Currently viewing the tag: "country music"

The Pittsburgh Three Rivers Arts Festival could book Nickelback from 2017 until the end of time, and I would forgive them, because in 2013 they booked Ralph Stanley, and I got to see him sing, and to shake his hand and fawn over him.

He was frail already, but it was still one of the finest concerts I have ever seen. That voice will not come again.

“Ralph Stanley is not immortal. In spite of refrains — at least half a dozen at the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Arts Festival alone — of his status as a “living legend,” Stanley is 86 years old and frail. One half of the first-generation-of-bluegrass duo The Stanley Brothers, as well as a solo artist in his own right, Stanley might have just a few years left in him. He already can’t play his famous clawhammer-style banjo. On Saturday, his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, gave Stanley a lyrics sheet so he could remember the words to “Angel Band”, a song which someone in the crowd requested. A song he must have sung hundreds of times.”

Read the rest.

I'm the worst professor in history!The most infuriating thing about the 2012 Christian film God is Not Dead is not that it’s an email forward of a film. Nor is it that I am not a Christian, and therefore this movie isn’t for me. No, it’s simply that this doesn’t have to be so appalling, no matter the yay-Jesus sentiment.

There are numerous dodgy side plots including a Muslim girl who wants to find Jesus (and who wears short sleeves and a sloppy hijab, which I suppose is possible, but sure didn’t look like anything I’ve seen), a woman with cancer (and an I <3 Evolution bumper sticker, which sure seems like a Real Thing a Secular Human Would Have) and various other tedious cardboard cutouts in vaguely human shape. The main event, however, is the battle between painfully clean cut college student Josh and his villainous, atheist, philosophy professor played by Kevin Sorbo, who is both the best actor and the least believable person in the movie.

Professor Hercules isn’t content to simply teach philosophy, no, he demands that each member of his class write “God is dead” on a piece of paper and then sign it in order to pass the class. Josh objects to this because he loves Jesus. The thing is, this is a horrible, bullshit assignment particularly in a philosophy class. Atheist boyfriend who was watching the film for camp value said he wouldn’t do such an assignment. I agreed. There’s an obvious principle at stake (and I will grant that some public schools might complete it because they’re wusses, but enough of them wouldn’t.)

This kind of activity would make you a bad teacher, especially in a setting where it’s not about factually right or wrong answers. This is a cheap, plastic way of making the prof the villain. Instead of making the debate truly rhetorical and religious, the menacing secularism has to be browbeaten into everyone. And maybe it’s some kind of metaphor for the world at large, but within a classroom setting, it’s terrible and false.

In short, this makes even the staunchest atheist want to root for Josh for contrarianism’s sake. (I also want him to call Fox News, Breitbart, and Rush Limbaugh and become a national news story, because that would totally work). So, the young, earnest lad decides to fight his professor and debate in front of the class. He’s much too good at it, yet it’s also completely muddled and nonsensical. His metaphor-for-Christians-who-don’t-want-to-make-waves-in-the-secular-world girlfriend is pissed off and dumps him. But Josh soldiers on.

Oh, and professor has a beautiful, Christian girlfriend. She frowns a lot because he’s such an atheist.

The end — spoilers — is the worst. First of all, Josh appears to have converted almost his entire class to Christianity at the end of his final debate. This is, ironically for such an anti-secular movie, pure Hollywood claptrap. Wouldn’t it be more fitting if after class, one shy student came up to him and asked him for more info about Jesus? Then Christians would know that this wasn’t some fairytale confirming all that they believe, but that bringing people over to the Lord takes some work. The film appears to be telling Christians that if they just stand up for God in class, they’ll convert heathens by the dozens. A little humbleness about the state of this here fallen world seems more appropriate and better then this wish-fulfillment.

(I could, and may, write another rant on the difficulties of message movies and making them not Godawful. This relates to libertarian feelings and the several other terrible Christian movies I have watched out of curiosity.)

Prof Hercules had his own reasons to disbelieve in God. However, at the end, to the sounds of the Newsboys’ Christian rock jamz, he gets run over by a car conveniently next to these pastor and his friend who had had car trouble in the earlier film. It was meant to be, see. Hercules comes home to Jesus as he dies in the street. Yep. He converts, thanks to the pastor, but he still dies. And presumably directly in front of his bloodied corpses, the pastor stands in the rainy streets smiling because at least Prof is home now, and someone has even texted him “God’s not dead.” (“God’s not dead — but you are” more accurately.) The pastors or pastor and friend (I forget/who cares) then exchange a line about how “what happened tonight is a cause for celebration. Pain yes, but only for a few minutes. Then, think of the joy of heaven.” Okay, but can you not smile so wide directly in front of the dead man smeared across the street? Can we not immediately be quite so delighted?

