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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.

Earlier in the show, Stanley called Nathan, his grandson, and the technical lead singer of the Clinch Mountain Boys, “Ralph Stanley Jr.” Nathan quickly corrected him, saying “I’m your Grandson” and made it clear to the crowd that the rest of the band also knew that this was Pittsburgh (woooo!) and not “somewhere in Ohio?” as Ralph mumbled or inquired as if he didn’t much care. (I know I didn’t).

The Clinch Mountain Boys do carry Stanley. They play lots of songs that highlight their impressive playing and singing, especially Nathan’s a-little-too-smooth style. (Nobody was smooth like Ralph’s late brother Carter, who was silk and butter, but not shiny, uncomfortable vinyl. Carter drank himself to death in 1966).

Christened in his childhood church days — Primitive Baptist, so services only allowed vocals, no musical instruments — as “ the boy with the hundred-year-old voice,” Stanley may not reach the century mark that would officially grant him having grown into that voice. Yet his age and stature surely make more sense when you hear him sing now. And he can sing.

When Stanley sang “Rank Stranger,” I got that elusive, hair-raising feeling that goes beyond just being happy to be there listening. It came when Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua sang “River of Jordan” in the Little Grill in Harrisonburg, VA last year. I felt a ghost of it when my friends Jason and Stephen played and harmonized on “Little Birdie” last summer. But the Stanley Brothers’ arrangement on “Rank Stranger” is something else.  In their version — and the Clinch Mountain Boys echoed this on Saturday — Carter starts clear and strong, “I wandered again/ to my home in the mountains….” Ralph is faintly harmonizing here, but first it’s all Carter on display. His voice is classic country, but not unpleasantly so. He’s sad, earnest, warm — and then Ralph takes the second verse with “everybody I met seems to be a rank stranger” and his eerie, ancient voice brings the song to an entirely different place. The contrast in the brothers’ vocals — familiar and unearthy together — hits your spine, your knees, everywhere.

There’s a reason, you see, that this Oxford American poem from the point of view of God says “I have… a voice like Ralph Stanley.”

That voice is not as strong as it was at his peak, but it’s still there, that high droning power. While Stanley sang “Rank Stranger” I just clutched at the hem of my dress and felt so happy I could melt. In those moments, I want nothing, and it’s wonderful.

He sang “Little Maggie,” and “Mountain Dew,” and “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and other Stanley standbys, too. He didn’t need the lyrics sheet again.

And then he sang “O Death.”

The acapella version from the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack won Stanley a Grammy in 2002 and cemented his place in the history of country music. He earned that decades before, but the delighted reaction to the song — a dirge straight from the hills of Appalachia with unknown origin — is entirely justified. But it’s still strange that it’s so popular. The lyrics, addressed to death, are frightening to anyone who has suffered a moment of existential angst. I don’t like to listen to it very often. I don’t want to sap it of its power. Also it’s really scary.

At the Art’s Festival, when Stanley began “Death/O Death/Won’t you spare me over for another year,” my only concrete thought was a prayer; let people — for once — shut up. There were some “woooo” and “owww” sounds at the start, but I was in the front and in my earshot people shushed the loud folks. For most of the song, most of the people were silent.

In fact, I have never heard that powerful a silence at a concert. The palpable quality of the hush reminded me of the graveyard near my grandmother’s cabin in Montana. The graveyard has a dozen or so folks buried, many of whom had  only wooden headstones. Those names are now rubbed away. All ten or 12 individuals — including a baby lastname, and a man with a great ghost story/cautionary tale about not taking a dead man’s remains — were all buried in the late 19th century. They died of diphtheria, and they were tucked away in the mountains to prevent the disease from spreading.

It’s a strange place, almost pine forest again. The old fence is almost rotted back into the earth. Nature is winning over man, and that provokes big, scary thoughts on being human when you visit. But it’s also a beautiful spot to spend forever, even if your forever means only your bones in the ground. That graveyard also contains the biggest, loudest quiet I have ever heard. The air of the place seems charged (“the very air come and go with me”). I grant that this feeling may come from my own head. I still feel it in my body each time I go there.

That’s what I thought of when Ralph Stanley sang “O Death.”

