On Monday night, Garth Brooks wiped a tear from his eye as he talked about Saturday’s March for Our Lives rally, the student-led demonstration demanding an end to mass shootings and action from Congress to stop gun violence. The country music superstar addressed Parkland, Fla., school shooting survivor and march organizer Emma González as he called the march “a great thought” and urged young people to be patient if they encounter “cross voices.”
“Miss Emma and everybody that will be marching: Love. Do not let hate win. Love,” Brooks said during “Inside Studio G,” his weekly Facebook video series. “This Saturday? #MarchForOurLives. Be a part of it.”
While lots of A-list celebrities have supported the march, Brooks’s statement stands out, as Nashville stars typically avoid sharing their thoughts about gun-related issues — even after the mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas in October. But Brooks’s comments show how some country singers are starting to speak out on the subject, even if the singers don’t say anything political or even mention the word “gun.”
Conventional wisdom in Nashville is that country singers shouldn’t talk about anything controversial, because they don’t want to alienate their audience or anger country radio, which can make or break an artist’s career. The topic of guns is seen as especially polarizing, given the National Rifle Association’s close ties to the industry. However, Rolling Stone reported this week that NRA Country — the lifestyle arm of the NRA — recently revamped its website and removed the names of all country singers affiliated with the brand. Popular acts such as Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett had already been deleted after the Las Vegas shooting.
“I can only guess that after the Parkland shooting, there were a lot more acts that felt queasy about having their name directly associated with the NRA,” David Macias, the president of management company Thirty Tigers, told the magazine.
When a gunman shot and killed 17 people last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, some Nashville stars spoke up with fervor. Tim McGraw posted on Instagram, “I’m deeply moved by these students who are lifting their voices — challenging us to listen, learn, and make real changes.” Cam wrote on Twitter, “This is not the America we are capable of. Please get upset.”
Others were critical of the government. Jennifer Nettles, of the recently reunited duo Sugarland, tweeted: “More than anything else, people who want to hurt as many innocent children as they can, use guns to do it. I wonder how long it will take our government to do anything at all. I wonder how loudly the voices of every mother in this country can scream til they do.” The duo Brothers Osborne wrote: “Nothing will be done. Nothing.”
Some of these stars are already fairly vocal about current events: McGraw and his wife, Faith Hill, have previously called for stricter gun control, and Cam was one of the artists who pushed back last fall when the Country Music Association tried to ban reporters at the CMA Awards from asking questions about guns or politics. And Brothers Osborne (siblings T.J. and John) aren’t shy about taking on controversial topics on social media.
“A lot of people are like, ‘Stay out of politics.’ I don’t care if you agree with me or not or I agree with you or not, we should all be involved in politics because it affects every single one of us,” T.J. Osborne recently told the Nashville Tennessean in an article about how country singers are becoming less fearful about getting “Dixie Chick’d” — blacklisted from country radio after sharing their political views, as that trio did in 2003 with its criticism of President George W. Bush.
In that sense, it’s notable when country acts who rely on mainstream radio say anything. On March 14, one month after the Parkland shooting, when students across the country walked out of schools to call for stronger gun-control legislation, Kelsea Ballerini tweeted an image of the walkout and wrote: “This is heavy but so brave and beautiful. My heart is with these students all over the world who are walking out, boldly letting their voices be heard for a change, and honoring their friends, classmates, and strangers who have been taken.”
Although it was not a political statement, Ballerini still got the typical responses. Multiple people on Twitter praised her sentiment (“Love love LOVE you for using your voice to support this movement”), and another went with: “How about you stick to singing? We’ve all seen what happens to celebrities who get political.”
Some country singers are not fazed by those threats. For example, Maren Morris doesn’t hold back her thoughts on social issues — yet country radio has increasingly embraced her music. At a party in Nashville last month celebrating her first No. 1 single, Morris addressed that phenomenon, saying that although the Dixie Chicks fallout still “looms” in Nashville, she feels the atmosphere has shifted.
“I don’t think watering yourself down ends up gaining you more fans. I deal with it every time I say something a little more outspoken — it’s like, you lose a thousand followers, but the ones that stick with you are really, really in it with you for good,” said Morris, who called González, the Stoneman Douglas High student, an “inspiration” in an Instagram post. The Dixie Chicks comparison “is a very easy thing to say when someone says something you don’t agree with. But I think that people don’t even think that way, anymore, really — it’s changed so much since all of that went down. I’m just not threatened by that thrown out at me anymore.”