Don’t Take Your Guns To Town, Son….: Outlaw Country Singers Give Good Advice

Whatever your opinion might be on the Kyle Rittenhouse case, there is one truth that I don’t think many would argue with: that Kyle and those men who ended up dead or hurt would have been better off if Kyle had not taken his guns to town; he should have left his gun at home, son….should have left his guns at home – to paraphrase Leave Your Guns At Home, and realized that as ‘restless’ and ‘full of wanderlust’ as he might have felt, he should have listened to Uncle Johnny. “I can shoot as quick and straight as anybody can. But I wouldn’t shoot without a cause, I’d gun nobody down”, Bill tells his worried Ma in the song. That is all well and good, but when two are dead and one injured, as much as it was self defense, as decided by a jury of 12, and as much as his own life was in mortal danger, the young man should not have been there armed, or perhaps at all. It was not his place to police Kenosha with a firearm. Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing, I suppose….but was it really so outlandish to reason that taking an AR15 to a protest might not end up going well?

There will be the next Bill, the next Kyle, and like a procession of young American men before them, there will be winners and losers, and when the games involve guns, the losses are absolute and final. Has American society not moved past The Streets Of Laredo? Are we are still living in a past, present and future where ‘young cowboy’ end up ‘wrapped in white linen’ and end up begging water as their lives are pouring out of them upon the streets of Laredo, Kenosha, Minneapolis, Chicago and cities and towns across this, the greatest of nations? Haven’t we moved past this sad procession of young dead men ‘shot in the breast’? The problem is with the availability of guns and the pervasiveness of American gun culture. When a 17 year old can carry an AR15 legally on the streets of this country, there is a problem, Johnny! The mothers of all the Bills-who-took-their-guns-to-town, had a shot of liquor and ended up dead and being sung about by Johnny Cash, of the cowboy dying on the streets of Laredo, the mothers of Rosenbaum and Kuber – whatever their shortcomings might have been, and all the other victims of shootings are left as bereft now as they were back in the days of Doc Holliday, Jack McCall and Wild Bill in Deadwood, and tough as nails lawmen like Wyatt Earp who fought the rising tide of brutality in the wild wild west. Is this country doomed to play these scenes out now and in the future. Kyle should never have been playing Wyatt Earp out there in Kenosha. The fact is for him to do so was not illegal, and that, my friends, that is fucked up.

Country music is full of cautionary tales for everyone from hapless young men, drunk old men, fast women, cowboys, wives, lovers, farmers and preachers. It is a revolving cast of the characters that have built this beautiful country and formed the patterns and the stories told within it ever since it’s brutal and bloody formation. Make no mistake, the USA has a dark and violent history. As fun and romantic as the wild west and the stories from the wagon trails and the frontier are, for every little house on the prairie-esque Pretty Saro, who just wants a ‘freeholder who has a house and land’ in an idyllic Arcadian dream of plenty and wholesome hard working innocence, there is a ‘Bill’ who takes his guns to town and ends up in the kind of trouble that makes a young man realize too late that he is just a boy in a situation beyond his control, and that situation easily escalates into fatal consequences, even if the intentions were pure.

When young men bring their guns to town, as Bill’s hapless mother knows, no good can come of the situation. There are not many words of advice that I would take from Johnny Cash, after all our speed freak hero of the outlaw country underground, one finger raised to The Man, to society, and to the horrors and brutality of the prison system, was not much known for good sense or lawfulness, but in “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” there lays both a cautionary tale, and some excellent advice.

Young men haven’t yet learnt the lessons of Mr Rogers, or his gambling friends. “You gotta know when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em, when to walk away, and when to run, and you never count your money when you are sitting at the table, there will be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.” To lack the knowledge of how to deal with these situations that arise when young men take their guns to town, but to be in charge of weapons capable of ending lives, is absolute madness.

Every single young man in America needs to listen to Kenny, Johnny and Marty. There will always be boys out there playing the part of pawns in the games of politicians, and they need some weapons at their disposal of the kind that are not locked and loaded and ready to pop off at each other. Sound advice. Cool heads. Guns that stay at home with their mamas and are used for pinging cans (I’m not down with shooting deer). These boys need to understand that it lives get lost out there, and they are not immune from the full metal jacket death that could be coming their way. Young man do dumb stuff, for that period in their lives to end in life changing disaster is unfair. Since no one who can do anything about it wants gun control, then I guess all we have left are the heroes of modern American culture: the musicians.

Townes Van Zandt, the great storyteller of the bar rooms and back rooms, lived long enough to tell the tale. In Pancho and Lefty Townes sang of what happens when young men who live and die by the gun, grow into old men if they survive. “The dust that Pancho bit down south, ended up in Lefty’s mouth”, Van Zandt observed. Ain’t that the way it goes? The dead die and the living are left singing the cautionary tales and never quite getting over the trauma of the violence. “He just did what he had to do, and now he’s growing old” might be one of the saddest lines ever sang, and Townes was not known for letting the listener get off easily on that account. Whether justified, self defense or cold blooded murder, the survivors of violence don’t get off scott free. A romantic poetic death is still a waste of life, and a life lived drunk, in cheap hotels trying to dodge the Federales is no life at all.

“Pancho needs your prayers it’s true, but save a few for Lefty too,” is a kindness that I fail to summon as easily as Mr. Van Zandt. I sit here worrying who is going to end up dying out there who should be doing some more living. It is a war on the streets and not one that I have the stomach for. What good will it do?

Ken Keasey turned the Hells Angels onto acid, and averted a clash at an anti Vietnam war demonstration, using drug diplomacy and discussion, as well as Dylan tickets to forge bonds. That is not to say that the Angels behaved perfectly from then on in, but there was an understanding forged that was not there before. I was gladdened to see BLM activists and Rittenhouse supporters share pizza on the courthouse steps, breaking bread and forming positive connections. The call went out to ‘get energized and remain peaceful’ and all I can say is, ‘right on’…and that it might have been the most wholesome and positive interaction I have seen come out of this whole mess. That human connection was a thing of beauty. After all, none of us want to see any of our sons lose their lives or their freedom. None of us want our sons to live life like Townes’s Lefty, dodging the law and mourning the way the world turns for those that survive.

I just want to be able to see a future for all of us that remain. Right now I find it hard to see a way forwards through our polarized society, to a place of mutual respect and understanding. I can’t see how the guns get put down. I can’t see how the graves don’t continue to get filled with people who should be alive, but instead get shot. Death is final. Life is short and brutal. Johnny Cash is on repeat tonight, singing about not taking guns to town. I just hope that there is a hope that we put the bloody past behind us as a country, and move towards a future that is at least bearable and survivable for everyone that lives here.

There is hope, however slim. Beautiful people.

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