The Assignment with Audie Cornish
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Louder Than Guns
The Assignment with Audie Cornish
Apr 13, 2023
Can Country music help lead the U.S. out of the gun debate? There is a long history of famous country musicians using their platforms to comment on social and political issues. But since the lead singer of The Chicks, Natalie Maines, was ostracized after criticizing then President George W. Bush, country music stars have felt safer keeping their political views out of the public eye. Musician Ketch Secor of the band Old Crow Medicine Show is trying to change that. After the shooting at Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, Ketch wrote an Op-ed in The New York Times calling for country music stars to let go of the fear of retaliation from their fanbase, and to break their silence on the gun debate. Audie talks with Ketch about what it’s like to be a musician and a parent in Nashville right now and what he thinks country musicians can do to help prevent another mass shooting.
I didn’t think we’d be doing another episode about a mass shooting so soon. But here we are.
Mayor John Cooper
As a community.
This is from a vigil in Nashville.
Mayor John Cooper
Thank you to our artists for sharing the gift of music. You are the custodians of that special gift.
I’ve been to this place, and I don’t mean some kind of memorial after a mass shooting, but Nashville specifically. I lived there for a few years covering the South, and it’s not a big city. It’s dominant industries of music and publishing can make it feel even smaller, like everyone knows everyone. So when First Lady Jill Biden visited the city to attend a vigil for the shooting victims of the Covenant School, it was an absolute given that a country music artist would be there.
Will the circle be unbroken?
By and by, Lord, by and by.
This is Ketch Secor, founding member of the Grammy Award winning band Old Crow Medicine Show. I didn’t even get an introduction at the vigil, but that’s because everyone in the crowd already knows who he is, not just a famous musician, but a member of their community and a parent of two school aged kids. In fact, the school his kids attend in East Nashville, he co-founded it in 2016. It’s called the Episcopal School of Nashville.
So I’m wearing two different hats here when a school shooting happens in our town. It’s both as a parent and it’s as somebody who’s on the other side of the pick up line as well. When a country singer gets off the road, chances are at 8:00 in the morning on Monday after the big weekend, that guy or gal is in line dropping their kid off at a school in Nashville, Tennessee. When it comes to your home, it’s different.
And the sky lowered in the sky.
Ketch Secor recently wrote an op ed for The New York Times that caught our attention. It was titled Country Music Can Lead America Out of its Obsession with Guns. In it, he calls for country musicians to speak candidly to their audiences about gun culture. I wanted to have him on the show to talk about that op ed, like, can country music really help lead the U.S. out of a gun debate? And what are the stakes for a musician in the genre if they actually take a stand? And what’s it like to live at the center of it all as a parent, educator and musician in Nashville, Tennessee? This is the assignment. I’m Audie Cornish.
The shooting at the Covenant School kind of prompted you to write an op ed for The New York Times. But can you take me back to that day a little bit? Where were you when you heard it happening?
Sure it was on Monday, two weeks ago, and it was at 10:13 in the morning. I got a text message from our school attorney saying, I’m so sorry, and I had no idea what was going on. And prayer hand emoji is interesting.
So getting an emoji like that or getting the obligatory “are you okay” that we all start to send each other now when there’s a shooting, especially at a school, you’re saying it it hits you in a place of what? Panic. Fear. What? What do you feel?
It’s. It’s all the above. It’s. It’s your kids. It’s someone else’s kids. You know, the head of school was murdered. The connections between our school are very present, and it’s as a community member in Nashville, this shocking realization. Oh, this thing that happens in other towns has come to our town. And it’s come not just to our town, but to our children, to our the place that is most sacred.
And even to your corner of that world, Right? Like it didn’t happen at a public school. It didn’t happen at a big university. It happened at essentially a small Christian primary school. Right. Which is what you what you founded one, right? It had connections.
Yeah. And our schools are very different in that regard and serve different populations. However, it you know, we’re all the same. We are all every school, public, private, charter, every stripe is in the business of believing that kids are our future and must be stewarded and loved on and guided. And, you know, that’s a real elemental principle for me.
Can I ask, how old are your kids and do they go to the school you founded?
Yeah, they do. And they’re nine and 11.
So did the school you founded this Episcopal school, did it go into lockdown? Kind of what what did you you all have to do as a result?
No, the schools adjacent to Covenant did, but the others in Nashville did not. And so the thing I think that was so sad that first day was the message that went out saying your children have not yet been notified. The staff knows, the teachers know, everybody knows, all the parents know, everybody knows but the kids. And we’re going to talk about it tomorrow. But we wanted to give you the chance to talk about it first. So if you can imagine a pick up line, anybody who’s who’s been through a school shooting in their community knows, you know, the pick up line that first day is full of tears.
