When country music’s biggest annual awards ceremony gets under way in Nashville, Tennessee, tomorrow, there will be one element of what Willie Nelson once described as the genre’s signature formula. "Three chords and the truth," he once declared, were the heart of any country song. The simplicity of the three-chord song will almost certainly be on display – but the truth might be rather more muted.
America's country music industry has an uneasy relationship with gun control laws. The genre's core fanbase is culturally and politically conservative. The powerful National Rifle Association has a sub-group known as NRA Country, promoting the gun lobby to music fans and featuring a country music artist of the month. Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash wrote in the New York Times shortly after the Las Vegas shooting last year left 58 dead, pleading for fellow musicians to "end their silence" on gun control. Few did, however, and for the second consecutive year, the country music awards are being presented right after a massacre of country music fans.
A week ago, 12 people were shot dead at the Borderline Bar and Grill in California. Last year, the awards were held in the bloody shadow of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, carnage that took place at the Route 91 country music festival in Las Vegas. That leaves little to sing about.
Except that there has been a slight but perceptible shift on the divisive issue of gun control in America. The midterm elections of November 6 indicate that change might be afoot. It is not round the corner – yet – but perhaps can be glimpsed on the horizon.
Consider this: at least 17 newly elected US congressmen and women back stricter gun laws. They defeated incumbents backed by the powerful NRA. In this election, the combined spending of gun safety groups topped $11 million, a first nationally, while NRA spending dropped to less than $10m. Meanwhile, there were 35 times more TV advertisements promoting gun control from both Republicans and Democrats than there were in 2014. But the clearest sign of change is the bipartisan nature of the vote for gun control. Even in reliably Republican states, voters appear to have advanced the cause.
In Florida, Georgia and Texas, Democrats who ran on gun safety did better than they have in previous years, marking a shift of sorts in gun politics in the South. The new congresswoman from Georgia’s sixth district is a case in point. The seat has been easily held by the GOP in the last six presidential elections. But on November 6, the party unseated by a first-time congressional candidate – Lucy McBath, whose 17-year-old son was shot dead six years ago.
Gun safety was also the winning ticket in districts in Minnesota, Texas and Virginia. In Colorado, army veteran Jason Crow ran on gun control in the same district that witnessed the 1999 Columbine massacre, beating the incumbent congressman Mike Coffman. Other NRA advocates lost as well, not least gubernatorial hopefuls in Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota and New Mexico, as well as the Nevada attorney general in his race to become governor. And in Pennsylvania, both Democratic and Republican candidates campaigned on the issue of gun safety laws, with incumbent Republican Brian Fitzpatrick winning by a narrow margin.
That the gun control lobby is growing larger in Congress reflects the views of the American people. More than 60 per cent of Americans want stricter gun laws, according to Gallup. That includes some gun owners. There is even more widespread support for universal background checks and so-called red flag laws that would allow a judge to order confiscation of guns from people who might be a risk to themselves or others.
What any of this might mean in real terms is unclear. Results, if any, can only be measured in fewer incidents. Last week’s shooting in California was the 311th so far this year. Not only is America running out of adjectives to describe each massacre, its politicians are running out of excuses for their failure to restrict and regulate gun use.
There is no certainty that the new Congress will be able to do the right thing when it meets in January. But as Ms McBath tweeted after her election victory: "Absolutely nothing – no politician and no special interest – is more powerful than a mother on a mission". Others might see it as a diverse, disparate group of people voting on one common issue – protecting their lives and those of others.