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In which the bluegrass community turns on itself...

Donald Teplyske  |  October 6, 2013

Just when one thought the silliness couldn't get worse, it did.

For the past week we have endured the foolishness that has been the attempted spin around the US government shutdown. By the time the stupidity had reached its maximum on Fox News, the storm around "Old Bicycle Chain" exploded within the bluegrass community. Fortunately, it hasn't reached the broadcast networks.


But the foolhardiness has continued within our little bluegrass world.

When I started this piece on Thursday October 3, I had simply intended to write a brief acknowledgement of Junior Sisk's reasoned decision, seven months or more in coming, to remove the offensive and questionable Old Bicycle Chain from his live set. The song, written by Billy Smith, Marilyn Smith, and Kenny Mullins, is included on "The Story of the Day I Died" and features the pointed lyrics "It is never too late to change your ways dear, fix your mistakes and take the blame..."

Had the songwriters stopped there, we wouldn't be embroiled in one of the most pointless and divisive arguments to hit the bluegrass world since someone suggested 'a big tent.'

In this song which has been variously described by some supporters as hilarious and harmless, the female spouse has caused offense by leaving the car on empty, drinking the last cup of coffee, faking headaches, and disturbing her husband's rest, and is therefore naturally threatened with "I'll whip you with an old bicycle chain" should she choose to "come back and mess 'round here."

As difficult as it may be for some readers to believe, there are those who support this song. It is hilarious, they suggest, a great novelty tune where no one is actually injured. Threats don't harm anyone, right? The associated hilarity escapes me, as it does folks much wiser than me- Pete Wernick, Laurie Lewis, Terry Herd, and Archie Warnock among them. More from them in a minute.

As the conversation around this song continued late last week and into the weekend, I found myself unwilling to simply write the 'atta boy' I had intended to Junior Sisk. Because the issue became more than about one singer's decision to no longer sing a particular song. It became about how folks, even in the bluegrass world, find the need to attack those who disagree with them.

Background then, for those coming late to the story.

I first expressed concern with the song in early March. At that time I wrote on the BGRASS-L, a sometimes lively, occasionally informative listserve:

"As I started the drive to the old school house this morning, I caught the repeat of Junior Sisk & Rambler's Choice on SiriusXM's Bluegrass Junction's Track by Track. I stopped for a coffee and therefore missed the introductory conversation around the song Old Bicycle Chain... I don't want to prejudge anyone, so I would really like to have heard Junior's explanation for selecting this song, one that while musically appealing has absolutely no redeeming value in its lyrics or message.

I love all kinds of bluegrass- give me a pitiful, clueless man in trouble, in song, and I'm with you.

This song leaves me cold- basically, there is always time for her to change her ways, to take the blame and he'll whip her with an old bicycle chain. (Upon later listening, I realized that I missed the subtlety of the threat on first listen- he doesn't actually do it.) I don't get it. I realize it isn't Junior speaking, it is the song's character- I just don't know why we should care, why we should condone domestic violence by listening to it- it doesn't appear to be intended ironically, or even with any sense of shame- just, I'll whip you with an old bicycle chain.

Please, what am I missing? Before I write about the album, and this song, I would appreciate hearing from anyone at Rebel or Junior himself. Or, those who heard his defence of the song, if there was one."

Well, I didn't hear from Junior, or the folks at Rebel, and basically let the matter drop. A few folks responded on the L, but nothing terribly substantive came of it and I was left wondering of the point of writing, and performing, a song, tongue-in-cheek or not, about threatening to beat your partner. I chose not to review the album quite simply because I felt- as did another writer I've corresponded with- that discussing this song would cast a pale over an otherwise fairly impressive endeavor. And, unlike others, I didn't feel I could simply ignore its inclusion when writing a review.

A few reviews of the album mentioned the song, usually with regret that Sisk elected to record it, and I am left to surmise- given the introduction Sisk provides to the song on a video clip posted on YouTube- that he realized the song was a mistake, and that some in his audience expressed concern. Junior states the song " meant to be humorous, we're not supporting any type of abuse- and if you listen closely, it never happens- it is just a threat." Obviously, based on Sisk's statement of last week, he understands that such does not warrant the performance of a song that is so clearly offensive to so many.

