The Josh Abbott Band isn’t nominated for anything this year, either. Isbell’s The Nashville Sound is nominated for album of the year, but he won’t be attending the CMAs; he’ll be on tour in Europe with his band the 400 Unit.
Country artists could opt to use their medium of choice — music — to process and comment on the violence, to reckon with their own role in popularizing and cosigning a lifestyle of which gun ownership is often a part. But maybe the genre, at present, isn’t built to withstand that kind of introspection. Take Maren Morris — who won a Grammy this year and is nominated for a CMA — who released a song called “Dear Hate” in response to the massacre. (She wrote it after the Charleston shooting two years ago, but held onto it until now: “I wanted to be precious with it because it is such a sensitive subject.”) Morris insisted to Rolling Stone that the song “is really not partisan, it’s just about bringing love and kindness to the world,” which is about as controversial a stance as “puppies are adorable.”
Chances are no reporters will risk getting kicked out of the CMAs, and denied access for themselves and their outlet in the future, by bringing up guns in their interviews. Seems like the only way Las Vegas will be addressed at the ceremony is if a presenter goes off-script or a winner dares to discuss what the CMAs have deemed unspeakable.
UPDATE: The backlash is beginning. Country star Brad Paisley tweeted Friday morning that he’s “sure the CMA will do the right thing and rescind these ridiculous and unfair press guidelines.”
I'm sure the CMA will do the right thing and rescind these ridiculous and unfair press guidelines. In 3…2….1…..
— Brad Paisley (@BradPaisley) November 3, 2017
Maren Morris has also responded on Twitter:
Country music has always been about the truth. Out of respect for the Las Vegas victims, let’s keep it that way.
— MAREN MORRIS (@MarenMorris) November 3, 2017
UPDATE: After a number of artists spoke out against the restrictions — including co-host Braid Paisley — the CMA apologized and announced there would not, in fact, be rules about what reporters can and cannot ask at the awards show. “The sentiment was not to infringe and was created with the best of intentions to honor and celebrate country music.”