Right. And for people who aren’t familiar with how big ups and drop offs work these days in schools, there is a line right, where like there are kind of they are chaperoning your kid the literally to the curb and you pick them up. There’s not just like wandering out of the building where I think if you were a kid in the nineties is what you grew up with. Yeah, it’s hand to hand pass off.
That’s right, Audie. You must have kids.
Well, the juxtaposition of kids full of vibrant joy and life and parents full of grief and sadness coming together. This meeting to me was very powerful.
Meaning you’re standing on the curb waiting to get your kid. But every parent’s face is just drawn.
And every parent is looking at every teacher and just, you know, holding back tears as is every teacher. But every child continues to feel very safe. And yet we all know as parents that no child is safe any longer because this tragedy is in our backyard. It’s come to Nashville, it’s come to us, to our kids.
I guess I want to start maybe with Wagon Wheel, because if people go to look you up, that might be the first song they learn about. And you even write about it in this op ed. Tell me a little bit about where you were in your career when you wrote this.
Sure. Well, Wagon Wheel is my most successful song.
Headed down South to the Land of the Pines. I’m coming my way to North Carolina, staring up.
And it’s a collaboration with Bob Dylan. I wrote it when I was about 17, going to school up in New England in a prep school called Exeter, and I was had just learned to play the banjo up there.
So rock me mama like a wagon wheel. Rock me mama, any way you feel. Hey mama rock me
You talk about the idea that your best known song, Wagon Wheel, is often blasting out of a truck, so to speak, that has an NRA sticker. And you mention this specifically, and I want you to talk about why.
When you make the kind of music that I make with a fiddle and a banjo and harmony singing and a particular style of songwriting, you’re engaging in a community that might be different than your own sort of background, and it’s not. Well, there’s a train going by right now. This is sort of evidence..
I remember the train. Yeah.
The trains are always going by in Nashville.
Just got to keep it going on the podcast. It’ll add a little bit of color and speaks to what I’m talking about. You know, the trains are going by. The trucks have NRA stickers. You know, when I was a kid, there were Confederate flags everywhere. This is The South, y’all. It’s different than the other parts of the country now, for better or for worse. But it is what it is.
And when you’re around Nashville and you have political conversations, wherever the person falls on the spectrum, inevitably someone uses that phrase, Well, this is The South.
Like, that’s supposed to cover a lot of things.
Yeah. And whether it’s supposed to be that way or, you know, I think we’re in a state of considerable growth down south, but the vestiges remain, and they’re important to talk about in this regard, because one of the vestiges is gun culture, and it’s largely considered like the rebel flag in the past, just something that exists here. Deal with it, y’all. When in fact, we have always had the power to drop the rebel flag. There’s one vestige that has been challenged effectively.
And effected change in one way, or at least raise the kind of societal stakes engaging in certain language.
Totally. And so I see the change in gun culture is just like another step towards The South’s evolution.
To my mind, country, Americana, these genres so closely align with their audiences. It’s very much like hip-hop, like people in hip-hop talk about the culture and their ties to the music, and the music ties to quite literally the identity of the people listening. And country feels very much the same way. But as a result, it has a lot of like rules. You know, there’s a couple lines you they people don’t like you to step out of. Can you talk about how that plays out in modern country?
Sure. Well, today’s country singer might not come from The South and is college educated. So that they’re in has already changed the stereotype of who sings country music. You know, it’s it’s not coal miners anymore. The coal miner’s daughter like we all love Loretta, but that’s not who’s on number one right now. So that part of it has changed a lot. But what hasn’t changed so much are the attitudes of the audience.
Which to be clear. The country music audience also is wealthier and are decision makers and our often managers, there’s been sort of like a lot of research into many people who are in the audience, and the audience probably looks a little different than people expect as well.
Well, I didn’t know to go into this, but but I’m excited that we are, Audie, because, you know, country music really especially, and to clarify, contemporary country music on the radio is a real safe space for us to not talk about political divisiveness and not talk about things of of substance. But instead we’re all sort of reading the Pulp Fiction together. And it’s it’s
Which is why it’s popular, right? I mean, during the pandemic, I heard the growth of listening to the music or streaming maybe was up 15%. It was higher than any other genre.
People welcome that safe space.
Travel story. It’s you know, it’s very much stories, intergenerational family tales. That’s the kind of stuff that goes number one is the song about grandpa and what a good guy he was and how if we could be a little bit more like him, then the world would be a better place. So this sort of, you know, hallmark kind of these ideals that are tossed around might not be that realistic for today’s reality of, you know, I worked I’m part of a global economy working two jobs. And, you know, I’m hoping my kids are going to go get out of state tuition or whatever. And yet we country music really deals in nostalgia. And that nostalgia is a an important antidote to all of the pain that one can witness in the click of a mouse.
