“It’s a Heart Problem, not a Gun Problem.” Is it, though?

Early this past Sunday morning, forty-nine people were murdered with an additional fifty-three people being injured at an Orlando, Florida night club in what is being described as the worst mass shooting in American history. This shooting is the latest in what seems to be a never-ending barrage of gun violence in the United States, and raises a plethora of questions and issues regarding sexuality, race, and religion in twenty-first century America.  The biggest question, for me, is how does our national consciousness correlate with our country’s gun laws and the rising tide of violence?

Inevitably, this shooting has sparked political debate around the topic of gun ownership, the Second Amendment, and whether or not guns are intrinsically to blame for the violence. Living in the Appalachian Mountains of rural southwest Virginia in the tiny city of Norton, stories such as the Orlando shooting and other mass murders often seem very distant from my own realm of experience as well as from that of my friends and neighbors.

Although in my personal politics, I am fairly liberal, the area I call home tends to be quite conservative. Many of my friends, neighbors, and acquaintances hold strong opinions about the Second Amendment. Now, if you are reading this and you are not from this area, your first inclination is going to be to judge these folks as gun-toting “rednecks,” “hillbillies,” or worse. I’m asking that you cast aside such judgments and understand, first and foremost, that the media representations you have been fed about Appalachian culture are mostly pure bullshit. Yes, we have our share of problems which have been well documented, and that is undeniable. But by and large, people here are peaceful, friendly, and willing to help out their neighbors in times of need, which is one of the reasons why so many people of my generation are opting to stay and try to build a better future for the region.

There is a meme going around that reads, “Cain killed Abel with a rock. It’s a heart problem, not a gun problem.” This one has been going around for awhile, and every time there is a mass shooting (one mass shooting is one far too often, but I digress), I inevitably see this meme floating around social media. I see my friends, my neighbors, good people mostly, sharing it and affirming its sentiment.

Heart not gun

I have to admit that I feel like this meme does have an ounce of truth in it. Now, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that I’m currently enrolled in seminary studies, I’m not at all convinced that Cain and Abel were literal people who existed, but it isn’t hard to look at the media landscape in the United States today and see a culture that is drenched in fear, paranoia, and the glorification of brutish violence. When a man like Donald Trump is considered a serious contender for the Presidency, something has gone terrible awry with the American psyche.

We have grown fearful of one another. We deal with constant anxiety. We struggle and we suffer, often in a lonely solitude in spite of the fact that the internet has us more connected to one another than ever before. There is a foreboding sense that men must be hyper-masculine or else risk not measuring up, and I know this because as a man who has never fit the “hyper-masculine” mold, I often feel somewhat as if I am falling behind. In spite of the legislative progress we have made in terms of gay rights, as evidenced by this shooting and the recent bathroom bill controversy, it seems that homophobia and transphobia are on the rise right along with racism and the fear of members of the Muslim faith, even though it isn’t hard to see that one mass shooter no more represents the whole of Islam than one Fred Phelps represents the whole of Christianity. Yes, America, we do definitely have a heart problem.

Yet, it’s also undeniable from a place of pure common sense that it would be nearly impossible to murder forty-nine people and injure fifty-three more with a rock. To suggest otherwise is an asinine statement. According to this USA Today Article the two weapons used by the shooter were an AR-15 style Sig Sauer MCX .223-caliber rifle and a Glock 17 9 mm pistol. The weapons were legally purchased from a Florida store about a week before the tragic mass shooting. In 2016, there have been at least three mass shootings, and the United States is home to nearly a third of the world’s mass shootings annually. This article from CNN shows some of the relevant statistics. So yes, America, as much as we have a heart problem, we also definitely have a gun problem.

I’m not writing this to try to prescribe a solution.  I am not smart enough or arrogant enough to think that I have the answer to America’s ongoing struggle with violence.  I’m not a policy expert, nor am I a professional journalist.  But I am a concerned citizen.  I understand that, at least where I come from, guns are often just another aspect of life.  Many of my friends, neighbors, and family members are hunters and sportsmen.  I have enjoyed firing off a semi-automatic weapon or two in my own life with my friends.  Call me a redneck, but even though I’m not a hunter, it can be great fun and a great stress reliever to go out into the mountains and shoot at targets.

