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Haircut

She cut her hair when they broke up
They heard this cut in the book of judges
They say she looks brand new when she walks down the street
And when she picks up a bottle of milk in the store
And reads the label
You can tell everything in the milk is different.

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Salon de la Guerre’s 20th album, Air Is A Public Good, hits the music services today. It’s my first album dedicated entirely to country music. You can now find it on Amazon, iTunes and Spotify. Enjoy!

And if you’d like a more long-winded explanation about why I made a country music album (it has nothing to do with “Old Town Road,” no disrespect) please feel free to read my post on the matter from last week.

The Second Amendment was created so that the newborn United States could avoid creating a hateful standing army and instead turn domestic security over to militias. The amendment had little to do with the unhindered gun rights of an individual (lots of gun control existed back in the late 18th century, just as it does now, as every literate person knows). And yet today, a Fox News host brought us full circle, demanding we create a standing army of ex-military people in public places to thwart mass shooters so we won’t have to challenge the imagined right of rageaholics to possess mass murder weapons (or the gun industry’s right to sell them). So we are now using the amendment as an excuse to enact the very thing it was meant to avoid … so we can protect the misinterpretation of those who can’t read the entire sentence.

If you are trying to make sense of two mass shootings in a weekend and you want to see change, I applaud you, but there’s bad news ahead. As we who have been fighting this issue since Sandy Hook know, in the next few days people you know and love and respect are going to start telling you horrible lies about this issue. They are going to tell you 2.5 million people used their guns defensively last year (not true, not even possible). They are going to tell you mass shootings are often stopped by good guys with guns (not true).

They are going to say more Americans own guns now, which is why crime has dropped (household gun ownership has shrunk to a third of Americans, and if you think a shrinking number of Americans are stopping most of the nation’s crime, you have serious math and logic problems).

You are going to hear that armed Americans are the foundation of social stability because they can rise up against tyranny (an idea that, given the strength of our military, ranges from the ridiculous to the treasonous, since it suggests a single nonconformist is allowed to nullify laws and societal changes he doesn’t like).

You are going to hear that assault weapons either don’t exist or that they are the same things as six shooters. Actually, they were defined by law in the 1990s; they have higher muzzle velocity and can be easily converted to full auto with a few tweaks, something gun nuts like to laugh about on YouTube as they gaslight the rest of us and say “No such thing.”) You are going to hear that the Founding Fathers didn’t want gun restrictions. That is categorically false. The people who say otherwise learned history in a backyard from a person with anger management problems, not from actually reading history.

They will also tell you gun control laws don’t work (just because you don’t understand the way they work or don’t like the way they work doesn’t mean they don’t work).

People you love tell these lies for obvious reasons: It helps them defend their choices and behavior. Nobody wants to be told they are doing something harmful, especially if they were raised to think it was right. If they were to change, it would hurt their identity and it would hurt their parents. I have seen some people change on this issue but many people can’t because the psychological wound it would cause is too deep. But this is where we are: We call murder weapons defense weapons even though it is an insult to the concept of physics. Almost every gun fan talking point is a lie rooted in the real defense mechanism–the psychological one.

The NRA fought its war for “gun liberation” (i.e., murder weapon marketing) on the ground–in the state legislatures, places in which most people would be at a loss to name their representatives and where lobbyist bullying is greatly effective. But since Sandy Hook (and especially since the Parkland, Fla., school shooting), there is now a gun sense lobby and it has made representatives increasingly accountable to it–or at least not as totally beholden as they once were to weapons manufacturers.

If you are feeling distraught and feel like you need to do something, you can: march in any anti-gun marches you see planned near you. And give money to Everytown for Gun Safety, Giffords or Sandy Hook Promise. These groups are on the front lines and have thrived despite death threats, disinformation campaigns, online bullying and harassment from the “good guys with guns.” The wheel is turning slowly, but it is turning. I have personally seen stubborn people switch sides on this issue and embrace gun sense, and that has given me a great deal of hope as these horrific news stories unravel. There is no need to think we are going to have to forever endure putting our families–our children, wives, husbands, mothers, sisters, fathers–at risk of sudden horrific death to satisfy a value system based entirely on falsehoods.

I am almAir Is a Public Goodost done recording my latest album, Salon de la Guerre’s Air Is a Public Good, which I hope to release in a month or so. The likely surprise to my fans, such as they are, is that this is my first album totally devoted to country music.

Longtime listeners might know that I’ve trodden these paths before on songs like “Alice Ploughshare,” but this is the first time I’ve devoted an entire album to the genre.

Like a lot of rock fans, I was hostile to country music for a long time. I grew up in Oklahoma, where C&W tunes abounded–most of them wretched. I absorbed some of my father’s affection for the Waylon & Willie album, but that’s as far as it went. The Urban Cowboy soundtrack was catchy when I was 10, but eventually I turned 11.

Then I went to college in Texas, however, and I was quickly informed by knowledgeable people that there was great country music everywhere and that I was an uninformed dodo who had simply missed it listening to bad radio (a rookie mistake for a young arts writer). I was instructed by mentors to seek out the good stuff. I figured out Kelly Willis and Mary Chapin Carpenter and that led me to Lucinda Williams and David Allan Coe. I pulled out Willie and Johnny Cash again. I dutifully listened to the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

But honestly, I still listened to country the way a professor studies 40,000-year-old bone flutes. I appreciated the music–started to see the common sources whence folk, blues and country sprang–but never actually craved hearing it the way I did proto-punk, classic rock, jazz, folk, hip-hop, classical, Tejano, salsa … almost anything else.

