By the time Lee Brice took the stage in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, it would have been nearly impossible to tell that this early-February country music concert wasn’t sponsored by a beer company or a local promoter, but rather by the National Rifle Association.
While the concert — featuring Brice, Easton Corbin and Tyler Farr — was the culminating event of the Great American Outdoor Show, an NRA-backed annual gear and firearm expo that bills itself as “the largest outdoor show in the world,” the presence of the NRA — and its country-music and lifestyle marketing subset NRA Country — was notably subdued when compared to years past.
The same can be said of the audience, who seemed more excited to see the country music star Brice than rally for the Second Amendment.
And Brice delivered, entertaining the 7,000 some-odd fans at the sold-out New Holland arena with a performance heavy on contemporary country trademarks: up-tempo party rockers (“Drinking Class,” “Parking Lot Party”), sensitive family-man ballads (“Boy,” “I Don’t Dance”), heartfelt salutes to the troops (“I Drive Your Truck”), and an acoustic mini-set featuring singer-songwriter Jerrod Niemann as a surprise guest.
The overall climate inside the arena was very different from the last time I attended the Great American Outdoor Show in February 2016, back before Donald Trump had secured the Republican nomination for the presidency and before MAGA hats were the most commonly-spotted piece of apparel at the week-long expo.
If the vibe of this year’s convention was defiantly celebratory (“Buy a target, get a free Trump sign,” advertised one vendor), in 2016 the mood was much darker. Then, the NRA was distributing flyers that explained how Hillary Clinton was going to take away guns if she were elected, and the organization maintained a similarly commanding presence at that year’s concert. The show began with a request to become an annual member, and NRA Country advertisements alternated with fearful, angry videos of NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre claiming that the crowd needs to “fight like hell to save America.” One of the evening’s emcees informed the crowd that she was proud to have received her “permit to carry” just five days earlier.
The 2016 bill included three acts, Justin Moore, LoCash and local singer Ben Gallaher, who cumulatively name-dropped the NRA 20 times during the evening. On the verge of an expected Clinton presidency after eight years of Obama, there was a pronounced display of anger and anxiety on-stage. “We’re tired of all the negativity: you turn on the news and people are trying to take away your guns,” the country duo LoCash, who mentioned the NRA an average of once every three minutes during their opening set, told the crowd to roaring applause that year. “I just want to see somebody try to march in here and try to take our guns tonight!”
Much has changed for the NRA and country music in the last three years after two mass shootings — over the span of little more than a year — have directly impacted the country community.
In the aftermath of the 2017 Route 91 Harvest festival massacre in Las Vegas, which killed 58 and injured more than 500, NRA Country faced an unprecedented degree of scrutiny, with its most notable associated artists disappearing from the organization’s website within days of the shooting. Less than six months later, the names of more than three-dozen country artists were scrubbed overnight from the site.
Over the past year, Nashville has slowly and carefully begun to shift gears on the issue of guns. Kane Brown, Carrie Underwood and Justin Moore (one of NRA Country’s flagship artists) have all released songs or music videos explicitly addressing the trauma of the recent onslaught of mass shootings. The message of those songs can be summed up as “mass shootings are tragic,” an entirely uncontroversial stance that can nevertheless scan as risky in a genre hesitant to ruffle feathers with the sizeable conservative-leaning segment of its fanbase for whom, the boardroom thinking goes, the Second Amendment remains a third-rail issue.
This delicate negotiation has landed the country music industry in an uncomfortable middle-space. Much as the nation at large has become habituated with the rituals of healing and grief following mass shootings, so has Nashville become increasingly accustomed to presenting somber awards show tributes to victims of gun violence. Yet, except for a few precious exceptions, many of the genre’s biggest stars have been largely unwilling to speak out in favor of gun reform.
It can be hard to make sense of the industry’s approach to the issue of guns. The NRA-sponsored Harrisburg concert took place just two nights before the Academy of Country Music (which partnered with the NRA earlier this decade) staged a benefit for the victims of the mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill country bar in California. One of the headliners was Trace Adkins — a former NRA Country artist. Likewise, Moore, who once recorded a promotional single called “This Is NRA Country,” played at last year’s Country Strong fundraiser for victims of the Parkland school shooting.
Some artists have taken steps to speak out. In late 2018, Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard embarked on a daring yet largely fruitless social media campaign challenging fellow country artists to support legislation in favor of universal background checks. Other megastars like Eric Church, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, either indifferent to such risk-taking or confident that their legendary reputations precede their politics, have also singled out the NRA.
It was hard not to feel those ever-so-subtle tensions at the Harrisburg concert, which seemed representative of the NRA’s newly cautious approach to country music marketing. The videos promoting the NRA that played during past set breaks were nowhere to be found, replaced with a greatest hits country playlist of songs by Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt alongside those of outspoken NRA critics like Church, Hill and Brothers Osborne. The NRA Country logo displayed during opening performances from Farr and Corbin promptly disappeared prior to the headliner Brice taking the stage.
In fact, the only mention of the NRA at the concert from a musical act came with a sheepish, self-aware acknowledgement: “Hell, I’ll just say it and take a minute to say what I believe in,” said Tyler Farr, before name-checking the NRA in a short speech saluting armed service members for defending America.
The duties of formally acknowledging the evening’s sponsor was outsourced to the show’s emcee, Bob Newman, a local right-wing country-radio morning host who briefly advertised this year’s upcoming NRA Annual Convention in Indianapolis before Brice performed.
These days, NRA Country is nearly nonexistent — or at least non-visible. If the intended purpose of NRA Country, founded at the beginning of this decade, was to use mainstream country music as a platform to recruit new members, its current promotional aims have been reduced to internal publications like American Rifleman and NRA-related events largely intended for pre-existing members. It’s also discontinued its Featured Artist cross-promotional partnership with country music, and the organization’s president, Vanessa Shahidi, has rarely given interviews. (Requests to be interviewed for this story went unanswered.)
But despite its lower profile, NRA Country remains a powerful marketing tool. This year’s concert featured an audience that, compared to the typical Great American Outdoor Show attendee, skewed younger and female, precisely the demographic to which NRA Country is intended to appeal. It all makes the Harrisburg outdoor show in 2019 a compelling case study: an event that attracts a wide cross-section of local families and outdoor enthusiasts who may not necessarily perfectly align with the NRA’s base of staunch Second Amendment defenders.
In April, Alan Jackson, a Country Music Hall of Fame member, will headline the annual NRA convention in Indianapolis, alongside newcomer William Michael Morgan. That concert was promoted onstage in Harrisburg by emcee Newman, who crowed to fans about NRA Country’s presence at the upcoming meeting. “We’re talking three stages of shows and music,” he said. “How about it for NRA and NRA Country?”
The audience applauded politely. It was already close to 9:30 pm, and they were ready for the headliner to take the stage.