But let’s not forget that guns were designed with one purpose and one purpose only in mind:  to kill.  And too often in this country, the person pulling the trigger is not some hunter bringing home a deer for the winter or someone enjoying a round of target practice, but is instead a person full of hate and vitriol whose only goal is to take down as many of his fellow human beings as he can. Too often, the person on the receiving end of the bullet is not a target, but a living breathing human soul trying to peacefully live their life when hatred and gunfire tragically cut that life short.  This latest shooting saw that hatred unleashed on the LGBT community.  2012’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary saw the deaths of twenty-six people, many of whom were children.  Those are merely two examples of the most horrendous of American mass shootings in what seems to be a never-ending, everyday occurrence.

For the LGBTQ community of Orlando, for the victims of the shooting and their families, know that many of us here in these mountains stand in solidarity with you, and that you are in our thoughts and our prayers.  May we as a nation take whatever steps are necessary to put an end to the violence in our streets and the hatred in our hearts.  May we be unafraid to call out homophobia when we see it on display.  And may we be unafraid to speak out, using our voices to lift up those who have been marginalized and to speak truth to power whenever the opportunity presents itself.

 

Gravy and Biscuits and the Garden of Eden

When I was a little boy, after church my mother and I would visit the farm where she had spent her entire childhood to visit her family. That farm is an eighty-eight acre tract of land that lies on the mountain between Woodway and Stickleyville down in Lee County, Virginia. My mother lives there now, much as my grandmother did when I was a boy. To this day, whenever I visit it, I am filled with an intense array of emotions, most notably longing. This place, with its muddy creeks rushing down the mountain and its barnyard smell of cow manure and its lush trees which canopy the whole area around the house, is not only a part of my identity as an Appalachian, it is a part of the daily context in which I live my life as a human being, as a person. When I think of the home I want to return to, I think of my mother, and I think of this beautiful stretch of land.

When my parents divorced, my mother and I moved onto the farm. I would spend my weekend with my father and my father’s relatives, but through the week, the farm was my home. My uncles, who had never left there, were farmers: tobacco, cattle, corn, apples, cherries. Mostly tobacco. And cattle. The old farmhouse was heated by a wood burning stove in the Basement. Family photographs covered so much of the walls that you couldn’t see the bare plywood underneath. Most of the photos were black and white, or had once been in color but had aged into that sepia technicolor hue that we associate with the 1970s. The parts of the walls that weren’t lined with photographs were lined with bookshelves and books. Some people might suspect that a pair of bearded mountain farmers would be unread men, and they would be quite wrong, blinded by stereotypes and prejudice. My grandmother, who wasn’t afraid to use a curse word or four when the occasion called for it, which was apparently often, would sit in her rocking chair and listen to the sounds of bluegrass gospel. The Christianaires and the Good Shepherd Quartet are two of the ones that spring immediately to mind.

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My grandmother refused to cook on anything but a wood burning stove, and so there was a second wood burning stove in the kitchen. One for heat. One for meat. My mother and her sisters had offered to buy her an electric stove. She always refused. And so every morning, at 5 AM, I would be brought from sleep, still groggy, by the sound of the morning fire being lit. Keep in mind, I am only twenty-eight as of this writing. It sounds very well as if I am speaking of a time long ago, but in truth, this was the mid-1990s, the age of the dawn of the internet, which, of course, we didn’t have. In fact, we didn’t have cable, either. We could pick up two stations on the television in the living room, which was the only one in the house. Channel eleven, out of Johnson City, channel five, though I’m not sure where it was out of, and a PBS station that you had to click the dial to the UHF setting to get to.

Soon after the fire was lit, I would begin to hear the crackle of bacon, its smell drifting into the bedroom where I slept. The air would still be cold on the winter mornings and the blankets would nestle me like a loving embrace. My grandmother cooked gravy and biscuits every morning on a wood burning stove, and that’s what I woke up to most days. Slowly, I would come around and wake up. I would get out of bed and feel the cool, linoleum floor beneath my feet. I would get ready for school and eat gravy and biscuits and rush off to the bus stop way down at the end of the driveway.

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I didn’t know it then, but that was a sort of paradise in and of itself, living in the slow paced way of life of my childhood. These days, my first instinct in the morning is to check my emails, then drink coffee, then check Facebook, then make sure that I haven’t neglected to reply to anyone. The great irony of humanity’s technological advancements is that even as we have grown more digitally connected, this digital connectedness has in many ways isolated us from some of life’s simpler pleasures, and from parts of ourselves: the smell of bacon cooking slowly on a wood burning stove, the unhurried rising of the sun through the homemade curtains, accompanied by the rooster’s crow out in the barnyard. These are things that were a part of my daily existence in childhood, and I confess that I often wish they were a part of my existence now. I’m sure I’m not the only one, young, old, or in-between, raised in the hills of Appalachia, who feels the same way. It seems at times as if the world has moved on, but in our hearts, we have not.