Ralph, whose hand I shook after the show (I gushed a thank you, and a “you made my whole year!” He might have smiled a little, he certainly thanked me) got a lot of response from that uptight, Pittsburgh crowd. He stood for the whole hour and a half show, even though a chair rested on stage if he had needed it. His face was solemn, which he apparently always was even as a young, shy man. (He used to let Carter talk to the fans.) He mostly clasped his hands like a boy in church, as he waited for his turn to sing.

He tried to demonstrate the old clawhammer power on “Shout Little Lulu.” That was the very first song he learned — his mother taught it to him. On Saturday he had it, then he lost it, and the band, all full of love, covered for him as best they could. And we in the crowd cheered for him. When we kept clapping and encoring, he thanked us all and blew earnest kisses.

Ralph Stanley is not immortal. Ralph Stanley is fading away, as we all will if we’re very lucky.

Ralph Stanley is not a living legend because he is old. You don’t clap for Ralph Stanley because you are kind. He is not a feeble relative to watch over and encourage like a child. You applaud because you are selfishly grateful that Ralph Stanley is here to carry all this music with him. He’s carries it for us, and he has enough of it to give. He calls his grandson his son, and his fingers aren’t nimble enough for the banjo, but on stage he can still go back to his boyhood, Primitive Baptist Church days and stand, hands neatly folded, and do what he was born to do.

This is strangely moving. For Holy Thursday, Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of 12 young detainees in an Italian prison. Two of them were women, one was even Muslim.

And this is still...cool. And it’s also moving. Not all of Christopher Hitchens’ anti-religious pontificating was interesting to me, but his simple profanity, the simple “no, fuck you” as the correct response to Abraham’s order to kill his son Issac speaks volumes. That, offense or not, dear Christians, is what you say to God. That is what you say to anyone who tells you to kill your child. (Jesus, I don’t know, I feel like he had a little more autonomy in the whole crucifiction situation. Maybe I don’t get the trinity.)

Now, a lefty might say that who cares if the Pope washed some damn feet of poor juvenile delinquents — why doesn’t he institute some policies that would help them not be there in the first place? And indeed, the Catholic Church is not necessarily a net gain for the world. But young Roma immigrants in prison are pretty low on the totem pole of life. To see a man who is supposed to have a direct line to God kneeling before people like that seems to be a step in the right direction. And it seems beautiful. Humility in a way that’s not just a lazy word for someone who seems pious.

Besides, it’s easy, I suppose, to sass back to God in theory. Both acts are symbolic after all.

Hitchens’ stance on religion only really offends me when he acts as if non-believers should express nothing but hostility to any religious person they happen to meet. That’s absurd, if only because if I acted that way towards people with whom I disagree on huge issues (oh, say, the Iraq war) I would have exactly three and a half friends. Letters to a Young Contrarian Hitchens is my favorite. It’s from the post-Socialist, pre-9/11 period during which Hitchens’ love of humans, his desire for them to be free (before that was muddled up in his need to smash Islamic theocracies left and right) and his outrage over (his understand of) God as this 24/7 North Korea was highest. And it’s often a strangely beautiful, bracing attitude, even when I don’t always agree. Even his offense over the idea of Jesus sacrificing himself, being tortured, for Hitchens is great in its cussedness. He’s right about so many things, and I’m not an atheist.

I’m not an atheist and I have nothing but sincere feelings when I look at Pope Francis washing the feet of those kids. Even as I overthink those feelings.

The thing is, Hitchens at his heart seemed incredibly optimistic about people. “No, fuck you” in response to a theoretical and theocratic request to kill his children is love. But kissing the feet of kids who may have nobody in the world, who may have done bad things, poor, immigrant, oppressed kids, that’s love, too. Even if you’re doing it because you’re “supposed to”, because some old, stupid book, some ancient voodoo told you to, kissing those feet is love and it’s loving people.

Michael Moynihan’s CPAC 2011 video. See if you give a rip.

Mine from 2012.*

*AKA, the only way one could possibly feel angsty and nostalgic due to missing CPAC. Being a part of Reason TV, even in a very small way, was a big deal. I miss it, I also resent that I never became as awesome at it as Michael Moynihan. Nor did I ever get to say those hallowed words, “For Reason TV, I’m Lucy Steigerwald.” Did I practice saying them into the Reason bathroom mirror on half a dozen separate occasions? I did.

557796_10150978453319886_2000035062_nYesterday afternoon my Aunt Soozy demonstrated heroic effort in order to find me a 3G-able phone spot so I could do a HuffPost Live segment on kids today and big government. We were, I might add, wandering through Northern California’s Avenue of the Giants (redwoods!) when I got the very last-minute email. But hurray, hurrah technology! It worked, thanks to my new phone!

