Occasionally, after a tragedy, country music finds itself in dire need of a town hall. In 2001, Alan Jackson provided a post-9/11 sounding board when his song “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” appeared a couple of months later. In 2017, people generally don’t wait that long to talk out the trauma — especially when the attack this time was literally on the country music fandom itself. Bobby Bones, the syndicated radio host who’s quickly risen to become the leading voice in the format, has been the one calling the community to order every a.m. since Sunday night’s festival massacre in Las Vegas.
“I’ve had to walk listeners through really tragic events over the last almost 20 years of being on the radio,” says Bones, who at 37 will become the youngest inductee into the National Radio Hall of Fame next month. “But this one is so personal. I was at the iHeart Radio Festival on the same grounds the weekend before. I performed on the main stage Saturday night [moonlighting as a touring musical-comedy act]. I was back in Nashville by the time it happened, but I was looking at pictures of the people in Jason Aldean’s crowd, having this horrible knowledge these were the same people I saw so happy the night before. I was on the casino floor Friday night and we had met some people from San Diego who weren’t going to the festival, so I said, ‘Hey I’ll give you some wristbands.’ I texted them Monday to see if they’d gone Sunday — they did, and the guy’s friend got shot in the leg.
“I had to separate my emotional self from it, because these are my friends,” he says. Backstage during the shooting, “my PR person had to hide in a freezer. I was texting with Jake Owen, who played right before Jason, and he ended up on a bus with a bunch of random people — but they ended up not being random people. They ended up being people surviving together.
“As you can tell, my head is still spinning. I’m confused and I’m angry and sad, and I’ve got to compartmentalize and also do a five-hour radio show and communicate while having no idea what happened to the hundreds of people I met the night before. It’s an odd, sad place to be. But not as sad as it is for the people whose brothers got shot.”
Having played the main stage himself Saturday, Bones felt a good deal of empathy for the confusion Aldean experienced before bolting from the stage, and says there was no way the headliner could have had any clue of what was happening. “Artists have [in-ear monitors to hear the band] that seal our ears off from outside [sound],” he says. “If you were wearing them and I were standing three feet from you talking to you, you wouldn’t be able to hear me. That’s why when you see Jason (in fan-made videos of his performance when the shooting begins), he sings, kind of steps back, because he sees something’s happening, then sings again, and then realizes something bad is happening and runs off the stage. My thought is that he couldn’t hear the gunshots but he just saw the crowd reacting to something. I have a few friends who were backstage with people that were hit or grazed back there, too, and they said a bus or two was hit by bullets. It seemed like the (shooter) started there and then started spraying from the back all the way to the front. That’s what I knew going into my radio show Monday morning, and for five hours we, like everyone else, kind of put pieces together as we went along.”
Las Vegas is among the 100-plus markets to which iHeart syndicates Bones’ show, so he’s familiar with the community from frequent visits and spent much of his airtime so far this week talking with locals or festivalgoers who were fresh out of the emergency room or even still in the hospital. And, not surprisingly for this format in particular, he’s been celebrating first responders, “the people who, while everyone else is running out, they’re running in. Whatever they have in their hearts, I don’t have that.”
The No. 1 song on his show this week? A tune that literally no one else in country radio may be playing, which was only released Monday. “Maren Morris just put out a song with Vince Gill singing on it called ‘Dear Hate’ that she had written years ago (after the 2015 South Carolina church shooting). It was actually the first one I ever heard from her, but she recorded it just recently and put it on YouTube and on the download side working with the Music City Cares fund to donate (to victims in Las Vegas). She’s not putting it out as a radio single, but I’ll be playing it.”
But will Sunday night’s tragedy affect the tenor of country music going forward? In different eras, the format has looked favorably upon serious, reflective, and even mournful material, whether it was Jackson’s post-9/11 lament or Rascal Flatts’ cancer song “Skin (Sarabeth)” or the Band Perry’s revival of the classic mortality ballad form, “If I Die Young.” But in recent years, the emphasis on good times has grown so great that it’s tough to imagine songs with life-and-death concerns getting squeezed in. Might they return, or will country fans want to party through the heartache as a way of dealing with the sorrow?
“I think it will be both, frankly,” says Bones. “I think there’ll be times for people to check out and say ‘Hey, I want to remove myself from it,’ but there’ll be times where people want to be fully immersed in it, just like with any disaster. There’s not a right answer. It’s a terrible situation and it puts everyone in a difficult place. But I think the one thing everyone is going to kind of lean to is, how can people help? That, for sure, is going to happen.”
Are benefits in order? “It’s still so fresh for us to talk about any sort of major benefit. Will there be something? Yes. Will there be many smaller things before then? There already are, this week in Nashville. It’s just that everybody’s head is spinning right now.” It also complicates things that an all-star benefit for hurricane victim relief had just been announced for four days after the CMA Awards in November, complicating any efforts anyone might have made to slot another benefit into that brief window artists have off from the road.
“It’ll be something that we probably deal with for years. When you start to read the words ‘worst mass shooting,’ those aren’t small words. It’s going to affect the culture, and you hope it affects it in a positive way. It’s weird to say that right now, and I hated that it took tragedy for that to happen. It shouldn’t take something terrible to make people go, ‘Hey, we’re on the same team.’”
But part of Bones’ mission this week is to get a plethora of artists on the air for a sort of get-out-the-vote campaign, just to urge fans not to be fearful about resuming their festival-going habits. “This genre of music — and I’ve worked in a lot of them — it’s different from other genres because it’s so fan-based. And Sunday night, I’m telling you that it went in a couple of hours from ‘Hey, is everyone okay’ — meaning the artists — very quickly to ‘Okay, everybody’s checked in, what can we do to help the people that were hurt?’
“If anything, the people that come out to the shows are more important than the artists, for the most part, in this format. You could have inserted five, six, seven, eight different major headliners in there and I think you would have seen the same 22,000 people. And we don’t have woe-is-me artists. It’s a woe-is-everything-and-how-can-we-help? format.”