The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Eric Church spoke out about the NRA and politics. The reaction shows why country stars stay silent.

Eric Church performs during the 51st Academy of Country Music Awards in 2016. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

As you may have noticed, country music is the rare genre that has sat out politics almost completely over the past two years. After the Las Vegas massacre in October, in which 58 people were shot and killed at a country music festival, there was increased pressure for mainstream Nashville stars to talk about gun rights. A few did. But most stayed quiet.

Given what happened with Eric Church over the past week, you can bet those silent singers feel justified. Church, an extremely popular country artist with a fiercely loyal fan base, shared his opinion about politics and the National Rifle Association. And it played out exactly the way you might have thought it would.

Country music avoided politics this year. Then Las Vegas happened. Will anything change?

Rolling Stone published last Tuesday a Church profile as its cover story; the front of the magazine reads “Nashville’s renegade Eric Church on loving Bernie, almost dying, and why he opposes the NRA.” Church’s Instagram account urged fans to pick up a copy and read the interview, but cautioned not to “be misled by the headline.”

In the article, Church answered questions about President Trump (and revealed he didn’t vote in the 2016 election), Bernie Sanders, immigration, NFL protests and more. Then came the subject of the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas. Church headlined the festival two nights before the shooting, and still suffers from guilt that he was the reason some people attended the event.

“I felt like the bait: People come to see you play, then all of a sudden they die? That is not an emotion that I was prepared to deal with. It wrecked me in a lot of ways,” Church said.

The interviewer asked if Church, a gun owner, had changed his mind on guns after the shooting. Church responded, “A little.” He added, “I’m a Second Amendment guy. That’s in the Constitution, it’s people’s right, and I don’t believe it’s negotiable. But nobody should have that many guns and that much ammunition and we don’t know about it.”

Church gave many thoughts about the topic, and the story added that, “Church says he supports a few common-sense reforms. Closing gun-show loopholes. Improving background checks. Banning bump stocks.” Then, there was this excerpt:

“There are some things we can’t stop,” he adds. “Like the disgruntled kid who takes his dad’s shotgun and walks into a high school. But we could have stopped the guy in Vegas.” As for why nothing’s been done? “I blame the lobbyists. And the biggest in the gun world is the NRA.”
Church says he’s not a member of the NRA and never has been. “I’m a Second Amendment guy,” he emphasizes again, “but I feel like they’ve been a bit of a roadblock. I don’t care who you are — you shouldn’t have that kind of power over elected officials. To me it’s cut-and-dried: The gun-show [loophole] would not exist if it weren’t for the NRA, so at this point in time, if I was an NRA member, I would think I had more of a problem than the solution. I would question myself real hard about what I wanted to be in the next three, four, five years.”

Although Church gave a long answer about the lack of action on gun violence in general, most people — and stories about his interview — zeroed in on “Las Vegas” and “the NRA” in the same paragraph. Headlines rolled in, most commonly along the lines of: “Eric Church blames NRA for Las Vegas shooting.”

Reading the story, that isn’t what Church said. But in this era of sound bites spreading rapidly online from increasingly questionable sources, it doesn’t matter. Nuance simply doesn’t translate. After misleading headlines and oversimplification of his comments, guess what happened next?

The standard country music controversy checklist ensued: There was some support and gratitude that he spoke out, but lots of anger from fans. A social media frenzy. Fights in comment sections. Claims of boycotts (“@ericchurch your NRA comments are simple minded and wrong headed. Your music is going in the shredder tonight.”)

And, of course, the standard comparison with the Dixie Chicks and a veiled threat, this time courtesy of the NRA spokeswoman: “I’m sad to see Eric blame his fans for the acts of evil madmen. NRA members are the heartbeat of country music and they have a long memory, just ask the Dixie Chicks.”

As one of the most high-profile Nashville artists to give his opinion on the matter, Church knew he would get criticism. “I don’t care,” he told the magazine. “Right’s right and wrong’s wrong. I don’t understand why we have to fear a group [like the NRA]. It’s asinine. Why can’t we come together and solve one part of this? Start with the bump stocks and the gun shows. Shut a couple of these down. I do think that will matter a little bit. I think it will save some lives.”

Church, who declined to comment on the backlash, has some of the most loyal fans in country music, so it’s unlikely he’ll see much real impact from people threatening to never listen to his music again. But any singer who views the negative reaction will have even less desire to jump into the fray.

After all, the thinking goes, why risk it? Even if you make a thoughtful argument, this is just one in a long list of examples of how the Internet could boil it down to a simple phrase, one that might not look anything like what you actually said.

Nashville singers have a powerful and unique platform to speak out on current events. Most decline to use it. And the reaction to Church just gave them another reason not to.

Read more:

As the most conservative-leaning music genre, country musicians are facing tough questions under President Trump. (Video: Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

Why the Dixie Chicks are back in the spotlight after the Trump-Putin news conference

Should country singers speak up about politics and Trump? We asked them.

Country stars stay quiet about politics these days, but Charlottesville may be the tipping point