Also present for the satisfyingly shouty encounter was Reason 24/7’s Jerry Tuccille, who I have never met in real life, but is clearly a dear human, based solely on internet interactions and conference calls quips. After I hung up I realized that the token lefty (yes, she was outnumbered, with two libertarians, one conservative  and a seemingly conservative host! So strange, that.) had been none other than Moe Tkacik, long ago of Jezebel when it was better, and more recently of this libertarian-frenzy-inducing Gawker hit piece on Dorian Eletra, the maker of everyone’s second favorite song about Hayek (and there’s really no shame in second place, mind). So that was bizarre.

Still, it worked. I, as a Hit and Run commenter helpfully noted, botched the first question (and I have never been given the first question on anything!) for which the host read an idiotic quote by an Alternet writer full of every libertarian slur-cliche possible. But it — and I — got better, more comfortable, and more argumentative as it went on. Of course, Jerry tended to just underline my stammering points by being more articulate  but the winner there was liberty, dammit.

Watch away, lovely readers. I would have combed my hair a little, but the aim is to be Moynihan on camera. Still working on that.

A vitally important music snob question: which version of “Wagon Wheel” is worse?

A) Generic country-rocker Jeremy McComb’s:

B) Darius “Hootie” Rucker’s:

Trick question, I don’t care because they’re both too boring for me to stay awake. Neither is dynamically bad enough to bleed the ears, they just made a great song significantly less good. Which is a strange thing to do —  to make a song ache less.

Now Laura Jane Grace (formerly known as Tom Gabel) of Against Me! managed to actually cover this now-fratty-douchebag-request song and make it even more gut-wrenching and lonely-sounding. This cover bridged one favorite band to another for me. It is excellent.

But, even though secretly we real music snobs go to Old Crow Medicine Show shows and roll our eyes at “Wagon Wheel” and the hysteria the prospect of it invokes in one-trick fans, please observe how good the original song sounds. And in spite of the wonky lip syncing, how rockin’ this video is, sexy dancing girls, carnival, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings cameo and all:

Still, the winner of all “Wagon Wheel” is this obscure BBC version, with the band cozied up around one mic. The very end cuts off and that drives me nuts, but damn if this version doesn’t make me weep for the lack of Willie Watson in the Old Crow of today.

Check it, and know that no matter how many acoustic guitar dudes cover this song, it will still be great. And more to the point, no matter how I hate the people who go to see Old Crow and drunkenly shout for “Wagon Wheel!”, when the band does play it, the sloshing idiots who only know that one song become a bit more bearable for those four minutes — because we all love that one damn song. And, uh, maybe that’s what liking sports is like all the time, or something. We’re all in it together, is what I mean. Even if they should act like that for “James River Blues” or “Raise a Ruckus” or other, arguably superior songs as well.

No, the real point is that the covers of this song are perhaps like a Taylor Swift song, or something that I kind of like, that’s a little catchy, more fun than average radio noise. Something to which I might listen a few times and like. Maybe if I just heard songs I liked that much, I would think that’s what music sounds like. It would be nice. It would be fun for parties.

But then there’s songs like this, and voices like Willie Watson’s, and that is just another fucking universe from the well-crafted, fun enough stuff — and that’s my music.

That’s the good stuff. That’s the hair-raising stuff.

I am so sorry.Ladies. Am I right, fellows?

I am going to violate feminism right now and tell you to pay attention to several ladies who have nothing to do with each other except their gender and my love for them. Sorry for the tokenism/yay for the greatness.

1) Tavi Gevinson: Ha, laughed some people, Lucy is a god damned hipster after all. Also, she is not a teenage girl, so she is not allowed to be a fan of teenage girls. But, no, Tavi Gevinson is 16 years old and adorable and stylish gave us the best website ever for (technically) teenage girls. It is a web magazine called Rookie. It has a whole mess of stuff, some great, some just okay, but all of it worlds above any content in any print magazine marketed for teenage girls (no offensive, good Sassy, because I don’t remember you).  Tavi, according to her editor’s notes, is also working through ignoring that whole overly self-aware thing where you wonder if you like certain things because they’re cool and hipsterness, blah, blah, blah. Nah, she is genuine, and therefore actually fucking cool. And I am old (relatively speaking) and Tavi is a pipsqueak, but she makes me feel (the way my love Kennedy does) that you don’t have to grow up and wear beige all day so that people take you seriously as an adult. And who wants to do that, anyway? Mismatching, and putting shit you love on your walls and around your house until you die! Woo! (Manic pixie dream girl life crisis? Fuck you, no. The Smiths are pretty great.)

