In one of his songs, the country music star Jason Aldean sings, “this might be the heartache that don’t stop hurting.”
That lyric has new resonance today. Sunday night Mr. Aldean was playing to thousands of fans at the Route 91 Harvest Festival on the Las Vegas strip when a sniper opened fire from the 32nd floor of a nearby hotel. In a matter of seconds a joyous gathering of music lovers was transformed into one of the worst tragedies in American history.
Modern mass shootings target places where people gather to connect – concerts, colleges, nightclubs, theaters, schools. They attack both individuals and different versions of community.
Now another American family struggles to recover following apparently senseless gun violence. Country music has long reflected themes of hurt, loss, and recovery. Perhaps that heritage will give fans comfort in the days ahead.
“Here’s the most wonderful gift, that of music and coming together peacefully, and it becomes a venue for the worst of us – it’s a shame,” says Ron Pen, a retired musicologist at the University of Kentucky.
Details about the attack remained sketchy on Monday. Law enforcement officials identified the suspected gunman as Stephen Paddock, a resident of a Mesquite, Nev., retirement community.
At least 58 people died in the tragedy, according to a police briefing. Hundreds more were injured.
Mr. Paddock had no military background or obvious political animosity, according to media reports based on interviews with family members. A brother said he was dumbfounded by the tragedy and that Paddock was simply a man who lived in rural Nevada and liked to drive to Las Vegas to gamble.
There seemed no obvious reason Paddock should target the music festival – though further information may yet emerge.
It is “hard to conceive of country music as the common denominator ... providing a motive for killing,” says Mr. Pen of the University of Kentucky.
Witnesses described a terrible scene of bursts of rapid gunfire, interrupted by silence, presumably as the gunman reloaded. From his high perch the assailant had an easy view and a packed field to aim at.
The speed of fire was such that some experts wondered whether the gunman was using a fully automatic, machine gun-like weapon. Such guns are largely illegal in the United States (those produced before 1986 can still be bought and sold, but they are quite expensive).
Gun control advocates said the tragedy was further proof that the US needs more curbs on military-style assault weapons – semi-automatics whose trigger must be pulled for each shot – and high-capacity magazines.
One musician at the festival spoke out about the need for such measures after witnessing the events of Sunday night.
“I’ve been a proponent of the 2nd amendment my entire life. Until the events of last night. I cannot express how wrong I was. We actually have members of our crew with [concealed carry licenses], and legal firearms on the bus,” Caleb Keeter, lead guitarist of the Josh Abbott band, wrote in a long Twitter post. “They were useless. We couldn’t touch them for fear police might think we were part of the massacre and shoot us.” One person, he continued, “laid waste to a city with dedicated, fearless police officers desperately trying to help, because of access to an insane amount of fire power.”
Past tragedies, such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting of 2012, did not result in passage of gun control legislation. Currently the highest-profile gun measure moving through Congress is one that would loosen, not tighten, firearms regulation by making it easier to purchase gun silencers.
Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who was shot at a 2011 constituent meeting in Tucson, on Monday held a news conference outdoors in the shadow of the US Capitol.
“The nation’s counting on you,” she said, haltingly, as she turned to point at the building behind her.
Those opposed to new gun curbs, a political group that includes many Republicans, say that mental illness and other behavioral issues are a key cause of the tragedies. Many gun measures would not really stop those attacks, they say. The Second Amendment to the Constitution guards American access to firearms in general.
President Trump, for his part, called the Sunday night Las Vegas shooting an “act of pure evil.”
Mr. Trump said, “We pray for the day when evil is banished, and the innocent are safe from hatred and fear.”
To some extent country music today symbolizes rural Red State America – the heartland of Trump’s political supporters. But the art form itself is rooted in the experience of an agricultural and working class past that was Democratic long before it was Republican. It is bonded together by the power of narrative and melody to frame the daily rhythms of harvests and heartbreaks.
There are 95 million country music fans in the US, according to the Country Music Association. Half make more than $100,000 a year. One in three has a white-collar job. Family is at the heart of the genre – 81 percent have dinner with their family every night, as opposed to 43 percent of the general US population, according to the Country Music Association.
Unlike some other genres, the country music audience is getting younger, on average. Its fastest growth has been on the East and West coasts.
Mr. Aldean, the singer on stage when the shots rang out, has dozens of top ten hits, including “Big Green Tractor,” “She’s Country,” and “Dirt Road Anthem.”
Country songs have always “told stories of love and treachery,” says Pen. “It’s always been a narrative cleanly told, a story told in song, and that has been country music’s virtue – a directness of expression, in a language that just about anybody in America can get.”
Country music’s power to relieve heartache may be tested in the following days as Las Vegas – and America – tries to recover and understand forces that can turn innocence into tragedy in a literal muzzle flash, raising new concerns about security in public places.
Dozens of performers and other music industry figures, from now-pop-star-once-country-queen Taylor Swift to Ariana Grande, whose own concert was targeted by terrorists in Manchester, England, earlier this year, tweeted and Instagrammed out their shock and support.
“Music is something that brings people together and speaks to their hearts, and to think that this group of music lovers was targeted ... it just makes you sick to your stomach,” says Beverly Keel, the chair of Middle Tennessee State University’s Department of Recording Industry.
Country musician Bobbie Malone, who performs with her husband Bill Malone, author of an authoritative history of country music, says the shooting is an American tragedy in every way. They were regular folks having a good time, she says.
“Someone is bound to write [a song] about this, and I don’t think we have to wait long and see,” she says.
Mrs. Malone adds that it will be a complicated subject to tackle. “It is domestic terror – here is the most American of music, and it’s not some Islamic fundamentalist” attacking its fans.