At a World of Bluegrass discussion about the role of women in bluegrass in late September, Kathy Kallick made reference to the song. Her thoughts were mentioned (after the fact) on Bluegrass Today, including the assertion that the audience applauded when she made her statement.

Finally, last week, Junior Sisk released this statement:





Basically, Junior Sisk has admitted he made a mistake in recording this song, and I have to admire him for that. It takes a big man to admit when he is wrong. And he has.

Following the release of the statement, broadcaster Terry Herd posted to Bluegrass Today:

"It doesn't matter how you frame it, domestic violence isn't funny. I'm proud that Junior made the correct choice here and I agree with the author that neither he, nor the writer meant any harm. Yet sometimes things come out differently than intended.

From the outset I chose not to air this track from Junior's excellent CD on The Bluegrass Radio Network.

I believe there is a good lesson to be learned here. Words are powerful. They can lift our spirits, give us hope and even help us understand why certain things happen in life. But they can also cause pain. Junior's choice to reassess the interpretation of this song by some of his fans and refrain from performing it out of respect for them, is in my opinion the sign of a truly good person. But of course, we already knew that about Junior."

I wish that was where the conversation had gone, about how- by all accounts- a good person learned from an error.

Unfortunately, that was when things got really nutty within our online bluegrass world.

While some of us expressed appreciation that Junior came to this decision, the conversation- on both the L and Bluegrass Today- was quickly hijacked by those who see conspiracies, liberal interference, International Bluegrass Music Association heavy-handedness, and political correctness under every rock. Those who 'don't get it,' who find the song offensive, must have 'thin skins' and are inflicting their opinions on everyone else.

Some have clouded the issue with arguments that the bluegrass songbook is fair populated by murderers, never-do-wells, rapscallions, bandits, and others who have stabbed, drowned, and beaten their (mostly) girlfriends, and accused those who 'don't get the joke' of Old Bicycle Chainas being PC censors and worse. Such arguments hold no water. In the murder ballads and their contemporary ilk- December 13 for one- there is a sense of character development, of story, and often of retribution or at least resolution. (More on that in a moment.)

There isn't boasting about beating a woman with a chain for eating the last piece of pizza.

Old Bicycle Chain contains none of the elements of the historical ballads- it is simply a joke without a funny punch line- not to put too fine an edge on it, but it is the type of song/story/joke that, like his quips about "the AIDS," had Jimmy Martin told it 15 years ago, folks would have walked away from the stage.

In rather fervent tones, those of us who supported Junior's decision to drop the song- and it was his, no one else's- were attacked as the edge of a wedge that would lead to 'people' telling bandleaders which musicians they could hire, what religions they could practice, and other exaggerations of the type that are usually thrown about when folks realize they don't have a logical leg to stand upon. Heck, one BGRASS-Lister brought the blood of veterans into the furor.

I can't understand how people- many of whom are folks who I have admired from afar for their passion about bluegrass music, their support of the industry, and their senses of humor- are so quick to verbally and aggressively assault (via a keyboard) those who simply disagree with them, all the while hitching their energy and expressions of life, liberty, and freedom to a song that doesn't deserve their defense.

Pete Wernick, someone who doesn't often post to the L, and never- in my memory- to participate in a fired up exchange, attempted to be a voice of reason. He wrote, "I'm surprised and disappointed at the level of dialogue on this subject. It seems many of us are all too ready to sound alarms about supposed slippery slopes we're on the brink of sliding down as though there's no nuance or gray areas in human relations...

Is it not obvious that the issue is just one of "good taste"?

Not everyone has the same taste. Some people, even very good-hearted people, like dirty jokes, lawyer jokes, ethnic/racial jokes, etc. Hopefully we are all aware enough to know 'when and where' to tell some jokes and when not to. When in doubt, not a whole lot is lost when you just stay clear of things that might offend, unless it's an issue you just have to speak out on.

