Country music star Jason Aldean is funding a program to help heal survivors experiencing trauma after the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival, where 58 people were killed after a gunman opened fire in October 2017 at the Las Vegas event.
The six-day Triumph Over Tragedy workshop, led by The Onsite Foundation, will take place November 4-10 at Onsite’s emotional wellness retreat center in Tennessee and host 25 survivors free of charge. While the Onsite Foundation offers a gamut of trauma-informed counseling and programs, this is the first specifically designated for those who were at the country music fest and is timed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the deadliest shooting in modern US history.
Aldean was performing on stage when the gunfire broke out. When the band received back their instruments two weeks later, there was a bullet lodged in his bassist’s guitar. He has since found ways to connect with his fans both quietly—visiting some injured festival attendees in the hospital—and vocally—addressing some 500 members of his “Route 91” family” from the stage at a show one year later in LA and during his return to Las Vegas in 2019.
His backing of the Triumph Over Tragedy program comes as the Onsite Foundation, which focuses on marginalized communities, is seeing a swell of support both from the music community and other industry leadership. Laura Hutfless, co-founder and CEO of Nashville-based entertainment marketing agency FlyteVu and an Onsite board member, was elevated to president of the foundation this summer and wants businesses to know the door is open for partnership and collaboration.
New board members include music industry executives Candice Watkins, VP of marketing at Big Loud Records, and Ken Levitan, founder and co-president of Vector Management. Drybar founder Alli Webb; Crystal Woodman Miller, author, Columbine survivor and Onsite’s Survivor Advisory Council chair; and Jennifer Tate, chief marketing officer at Cracker Barrel, were also named to the board.
“I have personally experienced the healing that comes from access to trauma-informed tools and resources, and I believe everyone should have the same opportunity regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or socioeconomic status. Mental health illnesses are quickly becoming the country’s worst epidemic, and I am proud to represent this wonderful organization,” says Hutfless, who lost her partner Austin Eubanks, a Columbine survivor, to an overdose in 2019.
“Unresolved trauma is not over in six months or a year or even 10 or 20 years. It’s something people live with, and they need tools to process,” she adds. “And unfortunately what were seeing with mass shootings is a lot of money gets funneled to a community or a city when the shooting happens, and those organizations that are given the money to distribute are incentivized to distribute it quickly… there is no plan for the long-term effects of trauma.”
FlyteVu’s offices were housed in the same building as Aldean’s in 2017. “I remember the team coming back, and their equipment being shipped back with bullet holes in them,” says Hutfless. “It changes you, and the industry was being changed as a whole in Nashville with security measures being put into place and therapy dogs coming into the office. It rocked my world. I wasn’t there, but you feel it from your whole community.”
After the Onsite Foundation received overwhelming feedback on the need for a workshop devoted to Route 91 survivors, Hutfless reached out to Aldean and got an immediate response. “I told them the need, what it would cost, and it was a quick yes,” she says. “There was no hesitation.”
She did not comment on whether or not Aldean is planning to make an appearance at the workshop, which includes the communal creation of a song and additional musical therapy during an online aftercare portion of the program with Tyler Hayes Rueff, a Nashville-based songwriter, producer and founder of Therapeutic Songwriting.
“Music has healing powers,” Hutfless says. “I work in the music industry and I totally believe that, so I love that it’s part of the workshop. And of course being right outside Nashville, we have some great songwriters we can work with.”
The Onsite Foundation is also newly partnering with MusiCares, the nonprofit arm of the Recording Academy, to launch “Key of C,” a workshop for music industry professionals experiencing trauma and sense of loss from Covid-19. The program is already more than half full one week after it was announced.
Aldean declined to be interviewed for this story, preferring to keep the focus on the program and its benefits to other survivors. But Terri Davis, a Route 91 survivor who participated in a general Triumph Over Tragedy workshop last year, is not surprised he’s stepping up.
“Jason and his crew have always been super supportive. They came back to Vegas and visited people in the hospital, and I was at their show with a bunch of other survivors just prior to the one-year mark and he called out to us and called us his Route 91 family,” Davis says. “I don’t even know how to express how much it means that he sees us as family, and that he supports us and we support him. When he came to Vegas two years ago for three nights, his crew was hugging and crying. That was a watershed moment.”
Davis says her experience at Triumph Over Tragedy continues to elevate her healing, particularly the message that it’s OK to have hope again. “That’s one of the biggest things I took away—that there is hope. Because whether it was Route 91 or Columbine or the Aurora movie theater or a church, you don’t go through a shooting and feel that there is any hope. And then they gave us this understanding that, Yes there is. That was the biggest life changer for me,” she says.