This Week in Outlaw News...
"Where were you when you saw the mugshot?"
It's out there. The shot seen 'round the world. The T-shirts are being printed and shipped. Coffee mugs. Posters. Hats. Mug merch.
The Trump Team is fundraising off of it, and there are no doubt Democrats pasting it up in emails asking for support in beating back the devil. Memes were being posted around the world within nanoseconds of its release. And by God, I'm just shallow enough to pile on with the rest of 'em.
Take a moment and remember the media's post-mortem after the last couple of elections. All the somber self-reflection on how the constant news coverage only served to amplify Trump's message. How his ability to control the narrative 24/7 strengthened his "brand," whatever that is, and even with negative coverage, his constant presence boosted his popularity. Never again! so said the media. Even Fox News at one point, spurned their former sweetheart. (Some of this was due to the legal costs of keeping Trump as a romantic partner.)
If there was still such a thing as irony, his mug may become as ubiquitous as the Chairman Mao poster was at one time.
"But I digest..." as Brent Terhune says.
Failed DPS Chief Gets a 45K Raise.
In the most depressing news of the week, Texas DPS Director Steve McCraw refused to answer questions about the mistreatment of migrants and the separation of apprehended family members. In a meeting before the TX Public Safety Commission where he was scheduled to give a report on "Operation Lonestar" and the accusations of abuse made by multiple whistleblowers, he just shrugged off the questions. "When asked by a commissioner if he planned to talk about Operation Lone Star, McCraw replied simply: 'No.'"
During an earlier Public Safety Commission meeting regarding the Uvalde massacre, a surly McCraw defended his agency. When pressed about his own job performance, he made the case that-
"...failures uncovered to date did not warrant his removal while saying he was not shirking from accountability. Uvalde families bristled and asked how DPS could not have failed, given that troopers were among the first on the scene.
“I can tell you this right now, DPS as an institution, right now, did not fail the community,” McCraw said. “Plain and simple.”
Well OK, if you say so, Steve.
McCraw, as you will recall, was director of the DPS during the botched response to the Uvalde School shooting. Director McCraw at one point said he would resign if his troopers had “any culpability” in the failed police response to the Uvalde school shooting in May. The DPS "good guys with guns," (most of them having had active shooter training,) showed up within minutes that day. The Texas House of Representatives Investigative Committee on the Robb Elementary Shooting reported that “They failed to prioritize saving the lives of innocent victims over their own safety." The Texas Tribune famously noted that the 376 law enforcement officers on the scene that day (91 of whom were under McCraw's command) were "a force larger than the garrison that defended the Alamo." And yet, according to the report, there was poor leadership and communication exhibited that led to the 73-minute delay in reaching the shooter. Notably, one of McCraw's directors was cited as having been responsible for false and misleading information that was passed on to the governor and general public, information characterizing the police response in a positive and heroic light.
A couple of officers have been fired. More are still under investigation. A legislative report condemns law enforcement's response. If that isn't "any culpability," what the hell is?
And guess who, rather than resign, this week got a raise worth $45,000? Let me see... add the 4, carry the 2, subtract any culpability... that brings his salary up to $345,250. This guy has "future Republican governor" written all over him now, don't he?
Finally, there might be some good protest music coming back
A few weeks ago, the country's rage o' the day was country singer Jason Aldean's music video "Try That In A Small Town." The us vs. them anthem celebrating the gun totin' life of country living, where Aldean challenges city carjackers, flag stompers, and sucker punchers to try that in a small town.
See how far ya make it down the road
Around here, we take care of our own
You cross that line, it won't take long
For you to find out, I recommend you don't
Try that in a small town.
Jason tells us in song that he's got a gun that his grandaddy gave him. So, you know. Beware, you danged old soshulist city slicker.
Much was made of this provocative, in-your-face, own-the-libs little ditty. (Own-the-libs is practically becoming its own genre.) Many pointed out that Aldean was literally performing on the Las Vegas concert stage in 2017 when a gunman opened fire and killed 60 people and wounded over 400 more right in front of him. Most wondered why Jason didn't whup out grampa's blaster and with his "good old boys, raised up right" and dispatch that murderer? Other folks pointed out that Uvalde is a pretty small town, so how did that happen there, Jason?
But I digest, as Terhune said.
