In today’s digital age, if you’re friends with someone who hunts live game, chances are you’ve had this experience: scrolling through your social media platform of choice when bam a photo comes across your screen of your compatriot holding up a deer he or she has killed with a rifle or bow-and-arrow. At that moment, you may experience what many others do (especially if you, yourself, are not a hunter). You may balk or cringe to see death so up close.
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But what happens if this friend is not just a pal but someone you follow for entertainment, too? Is it possible to silo these two endeavors, or do you block the artist’s hunting posts outright? Or can you go further inward and wonder why you have this sense of shock from hunting in a world filled with farm fishing, factory farms with chickens lined up in cages, with pigs and cows slaughtered every day for fast food burgers, bacon, and even filet mignon? How is this all rectified?
“I’ve gotten death threats,” says Alabama-born, Washington-based blues musician Benton. “I’ve gotten a lot of people with hateful comments. I have played shows with people who have blocked me when they found out I was a hunter. It’s been pretty brutal at times. But I also understand that people like to talk shit on the Internet.”
While he and Campbell are not alone in their passion for hunting, (Avril Lavigne, Joe Perry and Madonna are also reported hunters, to name a few), Benton is surprised when he sees people who he considers colleagues turn against him after he posts a photo of a successful hunt. Though he says it’s “been a while” since he’s gotten a death threat, he remembers one in particular. A guy messaged him and he was responding to one of Benton’s posts, saying something to the effect, “I would like to come to your house and shoot you.” He asked Benton where he lived and the singer told him the area (though not his actual address) but cautioned the online shit-talker that he’s a “pretty good shot.”
These extreme examples aside, Benton says he believes everyone is entitled to “whatever lifestyle they want to live.” Though he hopes he can be respected for his choices.
“I know where my protein comes from,” he says. “It is 100% organic, it is 100% free-range. The living conditions of these animals is absolutely the most natural it can be. It’s hormone and antibiotic-free.”
Benton can understand why seeing a window into his life as a hunter can be unnerving. He’s even had conversations with himself about whether he should post certain pictures. Yet, he acknowledges, he isn’t a guitar player only, not someone who falls asleep with the instrument and wakes up with it. Though he’s very skilled at the art form, it isn’t his life every moment of the day. Shouldn’t he be allowed to share another major aspect of his day-to-day with people who purport to appreciate him? Further, the hate mail senders, don’t many of them eat meat? And should consumers always trust the FDA and the USDA when it comes to what they put in their own bodies? Or should we look for more natural food sources?
“I think that a lot of people are willfully ignorant of what goes on with factory farming,” Benton says. “That brings me to a bigger point. People are very disconnected from where their food comes from. From the beginning of time, hunting is how the human race survived. Although we’re under much different circumstances today, the principle is still very much the same.”
Benton also talks about the conservation work that is achieved thanks to hunters and hunting. He estimates the vast majority of hunters (98%, he says) care about the outdoors and the natural world. Taxes from bullets and hunting licenses can go toward the conservation of public land. Furthermore, hunters who successfully harvest game have to report those animals so conservationists and biologists can track population changes and make sure numbers are kept intact. Hunting in this way helps to provide sanctuaries and preserve the outdoors for nonhunters.
“A lot of people don’t realize that,” Benton says.
Country artist Campbell is a skilled musician, talented songwriter and avid hunter. Like Benton, Campbell came to the lifestyle later in life. She began hunting a few years ago when her cousin, who runs a nonprofit in Colorado called HuntNDivas, invited her to her clinic where she teaches women outdoor skills, as well as how to hunt and fish. Since then, Campbell says, the outdoors and hunting have “taken over my life.” She did her first big game hunt three years ago in Colorado.
Campbell, who is based in Montana, plans her hunting trips year-round, first thinking about them in July and undertaking them through February. She fishes the rest of the year. Campbell, who didn’t grow up as an outdoors person despite living on an island in the Pacific Northwest, loves knowing how to survive in nature now.
