Country Fans Aren’t Unwitting Pawns (a Response to Ketch Secor & NYT)

It goes without saying that at this moment in history, everyone in America is incensed and sickened by the level of gun violence plaguing society, and specifically the prevalence of mass shootings, and especially school shootings. At the least, we all should be able to agree that there is a problem. But because many of the solutions veer into the domain of politics, they also veer into the domain of the irrational, and the polarizing. That is the ultimate problem.

In an opinion piece posted on April 5th in The New York Times (and later underscored in a feature on CNN on April 13th), fiddler and front person of the old-time string band Old Crow Medicine Show, Ketch Secor, took to the pages of America’s “Paper of Record” to lobby for country music artists to speak out on the issue of guns in America, and persuade the electorate towards more restrictions on gun ownership, including the banning of what Ketch characterizes as military-style assault weapons.

In the piece titled “Country Music Can Lead America Out of Its Obsession With Guns,” Ketch Secor says, “Nashville is called the Athens of the South because it is teeming with scholars at its many colleges—and by country singers who are tired of bending to the whims of fearmongers and who are ready to speak from their platforms to an impressionable audience.”

He also goes on to say, “…in times as dire as these, silence is complicity. It’s time for country music makers to use their platforms to speak candidly to their conservative audiences. Our outrage needs to move from the green room to center stage.”

What’s completely understandable from Ketch Secor is his motivation to do something, anything about this issue, beyond simply participating in discussions among groups of like-minded people, or the performative posts on social media that do little and seem so fleeting as mass shootings come and pass. His attempt at leadership on this issue should be commended. And as a parent, the shooting on March 27th at the Covenant School in Nashville hit Ketch Secor especially close to home.

Speaking on attending and performing at a vigil a couple of days after the shooting, Secor says, “Earlier that day at Episcopal School, both of my kids had experienced their first active shooter-training drill. My daughter complained to me that she’d gotten an unlucky position at the desk her teacher instructed them to crawl behind. ‘If there had been a shooter, I probably would have gotten shot,’ she said with a nervous laugh.”

You can’t blame anyone for exploring pragmatic solutions on how to solve the gun violence problem. The problem with Ketch Secor’s solution is that it is calling upon a long-held postulate that country music is somehow in a unique position to be a vehicle to enact political change due to the population it appeals to. But not only has this theory proven time and time again to be false, these efforts are more commonly counter-productive due to the wild misconceptions about both country music, and its fans.

First and foremost, lumping the responsibility for either addressing or curtailing mass shootings in America on a genre of music—or even worse, to claim a genre is somehow responsible or culpable for these tragedies—is a rather deleterious and irresponsible enterprise. It’s similar to blaming video games for mass shootings, which has been disproven in multiple studies. By titling the op/ed “Country Music Can Lead America Out of Its Obsession With Guns,” and later saying that “silence is complicity,” there is an active effort to implicate country music in these tragic events by implying that the genre is in a position of power to do something about them that it just isn’t.

Sure, cultural institutions like country music can perhaps help influence the mindset of the American population overall in certain respects. But country music cannot pass laws. Country music is not populated by politicians in positions of power. Country music is not in a position to enforce laws that are already on the books—including some that have been flaunted or broken in the perpetuation of mass shootings with the responsible parties in law enforcement yet to be held accountable. And perhaps most importantly, country music isn’t responsible for the lobbying that keeps not just guns laws, but other laws and public policy preferred by the majority of the American population from moving forward.

Some may say, “Sure. But the idea here is that if country artists speak out on these matters through their platforms and songs, it can change the mindset of the population, who will then call upon their elected leaders to pass legislation.”

The problem with this idea is there is a long and documented history of this not being the case, and for very specific reasons. When Natalie Maines of The [Dixie] Chicks said she was ashamed that President George W. Bush was from Texas on March 10th, 2003 in relation to the Iraq War, the country trio was blacklisted en masse and some country fans even burned their records. Even today when it’s patently obvious that the [Dixie] Chicks were on the right side of the issue since no weapons of mass destruction were found and even President Trump and pundits like Tucker Carlson have come out against the Iraq War now, there is still bad blood with some country fans.

A smaller, but more recent example was the mischaracterization of Eric Church on the cover of Rolling Stone, where they portrayed the country singer as “loving Bernie Sanders” and being “opposed to the NRA” when in truth the views Church shared in the article itself were much more nuanced and right-leaning. Still to this day whenever you mention Eric Church, comments sections fill up with angry country fans not just calling out at Eric Church, but whatever outlet is reporting on him because he’s an “anti-gun leftist.”