The final scenes involve Josh, every other minor character, and someone from Duck Dynasty rocking out to the Newsboys while celebrating his victory over the professor — which, considering that he’s dead, seems a little like adding insult to injury. (Plus, the final scene encourages texting during a concert, which is definitely the work of Satan.)

Horrible, robotic inhuman attitudes permeate this movie, and this ending is the capper. There is no sadness that a man who was just coming around to the Lord, and you know, was a human being in addition to that, is dead. They’re all happy about it. This is one reason why the non-religious find religion — and religious films such as this — cold. How about a little respect for this life, not just pleasure in leveling up to Jesus?

When we’re talking about Jesus, songs are so much different than movies. Suburban Christian rock songs may not be. But painful country music can be beautiful, human, and accessible to the non-Christian just because of the depth of feeling (or even the wrath, if you have the Johnny Cash voice to match God cutting us all down sentiments).

Perhaps because Professor Hercules losing his mother is what made him lose his faith, and this tune is about the very same tragedy, I found myself thinking about “Can The Circle Be Unbroken” after watching God is Not Dead.

First recorded by The Carter Family in 1927, the song has been played many times by many people, but that trio’s version is it for me, because it’s just so brutal. Often in later covers the song is played more as a cheerful, hopeful gospel number. The circle will be unbroken by and by. Everything will be alright.

The Carter Family were not so sure.

AP Carter rewrote a hymn that seems to be a lot more chipper, like the later covers have been. But the Carters’ “Can the Circle be Unbroken” is not joyful or certain, but pleading. The strange, flat Virginia harmonies of Maybelle and Sara Carter make the tale of a mother dying eerie and heartfelt. And in a line that has made me tear up more than once, they sing “Lord I told the undertaker/Undertaker please drive slow/for that body you are hauling/Lord I hate to see her go.”

Maybe — maybe “by and by” they’ll all be together again in heaven. They do believe that. But that doesn’t stop their pain now. It doesn’t even stop the dreadful grief of wanting to keep the body of the loved one. The body is just a vessel, right? The soul is gone to heaven. And they still hate to see what’s left of her go.

That sort of religious feeling — that sort of spreading of a message that says, yes, we’ll probably be in heaven later, but it sure is awful now — is worlds away from the self-satisfaction of God is Not Dead. Religion is supposed to fill those holes in your heart that appear when, oh, say your dear mother dies. I fail to see the good in it if it morbidly cheers the death of someone — even someone who has finally found Jesus.

Last week, I chatted with Zach Fountain and Seth Wilson about our favorite country music, libertarianism, why music is better than politics, the drawbacks of explicitly libertarian music, and how they became libertarians themselves.

There are lots of important other songs I should have referenced more specifically, questions  should have asked, but I was distracted by the fact that I had just broken a lamp, and my general excitement over the real life existence of Zach and Seth!

Next time maybe we’ll talk about Bigfoot.

Seth Wilson: blogger at cultwestern.com; @TheJackalopeTX
Zach Fountain: songwriter, blogger at rushmorebeekeepers.com; @rbeekeepers

Zach’s libertarian and otherwise picks:
Hayes Carll – “KMAG YOYO”
Jonathan Richman – “You’re Crazy For Taking The Bus”
The Carter Family – “Single Girl, Married Girl”
Bascom Lamar Lunsford – “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground”
Kacey Musgraves – “Follow Your Arrow”
Steve Earle – “My Uncle” (Gram Parsons cover)

Seth’s libertarian and otherwise picks:
Corb Lund – “Counterfeit Blues”
Corb Lund – “Gettin’ Down On The Mountain”
Corb Lund – “Expectation and the Blue”
Ian Tyson – “Ross Knox”
New Riders Of The Purple Sage – “Henry”
Merle Haggard – “Big City”
Wayne Hancock -” Johnny Law”

Lucy’s libertarian and otherwise picks:
Steve Earle – “Copperhead Road”
Asylum Street Spankers – “Winning the War on Drugs”
Bob Dylan – “Masters of War”
Old Crow Medicine Show – “I Hear Them All”
Old Crow Medicine Show – “Alabama HighTest”
Jim Jackson – “Bye Bye Policeman”
Peter Rowan – “Ruby Ridge”
Johnny Cash – “Folsom Prison Blues”