Right. So how does gun. Culture interact with that nostalgia, storytelling, because you’re saying in a way that that’s built into the music, too.
Johnny Cash singing I Shot a Man in Reno to Watch Him Die. Hank Jr Singing about. Yeah, I’d like to spit some beach nut in that dude’s eye and shoot him with my old 45 because a country boy can survive. This is a way to for country music to retain authority in a changing world. And guns–
But do you hear it in the modern music? Are there? You don’t have to pick out any artist. But do people still talk about that?
No, Audie. And that’s the thing. We don’t talk about guns. If we do, it’s a song about I took my boy hunting for the first time. It’s again, dealing in the nostalgia. What it’s not saying is I’ve got an AR-15 in my collection. But the reality is that many, many listeners do. And yet it’s a safe space where they are not confronted by the music to a changing reality. Instead, they are allowed to say, I taught my child how to, you know, I mean, when I was a kid in the eighties, like I went bird hunt with Dad, I learned how to fire a weapon. I learned how to clean a weapon. These things are important to the ways that gun culture can be a positive, but the safe space is that we’re not talking about what it means in today’s America. Instead, we’re pretty much hanging in yesterday’s.
So what is it like for artists such as yourself to raise this issue?
People keep saying, thanks for being brave. And I’m like. You know who’s brave is the kid that pulled the fire alarm, you know, in the hallway under gunfire in our town in a school, a kid that was a third grader. Now, that’s brave. All I’m doing is just I’m a singer and I’m going to sing about the stuff that’s real. I’m a writer, and I’m going to tell what I see.
I don’t want to read too much into the zoom, but I. Are you getting emotional talking about that?
Oh, yeah. I mean, I’ve been I’ve been crying for two weeks, ya’ll, like it’s… When this comes to your town and they bury the same age kid as yours. And then and then, like, while the graves are still fresh, the news cycle moves on to Stormy Daniels, and that’s the reality. It’s like, Good God, where do we live? What do we not care about kids at all? It’s just over. So this is my way of saying it’s not over and it won’t be over until those deaths, those three deaths of American children gunned down in the third grade, until they mean something, that’s when it’ll be over.
More with Ketch Secor in just a moment.
You are demanding a new kind of movement come out of the south. And that it in part be led by people who are cultural figures as well, not just politicians, people such as yourself. Why do you think it could make a difference?
Well, I think that Nashville stands uniquely poised to lead a response to the school shooting epidemic.
But why do you think that? Right? We just watched the Tennessee State House expel two members because they had a protest related to gun policy. Expel, not censure, not reprimand. Try to kick them out. So what what to your mind leads you to think that?
Well, Nashville, despite the fact that the state legislature is what it is, Nashville is a very progressive city. And I’m not saying that Tennessee is going to lead the way. I’m saying Nashville.
Yeah, but isn’t that the tough part? If in all these states and it’s not just Tennessee, you’ve got these blue cities, these little blue dots in a sea of red, and by red I mean very conservative, very pro-gun, pro-Second Amendment legislatures. This sounds like an uphill battle. What you’re calling for.
And I know it’s worth it. I don’t want to because we all know it’s worth it. But I want I want to understand why you think country musicians are in any way uniquely positioned to have this conversation.
Well, and I want to I appreciate you challenging this Audie. First thing I want to say is that changing segregation was an uphill battle in Tennessee. And and when Nashville in the early 1960s, in the late 1950s said its first foot forward, this was the proving ground, other parts of the South were too unsafe. But people gathered in Nashville, a city of colleges, a city of progressive thought in the South to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience. This is where John Lewis came. This is where the Freedom Riders first stop was.
Their trainings, right, with James Lawson and at Vanderbilt.
All of that training at Fisk and Vanderbilt happened right here in Nashville, Tennessee. That shows our ability as a as a community to exist outside of the state. Now, just like in that time, the state legislator said, what are you talking about? That’s not going to happen in our state. We cast the deciding vote on on women’s suffrage. I mean, Tennessee has been a bellwether place in these two other instances of great significance. This is the third. This is the part of the death knell of the old South, which is going to have to change. You know, 50 years from now I think we’re going to be looking back at these couple of years as the deciding time for a assault weapons ban in the United States.
Again, I want to bring it to the question about country music artists, especially mainstream ones who given what we know about the music, number one, have been socially punished for activism by what we call Music Row, by music radio, by country music radio in particular, which still has a very kind of strong grip in a way programmers do, and even recent history. Right. When you think about the Dixie Chicks, etc., their whole story is a story of being ostracized for their activism.
You know, for a guy like me, I’m not beholden to too many people at all, but I’m not a mainstream. I’m not on the Jumbotron, you know, I’m not at the awards show with the top ten performers of the year.