An even more recent example was the 2023 CMT Awards, which included Kelsea Ballerini opening up the awards with a call for action against gun violence. Though the media and individuals in elitist circles praised the CMT Awards and Kelsea Ballerini’s speech specifically, actual country music fans so overwhelmingly rejected the presentation overall-–and for a host of reasons both politically-motivated and music-related—the actual real-life results landed somewhere between inconsequential, or as is commonly the case, counter-productive by inciting country fans to be even more affirmed in their political beliefs, and even more distrusting of institutions such as CMT for politicizing what they believe is an inherently non-political space.

People’s political feelings are populated over their lifetimes, ingrained during their upbringings, inferred by their own life experiences, and though sometimes fluid to some extent, are not subject to the whims of pop culture. Time and time again, country fans have proven beyond any reasonable doubt that they will divest their fandom from an artist who gets preachy with them about a political topic well before they’ll ever question, let alone change their perspectives on a political matter at the behest of a pop star.

It is not only beyond hubris to believe people will forfeit their long-held beliefs because their favorite country artist tells them to, it is demeaning to act like country fans are nothing more than unwitting pawns in a political game that can be compelled to change their strips because it behooves someone’s political ideology. The beliefs of country fans are what they are, and if you want to convince them of something different, you have to put in the hard work of breaking down decades of ingrained belief systems. The idea “country music” has the power to enact an overnight or even multi-year reformation of the rural electorate in America is patent fantasy.

What this effort does do, however, is it unnecessarily politicizes an otherwise non-political space. That is not to say that country music hasn’t been political in the past, whether it’s Toby Keith “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” or Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It,” or Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill.” But even these instances are commonly misunderstood. When Toby Keith cut “The Angry American,” he was a registered Democrat. Though the same political pundits that believe you can reshape American politics through country music also love to cite Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill” as an example of country music getting political, they rarely or never cite Loretta Lynn’s staunch support of President Trump.

This is another problem with the idea of activating “country music” as an agent for political change. Ketch Secor says in his New York Times op/ed, “In my experience, country stars tend toward centrism. The right-wing groups we most often encounter are not our bandmates but our audiences.” But when you hear country artist John Rich talk about the matter, he says that most country artists tend to lean right, and are just as afraid to speak out as people on the left because even though country fans may lean right, country media and its institutions have become so co-opted by the left, they will work to cancel performers if they speak out, which we have seen happen in multiple cases.

In September of 2022, John Rich said, “So, these artists are sitting there and they’re being told by their publicist, their managers, the heads of their record labels, ‘Hey, we know that you think these things about America, that you’re against kind of all this woke stuff that we do’—they don’t call themselves ‘woke,’ of course. But we know that you’re not really for that. But hey, don’t even think about putting out a post that pushes against that. Don’t you say, X, Y, Z on your microphone or on your stage. No, you cannot record that song because it says this.’ And they just completely control these artists.”

An example is what we saw with Jason Aldean and his wife Brittany Aldean when they came out against vaccine requirements for children, and gender surgery for youth. Ironically, Jason Aldean had been on record previously saying that he avoided politics as a matter of course. But after his wife faced public backlash from sharing her political beliefs, Jason Aldean has become even more politically active, affirming that if you compel country artists to speak out politically, you may not get the outcome you were hoping for. They may even come out against what you were hoping they would speak about.

As Ketch Secor and others are claiming that country artists want to speak out on these matters but are worried of the repercussions from the industry and fans, John Rich is saying the same thing, just from the opposite perspective. So what is the truth of the matter? In some respects, both are right, because many country fans regardless of their political stripes do not want to hear country artists speak out about politically-polarizing subjects at all. They listen to country music to get away from these kinds of polarizing matters, to decompress and unwind, and they resent anyone who disrespects the institution of country music by trying to politicize it, even if they ironically (and often, hypocritically) are more open to it when it comes from a value system they believe in, and usually conservatism.

Again, it’s noble and understandable that Ketch Secor, Kelsea Ballerini, and others want to do “something.” They do this from a deep and sincere heart sickness at what is happening with gun violence in the United States that we all share. The problem is they are buying into an elitist ideology being perpetrated by academia and activist journalists who have been drilled on this idea that the way to change the American electorate from Red to Blue is to embed themselves into the country music community, and use its artists and institutions like a bullhorn to then spread their political ideologies. But again, it’s not working, it never has, and it never will.

