Country Grammar is a recurring monthly column about country music. The purpose of this column will be to analyze and demystify country releases, large or small, and help halt the notion that Country music is somehow less deserving of introspective analysis than rock, rap, or pop. It will highlight the great moments, and occasionally, dig deep into the bad ones, but the goal is always to bring more attention to a genre that is far too often swept under the rug due to class assumptions or music criticism’s clear rockist past.
Though he was already a stalwart figure in Nashville’s popular country scene, late last year Jason Aldean became a household name for a reason completely unrelated to his musical prowess — domestic terrorism. After a gunman’s carefully planned assault on the Route 91 music festival in Las Vegas occurred during Aldean’s headlining set, he and his team struggled to piece back together a plan for continuing in the public space following such a horrific tragedy. Not only was this massacre the biggest mass shooting in American history, but it comes at a particularly fraught time for artists trying to navigate divided factions of the country, where the relentless buzz of the news cycle is exhaustive and depressing, and saying the wrong thing can come with a tidal wave of critical attention.
In the spirit of “get back up on the horse,” Aldean performed just a few days later on SNL, dedicating his performance to the victims and their families. “I want to say to them, we hurt for you, and we hurt with you,” Aldean said. “but you can be sure we’re going to walk through these tough times together, every step of the way. Because when America is at its best, our bond, and our spirit is unbreakable.” Given the other tragedy of the week, the unexpectedly dramatic death of rock icon Tom Petty, Aldean covered “I Won’t Back Down” a song that already fits perfectly into his defiant country-rock milieu. But it wasn’t the title refrain from the song that rang as true as another line — “there ain’t no easy way out.”
Given country music’s well-documented conservative deep pockets, it’s not surprising that Aldean waffled when repeatedly asked to speak on the subject of gun control, even though himself, his crew, and his then-pregnant wife were all present at Route 91 and could very well have been killed that day due to America’s incredibly lax gun laws. As recently as late March, Aldean’s stance was to stay out of the debate altogether. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly he said since he’s not a politician with an agenda, he doesn’t feel equipped to speak out.
“If I say that I believe this, I’m gonna piss off half of the people, and if I say I believe that, I’m gonna piss off the other half,” Aldean told EW. “I have my opinions, but what the hell do I know? I think everybody needs to sit down, stop pushing their own agendas, and figure out what will make it safer. When people can’t go to a damn movie or a concert and not worry about somebody shooting the place up, there’s a flaw in the system.” His response felt strangely tepid, given the emotional immediate reaction from other factions, including another country musician who was caught in the crossfire at the fest and immediately issued a statement recanting his former stance and calling immediately for gun control.