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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?

Photo by Lauren Pond/Washington Post

6.5) The Montana firefighter I heard of once who was named Charley Stillsmoking…

6) …who could ideally be combined with the story of another Montana firefighter  — the poor fellow was chased by a grizzly, he hid under a pile of logs, and the bear grabbed him and pulled him out by the legs. Mr. or Ms. Grizzly gave one slash with his mighty paw across the firefighter’s chest, then went on his way. This happened, by the way, right in the middle of his fighting a forest fire that endangered my family’s cabin. So thanks for braving those beasts, anyway. I’d like to reward you with a song if I knew how.

Actually, has anyone musically covered the tragedy of that Arizona hotshot crew yet? That could break some damn hearts. We may need to bring Johnny Cash back from the dead for this.

5) The story of the only pair of high heels I ever owned (less than two inches) — I bought them to go on Alyona’s Happy Hour. I wore them on RT probably three times and also to the White House Press Correspondent’s Dinner, then I accidentally left them the backseat of a 22-year-old jazz drummer’s car, a stranger who gave my friend and I a ride back to my home after we had drank whiskey sours with him, playing at being interesting older women who had done things like go to Russia (her) and develop opinions about Gene Krupa (me, those opinions being he was awesome and attractive).

There are an awful lot of songs about shoes, and I feel like those 40-dollar beauties who did so much in their short time on my feet are worthy of that honor.

4) Songs that namedrop other songs are usually terrible earnest, but — front row center at the Ryman Auditorium on New Year’s Eve, Matt Welch playing “Fourth of July” drunk (I’m sorry, it was a strange and memorable night, in spite of the bottle of wine), Bob and I singing Against Me! songs while driving through the backwoods of New Mexico on my first road trip, cousin T. and in our first moshpit together (La Plebe and Jello Biafra!), etc. Lots of possibilities in a life full of the perfect moments with songs.

Music on music can work with the proper amount of overly direct, earnest This Bike is a Pipe Bomb, Defiance Ohio, or Endless Mike and the Beagle Club spirit. (These songs need to be written by a scrappy, local level folk punk/rock band is what I am saying.)

3)

Or any American drug war songs — good try, Lindy, but you just don’t scan as well as you could. I love you to death, Steve Earle, but I want more than “Copperhead Road.”

Ballad of Cory Maye, anyway? Ryan Frederick? All too many cases choose from.

2) The woeful tale of my ancestor Anders Olson who was scalped by hungry, uprising Sioux in Minnesota in 1862. Poor Anders had taken the family to hide in a fort, so the story goes, but he went back to check on the livestock and that’s when they got him. I’m feeling an “El Paso” vibe from this one, at least lyrically. Going back when you shouldn’t and all that sort of thing.

1)  But most of all, give me a moving country tale of Pastor Randy Wolford — this guy — who died from a rattlesnake bite in West Virginia last year. Wolford was a snake handler, which is strange and stupid and fascinating enough without any deaths, but the detail that just kills in this case is that Wolford’s father had already died the same way — in front of him when the boy was just 15. Could be straight, sincere country, but something a little more subversive — that would include the foolishness, and the doomed quality of it all — would be better still. I’m looking at you, Critter Fuqua, Justin Townes Earle, Cary Ann Hearst, someone get on this.

Self portraits 188For the rest of the summer, you can catch me on WPTS 92.1, which is the University of Pittsburgh’s radio station. Every Wednesday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. I try to play a good combination of old time, jug bands, string bands, blues, bluegrass, country, punk, rock, alt this and that, folk, etc. It’s been great fun so far, and people seem to like it. Or, the four libertarians on twitter who have killer taste in music seem to like it.*

You can stream it live on Wednesdays at 3 (though sometimes I start a little late) over this way. During those hours, I tend to tweet @wptsrequest, but I don’t have a lot to work with, so if you want a request, I suggest giving it to me a week early.

It’s a good show, if I say so myself. Even if I am a radio pipsqueak, turns out people are right, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

* Somebody fund this gold and gave us four a radio show. Unpopular politics¹+unpopular music²= $$$

¹ No, Rand Paul does not count.

² No, Mumford and Sons does not count.

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.

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.