Rookie makes me want to flip off Luddites who scream about the death of print for hours and hours. If you don’t understand why a teenage girl magazine that included “Top Five Cryptoid Crushes” and why Hedy Lemarr  rules in inspired, you were never, ever, ever a weird teenage girl. And that’s okay, but you don’t get it, man.

2) Cary Ann Hearst: Cary Ann Heart of the staggeringly hardcore, cute, and sexy country duo Shovels and Rope. Shovels and Rope who were the best completely mysterious opening band ever. Cary Ann Hearst, who perfectly encapsulates the question usually provoked by male musicians — do I want to be you or marry you? Cary Ann Hearst who is all witty banter and sings all guts. And her hair, her crazy-ass hair. I love this woman. I love her stage persona. I love her chemistry with her (I think) husband Michael Trent. Their records are worth picking up, but their live shows are mandatory. Before you manage the latter, check out this whole series of live performances which I believe will eventually be part of a documentary on the pair. Look here, here, here, and here. Maximum cuteness with her and Michael Trent here. And if she doesn’t break your damn heart and raise the hairs on the back of your neck over here, you have no soul at all.

3) Wendy McElroy: McElroy is the libertarian lady of choice in your life, if you are living correctly. She saw the word “feminist” and was like, yeah, I’ll take that, statists. Her new book, The Art of Being Free, taught me about the best libertarian newspaper dude ever — R. C. Hoiles. It also explicitly looked and talked about the divide between wanting to be both of the two versions of Henry David Thoreau — the one who went to jail so as not to pay a tax that funded war and slavery, and the one who came out of jail, went berry-picking with some boys from town, looked over the rolling Connecticut hills and thought “the state was nowhere to be found.” She knows the conflicts, the warring feelings between just living free and wanting to not help to do evil towards your fellow man and lady. What I mean is, McElroy is the lady who wants to let you be, but she would appreciate you returning the favor.  She is great. Read her.

Subway Guy, plus Spanish anti-smoking PSA

Self portrait on Coney Island

Tourists on the Brooklyn Bridge

 

 

esq-megan-fox-cover-0213-lgEsquire, oh Esquire. You’re the confederate vampire character Jasper in Twilight — compared to  the other characters/magazines (Bella/Cosmo), you are the weightiest, most literary thing.  But there you are, somehow still being terrible and shallow. You’re always there, a reminder of how bad you are, but don’t have to be, but how much better you are than things that are worse.

But first, a list. Cosmo and associated lady magazines think that women are interested in sex, men, make-up, clothes, things that will kill you, and not much else. Esquire, according to their February issue, believes that you, a Man, are interested in the following things:

Megan Fox’s weirdness and her hotness and her sadness (more on that later), Barack Obama’s second term, how the Post Office is the Best Thing in the World and is Also America, Everyone Should Calm Down About Sex Scandals, head injuries in the NFL,  Kevin Bacon wearing a 5,000 dollar suit, Alan Arkin’s life advice, how to make mushroom gravy for your steak, various sexual things, short stories, poetry — one poem is even by a lady, alcohol, which smartphones have the best cameras, the war in Afghanistan, jokes told by scantily clad women, clothing, the World Trade Center, Chris Christie.

Yes, they are selling you lots of shit, same as lady magazines do, but nobody who has given even a cursory glance at both general interest men magazines and lady ones could ever argue against this summary; that men’s magazines, even the most shallow ones, suggest a lot wider, and meatier range of interests than any women’s ones (even more than, say, Bust, which is just a little too into knitting and shit). You, a Man, have a lot of interests. Sexy ladies are just one of them. Sexy ladies are interested in their looks and in men, men are interested in doing things and thinking things and, yes, getting sexy women. This is not new. This is still frustrating.

