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On the Murders Sunday in Las Vegas, Lawrence, and Elsewhere in the United States of America

Three people were killed and two others were injured early Sunday morning when at least 20 gunshots were fired on a crowded downtown street in Lawrence, Kansas, but you probably didn’t hear about it. Later that same day a shooter in Las Vegas killed at least 59 people and injured another 500 or so, setting a new American record, so that understandably took up almost all of Monday’s news.
By now mass shootings are almost numbingly routine, and despite the outrage and heartbreak they always provoke most Americans would be hard pressed to recall any details of the last one or the one before that, but this time might prove more memorable. There’s the record-setting death toll, the apparent use of a fully automatic weapon, the much older than usual age of the shooter, and an especially frustrating lack of any plausible explanation.
There’s never an adequate explanation for these slaughters, of course, but usually there’s some detail or two in the initial stories that gives some clue what going on the deranged mind of the shooter. Sometimes they’re named Mohammad and shout “Alahu Akbar” and had posted Islamic screeds on their Facebook pages, other times they’re white guys with haircuts and Facebook postings that announce their racial grievances, the guy who shot up the a Washington, D.C., softball field and wounded a Republican congressman had a deep-seated hatred of Republicans, and the guy shot up a political rally in Arizona and wounded Democratic congresswoman apparently did so because she had failed to an incomprehensible question he’d asked at a town hall, and usually they turn out to be kind of crazy that family and friends and neighbors had long noticed but never knew quite what to do about it.
None of that amounts to an adequate explanation, but it’s something to cling to as we humans instinctively search for some reassuring reason when tragedy occurs.
This time around the Islamic State terror gang claimed the shooter was a recent convert who had heeded their call to jihad, but they always they do that whenever someone kills random people, and it’s quite unusual for recent converts to any religion to keep quiet about it and so far everyone who knew the shooter says he never expressed any religious opinions at all. The target of the shooting was an outdoor country music festival, so there was immediate internet speculation that the shooter was someone who wanted to killed a lot of Republicans, which quickly led to some irresponsible right-wing sites fingering an innocent fellow with a lot of pro-Democratic Facebook postings, but apparently this shooter never expressed any political opinions of any sort, and was said to be a country music fan himself. According to everyone the armies of reporters have rounded up to interview, the shooter was an undeniably odd duck but not in a way that made you think he’d spray automatic rounds at a crowd of random strangers.
According to the neighbors he mostly kept to himself in his comfortable gated over-50 community in rural Nevada, and was often away from home for long periods of time during high-stakes gambling binges in Las Vegas. He’d apparently done well as an accountant and made some savvy real estate investments, and without any children to worry about he could afford the indulgence and still lavish gifts on his mother, so neither the neighbors nor his family found it worrisome. His brother gave a lengthy interview to a cluster of news cameras and microphones that was clearly too distraught to be at all disingenuous, and he was clearly surprised to learn that shooter had acquired a veritable armory or deadly weapons.
The usual post-mass-shooting debates about gun control are already underway, but this time around they’re all the more complicated for both sides. Apparently all of those weapons had been acquired legally, with the shooter’s previously pristine legal record and lack of any noticed mental health problems carrying him through all the required background checks, and automatic weapons have long been illegal, it’s too late to charge the now-dead-by-self-inflicted-gunshot shooter with the apparent crime of altering his semi-automatic rifles to fully automatic, and it’s hard to think of anything that would have stopped this guy without imposing onerous restrictions of the rights of the vast majority of peaceable gun owners. Those peaceable gun owners have long made the reasonable argument that if there’s some crazy guy shooting up a crowd you don’t want him to be the only one there with a gun, but in this case he was shooting from 400 yards away where none of those of presumably gun-toting country music fans would have known where to shoot, and if any of them had drawn their weapons during the panic the police and security on hand would have been well within their rights to shoot them.
The same dreary arguments will continue, nonetheless, along with the ancillary debates about why so many Americans wind up getting shot to death every year. Across most of America the murder rate has happily declined over the past few decades, those mass shootings and the daily carnage in Chicago and a couple of other cities notwithstanding, but the numbers are still high by first-world standards and merit national concern. Those mass shootings are by now a longstanding problem, too, dating back at least to a sniper attack from the University of Texas’ landmark tower in Austin in 1966, and back in ’76 a guy started shooting from the balcony of what was then the tallest building in our hometown of Wichita, and there was a kid shot up his junior high school in a nearby suburb back in ’85, and when we think about we can recall the schoolyard in Connecticut and the homosexual nightclub in Orlando and far too many details of other mass shootings.
An autopsy showed that the Texas shooter had brain disease, that guy in Wichita had just been jilted by his girlfriend, the junior high kid in the nearby suburb had endured the usual junior high bullying, the Connecticut shooter was so clearly crazy his mom had been warning the cops about him, the homosexual nightclub was another one of those “Alahu Akbar” incidents, and when we think about we can recall some semblance of a reason for all those other mass shootings. According to the police in the normally placid university town of Lawrence those three victims who died there early Sunday morning weren’t random targets, and that the violence was the result of some beef between low-lifes who have always used guns to settle their differences, and we note that the incident followed a rap concert at the school’s arena, so we’ll make the same stereotypical assumptions that some people make about country music concerts, and hope it’s all enough to satisfy our all too human need for some reason that tragedies occur.
None of it amounts to an adequate explanation, though, and we hope that America in its extraordinary greatness will take time out from the usual political to ponder why it has such a persistent and extraordinary problem with Americans getting shot to death, and how it might be addressed without stripping the vast majority of cherished rights.