There are still some of us who remember what the Garden of Eden was like.

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Home

I was approached by Roxy Todd of West Virginia Public Radio about writing a personal essay for Valentine’s Day that focused on my love, complicated though it may be, for Appalachia.  Of course, I can’t separate my love for a place from my love for my wife and large extended family, which is what really makes southwest Virginia home.

The audio essay was included as a part of West Virginia Public Radio’s Inside Appalachia programming.  You can hear my essay, along with the rest of these beautiful love songs to Appalachia, by using the Soundcloud player embedded in this post.  The transcript of my essay follows.

Home.

For better or for worse, through sickness and in health, for richer or poorer. Committing to a place and a community is a lot like committing to a marriage. It takes work. It takes willpower. It takes dedication. But above all, it takes love. As a relatively newly-and-happily married man , I can tell you first hand that love is the not-so-secret ingredient in any relationship. The struggles of day-to-day life, the bouts with sickness, the financial stress that most newlyweds face, it can all be conquered by love and love is ultimately what has kept my wife and I going strong for six years now as a couple and for eight months as a married couple.

I’m reluctant to compare living in Appalachia, or anywhere else for that matter, to something as sacred as marriage; however, when I really break it down and examine marriage as the beginning point of many families including my own; when I trace my own family line back through over a century of people who lived, and died, in these ruggedly beautiful mountains; a line that includes farmers and prison guards and automobile mechanics and coal miners and storekeepers and mothers and fathers and husbands and wives, I can see where you definitely draw the similarities.

As I approach my twenty-ninth year on this planet, family is becoming more important to me than ever before. Having all ready lost most of my grandparents, I know that I will not have the wisdom of older generations to draw on forever, and there will come a time in the near future when I will have children of my own to guide and to mold to the best of my ability. And there will come a time, hopefully several decades down the line, when my own life will draw to a close and it will be time for me to exit the stage, hopefully with grace and dignity, having left things in my community and in my world at least a little better than they were when I got here and having left something of value for the generations to come.

My family is here, and that is why when I think of Appalachia in general and southwestern Virginia in particular, I can only think of home. This place isn’t perfect. Its economic struggles have been well-documented and its spiritual ones have been as well. But show me a perfect city. Show me a perfect community. Show me a perfect family, or a perfect marriage, or a perfect person. And I will show you a carefully crafted facade. Perfection, at least in this realm, does not exist and never will. 

But Love does.   And home is wherever love is.  

And for better or worse, I’m home. Til death do us part.

Album Review– Keaton Lawson: Pink Sounds

I should preface this review by saying that I have known Keaton Lawson for over fifteen years.  I should also mention that I am practically related to the man as he is engaged to my cousin, has lived in my house on several occasions, and was the dude who handed me the ring I slipped on my wife’s finger at our wedding.  Did I mention we’ve also made a lot of music together?  Oh yeah, there’s that, too. Needless to say I’ve watched Keaton’s artistic and musical evolution for almost the entire time I’ve known him since it was a mutual love of music and art, especially ‘weird’ music and art that brought us together in the first place.

 

 

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When Keaton told me that his new album only had fourteen songs, I was a little bit taken aback.  This is the same dude who once made two albums with forty songs each, the aptly titled “Music #1” and “Music #2.”  The same guy who sat up late in my tiny first apartment creating the abstract work of audio art that was “Carpet Hazard.”  This is also the same guy who is beyond a shadow of a doubt one of the best songwriters I’ve ever met but who continues to record abstract audio art by his own admission instead of a collection of “real” songs.  Songs like this, which when combined with the voice of my cousin Kristina Garrison are as hauntingly beautiful in their own way as anything you are likely to hear:

So, I was excited by the idea that Keaton had maybe just set down with an acoustic guitar and recorded fourteen songs.  Of course, as excited as the idea of such an album by my good friend makes me, that isn’t what this is.  Nope, not at all.  This is, in fact, more abstract Appalachian audio folk art from the master of abstract Appalachian audio folk art.  And it’s absolutely wonderful.

