‘People Are Entrenched’: Rosanne Cash on Thousand Oaks, Country Music, and Gun Control

The attack on a bar in California follows an attack on some of the very same music fans in Las Vegas.

People attend the procession for Ventura County Sheriff Sergeant Ron Helus.
Ringo Chiu / Reuters

The killing of 12 people Wednesday night in Thousand Oaks, California, represents the second mass attack against gatherings of country-music fans in a little more than a year. Unthinkably, among the patrons of the “College Country Night” at the Borderline Bar and Grill were people who survived the massacre at Las Vegas’s Route 91 Harvest Festival in October 2017.

Gun violence is a hazard of American life whether in city streets or synagogues, but the targeting of country fans involves its own sort of politics. Mass shootings regularly result in calls for gun control, which in turn prompt a response from gun-rights advocates—many of whom listen to and make country music. Taste of Country’s “10 Best Gun Songs” list had plenty of material to work with. The NRA has a branch devoted specifically to strengthening the bonds between the lobbying group and Nashville.

It is that bond that Rosanne Cash spotlighted with a widely discussed New York Times column published after the Las Vegas massacre, headlined, “Country Musicians, Stand Up to the N.R.A.” “Not everyone will like you for taking a stand,” she wrote to her peers as she urged them to support gun control. “Let it roll off your back. Some people may burn your records or ask for refunds for tickets to your concerts. Whatever. Find the strength of moral conviction, even if it comes with a price tag, which it will.”

The year since hasn’t quite seen a revolution in the country’s politics on firearms. Many mainstream artists have stayed vague on the issue, though there have been statements on behalf of gun control from Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Maren Morris, and Jason Aldean, who was performing onstage when the shooting began in Vegas.

Cash is still speaking out. The day after the Thousand Oaks shooting, she tweeted: “12 killed, including the ‘good guy with a gun,’ plus survivors of Las Vegas shooting. We can’t go on like this. I don’t want to hear about thoughts and prayers. I want #GunControlNow.” She followed up with a specific call for a ban on high-capacity magazines.

I spoke with her that same day. This conversation has been edited.

Spencer Kornhaber: I wanted to get a perspective on Thousand Oaks from someone who’s a figurehead in country music and has been vocal about guns.

Rosanne Cash: We should clear up the fact that I’m not a figurehead in country music. In some ways, I’m persona non grata in country music. The Americana community has embraced me; I love country music and used to be part of the mainstream, but not anymore. So I can’t pretend to speak for country artists or that community.

I wish there were more people outspoken about this issue in country music. They all seem afraid to do it because of the blowback, and some of them have sponsorship relationships with the NRA, which is deeply troubling because somehow people have conflated country music, patriotism, and guns. Those threads have to be pulled apart.

Shootings like Las Vegas happen in the equivalent of a musician’s office. That’s where we work. So for people to say, “Shut up and sing; you don’t have a right to talk about this”: Well, it affects us. This Thousand Oaks shooting happened just 15 miles from where I grew up in Ventura, California. To read that some of the survivors also survived Las Vegas, it’s incomprehensible—the trauma these people have endured.

Kornhaber: How do you respond to those who say that guns are part of country music’s identity?

Cash: Look, I don’t vilify all gun owners. I don’t think a responsible citizen shouldn’t have their own handgun or shooting rifle. Most of the men in my family hunt. I don’t have any problem with that. But to be able to have a personal arsenal of military-style weapons is wrong. No civilized society should allow that.

I served for 10 years on the board of this organization [PAX, later renamed and merged with the Brady Campaign] that was devoted to protecting children from gun violence. And I met grieving parent after grieving parent until it was crushing me. These secret pockets of the deepest suffering imaginable are scattered throughout the country, and you can go your whole life without knowing they exist. When a child is killed by random gun violence, it shatters so many lives, from the parent to the family to the extended family to the school to the city. The suffering is multigenerational.

Kornhaber: You tweeted about gun control, and some of the replies pointed out that California already has strong firearm regulations and in fact recently passed some more.

Cash: It’s as if they think California is an island. Chicago has some of the strictest gun laws. People go across the border to Indiana to buy the guns. This should be a federal law.

Kornhaber: The attacker in Thousand Oaks was using a handgun that is legal in California, but also an extended magazine, which may have been banned there.

Cash: Yeah, I don’t know how he got it. Step back and take the wide view and see that we have a systemic problem in this country. These were college kids, right? We use young people as collateral damage for the Second Amendment, and it’s wrong.

Kornhaber: Have country artists taken up your call in the last year to speak out against the NRA?

Cash: No. There’s a lot of fear. Particularly from younger artists who know the blowback they’ll get. Look at the blowback Taylor Swift got for just telling people to vote. I’ve gotten threats for speaking out. Like I said in the op-ed, people wanted to kill us because we spoke out against gun violence. There’s a level of insanity that’s taken root.

I heard from some musicians, privately, after Las Vegas and the op-ed, [who] said, “Thank you; my mind has been changed by this.” But very few came out publicly.

Kornhaber: How have you tackled this issue as an artist?

Cash: There’s a song, on my new record, that I did with Kris Kristofferson and Elvis Costello called “8 Gods of Harlem.” I’d recently read about a kid being killed in Harlem by gun violence, and we played it out like a theater piece: I wrote the mother’s, Kris wrote the father’s, Elvis wrote the brother’s point of view. I think it’s a powerful song. I mean, I don’t know if it’s going to change anybody’s mind—people are entrenched. But you have to say what’s in your heart, don’t you?

Kornhaber: You also sang on Mark Erelli’s recent song about gun violence, “By Degrees.”

Cash: That’s a heartbreaking song. It was subtle and so sharp at the same time. Like, you can learn to live with the worst imaginable possible thing when it’s happening incrementally. You don’t notice until there’s carnage all around you and the fabric of your country is torn apart.

Kornhaber: Your New York Times column mentioned that gun-rights proponents often say your dad, Johnny Cash, wouldn’t be on board with your cause. What’s your line on that claim?

Cash: Oh, it’s so ridiculous, and I never use him to support my own agenda. But he was on the advisory board of PAX, the anti-gun-violence-against-children organization. So, come on. He had hunting rifles and antique Remingtons, but he didn’t have an arsenal of military weapons, and he never believed in that.

Kornhaber: Do you have anything else to say about the fact that country-music fans have been targeted twice in a very explicit way?

Cash: I wish they would take notice and start defending themselves by supporting more commonsense gun laws. Not by adding more guns to the mix.