This ideology is flawed on many levels. It’s worth underscoring that country music is not a monolith like the press and academia love to portray it as—stereotyping country music and its fans in a way that is insulting to the genre’s omnivorous and complex nature. “Country music” cannot act as one, whether it is for gun control, or any other initiative. As we’ve seen from political polling since this idea of using country music to reshape the electorate has been enacted, red areas of the United States are only trending more red (and blue more blue). The result of individuals from elitist society deciding to put country music in their crosshairs and/or embed themselves in country media has been ineffective.

This also brings up another rabid misunderstanding about country fans, country music, and the American South in general. In Ketch Secor’s New York Times op/ed, he forwards the idea that “country music” (as a monolith) and the American South has an outsized responsibility for the glorification of guns and violence in the United States.

“They say we love our guns down South, and it’s true they are part of the pageantry of our beloved southland, in tune with the equally nostalgic heartstrings we pull for mother, God, freedom and country,” Ketch Secor says. “Country music plays a central role in forming the South’s gun mythology, from songs like “Big Iron” to “A Country Boy Can Survive.” Seven nights a week in Nashville, you can hear any number of country upstarts remind the tourists in the honky-tonk bars on Lower Broad that Johnny Cash shot a man in Reno ‘just to watch him die.'”

Is there an element of gun culture embedded in country music? There is to a certain extent. But this doesn’t make country music any more responsible for gun violence than 1st person shooter video games. Again, this is an effort to implicate country music as being either okay, or somewhat culpable, or outright responsible for gun violence in an unfair and fear-mongering way. But this also begs the question, are the number of references to guns and violence in country anywhere near the level of those in hip-hop, for example? Absolutely not. The references to guns and murder in hip-hop might be 20 to 1 compared to country. Furthermore, there are no recent instances of country artists shooting others, shooting each other, or being shot. There were eight hip-hop artists murdered in 2022 alone.

Beyond that, is rural America actually listening to mainstream country music? Only elitist perspectives who’ve never spent any significant time in rural areas would draw that conclusion. When you actually venture out to rural America, you will find they’re not listening to mainstream country music, with some exceptions of course. Mainstream country is music for the American suburbs, which if anything, trend purple in the political landscape. Rural America is listening to hip-hop. Hip-hop is by far and away the most dominant and most popular style of music in America across the board, especially in rural America, and specifically in the American South.

To the extent anyone is listening to country music in rural America, it is often classic country, or independent country, and this is not the domain Ketch Secor and others are hoping to reach with their calls for action in “country music.” They want Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs to be the ones speaking out on these issues to reach the masses. But again, if these individuals calling for action actually knew what these major mainstream country stars actually believe about gun control, they would be begging for their silence, not demanding they speak out.

One of the fatal flaws of Ketch Secor’s rationale is not just that he boils down the issue upon political lines. He also does it upon religious, geographic, and racial lines, making opposition to gun laws segmented among certain people. “If conservative Christian gun enthusiasts need a calling to lay down assault rifles after the tragedy at Covenant School, they need look no further than Isaiah 2:3-4, the Scriptures’ peace crusader passage, in which swords are beaten to plowshares and spears to pruning hooks,” Secor says.

But it’s not the Christian values of conservatives that are keeping them from seeing the purpose of greater gun restrictions. It’s the American values of individuals worried what a tyrannical government is capable of if they give up their right to bear arms, which is something shared by urban, liberal, Black, and agnostic citizens too, and even hip-hop artists and activist leaders such as Killer Mike of Run The Jewels.

Killer Mike faced criticism in March of 2018 for appearing on NRA TV defending Black gun ownership in America. He later spoke about the situation, country music, country’s fake incorporation of hip-hop, and gun ownership in American with Joe Rogan in January of 2019.

“As an African American, I’ve only been free 55 years. My parents were born in apartheid. And as an American, we are a country that broke off from what we felt like was the tyranny of a monarchy. And we did that because farmers and guns dared to wage guerilla warfare against what at that time was one of the largest armies and navies in the world. So I honor that by continuing to be in the spirit of those farmers, in the continuance of Crispus Attucks, the first person to die in the American Revolution [who] was a Black man. For me, I would dishonor those patriots who started this country, and Crispus Attucks, and I would dishonor my lineage as an Africa American who’s only 55 years into freedom by giving government my gun back. It’s just not something I believe in.”