Here, Keaton has tightened up his approach and created a thirty minute expedition into the workings of his mind, and though the trip is short, it’s the most interesting thing he has done to date.  Created entirely on an iPhone, the album incorporates loops, samples, acoustic guitar, and spoken word pieces to create a bizarre and wonderful piece of art.  It’s hard to classify this as “good” music, because it isn’t necessarily aiming at being “music” at all in the popular sense.  And although Keaton Lawson is more than capable of creating an album of catchy, folksy pop songs,  he has instead created an album that is a masterpiece in its own right.  Right out of the gate, “Buddha Dance” throws the listener into what is going to be a weird and wild ride.  “Hide My Soul Away” incorporates synth noise and distorted acoustic guitar in a deconstruction of what could be a beautiful song if that were the goal.  “Jeopardy” opens with two lines of lyrics, followed by two minutes of sampled TBN hellfire preaching.  “The Rain Burns” is reminiscent of early Ween.

The best track of the bunch, and undoubtedly the best thing I have ever heard by Keaton Lawson in this vein of his work, is the nearly seven minute “Chester” near the end of the album.  This haunting spoken word piece has its titular character exploring the sort of philosophical issues that Keaton and myself usually talk about when we meet up.  It’s a horror story told through folk poetry that echoes the work of Southern writers such as Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews.

This track alone makes the entire album worth downloading.  It’s a work of southern Appalachian beat poetry that’s full of humor and dread.   And while I’m still waiting to hear that collection of “serious” songs rather than an experimental album by Keaton Lawson, this album is a great gateway into his work and is sure to be completely unlike anything you have ever heard or experienced.

Trichotomy

Trichotomy

Ladies and gentlemen, I humbly submit my first attempt at completely electronic music, “Trichotomy,” a brief three track EP that is now available on my Bandcamp page.

While I’ve almost always been an acoustic-driven singer/songwriter in the past, over the past few months, I had the opportunity to expand my horizons into electronica.  The experience of crafting these three tracks and learning the ins-and-outs of electronic music has encouraged me to grow as a musician and as an artist, and I have begun incorporating some of these elements into my next full-length album, “The Fireside Season.”

A special thank you to Donald Sorah at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise and the music department for providing the breeding ground, tools, and technical guidance in the creation of this project.

Compositions by Rance Garrison
Produced by Rance Garrison with Donal Sorah
Cover photo by Christen Gilley; design by Rance Garrison

Die Laughing by Rance Garrison (or, I made a short film/music video and I’m sharing it with you.)

I have been recording and writing music since I was nine years old. I started out on a tape recorder that my mom bought me from the Dollar General and a Yamaha keyboard my Granny got me for Christmas.

After eighteen years of writing and recording songs, this is the closest I’ve ever come to the sound that I hear in my brain, and I hope that this trend will continue. I’ve poured every bit of creative energy into this one song and the short film that accompanies it. This is also my first attempt at film-making, and considering that plus the fact that I was using the super-glitchy current version of iMovie for editing, I’m incredibly pleased with the results.

If you could take the time to watch, like, comment, and share this, I would be incredibly grateful and humbled. I hope that you enjoy it half as much as I enjoyed making it.

Relaunch

I’ve been kicking around the idea of starting a blog for quite some time now and have been urged to so by several people.  Having a few spare minutes this morning, I remembered that I actually already had one which I had to start for a business oriented communications course a couple of years ago.  I figured today was as good a day as any to revamp what used to be called “The New Century” and was previously geared toward discussions of alternative energy and corporate news into a blog that was far more personal.  In the coming weeks, I hope to being writing about topics that are of great interest to me:  music, the arts, religions, politics, philosophy, movies, professional wrestling.  Some posts will be deep.  Some will be shallow.  I hope that all will be enjoyable and thought provoking to some degree.

There’s a good chance that I’ll integrate much of this with my blog on Tumblr.  Feel free to follow me in both places.

In the mean time, it wouldn’t be proper of me to leave without plugging something, so. . . . . .

Check out my Bandcamp site, where you’ll find a shit-ton of my music available for download at rancegarrison.bandcamp.com.

I also highly recommend checking out this lovely album called “Wet Wood” by Philadelphia based musician The Ghost in You.  This album is simply beautiful, especially the song “The Shape.” All of the music is haunting and melodic, with sparse acoustic and synth arrangements. I started listening and got to feeling sentimental and wrote a love letter to my wife, inspired by the beauty of this album while thinking of memories of her and I together when we first met nearly five years ago. This album is so beautiful with such simple yet lavish production that is sure to stir the emotions of any listener that has a heartbeat.  Do yourself a favor and check it out at  https://theghostinyou.bandcamp.com.Image