Very recently, a young man out of Farmville, Virginia posted a song about the despair and struggles of the working class. Oliver Anthony's "Rich Men North of Richmond" went viral so far and so fast that it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Anthony is the first artist ever to launch atop the Billboard Hot 100 with no prior chart history in any form. It was officially released Aug. 11, and drew 17.5 million streams and sold 147,000 downloads in the tracking week ending Aug. 17. This put him on top of Taylor Swift, so to speak. Unlike Aldean's disturbing video, replete with images of vandalism and rioting (some taken from foreign stock image sites,) "Rich Men North of Richmond" is nothing more than a camera shot of Anthony standing in a wooded area belting out his song, his dogs at his feet.
Shocked by his own overnight success, he has reportedly turned down several multi-million dollar offers for recording and performing. He currently has a small team of friends managing his bookings and finances. On social media, he wrote: 'I don't want 6 tour buses, 15 tractor trailers and a jet. I don't want to play stadium shows, I don't want to be in the spotlight. 'I wrote the music I wrote because I was suffering with mental health and depression.'
The song hews to the tradition of pure folk music - simple, straightforward, and authentic. There are also underlying political undertones reminiscent of Guthrie, Dylan, and Seeger.
But there's a caveat. Some left-leaning critics found a couple of references in his lyrics problematic. Lines such as
“Your dollar taxed to no end ’cause of rich men north of Richmond,”
as well as
“the obese milkin’ welfare”
have been seen as right-wing and/or racist dog whistles. It should be noted that the criticism that I've seen posted is mostly by the elite press on the left.
Ironically, when I was searching for some links to Anthony's video, two of the first things that popped up were those "first listen to the song" type amateur music reviews. (YouTubers and TikTokers who video themselves as they watch something for the first time and spontaneously react to it.) Both of the reviews were done on-camera by black listeners. Both loved it - without reservation. The comments on the reviews were effusive and heartfelt:
I’m a 55 year old black USMC veteran and high voltage lineman of 28 years, this song has changed my whole outlook. I believe it is God inspired. It changes so much, it changed how I think of my white co-workers. I always thought they had it easier. Now I know we’re in the same boat. This young man is not singing to white people , he’s talking to us all. “ for people like me, and people like you.” That is Gods love. - @jamesclark4523
Mailman here, I feel every ounce of this song just like you sister. The people need to unite against the elites who rule over us. - @SJ-nd8rz
You got this old formal US navy vet and Trucker tearing up. Nothing wrong with you getting emotional. This song pulls at your heart and makes you think. I so sick of both sides . These politicians turning us against each other. We have to stop letting them do this to us. You got another subscriber because you have a heart and you care. I love people that have a heart. - @thunderroad7289
This isn't a country song, it's a song for the Country! - @mayberrymayhem3562
So much for condemning the song/video out of concern for the common folk.
And then things really wacky. Right-wing bloviators claimed Anthony and the song as their own. They thought they heard dog whistles, too, and they were ready to put them to use. The icing on the "Rich Men North of Richmond" cake came when it was brought up in the Republican Primary debate this last week. They actually played a clip of the song during the debate and posed a question to the Trump wannabees:
“Washington, D.C., is about 100 miles north of Richmond,” MacCallum noted after playing a clip of Anthony’s song. “Why is this song striking such a nerve in this country right now?”
DeSantis took the bait. "Our country is in decline. This decline is not inevitable, it is a choice. We need to send Joe Biden back to his basement and reverse American decline. And it starts with understanding we must reverse Bidenomics so that middle class families have a chance to succeed again.”
Oliver Anthony was having none of it. “That song has nothing to do with Joe Biden, you know, it’s a lot bigger than Joe Biden. That song is written about the people on that stage.” He posted a long and fairly thoughtful response where he declared himself a middle-of-the-road centrist. He suggested that there were many more like him. He was not happy that his music was being appropriated for political gain, by anyone.
He would later tweet: “I. Don’t. Support. Either. Side. Politically. Not the left, not the right. Im about supporting people and restoring local communities. Now, go breathe some fresh air and relax. Please? :) I’m not worth obsessing over, I promise. Go spend time with your loved ones.” On a Facebook post, he claimed, "There's nothing special about me. I'm not a good musician, I'm not a very good person. I've spent the last 5 years struggling with mental health and using alcohol to drown it. I am sad to see the world in the state it's in, with everyone fighting with each other. I have spent many nights feeling hopeless, that the greatest country on Earth is quickly fading away."
(Here's a link to the full video response to the criticisms and his thoughts about those who hijacked his song and message.)