At the World of Bluegrass panel, the issue was raised in a non-whiny way. Kathy Kallick spoke highly of Junior Sisk and mentioned that in today's world (where violence against women is still a scourge, and condoned in some circles) that "it's not OK" to joke publicly about this. I think Junior made the right move by deciding not to risk offending a listener who maybe knows someone who was severely beaten by her husband and had to seek shelter for safety - or maybe 'is' such a person. If you knew someone like that (and there are many), would you play that song for that person? Not if you had a sense of good taste.

Junior was not 'dictated to,' he was just informed that for some people this is not a tasteful topic. I know plenty of songs that I might enjoy at a late night non-public jam where everyone knows each other - but there's a reasonable standard to uphold in a 'public concert setting' when there are kids, and possibly victims of domestic violence, in the audience.

How much subtlety or deep thought/dialogue is involved in sorting out the above? Not much really, any more than remembering not to cuss in front of the preacher or your grandmother. Why rush for the soapbox as though fundamental freedoms are under attack?"

Laurie Lewis, who knows more about bluegrass music, its history, and the role of women in its songs and performance than most of us, and was a participant in the IBMA panel, saw fit to weigh in, again on Bluegrass Today: She wrote, in part:

"Point of fact: the discussion of that song, and misogynist songs in general, was short-lived. Some radio personalities stated that they had chosen not to play that song. Kathy Kallick said something to the effect that she would like for people to take responsibility for what they sing and move beyond subject matter that condones, even in a 'joking' style, spousal abuse.

Personally, I believe that this song is different from all the old murder ballads...for many reasons. They deal with human passions of jealousy (mostly) and generally have a moral. Those songs have stood the test of time, like Shakespeare tragedies. This song won't. I respect Junior's choice to exclude this song from his set lists, and admire his decision to take a public stand. That takes grit. Bravo!"

Within the twisted rhetoric of the BGRASS-L, with some finding conspiracies and enemies wherever they look, screaming of slippery slopes, lost liberties and similar -as one was commentator phrased it- red herrings, caused the conversation to disintegrate much like the journalistic integrity of certain news networks.

What I found most disturbing about the attacks coming toward those of us who found fault with this song and Sisk's original decision to record and perform the song was the personal nature of them. We were called "the thought police," in one instance. I was accused of having my head buried in a southern orifice, of being intolerant. Heck, for some reason, my being Canadian was brought into it.

I was, and remain, shocked and disappointed. Not hurt. Not offended. Simply shocked and disappointed. Among the most gentle expressions was the suggestion of hypocrisy on my part because I have previously championed- loudly and widely- the music of The Earl Brothers, a band whose songs include rather violent images.

(Nothing was mentioned of my loud and widely expressed support for the music of Junior Sisk over the past decade, or my own support of some of the most heavy-handed of the keyboard abusers when they, in the past, had come under fire for expressing their opinions.)

The Earl Brothers song that was held up as an example was Arkansas Line, a track written by Robert Earl David and Thomas Willie and included on their "Outlaw Hillbilly" album. This track features a self-admitted criminal killing his wife's "wicked" family, and rather graphically detailing that he cut off his brother-in-law's head and burned the rest of the family alive. No doubt, gruesome.

The difference? Much as Lewis mentions, as with many songs written in the murder ballad tradition- of which OBC is not a member- Arkansas Line features a character who expresses remorse for his actions, doesn't get away with them, and is suitably punished for his actions.

At no time did he make a joke of threatening his wife with an old bicycle chain. There is no humor- intended or otherwise- within Arkansas Line. Just a dreadful tale of a man's actions.

(IN MY ORIGINAL POST OF THIS AFTERNOON (caps only for emphasis, not anger) I summarized what I believed Pete Wernick had implied about violent songs in bluegrass, and quoted his statements. Upon clarification from Pete, I understand that I changed his intent: he was not suggesting that the time for violent songs in bluegrass had passed, as I implied, but was stating that he believes these songs should be deemphasized and that artists and DJs need to be aware of their audiences. I apologize to Pete for causing offense and have removed the paragraph in question. I certainly had no intention of offending Pete, or using his words inaccurately.)

