(This post has been updated below with CMA’s apology on Friday afternoon that lifts restrictions.)
In Nashville, country singers have long been advised to keep their political opinions to themselves. But a controversy erupted Thursday over whether journalists can at least be allowed to inquire about them.
After the Las Vegas massacre last month, when a gunman shot and killed 58 people and injured hundreds more at a country music festival, the genre became linked with the contentious issue of gun control. Most country artists have stayed quiet on the topic.
However, next week, the industry’s biggest stars will attend the Country Music Association Awards (the genre’s most prominent televised event) and walk the red carpet and talk to press. So on Thursday, CMA organizers took preventive measures and advised reporters to stay away from sensitive topics, or they could be removed by security.
“In light of recent events, and out of respect for the artists directly or indirectly involved, please refrain from focusing your coverage of the CMA Awards Red Carpet and Backstage Media Center on the Las Vegas tragedy, gun rights, political affiliations or topics of the like,” the organization said in its media guidelines, first published by Nashville Scene. “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. . . . We want everyone to feel comfortable talking to press about this exciting time.”
The memo added, “If you are reported as straying from these guidelines, your credential will be reviewed and potentially revoked via security escort.”
The rules immediately made the rounds on social media. On Friday morning, CMAs co-host Brad Paisley expressed his disappointment in the new policy:
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, nominated for three CMA awards this year, also weighed in, along with previous CMA nominee Cam:
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
— Cam (@camcountry) November 3, 2017
Shortly after Paisley’s tweet, the CMAs released a statement apologizing for the rules and retracted its policy.
“CMA apologizes for the recently distributed restrictions in the CMA Awards media guidelines, which have since been lifted,” the organization said in a statement. “The sentiment was not to infringe and was created with the best of intentions to honor and celebrate Country Music.”
Bravo CMA awards for doing the right thing & apologizing for this mistake. All are welcome, let's have a great show.
— Brad Paisley (@BradPaisley) November 3, 2017
Such strict general guidelines might sound surprising, but country singers tried very hard this past year to stay politically neutral. Only a handful of Nashville stars endorsed a presidential candidate or talked candidly about the election.
After Las Vegas, the country music community was horrified — Jason Aldean, who was onstage when the shooting started, visited victims in the hospital. Morris released a song called “Dear Hate” to raise money for the victims. Keith Urban and Vince Gill performed at a vigil. Margo Price, an independent artist, was one of the few who brought up the topic of guns, tweeting “we need stricter gun control, plain and simple.”
“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 told The Washington Post in a story about whether country artists would be able to stay apolitical after Las Vegas. “More people should be unafraid to speak out.”
Industry insiders still cite the Dixie Chicks (who criticized George W. Bush in 2003 and were basically blacklisted from the format) as the reason country artists are fearful of speaking up about divisive subjects, particularly given that much of their fan base leans conservative. The genre also has close ties to the National Rifle Association through its lifestyle brand, NRA Country, which partners with lots of Nashville singers.
Plus, many country artists feel they don’t have the authority to say anything about such a complicated topic — or they believe that their job is to provide an escape for fans, who have no desire to hear about politics from entertainers.
On Thursday night, as the CMA Awards guidelines flew around Twitter, several singers expressed their thoughts. Ryan Adams wrote that CMA “approved topics” would include “wagon wheels, bacon, repurposed barn wood, cussin’ at snakes.”
The CMAs “should be ashamed of this,” singer-songwriter Will Hoge wrote. “As should every journalist, artist, and writer involved in the show.”