Here's the thing: Oliver Anthony is not an outlier. There are other artists putting out some interesting music that is resonating across the great American divide. There is awareness and reflection on the depression and hopelessness of middle and lower-class Americans. The despair is piling higher, and "both sides" feel that they are losing their country. It's obvious that the Trumpers are angry, but let's also recall how well Bernie Sanders did on a fairly populist platform. And remember 'Occupy Wall Street'? It was a disorganized mess of a protest that never resolved much, but that anger has not abated. Student debt remains. America's medical care system is untenable. Young(ish) voices are driving a new narrative and demanding to be heard.
A couple of months before he passed away, Outlaw John Nova Lomax played a song for me that is thematically similar to "Rich Men from Richmond." Hell, you couldn't fit a guitar pick in between it and Uncle Lucius' "Keep the Wolves Away" in terms of tone, theme, musical style, and overall sadness. Lomax thought "Wolves" was worthy of a Townes Van Zandt comparison.
The group Uncle Lucius disbanded back in 2018, but by chance the producers of the Paramount TV series "Yellowstone" included their tune "Keep the Wolves Away" in an episode back in 2020. It struck a nerve, much like "Rich Men..." The song (and video) caught on and went viral. Uncle Lucius is now touring and playing to full houses. (Give it a listen, it's a gut punch. It's based on frontman Kevin Galloway's own family story.)
The strangest indication of a cultural collision and potential political coalition (and the third music video in our series featuring middle-aged white guys with bushy, country-boy beards) is Luke Combs' recent cover of Tracy Chapman's popular 80's hit, "Fast Car."
Combs recorded the song with Chapman's blessing. Think about this. A gimme-cap wearin' country good-ole-boy recording a song written in first person about a woman trying to escape desperate, ghetto poverty. (Combs didn't even bother to change gender references in his release.) Chapman charted at No. 6 on the Hot 100 35 years ago. Combs' version popped to No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 a couple of months ago. It was streamed over 65 million times on Spotify in less than two months after it was released.
Chapman congratulated Luke on the success he was having with it and expressed gratitude that a new generation of listeners would hear her work. Ironically, the song's success has put Chapman as the first Black woman with a sole songwriting credit on a No. 1 country hit (it topped the country chart.) With her share of over a half million dollars in royalties flowing in from recent downloads and music streams, she can buy herself a brand new fast car. (She kept publishing rights.)
You got a fast car
I got a plan to get us out of here
I've been working at the convenience store
Managed to save just a little bit of money
Won't have to drive too far
Just across the border and into the city
You and I can both get jobs
Finally, see what it means to be living
-words/music, Tracy Chapman
Look, I'm too cynical to think that this is some grand, musical Kumbayah moment where the MAGA boys and girls and the Bernie Bros and the Moms Against Greg Abbott come together in some grand new understanding of each other. But there was a moment in the 70s when another group of Outlaws DID unite (if only for a while.) A diverse and divided bunch of Texans did it through their music. Do you remember the Outlaws of Texas Country? Waylon, Willie, Walker? Ray Wylie Hubbard, Billie Joe Shaver, Steve Earle, Steve Fromholtz, and Guy Clark (among others)? Rednecks, hippies, blue-collar workers, white-collar stiffs, and college students shared guitar pickings, cold beer, and maybe a bag or two of Austin ditch weed as they belted out "London Homesick Blues" and "Redneck Mother" at the top of their lungs... together under the hot sun of Willie's 4th of July picnics. A slightly earlier generation famously came together with their own protest songs, gospel hymns, and folk music to demand civil rights, women's rights, and and end to the Vietnam War. (Does anyone remember Woodstock?) These music trends didn't unite the country, per se, but they sure galvanized a movement.
In another defense of his work, Oliver Anthony wrote, "When is enough, enough? When are we going to fight for what is right again? MILLIONS have died protecting the liberties we have. Freedom of speech is such a precious gift. Never in world history has the world had the freedom it currently does. Don't let them take it away from you."
This last week, he released a new single, "I Wanna Go Home." It's already racked up millions of views/listens.
We're on the brink of the next world war
And I don't think nobody's prayin' no more
And I ain't sayin I know it for sure
I'm just down on my knees
Beggin', Lord, take me home
I wanna go home
I don't know which road to go
It's been so long
I just know I didn't used to wake up feelin' this way
Cussin' myself every damn day
There's always some kind of bill to pay
People just doin' what the rich men say
I wanna go home.
And the Rich Men North of Richmond don't know what to do with it all.