You can see the full interview excerpt below:

The roots of modern gun control in the United States can be traced back to the attempted subjugation of the left-leaning Black Panther party in California, who used the 2nd Amendment to help take back their urban communities from racist policing practices. According to history.com:

Throughout the late 1960s, the militant black nationalist group used their understanding of the finer details of California’s gun laws to underscore their political statements about the subjugation of African-Americans. In 1967, 30 members of the Black Panthers protested on the steps of the California statehouse armed with .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns and .45-caliber pistols and announced, “The time has come for black people to arm themselves.”

The display so frightened politicians—including California governor Ronald Reagan—that it helped to pass the Mulford Act, a state bill prohibiting the open carry of loaded firearms, along with an addendum prohibiting loaded firearms in the state Capitol. The 1967 bill took California down the path to having some of the strictest gun laws in America and helped jumpstart a surge of national gun control restrictions.

Ironically, at that time the NRA supported gun control, because it benefited the organization’s conservative values. The importance of guns to the struggle of urban Black populations in California was portrayed in this poignant scene in the 1995 film Panther:

Most important to understand of how this all relates to guns in America in the modern context is in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic. For many people, this is when concerns for a tyrannical government went from a hypothetical to a reality. Though rural White conservatives were commonly blamed for extending the pandemic due to vaccine hesitancy, vaccine hesitancy was even greater among populations of urban Blacks and Southern Blacks due to things such as the Tuskegee Experiment, and who were discriminated against in greater per capita numbers by vaccine mandates and other restrictions.

During the pandemic, gun ownership spiked, with nearly 60 million new guns purchased, and more than 15 million Americans purchasing firearms for the first time. Now, the frequency of mass shootings is fueling even more gun sales, and across all demographics. To lump the responsibility or the solution for gun violence on any segment of individuals is to grossly misunderstand the problem.

But even though it might be easy to say what Ketch Secor and others are calling for in country music is based on a flawed ideology, what is harder to do is to forward ideas of what could or should be done to actually enact some meaningful element of change that may measurably decrease gun violence and mass shootings in America.

As opposed to taking wide, sweeping philosophical approaches to what “country music” could or should do, or generalizing Christians, conservatives, and country music fans as part of the problem as Ketch Secor does in The New York Times, Secor and other could get more specific, and more pragmatic.

For example, the shooter in the Covenant School incident in Nashville was currently under psychiatric care. There is broad and bipartisan support for addressing gun violence from a mental health standpoint, and a consensus that people suffering from mental health issues should have their access to firearms restricted. A red flag law or similar policy could very well have stopped the shooter in their tracks since they purchased the firearms used in the shooting legally. 80% of Americans support red flag laws, including 2/3rds of Republicans.

In June of 2022, The United States Congress passed a law in the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde, TX that made it easier for states to pass and support red flag laws, with 15 Republican senators voting for the bill. The idea that conservative country music fans are standing in the way of meaningful and sensible legislation to make sure people with a history of violence or who are suffering from mental health issues cannot obtain a gun is false. A majority of them agree guns should not end up in the hands of the wrong people.

Mistakes by police and government officials have also contributed to mass shootings in a significant way. The Uvalde shooting could have been avoided if it wasn’t for a faulty door lock on the school, or less people could have died if law enforcement had acted quicker to take down the subject. There is also broad consensus behind holding public officials to account.

The same day that Ketch Secor published his op/ed in The New York Times, a $144 million settlement was reached between The United States Government and survivors of the 26 people who were killed in a mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, TX in 2017. In that case, the Air Force was found negligent for not reporting the gunman’s history of violence to the background check database, which allowed him to purchase the guns used in the shooting legally when he should have been denied. Country musician Kullen Fox, who plays keys/trumpet for Charley Crockett lost relatives in the Sutherland Springs shooting.

Often when it comes to mass shootings, we find law enforcement or government officials ignored red flags, calls from concerned citizens, and other signs that could have potentially prevented the incidents, or acted in a cowardly manner in a way that caused more death. How “country music” is deemed to be in a position to address these issues compared to these governmental organizations who’ve been put in responsibility of enforcing current laws is quite curious. Perhaps what country music artists and fans could do is help hold these governmental organizations accountable, since they are the ones directly tasked with protecting citizens, and in case after case, have been found to have made mistakes.

Specific to the Covenant School shooting, the investigators are refusing to the release the shooter’s manifesto publicly, which specifically details why the shooting occurred. How are we supposed to address the root causes of mass shootings when the public is not even allowed to learn what motivated this particular incident? The answer is simple. They don’t want us to know. And in that vacuum of knowledge, country music is being implicated due to the shooting’s proximity to Nashville.

Ketch Secor also says in the opinion piece, “The country community has lost its way if it thinks owning an AR-15 is more important than a child’s right to safely attend school.”

