Political Order and Political Decay in the Time of Trump

Fukuyama - Origins of Political Order / Political Order and Political Decay

Political Order and Political Decay is the second part of Francis Fukuyama’s epic tome of political economy begun in 2011 with The Origins of Political Order.  The 2014 follow-up fills out the 2011 tome’s theory of politics as biology with consideration of Democracy and The Western State, Colonialism, and ultimately Political Decay—the question of whether all ordered states will inevitably decay, independent of the health of the society they serve.

Fukuyama starts his second volume continuing his examination of the Administrative State, the Rule of Law, and Democratic Accountability, after the French Revolution, and more particularly the Industrial Revolution.  Why did some liberal democracies “get to Denmark” in developing modern, relatively incorruptible states, while others stayed mired in in clientelistic politics and high levels of corruption?  And maybe most interestingly, how did the United States shake off its early, Jacksonian populist corruption for Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive scientific administrative state?

In the non-Western world, the European states shaped our current politic order (and disorder) through colonialism.  I am not one to blame Western Culture for all the ills of the world, and every nation has the opportunity to improve their own lot, but looking back on the Colonial Era we (the Western Powers) really did muck it up.  Accidents of geography, with nation-states and cultural/tribal areas all mixed up, didn’t help but that’s not the whole story.  Areas with pre-colonial indigenous institutions were better able to recover after colonial powers departed, while others were left to whichever local strongman could fill the power vacuum.  Democracy holds those institutions accountable, but has very little to do with creating an effective state in the first place.

“Modern institutions require people to work contrary to their natural instincts.”

“The spread of democracy depends on the legitimacy of the idea of democracy,” writes Fukuyama in his Introduction.  “But ideas do not exist in a vacuum.”  Fukuyama supports the idea that a strong middle class, and particularly the Industrial working-class, are the foundation of democratic order.  He continues, “democracy worldwide has been facilitated by globalization itself, the reduction of barriers to the movement of ideas, goods, investment, and people across international boundaries.”  Yet the broad middle class is at the same time threatened by “the disappearance of middle-class jobs as a result of advancing technology and globalization.”

We all face the need to balance stability and change.  All political order eventually decays.  Fukuyama cites two major pressure points on our current political institutions and order—rigidity and “repatrimonialization”.  The stability of enduring norms and institutions has allowed us to achieve continuous prosperity; yet life changes and we adapt or die.  Organizations are also subject to what Fukuyama labels “repatrimonialization”, or a devolution to kin selection and reciprocal altruism explored at length in the prior book.  “Modern institutions require people to work contrary to their natural instincts,” he writes.  While written well prior to the last election cycle, so much of what disturbs me about Mr. Trump’s populist-elitism falls into this idea of repatrimonialization, from nepotism and rampant conflicts of interest, to his focus on “making deals” outside the rule of law.  That’s not “draining the swamp” and it’s not good for the future of the American republic.



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Pancho Villa Crossed the Border…and got US into the Great War

Pancho Villa crossed the border in the year of ought sixteen
The people of Columbus still hear him riding through their dreams
He killed seventeen civilians you could hear the women scream
Blackjack Pershing on a dancing horse was waiting in the wings

Tonight we ride, tonight we ride
We’ll skin ole Pancho Villa, make chaps out of his hide
Shoot his horse, Siete Leguas, and his twenty-seven bride
Tonight we ride, tonight we ride

We rode for three long years till Blackjack Pershing called it quits
When Jackie wasn’t lookin’ I stole his fine spade bit
It was tied upon his stallion, so I rode away on it
To the wild Chihuahuan desert, so dry you couldn’t spit

Tonight we ride, you bastards dare
We’ll kill the wild Apache for the bounty on his hair
Then we’ll ride into Durango, climb up the whorehouse stairs
Tonight we ride, Tonight we ride

When I’m too damn old to sit a horse, I’ll steal the warden’s car
Break my ass out of this prison, leave my teeth there in a jar
You don’t need no teeth for kissin’ gals or smokin’ cheap cigars
I’ll sleep with one eye open, ‘neath God’s celestial stars

Tonight we rock, Tonight we roll
We’ll rob the Juarez liquor store for the Reposado Gold
And if we drink ourselves to death, ain’t that the cowboy way to go?

Tonight we ride, tonight we ride
Tonight we fly, we’re headin’ west
Toward the mountains and the ocean where the eagle makes his nest
If our bones bleach on the desert, we’ll consider we are blessed
Tonight we ride, Tonight we ride

Tom Russell, “Tonight We Ride” off Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs (2004)

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On 28 January 1917, President Wilson ordered Gen. John J. “Blackjack” Pershing back home from his punitive expedition against Pancho Villa into Mexico.  Back in March 1916, Pancho Villa had led a raid on the town of Columbus, New Mexico, killing 17 US citizens in retaliation for US recognition of his rival and former ally Venustiano Carranza as president of Mexico.  Pershing charged back across the border and chased Villa across Northern Mexico all summer and into the fall.

