NASHVILLE — Cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes, Jason Aldean walked into the glittering Schermerhorn Symphony Center at the live taping of CMT's Artists of the Year special.
It was mid-October, two weeks after a gunman started firing bullets during Aldean's set at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas, killing 58 people and injuring hundreds more in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
In the days after the horror, Aldean visited victims in the Las Vegas hospital and appeared on "Saturday Night Live" to perform Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down." He was now back in Nashville, and all eyes were on him. During commercial breaks, fellow country stars swarmed around his table. A prominent radio executive gave him a hug.
"It could have been any one of us standing on that stage," singer Luke Bryan said, introducing him as one of five honorees of the night. "Jason Aldean has responded with dignity, care, respect and, in some ways, defiance."
The mood of the annual event, which the network declared "a night of hope and healing" instead of the usual lighthearted trophy ceremony, was compassionate and somber — and, unlike nearly every other award show in 2017, completely devoid of politics.
In a year when it felt like everything in pop culture became a political flash point — TV sitcoms, the NFL, the Golden Globe Awards — country music managed to not say much of anything at all. This surprised no one familiar with the Nashville industry's whispered advice about political beliefs: Avoid making them public.
But after the Las Vegas massacre, the format was suddenly linked with the contentious gun control debate. On Wednesday, millions will tune into the 51st annual Country Music Association Awards, the genre's biggest night in the national spotlight. Can country music singers still get away with not voicing an opinion?
The answer is "probably," and the reasons are complicated — especially for a genre that has become more mainstream and gotten more popular in liberal-leaning cities, but whose fan base is considered largely conservative. Not to mention the format's ties to the National Rifle Association.
"I've talked to between 15 and 20 artists . . . and they're torn. Not about how they feel, because that's not even the issue. They're split on just speaking out about it," said Bobby Bones, the syndicated country morning radio host who performed at the festival with his band, the Raging Idiots. "The issue as a country artist is you feel like if you say something wrong, your audience is going to turn on you . . . and their publicists have all said, 'Don't talk about it. Just don't talk about it."
Margo Price, a country singer and songwriter who broke out with an acclaimed debut album last year, was horrified when she saw the news about Las Vegas. The next day, she took to Twitter.
"We need stricter gun control, plain and simple," she wrote. "And I say that as someone who owns a firearm. . . . But no one with mental health problems should be able to get his hands on a machine gun."
Price said she got some criticism ("STFU on politics already lady. #nobodycaresaboutyouropinion") but not much. Granted, she's signed to Jack White's independent Nashville record label, where there's an "Icky Trump" sign in the office, so her circumstances are different from major-label artists.
"I have some people on Twitter who say, 'You're not big enough to talk about politics; you don't want to alienate your crowd; you need to separate your music and political beliefs,' " Price said. However, she reasoned, at the beginning of your career, you might as well show people who you really are. "More people should be unafraid to speak out."
The common assumption is that country singers don't talk politics because they're terrified of ending up like the Dixie Chicks, who criticized President George W. Bush on the eve of the Iraq War in 2003 and wound up essentially blacklisted from the industry. Although that situation was an unusually perfect storm primed for controversy, the fear lingers, particularly with an issue so complex. Often, singers think they don't have the authority to say anything at all.
"I think sometimes it's important to speak, sometimes it's important not to speak. [It's about] finding that balance and also trying to not let society and social media put that pressure on you too much," said Tyler Hubbard of the duo Florida Georgia Line, also an honoree at Artists of the Year.
The main reaction from artists after Las Vegas has been calling for prayers and urging Americans to unite after such a hateful act; several have released new songs to benefit the victims. Caleb Keeter, guitarist for the Texas-based Josh Abbott Band, was one of the only musicians other than Price to take an ideological side — after surviving the shooting, he wrote an emotional post about how, as a Second Amendment supporter, he now understood the need for gun control.
Keeter's publicist declined a request for him to comment for this story, just as multiple other Nashville publicists did on behalf of their artists.
"That's a no-win issue," said Beverly Keel, professor and chair of Middle Tennessee State University's Department of Recording Industry. "Now, if the people there that night [in Las Vegas] wanted to talk about it, that would make a lot of sense, and they would have the credibility to do that. But otherwise, if the experts can't even come to a compromise, then I think the feeling is 'What would I have to add?' "
Their silence also speaks to how modern country singers see themselves and their job. On the one hand, they're humans who probably have opinions about gun control on both ends of the spectrum. On the other, they're entertainers, and as part of a genre that prides itself on relatable songs and accessibility, they see the most valuable thing they can do is provide fans an escape.