Then, dear reader, I say shamefacedly that I finally had my eyes opened the same way most people did in the last 20 years: by the fucking O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Yes, it’s really that prosaic an explanation. I cannot tell you how embarrassed I was to suddenly come out of my coma of snobbery with the help of a popular movie soundtrack, but there it was: the omnipresent music of my youth in a Southern state suddenly made sense. Everything snapped into place. Emmylou Harris. Alison Krauss. Gillian Welch. The Stanley Brothers. I finally heard the brilliance of the close harmonies, the structural brilliance of the chord and key changes in the songwriting (at least the good songwriting). More important, I came to understand the simplicity of the communication in this folk medium–that the horrific twanging I associated with this music was an unnecessary, disposable gimmick and that the subject matter was more fluid and nuanced than I had given it credit for. I went back to Lucinda. I found Neko Case. Hank Williams! I figured out Hank Williams!

Worrying I might get sidetracked into somebody else’s idea of tradition and mythology, I eschewed mentors this time and negotiated my own path through the history, focusing mostly on three acts: the original Carter Family, Gene Clark (in his post-Byrds career) and Gram Parsons (both within and outside his famous bands).

I learned about Maybelle Carter’s revolutionary guitar style, in which the melody is thumbed on the bass notes while the fingers tickle the chords, and Sara Carter’s simple, unadorned call, which seems like non-singing to the uninitiated. When you first hear “I Never Will Marry” by the Carters, you feel like you’re hearing a lot of hoarse people from the ’30s singing into a can. You’re not ready for how much the song resonates over time and grows in poignancy. By the time my son was born, I was singing this to him to put him to sleep. (He’s allowed to marry if he wants to.) On the song “Wabash Cannonball,” you can hear the DNA of countless singers in Sara Carter’s delivery (Lucinda Williams comes to mind again).

From Gram Parsons I learned the simplicity of the music could be preserved while the subject matter grew more mature and even incorporated harder electric instruments without compromising the musical values. The close harmony singing and soul accents of the first Flying Burrito Brothers album are a great blueprint for what this music can be when it’s allowed to grow.

Gene Clark, of course, was the first guy to leave the original Byrds. His solo career was sickeningly neglected as he moved away from folk-rock into country, working both on his own and with banjo great Doug Dillard. He eventually had to exploit the Byrds name again to keep eating (before he died in 1991). But Clark’s song “Polly” from Dillard & Clark’s second album, 1969’s Through the Morning, Through the Night, is one of the most perfect songs you’ve never heard. The first time I heard its harmonies, I thought I’d cracked open the Matryoshka doll containing Linda Ronstadt, Fleetwood Mac (the Lindsey Buckingham version), Walter Egan, the Eagles–all the L.A. studio rock of the next decade. All due respect to Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, but their version of “Polly” is horribly stiff and mannered by comparison. Clark’s delivery is simple and pained without using any tricks and so intimate that you almost feel like you’re invading the guy’s privacy just by listening to it.

What the Hell Has This Got To Do With Salon de la Guerre?

OK, I figured out country is great, but why am I making a country album?

Well, for one thing, I’m always writing music, even when I go on walks, keeping a list of chord changes locked in my head (I often have to get an idea recorded onto my phone recorder before I forget it. You’d laugh your ass off hearing me singing these hundred or so musical ideas onto tape, many of which I can barely understand on second listen). In any case, a lot of these bits I culled from the tape I realized just wouldn’t lend themselves to rock songs.

Second, once I figured out what Maybelle Carter was actually doing and how it informed all country music down to the present day, I asked myself a very simple question: I wonder what it would sound like if I tried her style on a guitar tuned the way Sonic Youth tunes it. Many of their strings are tuned identically, giving the notes more harmonic power and even changing the timbre of their instruments. So I sat down one afternoon and retuned my guitar to line up some of those strings. Later, I put the guitar in open C tuning (you can look that up). The thumb went to work. The fingers tickled out the Sonic Youth harmonics. Bang! Three new songs in a couple of hours.

The third motivation came from my intense curiosity about the banjo: Specifically, could I play one? I had never tried, yet the finger-picking style set down by John Fahey is something I’ve been aping since I first picked up the guitar. I was giddy thinking that I might be able to pick up a banjo immediately and make something. So I bought one. And though I’m no Earl Scruggs, I did get five new songs out of the thing the second time I picked it up.

Lastly, I had a simple question about myself: Did I have country music in my veins all along? This stuff was in my background my entire life. I might have hated it, but I wondered if my body had picked up the reflexes anyway and made this stuff somehow second nature to me. Could I do it without parody? Without twang? Without sounding like the feelings were false? I wanted to know.

In case you’re interested in more technical stuff: I played three of the songs on this album with electric guitar, played one song on acoustic guitar song and added banjo to five other songs. The rest of the music was synthesized on GarageBand–all the percussion, bass and piano (I do play the tiny one-hand piano on my tiny phone, though. I’m sure it would look ridiculous to an observer).

So here I add one of the first completed songs from the album, “Mirror, Mirror on the Floor” in the open C tuning. Enjoy.

 

American BanjoI have just released my sixth novel, American Banjo, as an e-book on Amazon.com. I plan to release the novel in paperback version, hopefully later this year, along with all my other novels.

The plot: An heirloom Federal-style banjo clock build in 1804 is passed down through eight generations of a secretive family of ultra-high-net-worth Americans. Built shortly after the American Revolution, it has come to mean something different to all its holders. To Sandra Eccles, one of the family’s daughters, the clock may prove the guilt or innocence of not only a few founding fathers, but also her storied grandfather, who made munitions in World War II. His possession of a painting that might have been stolen from a Jewish family by the Nazis leads Sandra to try to uncover a puzzling skein of relationships and help her determine how good her forebears really were and what they were after.

I piece together the story line from various “diaries” of the characters, a cast from different times and places in American history, whose dreams and aspirations and ethics are different, even though the ways they aspire are somehow the same.