While American leaders put a brave face on the expedition, it was clearly a farce.  As Pershing later wrote, “Having dashed into Mexico with the intention of eating the Mexicans raw, we turned back at the first repulse and are now sneaking home under cover, like a whipped curr with its tail between its legs.”  Instead, Carranza used his rival’s travails to whip up anti-American sentiment and solidify his own position.

Even more damning, failure of the incursion likely gave Germany the confidence to approach Mexico as a potential ally against the United States in World War I, as exposed in the Zimmermann Telegram.  The British intercepted the telegram, send on 16 January 1917, and provided a decrypted copy to the United States on 19 February.  President Wilson released the text on 28 February, whipping up American sentiment against both Mexico and Germany, and leading to American involvement in the Great War—World War I.

Words lead to action—America’s taking sides in Mexico led to actions against American citizens.  Actions lead to consequences—a small military action helped lead to a very large military action.  And, to paraphrase Santayana, those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.



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JC’s Top Tunes of 2016

I played a lot of music during the January cold, streamed KRFC-FM more in February, March and April.  I’m still not quite sure why I spiked my last.fm scrobbles in May before spending more time outside in June.  July, August & Sept. were fairly steady.  As it cooled off in October, I spent more time indoors reading and listening to music.  In December, with Holiday Music playlists going pretty much whenever I was awake, and sorting out my favs, well, I played more music in 2016 than in any year since 2008.

Merle Haggard.  Guy Clark.  2016 took too many of our beloved icons.  Guy Clark was a contemporary and companion of Townes Van Zandt, who died on New Years Day, 20 years ago.  Johnny Cash, my favorite artist, is a staple year-round but especially as part of my routine Sunday morning Americana-gospel Spotify list.  New releases by artists including Brandy Clark, Tom Brosseau, Elizabeth Cook, Corb Lund (technically 2015, but close), Hot Club of Cowtown, and Lucinda Williams, put me back in touch with their back catalog.  Solid new releases from Left Arm Tan,  the Cactus Blossoms, Dori Freeman, Caitlin Canty, Reagan Boggs and Margo Price rounded out my Top Artists for the year.  I’m surprised I didn’t play Gretchen Peters more, though.

2016 was a decent year for new music.  I tried to keep up with the Americana Radio Chart with a Spotify list of new albums as they were released, plus what I noticed from people with good taste on Twitter.  A few new albums stood out, including Left Arm Tan‘s Lorene, Elizabeth Cook’s Exodus of Venus, and Brandy Clark’s Big Day in a Small Town.  I played the heck out of my Top 10 or 12, then the second tier shows up going down the chart.  Caitlin Canty and Tom Brousseau delivered from the folk side, Reagan Boggs and Margo Price from more of an alt.country/Classic country point of view.  Corb Lund’s Things That Can’t Be Undone was my favorite album of 2015 and I still like it a lot.  I missed Brennen Leigh Sings Lefty Frizzell when it came out late in 2015, but I caught up with it on Spotify. Lucinda Williams did a nice job with The Ghosts of Highway 20, though with limited tracks on Spotify I had to remember to spin the album the old fashioned way—on the Mac at home.

Dori Freeman is a new Roots music voice out of Appalachian hills of southwestern Virginia, with a self-titled debut on Free Dirt Records.  Both singer and songwriter, Dori got a drop of PR from Rolling Stone back in February, “For Fans of Iris DeMent, Brandy Clark, Alison Krauss”.  The same article promoted The Cactus Blossoms, as well as Ms. Clark.  While Dori’s “Where I Stood” clearly stood out to me, Brandy Clark, The Cactus Blossoms and Elizabeth Cook both delivered albums with several prime cuts.  Its worth checking out Cook’s “Broke Down in London on the M25” and “Methadone Blues”, and most every track on Brandy Clark’s sophomore release, especially the rocking “Girl Next Door”—not a bad cut on the album.

My #2 most-played track was Caitlin Canty’s “Get Up”, which would have easily took the top spot but for Dori’s bewitching tune.  Margo Price’s “Hands of Time” is also a top track deserving to be a Country hit if Country Radio played Country Music anymore, outperforming on a good album.  Tom Brosseau opens his album North Dakota Impressions, with the catchy “No Matter Where I Roam”.  Carrie Rodriguez underplays her hand with the timely “Llano Estacado” off the lovely Lola.  Hot Club of Cowtown rounds out the top 10 with “Call of the Canyon” off Midnight on the Trail, their tribute to both kinds of music, Country AND Western swing.