"When things go bad, doctors go to work. When things go bad, policemen go to work. When things go bad, music and musicians go to work," superstar Garth Brooks said in a video the day after the shooting. "Those people in those seats? They come to get away from it all."
The other root of the issue, of course, is financial — singers don't want to risk losing their livelihoods by potentially alienating fans. The demographics of the country audience have changed over the years, with popular artists (Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt, Carrie Underwood) singing about small-town life with a pop-centric sound that easily fits into the mainstream music scene; cities from New York to Boston to Los Angeles all have solid country fanbases. Still, country music has a massively devoted rural audience.
It's one of the reasons that NRA Country, the "lifestyle" arm of the NRA, sees value in partnering with Nashville singers, many of whom are avid hunters and conservationists. Artists perform at NRA Country-sponsored concerts and events, while the organization promotes new albums and features artists on its website and online TV show.
"If you poll our members, they love country music," Vanessa Shahidi, director of NRA Country, told the Tennessean in 2015. "Everything country singers sing about, they live their lives the way our members live their lives."
NRA Country, which did not return multiple requests for comment, isn't seen as the end-all, be-all of promotional opportunities — although it does offer a connection to millions of the organization's members. Bill Werde, the former editorial director of Billboard magazine, recalled hearing about a country star whose music was going to be used to help publicize a "gun safety" issue. Then, he said, when the NRA became aware of it, the big plan suddenly became much smaller.
"The NRA can make your life miserable," said Don Cusic, a country music historian and professor at Belmont University. "And they would."
As it gets more difficult for singers to sell music, many don't want to turn down any chance to appeal to new fans. "I don't even look at it being part of the NRA," said one Nashville publicist who works with several acts that have partnered with the brand and requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity. "It's just a lifestyle thing for the artist, and it's a lot of eyeballs for our artists and their music."
After Las Vegas, the NRA Country social media accounts went silent for a couple weeks. Rolling Stone reported that Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett quietly disappeared from the "featured artist" portion of the website, the same thing that happened with Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan after the Newtown massacre in 2012.
Then, in mid-October, the NRA Country Facebook account posted a photo of an American flag underneath the caption, "Land of the free because of the brave." Since then, it's business as usual, promoting new music from Granger Smith and Drew Baldridge.
"I think the first and foremost thing on my mind is the fact that people were hurt and are still hurting," singer and NRA Country featured artist Lee Brice, who performed at the Route 91 Harvest festival, said a few days after the shooting. "When it comes to political stuff and guns and things like that — I'm all for regulation, I'm all for making things better, you know, I really am. And I think the NRA is all about that, too."
Some, however, see country music singers' reluctance to speak on anything related to guns, even education and safety, as a missed opportunity. Werde points to a recent NPR-Ipsos poll that showed the majority of Americans, no matter what their political party, are in favor of tighter gun restrictions.
"Who are these [country artists] so terrified of? Why are they so terrified of it?" said Werde, now director of the Bandier Music Industry program at Syracuse University. He added, "I am not picking on Nashville . . . but because of its relationship to the NRA, because of its sort of cultural affiliations to those that lean independent and Republican, country music has a unique position. I hope behind the scenes, they'll own that a little bit."
At the CMT Artists of the Year ceremony, the focus was solely on the music, and on the victims of Las Vegas; the hurricanes in Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico; the wildfires in California; and the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
"We've been tested beyond our worst nightmares the last few months. Heartbroken doesn't even begin to explain how some of us feel," Aldean said during the show. "But we have proven time and again in this country that we have the power to overcome anything that threatens our way of life or our freedom."
Everyone in the tightknit Nashville community knew someone who was in Las Vegas. Some describe a "fog" that continues to hang over the town, as people who witnessed the violence are starting to recover from the shock.
Jordan Mitchell, a new singer-songwriter and Las Vegas native who moved to Nashville 2½ years ago, was backstage at the festival when bullets started flying. She and her band members hid first between Aldean's tour buses, and then ran to an airport hangar, where they stayed for hours.
She was grateful for the support she received when she got back home. The only place she's heard the gun control debate brought up is from the news and reporters who contacted her.
"That's just not what we're thinking about at all," she said. "I've never heard a conversation like that happening. Everyone's just kind of been like, 'Let's all take care of each other and do our best to make good music and make this world a better place the only way we know how.' "