Do you need those people for the movement you’re talking about?
They have a really far reach and the power to accelerate an inevitable movement to change this for our kids. And I’m asking them through this piece and also face to face in my community, through conversations of text. You know, I’ve reached out to so many singers in the past two weeks.
And what kind of text you send.
Hey, I’m just reaching out to all my Nashville music community in the wake of the shooting and sharing this story that I wrote that came out today in The Times. If you get a sec, please take a look.
What’s been the most positive response? What’s been the most frustrating one?
The most frustrating one is silence. I say in the op ed piece that I think silence is complicity. I went into the studio and I and I recorded a new song on the subject. Since the shooting, which is only two weeks ago there have been so many ways to be engaged with this terrible story, and it’s powerful solution.
I mean, the reason why I’m asking is because your op ed said something pretty specific, right? That there are artists who are tired at being at the kind of mercy of the whims of fearmongers, you said, and that they’re ready to speak to an impressionable audience. And because other genres, like we mentioned hip hop earlier or pop, they do wade into societal issues. They can be confrontational about politics. It’s not like there isn’t a model out there. So I guess what would it take, do you think, for people in your industry? To start to do something similar, which is which is, in effect, what you’re calling for.
It is beginning and it’s, I think, in its infancy, but it’s already started.
And so it’s about fanning the flames and building a big bonfire out of what’s already crackling kindling. For example, we’ve got a benefit concert here in Nashville that supports Covenant School. And when you look at the the roster, who’s on the marquee, it’s not the usual Americana folks who always say, you know, we stand with kids, we stand up against gun violence. Instead, it’s number one chart toppers. They are there. They have put their hat into the ring.
But is it because it’s is it going to be a safe space from politics? If it’s a moment of a memorial, is that what makes it okay for a big artist to be there? Right. Because nobody’s going to get up and say we should have gun control.
There’s nothing but up here because we we have started at the very baseline where music coming out of Nashville on the radio says nothing about violence against children in our schools or about the need to rethink the types of weaponry that is associated with the Second Amendment. Kelsea Ballerini talked about it on an award show. These are the kinds of things that when somebody takes one step and the movement can quickly follow it, then the next step isn’t as hard to make. And what I’m asking for is that next step. You know, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from my audience. And like I say in an op ed piece, you know, I see the NRA sticker on the back of lot of trucks blaring in my tunes. So, you know, and we’re out on the road with Hank Jr. this summer. So, I mean, I’m I’m used to playing to an audience that is our country folk. But I love my country folk audience. And I and I want to be able to be real with them. I can move freely in both of the spaces that the two big silos in the country. Like, I might go to work in one silo and come home and the other one. And I’m good with that because I love those people.
What is your message to those artists who are just still very reluctant?
Country music has a great destiny in these times to swing out past the fences that have corralled it in so tightly. That I believe in this genre. And I believe that it has the power to carry that truth. You know, it’s very much rooted in a gospel tradition of of the lamentation, the calling out to the great spirits. Help us, Lord. We’re just your children. We don’t know shit. We’re we’re dying down here. Help!
Can you talk about the song that you’ve written out of this moment?
New material? You know, generally, just like I’m in a songwriting mood here, I’m in a a moment in time with a lot of different opportunities as a writer to engage on this, whether it’s, you know, writing the right caption for a photograph on Instagram or writing an op ed piece for The New York Times or being on this podcast with you, Audie. There’s so many ways to choose my words right now and try and have them be resonant for the pain that we’re feeling in Nashville, Tennessee and around the country because we are just so tired, parents, that our kids are not safe in their schools. What that means for me as a songwriter is that I also have the chance to write new music about this and to put my money where my mouth is. So I got a new song that’s coming out called Louder Than Guns. That’s yeah, I just recorded it two days ago.
Give me a sense of the tune or lyrics.
Well, gosh, I feel like I shouldn’t even brought it up because it’s so…anytime you get a you know, people are cagey about their new stuff!
You’re dealing with a dude that wept through the whole songwriting process. Let me sing it for you.
Ketch Secor is the father of two kids in Nashville, Tennessee. He’s also a singer, songwriter and founding member of the band Old Crow Medicine Show.
Now The Assignment is a production of CNN Audio. Our producers are Madeleine Thompson,Jennifer Lai, Lori Galarreta, Carla Javier, and Dan Bloom. Our associate producers are Isoke Samuel and Allison Park. Our senior producers are Matt Martinez and Haley Thomas. Dan Dzula is our technical director. Steve Lickteig is our executive producer. Special thanks to Katie Hinman. I’m Audie Cornish and thank you for listening.
Sending that one out to Louisville today.
Ketch, thank you so much for sharing that with us.
Yeah, we got. We got to. We got to do it, y’all.