— Bud Norman

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For the Good Times

Ray Price died on Monday, George Jones died last April, and it’s been a bad year for the American culture.
Our more sophisticated readers might not recognize either Price or Jones, as their fame was limited to the working class folks in flyover land who comprise the core audience for country and western music, but they gave voice to an American age whose passing leaves us all poorer. The decline of the American economy can be measured in worker participation rates and per capita income, and our declining international influence is more subjectively measured by the alliances our erstwhile allies are making for a post-American epoch, but the diminution of the American spirit is perhaps best exemplified by the sad comparison between the days of Price and Jones and what’s playing out there now.
After a war-time stint with the United States Marine Corps, Price got his first taste of musical stardom singing on a small town radio station in his native Texas, then went big city with a regular gig on Dallas’ “Big D Jamboree.” After a full decade of honing his craft in the rough honky-tonks of Texas he enjoyed a string of country hits through the ‘50s with such rough honky-tonk standards such as “Release Me,” “Crazy Arms,” and “Heartaches by the Number.” With his crack Cherokee Cowboys band, which at various times included such future stars as Johnny Paycheck, Johnny Bush, Buddy Emmons, Willie Nelson, and Roger Miller, who wrote Price’s hit “Invitation to the Blues,” Price defiantly resisted the smoother “countrypolitan” style and remained popular with his fiddle-and-steel-and-nasality style well into the ‘60s. When he finally relented and went countrypolitan he did so with a vengeance, producing the lushest and smoothest and most string-laden records in Nashville, and he did it well, producing such fine fare as the Kris Kristofferson-penned “For the Good Times” that he even found favor with the old-fashioned pop fans back east. His masterpiece recording was a lush but gritty rendition of “Night Life,” written by his protégé Willie Nelson, which expresses the broken dreams of a honky-tonk denizen so well it requires several beers to be fully appreciated.
George Jones loomed even larger in country music, with his first hits coming in the mid-‘50s and his last playing in the mid-‘90s and hardly a week going by in between with something on the country play lists, but he never came close to a cross-over hit and was largely unknown to anyone who wasn’t a hard-core country fan. His first hits had a raucous rockabilly sound, with the billy overwhelming the rock, and “Why, Baby, Why,” “White Lighnin’,” “The Race Is On,” and other Jones tunes remain standards for any country band wanting to enliven a dance floor. For most of his career he specialized in slower and sadder fare, however, yielding such gems of manic depression as “She Thinks I Still Care,” “The Window Up Above,” “The Grand Tour,” “A Good Year for the Roses,” and the saddest song ever written, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” There were occasionally the syrupy Nashville string arrangements, but always a heartfelt workingman’s anguish in the vocals, and an unmistakably genuine connection to his downtrodden audience best heard in his duet with sometime-wife Tammy Wynette on “(We’re Not) The Jet Set.”
Both men were just prominent members of a remarkably rich musical community in their heydays, but both stuck around even as it all gave way to a younger, better-looking generation of performers with more elaborate stagecraft and more effective marketing techniques. Our hometown of Wichita has always been kind to those great performers that the rest of the country tends to forget, and would pack the Cotillion or the Coyote Club or some other mid-sized venue for western swing stars such as The Texas Playboys or Hank Thompson and his Brazos Valley Boys, or a Kansas City jazzbo such as “Fiddlin” Claude Williams or Jay McShann, or a seminal rocker such as Sleepy LaBeef or Marvin Rainwater, until they all died off or went into retirement, and Price and Jones were always welcome here. Price was still filling the seats here until old age finally got him off the road, and he never failed to give a show that featured both the honky-tonk and countrypolitan hits despite the strain on his voice. Jones played a show at the venerable Orpheum Theater just months before his death, and although he was fresh out of the hospital and still suffering a respiratory ailment and hoarse throat he gave a memorable performance by using his impending frailty and impending mortality to imbue those drinkin’ and cheatin’ songs with an extra measure of hard-earned melancholy.
Those shows were one of the great things about living in a town like Wichita, and offered an satisfying assurance that our hard-working little city had an authentic artistic sensibility that those snooty cities back east could not duplicate or even comprehend, but they don’t happen so often these days. Country music is still a draw here, and the local paper even had a story recently explaining how only country acts seem to do well at the fancy new downtown that was built on one of those fishy public-private partnerships, but none of it justifies the exorbitant ticket prices or provides the same sense of working class authenticity. There might be good country music out there, but we no longer dredge through all the artificial studio concoctions and video marketing to get to it. The decline is not just in country music but across the American musical spectrum, with everything from Broadway musicals to black inner-city music to suburban garage rock in a similarly sorry state, but the loss of a Price and Jones is especially felt in a town like ours.
We still have the old records, though, and they’ve been getting a lot of play on the turntable today. They might even inspire another age of American greatness, and the good times can linger on.

— Bud Norman