Times have changed and a portion of the bluegrass audience no longer finds novelty songs- ones like Old Bicycle Chain that aren't particularly well-written or clever- about spousal abuse funny. Just like many would find objection to a song or album including racist, homophobic, or xenophobic words, phrases, or jokes, we find songs about beating women distasteful.

Noted bluegrass writer Archie Warnock tried his best: "I think I'm getting it, Donald. Let me try to explain it to you. It's a joke, so it's okay. No one should be offended by jokes about domestic abuse. That's something anti-correctness fans laugh about all the time. And if we allow people to be offended by a song where the punch line gets a laugh by threatening to beat up your wife with a bicycle chain, what's next? Maybe we won't be able to joke about bashing her puppy's head in with a stick... They're all jokes and, as far performing artists go, offending part of your audience and driving them away is just part of the long-term strategy for success."

Archie tells me he was biting his tongue to keep things civil while writing that. Imagine if he hadn't held back!

What quickly and most obviously became clear to me is that one cannot have a reasoned, pointed, or deep conversation with people who find a song about beating your wife with an old bicycle chain defensible. When wise and considered folks including Wernick, Lewis, Herd, and Warnock- folks I don't always agree with- fundamentally and clearly condemn the lyrical content of a song while praising the decision of Junior Sisk to remove it from his live set- and others find a way to prise offence to 'God given rights, written in the blood of those who died for their country' someone has missed the bus.

And it ain't us.

As one commentator on the L noted, "The day we start telling artists what they can and cannot say, perform, write, produce, or sing, is a sad day indeed."

I agree, but that isn't what has happened here. Poor taste is poor taste. This song is in poor taste, and no one is telling anyone what they can or can't record or write. No one suggested that Junior Sisk or the songwriters are bad people, but we politely- and I would like any of those on the other side to find a remark, by myself or one of the others noted here, that wasn't polite- expressed disagreement with the sentiments expressed in their song.

Junior, to his credit, took responsibility for his decision. Obviously, that was the right thing for him to do. Because he did it.

As a further aside, I have to wonder- and suspect others must also- how this song got recorded in the first place. Junior Sisk has stated that he sat on the song for a couple years, afraid people might take it the wrong way (to which I ask, What is the right way to take a song that suggests... O, never mind: by now you know what the song suggests.)

Had Junior simply stopped playing the song, there is an excellent chance no one would have noticed. It isn't a great song. But by being stand up, admitting that people had expressed concern about the song, and announcing that he would no longer sing it because it made too many people uncomfortable, he opened the door for some (yes, I decided to remain polite and edited myself) to use the occasion as an opportunity to express their outrage over censorship, oppression, liberalism, do-gooders and the politically correct.

As the one who first brought up Old Bicycle Chain on the L, I feel a particular sense of vindication that Junior Sisk has done the right thing. That it took seven months, thousands of radio plays, and several mentions in reviews and features prior to the panel discussion at IBMA, for him to come to this realization is surprising. As someone whose own decision making is sometimes questionable- I've been known to say the wrong thing at the exact wrong time more than, well, lots- I admire his decision and the way he communicated it. Let me be clear, I cast no stones at Junior Sisk.

Recording this song was a mistake. I appreciate that he has made an attempt to correct it.

At no time did anyone suggest Junior Sisk shouldn't be allowed to sing Old Bicycle Chain, or that Smith, Smith, and Mullins should be punished for writing it.

What was asserted is that many wished they hadn't.

For me, the lesson learned is that no matter how clear an argument is made, or how innocuously it is expressed, there will be those who attempt to twist facts to fit their own misaligned version of truth. It is sad that members of the bluegrass community have to be attacked from within simply for expressing their opinion.

The conversation has moved from Old Bicycle Chain to why, even in a small community where we should all find ways to support each other, that it is that folks find it so easy to attack and to express fairly vile sentiments, toward those who disagree with them.

That isn't my bluegrass community. I hope it isn't yours.

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