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2016 Blog Posts in Review—Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty

2016 was a year for the books.  I read a lot more this year, and listened to a lot of good music, so that’s a good thing.  On the other hand, as demographics and biology would decree, our Greatest Generation and Baby Boomer heroes passed away at a seemingly increasing rate—time even started catching up with my Gen X peers.  I endorsed people younger than myself for President of the United States, even though we ended up with a choice between an old corrupt white guy and an old corrupt white woman, electing a neo-Nazi to the White House.  God bless the Republic, if we can keep it.  I also continued my relaxed publishing schedule, working too much and not playing enough.  I don’t do New Years Resolutions, but playing more and working just work hours would be a good one.

#1 post of 2016: Cheyenne-Laramie County, Wyoming, Historical Timeline:  I worked for 2 years on this keyword-rich listing of major events from 1833-1992, published before I left the Cowboy State in 2014, when it was my 2nd most popular post. With 640 page views in 2016, this post returns as #1 this year by far.  (I knew I should have been a historian.)

#2 Diary of Orrin Brown—Dec 15, 1864:  The Battle of Nashville.  Orrin Brown was laying siege to Savannah, Georgia, while Sherman’s Union rear guard held off Confederate John Bell Hood.  With 126 hits, the #2 post from 2015 returns in the same slot this year (historian…).

#3 Behind the Bakken Boom #4 Where the Well Things Are #13 Bittersweet in the Bakken:  These posts are the most popular thing I’ve written that’s remotely work-related.  There’s Oil in them there Bakken hills (and in the Denver-Julesburg, and in the San Juan Basin…) and Natural Gas if you want it.  The 2013 Well Things post was #3 last year with 128 hits, while the 2012 Bakken Boom post from the annual  Western Planner Conference rebounded from just 37 hits in 2015.  Bittersweet in the Bakken is a late 2013 re-post from a high school friend and North Dakota native who had returned to work the oil fields—he has since moved his business back East.  Given the severe pullback in Oil & Gas, these posts deserve a follow-up in the new year (another Resolution, perhaps?).

#5 Little (Lego) House on the Prairie (Style):  Perennially popular post from 2009, where Lego goes all Frank Lloyd Wright, down one spot from last year.

#6 All Things Shepard:  History meets genealogy.  Down one spot, this page is due for some TLC.

#7 Main Street Spearfish:  Flashback from my preview of the Western Planner Conference of 2009 in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  Western Planner went digital-only, subscription-free starting today.  Not all change is good change, but we adapt or die.

#8 Diary of Orrin Brown—Dec 31, 1864: A keyword-rich review of the timeline of the Civil War, from 15 April 1861 to the end of 1864.  Up from #10 last year.

#9 / #1 new post of 2015 Diary of Orrin Brown—March 20, 1865: Pvt. Brown joins the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina, as far as I could figure the only sure time he picked up arms, and just two days before he was put on permanent disability.  The 14th Michigan Infantry held their own.  Down from #6 overall last year.

#10 Back to the Buffalo Commons:  March 2013 post on population change and migration in the Great Plains states, back when oil & gas were creating jobs and attracting new residents.  Also due for a follow-up (pesky Resolutions).

The next dozen most popular posts include several of Orrin Brown’s diary entries in 1864 and 1865, my About page (?), and a couple music posts (Ten Albums for 2015 / 10 More Albums for 2015 / The Day the Music Died).


#1 NEW post of 2016 / #24 overall:  #NeverTrump:  Not only did I publish less, but I published shorter (less keyword-rich) posts.  The theme of the election year, however, was clearly the Presidential race, and for me my participation in (and then alienation from) the Republican primary and general election.  In September, I endorsed independent candidate Evan McMullin for President of the United States.  McMullin continues to serve as an independent Conservative voice in loyal opposition.  As Thomas Jefferson is said to have said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”.

#2 NEW post of 2016 / #26 overall: Dori Freeman, Cactus Blossoms and Loretta Lynn—Winter’s Promise for Spring to Come:  May post highlighting some favorite new Americana albums released early in the year.  Dori ended up with my favorite single of the year (post to be polished and published).  Year-end followup of my favorite Americana Albums for 2016 published just yesterday.


Quality, not Quantity

Traffic definitely reflects my new posts activity.  I published my fewest number of posts last year since I started the blog.  When I was posting Orrin Brown’s Civil War Diary every day, my traffic went up substantially.  So did my Spam traffic; don’t miss that.  Most of my readers are in the United States, with a few with computers in Germany and Brazil (or would those be the Spambots?).

Yet, dear reader, this blog is mostly a repository of my work and play, shared with the Interwebs in case it might help folks out.  That might be reflecting on community and economic development, politics and public policy, or popular culture and the random Pursuit of Happiness.  Whatever your interest, thanks for taking time to visit.