Last week, I was so ready to write a thoughtful, invariably inside libertarian baseball response to Jeffrey Tucker’s piece in the The Freeman. Or I was going to write about horrible police brutality for the various outlets who enjoy that sort of thing. But then my Montana-dwelling aunt called, and we discussed the imminent spring, and the greatness of the Coen Brothers — with me evangelizing about Ralph Stanley, and both of us agreeing that the Greenwich Village-style of folk was not the platonic ideal, being a little too earnest English balladish, and not high and lonesome enough.

And then of course politics faded from my soul, as it does. I subscribe to the Tucker and the Radley Balko school of politics (and, really, most of the Reason writers agree) which says that it is a vile thing, and the victory of libertarianism would mean an ability to ignore politics without feeling as if you were betraying your imprisoned and oppressed fellow man. I just wish I knew how to channel a career into dissecting how Ralph Stanley sounds, as opposed to how endlessly sick the prison state makes me.

I had a lovely birthday on the 8th. I had lovely people come to visit me and gather around. But before I went to my own party, my mom and I went to a church down in Pittsburgh that was doing their monthly shapenote singing sing.

Shapenote singing was a 19th century method of teaching folks who couldn’t read music how to do four-part harmony. There are some great modern and older recordings of it on the internet — One of my favorites, from the famous Harry Smith anthology of folk music, is below:

At its best, shapenote singing has am unpolished eerie quality that undermines and delightfully clashes with its stodgier sort of choral aspects. Instead of just beauty, it has roughness and resonance. Like the voice of Ralph Stanley (who grew up in a Primitive Baptist Church, which bar instruments) sometimes does, the strongest shapenote singers have this quality that can only remind me of bagpipes. It just has this huuuugh gut thing.

Mom, who used to play the saxophone and plays piano and guitar, knew enough music to be baffled. I didn’t know enough to know where to begin or how to follow, plus read, plus hear other people, plus hear myself.

In our post-O Brother Where Art Thou?, post-Mumford and Sons world, I was not surprised that the demographics of the singers were middle age nearing old age and younger, scruffier types. I was not the only singer with a pierced nose, for Christ’s sake.

There was someone who swore, and people who seemed devout Christians. The most powerful, ceiling plaster-endangering singer was a middle aged woman with long brown hair who came from God Only Knows, Alabama. She was all down home encouragement and June Carter sass.

Here’s a more recent kind of shapenote singing — less weird and ancient, more just loud:

Though the traditional text, The Sacred Harp, contains mostly songs about Jesus, and other folk I don’t know well, shapenote singing is so perfectly American and strange, and I think it’s wonderful. It is not mine, but I like to borrow it.

My birthday party had a cacophony of people I love very much talking too loudly in too small a space. It was fun, but the diminishing returns of socializing were lurking at its loudest points.

However, S.T. and J.K., musical friends from Richmond and Baltimore respectively, decided to crash and give me musical celebration. When they play together, they are called the Dirty Mallards. I drank my first moonshine in their presence one summer day in 107 degree Richmond weather. From them I learned that “Tommy” without clarification means Tommy Jarrell, the great North Carolina fiddler.

S.T. and J.K. are more libertarian than not. J.K. is more personally conservative, but he has recently attempted to go off the grid, internet-wise, and I have to assume the National Security Agency is a big reason. When I first met S.T. he seemed to have stepped out of the pages of Tony Horwitz’ Confederates in the Attic, for all that implies about his views. And that’s not all wrong, but it’s not everything about him. He’s a student of history — and some of his conclusions I might disagree on — but he’s incredibly well-read, as well a an instinctual, leave me alone libertarian. They are both good people who provided with with the best birthday present since my cousin T. got Jello Biafra to insult capitalism just for me.

Now, my one association with Jeff Tucker is that he is endlessly optimistic about the non-state. Culture, markets, music, fast food, all of these do and will continue to bring freedom and choice to people. All of this is beautiful and chaotic instead of planned from above.

