Country duo Brothers Osborne played in front of thousands at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas on Sept. 29. Five days later, TJ and John Osborne sat in a radio studio in Nashville, in shock over the festival's violent end on Sunday night. Recalling the fans who were so carefree as they danced and sang along to the music, John Osborne started to cry.
"It's a crowd that we'll never forget," said Osborne, wiping away tears before a performance on Bobby Bones' syndicated morning radio program.
“It’s hard for us in this community because those are our people,” said Bones, who also performed at the festival with his band, the Raging Idiots. “Those are the people that go to work and take their money, and they choose to take it and use it to come and escape in music.”
When the Las Vegas shooter targeted a country music festival, killing 58 people and injuring more than 500, he roiled a uniquely tightknit genre with a deeply personal connection to its audience. Most of the country industry operates within a few square miles in Nashville, where singer-songwriters pour their life stories into songs. Artists pride themselves on relatable lyrics and accessibility, launching their careers on radio tours to visit hundreds of cities across America, where they create an early bond with fans.
As the Las Vegas massacre made international headlines, text messages and phone calls flew around Nashville; everyone knew someone who was at the festival. “Safe lists” circulated to confirm the status of industry attendees: singers, backstage crew members, radio personalities, publicists, record label staff. But any sense of relief was intermingled with the horror of fans being gunned down. So Nashville did what it does best: Everyone joined together. And turned to music.
“You hear that a lot, ‘community,’ because that’s what it feels like. We’re family, you know?” Osborne said. “And we’ll do whatever we have to do. We’ll show up, we’ll play anything, whatever we’ve gotta to do to help make this better for anyone. We’ll do it.”
Within hours Monday, a vigil was booked. Keith Urban played "Bridge Over Troubled Water," while Vince Gill sang "Go Rest High on That Mountain" and prayed onstage with his wife, singer Amy Grant. It was a windy night at Nashville's Ascend Amphitheater, which sits next to the Cumberland River, so candles were quickly extinguished.
"Those aren't the lights that matter . . . let your light shine in somebody's life through your giving, through your acts, through your love," CMT's "Nashville" star Charles Esten told the several hundred in the crowd, encouraging them to give to the newly created Music City Cares Fund.
Butch Spyridon, president of Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp., which organized the vigil with Mayor Megan Barry’s office and the Country Music Association, called the mood both “somber and united.”
“Both the words and the songs were probably as helpful as anything could be — although nothing can take your mind off the senselessness of what happened,” he said.
As devastated tweets and Instagram posts poured in from country stars, they encouraged donations. Celebrities tweeted links to the Las Vegas Victims' Fund, which raised millions. Kelleigh Bannen, who performed at the Route 91 Harvest festival on Saturday, donated her paycheck from the concert, and in a video on social media, urged fans and artists to give what they could.
The Nashville Red Cross set up a blood drive. Maren Morris released a song called “Dear Hate” that she wrote in 2015 after the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., with all proceeds going to the Las Vegas victims. Jason Aldean, who was on the festival stage when the gunman started shooting, canceled his upcoming weekend shows, but planned to resume his tour next week and “honor the people we lost by doing the only thing we know how to do — play our songs for them.”
And although musicians publicly avoided the topic of gun control — Nashville stars are loath to talk about politics — Thomas Rhett and Florida Georgia Line quietly disappeared from the artist page of the NRA Country website, the National Rifle Association's lifestyle brand that partners with country singers.
Then, the question after any tragedy: When is it okay to do something “normal”? On Monday night, Carly Pearce’s label had a launch party scheduled for her upcoming debut album, “Every Little Thing,” at the Listening Room Cafe in downtown Nashville. She and her team thought about canceling, but it didn’t feel right.
“All of the people in Las Vegas and Nashville, they’re the reason we get to do what we love,” Pearce said in an interview. “Instead of taking that away, we felt it should be celebrated and honor these people.”
Pearce started with a moment of silence and dedicated the night to the victims. As she sang tracks with her co-writers, it allowed a brief escape from the upsetting details she heard that day, such as how her close friends in the Josh Abbott Band, who performed at the festival, hid in bunks on the bus when their manager sent a text that said “take cover.”
At the vigil that same day, Grand Ole Opry General Manager Sally Williams reminded everyone of the trauma that the people in Las Vegas, who witnessed the unspeakable, would carry with them.
“Over the next couple of days, Nashvillians who were on site last night will be returning home,” Williams said. “It will be our responsibility to reach out and hold them up as they process what happened.”
As the workday wound down Wednesday on Music Row, about 175 people — some of whom witnessed the shooting — filed into a meeting room for a panel discussion called "What Next? Surviving the Trauma of Las Vegas."
MusiCares, the charity arm of the Recording Academy, co-sponsored the discussion. Typically, they provide the music community everything from weekly recovery meetings for addicts to financial assistance to medical care when disasters strike. As soon as news of Las Vegas broke, executives knew they had to help in Nashville.
“They haven’t lost their homes or instruments, and their health in a physical nature has not been damaged — but think about their emotional well-being,” said Neil Portnow, Recording Academy president. “What did they see and what did they live through?”
The panel featured two trauma counselors; Julian Dorio, the Eagles of Death Metal drummer who witnessed the 2015 terrorist attack at the Bataclan in Paris; and a crew member who saw a fatal stage collapse at a show in Canada.
Debbie Carroll, the Nashville-based senior executive director for MusiCares, said a frequent theme was: “What I’m feeling — is it normal?” Attendees talked of not being able to sleep; sleeping too much; drinking to numb the pain; and feeling disconnected and anxious. The panel assured them that everything they’re feeling is indicative of trauma and very normal.
“People left with the feeling that having Nashville come together . . . was the first place in starting to put the pieces together,” Carroll said.
Across town the same night at the Grand Ole Opry, Eric Church broke down as he recounted headlining the Las Vegas festival last Friday. He debuted a song, “Why Not Me,” inspired by his devastation after the shooting: “The Lord is my refuge, my fortress, my God with whom I trust/But I’ll never know why the wicked gets to prey on the rest of us.”
“Something broke in me, on Sunday when that happened,” Church said tearfully. “And the only way I’ve ever fixed anything that’s been broken in me is with music.”