“Every time I go out, I learn so much about animals and survival skills,” she says. “I feel much more capable of handling myself outdoors. My whole personality has grown. It’s the ultimate confidence boost to know I can take care of myself.”
Like Benton, she processes her own meat. When she harvests an animal, she spends hours onsite breaking the animal down to bring home and then spending days processing it for consumption. The process takes hours, days, weeks. But unlike Benton, Campbell, a former C.I.A. trainee who gave up the career to be a songwriter and performer, hasn’t experienced the backlash from online posts and the like.
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m a girl,” Campbell says. “But I have had no negative reaction whatsoever.”
Campbell and Benton have talked about this, too. She’s very conscious of what may be ahead in her journey as a hunter. But it won’t deter her. She’s found something she’s passionate about. As a result, she’s not flippant or reckless about it. She’s thorough, like Benton.
“I’m not just going out there and harvesting a deer and posing,” Campbell says. “I don’t shoot anything that I don’t consume myself.”
Campbell thinks that during the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown many people have taken to hunting and a more survivalist mentality. Many have been confronted with the curiosity of what they would do if the supply chain stopped, if they had to fend for themselves in nature. Today, Campbell also makes her own jams and salsas. She’s a canner. She also likes hunting elk. And while that can be extremely hard to do in the harsh Montana winters, Campbell recently notched her tag on a big one, a “once in a lifetime” hunt. With a rifle, she took down a 340-score elk (about 800 pounds), which is just shy of the 380-or-so-scored North American record. She shot it from some 216 yards away.
“It was the most life-changing thing ever,” she says. “I was speechless.”
That’s when all the “exhausting” work began. She quartered it onsite for about seven hours. She was there working until about 3 a.m. Then over days with several friends, she processed it into edible portions. When it comes to hunting, both Benton and Campbell talk about how the killing and the use of guns are secondary to being outdoors, testing yourself, getting through nature unscathed, experiencing a connection to the outdoors and to history, and achieving a goal. It can be brutal work to hunt, requiring building fires just to stay warm and to thaw out your water rations that freeze up. They can be out there for many hours at a time, tracking game for days, or weeks before they fire a shot.
Additionally, Benton, whose wife is a dietician, talks about the time he was tracking a dream mule deer and when he finally had it in his sights, he didn’t fire his bow and arrow because an “ethical” shot didn’t present itself. Since then, he’s not seen the creature again in the wild. When you take a shot, you want to make sure it’s one that ends the animal’s life but doesn’t cause prolonged suffering. When he does make a shot and harvest an animal, he can end up walking for miles with a hundred pounds of deer meat on his back, which he’ll take home and process and put in the freezer to have protein for months, even years.
“It’s humbling,” Benton says.
As for the connection between music and hunting, one of the biggest confluences is the social aspect. Both Benton and Campbell say they’ve made connections through one that have helped the other. Benton has gone out hunting with audience members who said hello to him after shows, noticing a certain brand of hat or jacket he might be wearing. There is also a shared sense of creativity between artists and hunters, he says.
Similarly, Campbell has planned this April to do a helicopter hog hunt with a nonprofit in Texas called Big Country Veterans. Hogs in Texas are an “invasive species,” she says, so the nonprofit offers veterans a chance to hunt the game from the air. Afterward, Campbell will perform at the fireside music series for the organization. And now that she’s ensconced in the lifestyle, she wants to use her experience to help other women gain the confidence and know-how she has.
“I really hope to be a role model for women in hunting,” Campbell says. “I want to teach other women how to take care of themselves. Especially since music is a public career, I’m hoping those can coincide.”
Benton, too, would like to see these two worlds interact more in his life.
“I would very much like to find a way to bring the two more closely together,” Benton says. “At least as far as what I do personally. I’d love to sing music for outdoor companies or get my music on a hunting show, or anything along those lines. But other than that, I’m just going to keep playing music and keep being in the outdoors and continue to learn about both.”
All photos courtesy Brett Benton and Miller Campbell