Attack strikes country music, bastion of US traditionalism

Jason Aldean has repeatedly voiced dismay at the carnage but steered clear of discussion on gun control and other political issues since the deadliest shooting in modern US history (AFP Photo/Theo Wargo) (GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/File)

New York (AFP) - In attacking a country music concert, the assailant in Las Vegas has targeted one of the more conservative segments of US culture in which guns have more often been a topic of celebration.

Sunday evening's shooting, the deadliest in modern US history, struck a sold-out performance by chart-topping country singer Jason Aldean whose songs have championed the values and grievances of working-class America.

Yet the stereotypical images of country are changing and Aldean is one of its more musically fluid stars with an openness to incorporating R&B and hip-hop influences.

Once rooted in former Confederate states, country music has grown rapidly across the United States in the past decade. Aldean was headlining the three-day Route 91 Harvest festival on the Las Vegas Strip which was launched in 2014.

Aldean, who last year won the top prize at the Academy of Country Music Awards, has spoken to Middle America with songs such as "Fly Over States," a tale of men flying first-class from New York to Los Angeles who can't understand the heartland.

On "They Don't Know," the title track of his last album, Aldean again speaks of outsiders who drive past farmers but "ain't seen the blood, sweat and tears it took to live their dreams."

Aldean, a 40-year-old Georgia native who recently put on sale the sprawling Tennessee ranch where he hunts deer and turkeys, last year told Rolling Stone Country that Donald Trump pulled off his election upset by speaking to the "every-day guy who is going to work and wanting a normal life for his family" but feels forgotten.

- Whiter, older demographic -

Authorities did not immediately assign a motive to 64-year-old gunman Stephen Paddock. Live music has increasingly become the target of attacks, with the genres varying widely.

A May bombing struck a concert in Manchester, England of pop star Ariana Grande, whose fan base is full of young girls, while a devastating assault on a Paris club in 2015 hit the urbane crowd of rockers Eagles of Death Metal.

Surveys have found that more than 90 percent of country listeners are white, with the music most popular in the Deep South and Great Plains, although the Nashville-based industry takes pains to stress that it is making inroads with minorities.

A Nielsen study last year found that fans also skewed older, with the average person at a US country music show nearly 45 years old.

Since Trump's shock election victory, country stars have been among the few in the entertainment industry to offer the occasional kind word for the populist real estate mogul -- although many artists, including Aldean, have preferred to avoid direct political commentary.

Senator Ted Cruz, running against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, summed up the political associations of the genre when he said he switched from listening to rock because he found country stars more patriotic after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

- Paeans to gun culture -

One frequent topic of country songs is guns -- beloved in much of rural America where opposition runs deep to any bid to regulate arms.

At least one artist present said his views on guns were changed by the bloodbath, which killed 59 people and injured more than 500 more.

Caleb Keeter, the guitarist for the Texas-based Josh Abbott Band, said he had been a longtime supporter of gun rights and that crew members with him had legal firearms -- which proved useless as bullets rained down.

"We need gun control. RIGHT. NOW," Keeter tweeted.

"My biggest regret is that I stubbornly didn't realize it until my brothers on the road and myself were threatened by it," he wrote.

Recent country paeans to gun culture include one by Justin Moore. On his 2011 album "Outlaws Like Me" which topped the country chart, he sings of growing up firing guns and laments: "Some people want to take them away / Why don't you go bust them boys that (are) sellin' crack."

Miranda Lambert -- one of the top women in country whose songs include "Time to Get a Gun" and "Gunpowder and Lead" -- on Monday tweeted an image of a broken heart.

Aldean on Instagram called the attack "beyond horrific" and wrote: "It hurts my heart that this would happen to anyone who was just coming out to enjoy what should have been a fun night."