So when Tucker uses his “brutalist vs. humanitarian” libertarian metaphor in The Freeman essay, he almost pulls it off. The brutalists stripped down architecture to its cold, practical essence. Brutalist libertarians do the same with their liberty. They say, I have my freedom to be as awful as possible, you have yours, we need not encourage social goodness and kindness and need not discourage racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. within libertarianism.  If it ain’t the state, who cares! Is that really what he thinks will happen in Libertopia? Is that what he thinks will happen without an implied litmus test? Does he think that defending pure liberty is implicitly saying we desire to live in small, mean tribal societies? If Tucker truly believes most, or even a lot of people would pick that, he is not the optimist I thought he was.

Though Tucker does not say as much, and his version of this question is better than any of the ones I have seen recently, the artificially of the two camps still gives me a moment’s pause. Are libertarian J.K. and S.T. and their politically incorrect jokes humanitarian or brutalist? How about my conservative-leaning libertarian father? My an-cap atheist friend who professes to hate feminism, who I recently saw defend the Duke porn star from another Facebook commenter who was calling her trash? My Christian an-cap friend with whom I disagree about gender roles and religion, and who has argued with me about that long into the morning?

Even in Tucker’s Libertopia, I would not surround myself only with the angels of tolerance who are always saying just the right things. So, I certainly don’t want to discount flawed creatures before we get to that free land. We live now in a world in which minorities of ALL stripes are put upon by the state: Religious weirdos, the peaceful, bunker-dwelling racists, the cultists, or for fuck’s sake, just the people who maybe don’t want to use college liberal terms to filter the world. I want them all in my tent as well. I want them if only because more people than any libertarian would wish think they are right-wingers — inherently suspicious, likely bad, for wanting less or no government at all.

Libertarianism and friendships both have a sort of Miller Test. Or, rather you “know it when you see it” — know the good people you want in your life, or in your fight for freedom. I can’t tell you who they are for you, and you can’t tell me either.

I think I know good people who are are not PC and who are also a net gain for liberty in the world. This is not to say that we can’t say, as individual libertarians, or as groups, say we prefer tolerance of gay people to not tolerance. This is only to say that the divisions between libertarians, like anywhere else, are rarely as purely simple as paleo vs. cosmo, conservative vs. liberal, or humanitarian vs. brutalist.  Tucker is, again, incredibly deft and fair in his piece. He doesn’t seem to be trying to kick out anyone at all. But the two camps idea still didn’t seem real enough to justify it as an exercise. There is a danger in making people, even just libertarians, seem that A) or B).

I wanted to write a political response to Tucker’s piece. I was distracted by the pleasures of voluntary culture, and life, and music instead. Hopefully that’s still the point.

Washington, DC

Washington, DC

Welcome to The Stag Blog’s new series dealing with portrayals of the end times through movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we may branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guests posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries over alien invasion.

Do you fear this man’s invention
That they call atomic power
Are we all in great confusion
Do we know the time or hour
When a terrible explosion
May rain down upon our land
Meting horrible destruction
Blotting out the works of man

There are a lot of songs about nuclear war, more than I realized — a few of them passed by in nuclear war documentaries, and my Cold War history class senior year of college. But the first I heard, and so far the most epic is Alabama country-gospel brotherly duo the Louvin Brothers’ original composition “Great Atomic Power.”

There are two versions. Above is the more bluegrass-tinged one.

This song is awful, and wonderful, and creepy-Christian exploitative. It says the times are scary and uncertain, we might get nuked at any moment by the dirty Ruskies, but good news, there’s Jesus. Jesus will have your back, come mushroom cloud or nuclear winter. Indeed, that’s the only option available for those who want everlasting life free of the horror of man’s latest bad idea:

There is one way to escape it
Be prepared to meet the lord
Give your heart and soul to Jesus
He will be your shielding sword
He will surely stay beside you
And you’ll never taste of death
For your soul will fly to safety
And eternal peace and rest

It’s certain, it’s even cheerful, but then it ends with:

When the mushrooms of destruction
Fall in all it’s fury great
God will surely save His children
From that awful awful fate

It’s got the subtlety of Bert the Turtle singing “Duck and Cover.” It’s got the soothing spiritualism of  Jesus Camp, and is just as likely to traumatize the children. 

Except that it’s also pure poetry and strangeness. And that ending, well, Charlie and Ira sound convinced, but “God will surely save his children” sounds just a little hopeful, just a little desperate when you think about it. They believed it, but they were making damned sure all the same. This meeting of old-school fire and brimstone and new seemed a bizarre concept when I first heard it, but it works.

Any other favorite end of the world songs?