But of course, nobody believes that. Fans and performers of country music love their children. Owners of AR-15’s love their children. Everyone wants to know their children are protected in school and everywhere else, and they want all children to be protected. Often, this is why people purchase AR-15s. This false equivalency and dehumanization of gun owners in the “country community” as being against a child’s right to safely attend school is a rather tone deaf and judgemental comment in an otherwise thoughtful commentary from Ketch Secor.

The shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville was definitely seen by some in the activist community as an opportunity to activate “country music” in the gun debate due to the shooting’s proximity to the country music industry. As political strategist and former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel once said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste.”

But these activists seem to forget that the largest mass shooting in modern history happened at a country music concert. 60 people were killed, and 413 injured at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in 2017. Jason Aldean was on stage when the shooting happened. Did this stimulate a serious reformation among country artists and fans about how to approach the gun issue? Did it inspire Jason Aldean to change his mind on political issues? No, it did not.

But even if the Las Vegas mass shooting had caused a major change in thought, or even if Ketch Secor’s op/ed in The New York Times did similar, there is a good chance it wouldn’t result in any measurable difference in public policy because of the autocratic nature of the United States government at the moment, and the power of the lobbying class and corporations that use divisive topics like gun control to keep the electorate perpetually divided and fighting amongst itself so it never finds enough consensus to depose the political elite.

But for some (though not likely Ketch Secor), enacting gun control is not even the point of putting the onus for gun violence on country music. The point is to impugn and implicate country music in America’s gun violence issue so they can gain power over it as a cultural institution, and then use it for their ulterior political purposes. And if they can’t use country music as a vehicle for their political activism, they will work to undermine or destroy it, hence why a site called “Saving Country Music” concerns itself with these matters.

This is not to say that country artists, country fans, and people in the country music industry can’t do something. They can. But if it’s going to have any real effect, it has to be pragmatic, and specific. There are an estimated 20 million AR-15-style guns in private ownership in America at the moment, and rising, and rising specifically due to the levels of gun violence. The United States also has more guns than people.

The idea that “Country Music Can Lead America Out of Its Obsession With Guns” any more than hip-hop, video game manufacturers, violent movie producers, or anything else can is simply delusion. Instead of talking down to country music artists and fans, perhaps compel them to advocate for greater mental health services if they claim America’s mass shooting epidemic is a mental health problem and not a gun problem. Compel them to support policies that ensure those currently suffering from mental health issues are not allowed to legally purchase or posses guns.

But another way to address America’s mental health crisis is to give people places and things in society where they can escape the rabid polarization, politicization, stereotyping, and blame that pervades so much of popular culture. Music is an escape, and a place where people can come together across ideological divides. Attempting to politicize country music—by both sides of the political aisle, including pro-gun organizations like the NRA that has enacted specific campaigns to court country music fans—should be frowned upon.

This is not to say that country artists should also not feel free to assert their political views if they so choose. This is not to say “shut up and sing.” But country artists and fans are not your pawns. They should have the right to freely hold and express whatever views they choose as well. They should also have the right to not express those views if they so choose, and that doesn’t make them callous or complicit in the violence any more than it does the Buddhist monks who’ve given their lives to oaths of silence. It often just means they are conflict-averse, or see their role in society as ratcheting down polarizing rhetoric by giving people a place to escape, decompress, come together, or even commiserate with each other through stories of broken-heartedness, loneliness, and isolation that country music can uniquely address.

Music can mend hearts and reshape minds in ways political efforts can’t. Using story and allegory through music itself as opposed to sloganeering on social media or grandstanding from the stage is often the more effective strategy for artists to address social strife. In fairness, Ketch Secor did make this point in a response to a comment on The New York Times op/ed, but it would have been made better in the body of it.

You also have to reach country artists and fans where they are. Not only are country fans wary of being talked down to, they’re specifically unlikely to interact with anything published in The New York Times specifically, especially if it’s behind a paywall, rendering it impossible for them to reach. Same goes for CNN, which only 20% of Americans believe is truthful.

Ultimately, these efforts only have the outcome of feeding into further elite discourse that looks to lay blame on others and to divide, when in reality we are all to blame for the level of gun violence in America. We’re all complicit it creating an environment where so many feel the only way to express themselves is violence against innocents and suicide, and we all have a responsibility to try and do something about it in our everyday interactions with others.


UPDATE: On Thursday morning (4-27), Ketch Secor and Old Crow Medicine Show released a new song addressing gun violence called “Louder Than Guns.”

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