Thankfully, Esquire also has some really solid examples of appalling sentences and paragraphs. Their fault, intriguingly (again, when contrasted with Cosmo, which is written at probably a fifth grade reading level) is most often that they are pretentious.  And so, presenting the top five most awful piece of writing in the February Esquire —

1) No reaction to the cover profile of Megan Fox could beat Caity Weaver’s blog for Gawker. Her headline, “Megan Fox Speaks in Tongues and is Symmetrical” is an impressively accurate summary of the content. Weaver’s takeaway, that Fox alludes to a lot of weird, fascinating beliefs, mentioning Pentecostal church, leprechauns  aliens —  but the writer — Stephan Marche — is much more interested in her face, is correct. The worst part of Marche’s writing (read it out loud in the most theatrical tone possible):

The symmetry of her face, up close, is genuinely shocking. The lip on the left curves exactly the same way as the lip on the right. The eyes match exactly. The brow is in perfect balance, like a problem of logic, like a visual labyrinth. It’s not really even that beautiful. It’s closer to the sublime, a force of nature, the patterns of waves crisscrossing a lake, snow avalanching down the side of a mountain, an elaborately camouflaged butterfly. What she is is flawless. There is absolutely nothing wrong with her.

As previously noted by The Awl and Jezebel. Marche also calls Amy Adams and Adele and Lady Gaga “perfectly plain.” This is obviously ridiculous. But says Marche, they are basically signs that ugly women have been okayed by society now. That leads him to his thesis — not that Fox believes weird shit and hates her body being used as dissected and that could be interesting, np — that it’s hard out there fore the symmetrical-faced.

Marche also has to put “I” in his lede. Every single profile of a sexy celebrity needs to start with the author sitting next to or across from their subject. It’s very important. It’s key. I am there, the sexy celebrity is there, look how she eats food, how she curls up her feet onto the sofa, look at her.

(All of this makes me realize how God damned good that New York Times Magazine article about Lindsay Lohan actually was.)

2) I am not reading your article about Barack Obama, Charlies Pierce. You are boring. Okay, fine, here’s something:

“The personal victory he won over most of the things that are cheap and lazy and stupid in our politics has given him the power to disenthrall the public from those same things, and to disenthrall his own administration from its notion that there was some good to be found in the people who so fastened themselves to the cheap and the lazy and the stupid, and that there was some patriotism to be found in the politicians who so profited from them. In his second term, it should be Barack Obama’s job to make that personal victory ours as well.”

Shut up.

3) “This isn’t a story about whether we could live without the post office. It’s about whether we’d want to.” Gawker, my God, your talents could be so great mocking this ode to American postal greatness, if only Hamilton Nolan wasn’t a God damned commie he could skewer this absurity so well.

The name Lysander Spooner sure never shows up in this piece. Nor is a query that maybe private folks could do this easier ever answered. It just hangs there for a paragraph. There is just a worried collection of numbers about privatization — we have 110,000 military contractors, private companies house 16 percent of federal inmates — that have nothing to say about efficiency or morality or public versus private. The person who wrote this piece had better be 150 years old, or we are doomed.

4) “He was the Martyred Jesus of Oral Sex with Interns…” No. Fuck you. Stop it. Your writing makes my my teeth itch. And if you’re pleading for a less puritanical America (fair enough!) do not include Eliot Spitzer in your list of fallen, free love heroes. You get to go to prostitutes, or you get to use your powers as attorney general to crack down on sex workers. You do not get to do both and not be awful. (Though, of course, cracking down on prostitution is gross either way. ) Author, your good points are buried under my urge to punch you.

5) Turns out everything else is tolerable. Tom Junod wrote about head injuries in the NFL, and Junod is overrated, but also not so bad. However, I already read about concussions in sports in Rolling Stone, and I cannot read two articles about sports in one day.  Pleasantly enough, many of asides and briefs are even funny. Something about this issue is slightly more charming than usual, but only the bits and pieces — which, as I know from Reason days, take plenty of time to ensemble, too.

And three out of nine poems aren’t bad — that’s a whole lot better than The New Yorker does.

The laundry list of wide, interesting subjects, the occasional humor, the excessive need to be literary about everything (calm down, we know you published Salinger, you don’t need to get so swoony about Morena Baccarin)… Esquire, you try. I want to like you more than I do, every damn time. This is why you’re are on my love/hate list. I want to write for you, but you piss me off at least half the time. You’re like the Red Eye of magazines, but with much, much worse politics. And yet, every time I start to rant about you, Esquire, I get even more depressed that women’s magazines aren’t even close to being as good as you.