(2015 in Review)



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Americana Albums for 2016

Americana is a broad and ill-defined genre, which really seemed to fit the world we live in in 2016.  It’s more authentic, roots music than Country radio pushed out by Nashville’s Music Row.  It’s a Big Tent—a bit more friendly to the folky political expression of the left-wing, but usually also more open to the funky and the thoughtful than mainstream media.  Sort of “Country Music for People Who Read”.  Whatever Americana is, its where I (mostly) feel culturally at home.  Mostly.

It was a good year for Americana music.  2015 musically was a hard act to follow, yes, but we had some great releases in 2016.  Here’s a sample of some of my favorites.

Left Arm TanLorene

I’d never heard of Fort Worth-based band Left Arm Tan before this summer.  That was my mistake.  I played the heck out of this album in 2016.  LAT’s homepage features a quote from Scott Foley, who became the Americana genre captain at KRFC-FM after I left and has become quite the guy to watch.  Regarding their 2nd album and which rings trump for their 4th album:

Left Arm Tan calls its second full length album Alticana, which sounds like a shortcut for “alternative americana” which some might call alt.country. However the Texas quartet chooses to define their sound… Like Sons of Bill or Reckless Kelly, Left Arm Tan trades in working class country as played by an outfit with road experience and suburban smarts. You won’t find them struggling to sound hard or reaching too desperately for their “alt” cred. Alticana comes across as genuine blue collar music.

Fast Tube

My only caveat is that the band doesn’t do Spotify.  (Insert sad emoji.)  If they streamed, this release would have dominated my last.fm Scrobble charts even more than it did (plus the fact there are 18 tracks on the CD means each time I play it thru it racks up the play count).

Elizabeth CookExodus of Venus

Elizabeth Cook is a lot to handle.  Her new album came out in June, a well-awaited followup to 2010’s ambitious album Welder.  Cook is a helluva singer, a solid songwriter, and self-described Country Outlaw.  The title track opens the album with a bit of a weird vibe (sorta like Sturgill Simpson, maybe), then cranks up the volume.  In the body of the album, two tracks “Broke Down in London on the M25” and “Methadone Blues” stand out, but it was the 3rd track “Evacuation” that caught my ear.  This effort is more Alt.country/rocking than my usual Traditional Country fare, but I’ve been a fan of Roots Rock and the Blues over the years and Cook brings that Outlaw tradition back in style.  She’s playing the Opry Show at the Ryman for New Years Eve if you’re lucky enough to be in Nashville tonight (John Prine, Jason Isbell & Kasey Musgraves are out at the New Opry).  You can get the mp3 version from Amazon right now for $5 from anywhere, whata bargain.

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Brandy ClarkBig Day in a Small Town

Brandy Clark put together the best mainstream Country album I’ve heard in years.  Big Day in a Small Town is a big deal and should be a bigger deal for people who like good old-fashioned Country music.  The title track “Soap Opera” starts out a little weird (are her producers comping notes with Elizabeth Cook’s?) but “Girl Next Door” is a high-octane part two to “Stripes” off her break-thru, Grammy-nominated release 12 Stories.  Clark pounds out examples of her solid songwriting about everyday life with “Homecoming Queen”, “Broke”, “Love Can Go to Hell”, “Three Kids No Husband”, etc. and so on, with first-rate production.  While media outlets have tried to raise hay about her sexual orientation (she co-wrote Kasey Musgrave’s “Follow Your Arrow”), its just not an issue.  This 40 year-old overnight sensation has earned a spot on Country radio.


The Cactus BlossomsYou’re Dreaming

My parents gave me The Cactus Blossoms self-titled self-release a couple years ago when the Twin Cities-based duo played a local show.  Red House Records brought out You’re Dreaming early this year as a showcase of the young band’s retro-Buddy Holly/Everly Brothers 1950s country/rock & roll sound.  I picked up on this album early this year and it stayed on my playlist.  Good clean fun, and DJs don’t have to worry about FCC labels.

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Dori FreemanDori Freeman

I also picked up on Dori Freeman’s self-titled debut early this year and it, too, stayed on my playlist.  The 2nd track, “Where I Stood”, became my top tune of 2016 (watch for an upcoming post) with confident song-writing and straight-forward production.  I don’t remember if Dori hit the AMA chart—I caught a positive review on Twitter, and she survived on several of my favorite critic lists I’ve seen on Twitter, which is ironic since Dori protects her tweets on Twitter.  So charts be damned full speed ahead with good Country music.

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Caitlin CantyReckless Skyline

I played the heck out of this when I first found it in March.  The opening track “Get Up” is an upbeat tune that makes me want to get up and dance a bit, as much as I dance to anything.  It set a good mood.  But otherwise, I know very little about Ms. Canty or this release produced by folk artist Jeffrey Foucault.  “Get Up” was nominated for Song of the Year from Folk Alliance.  Tracks 6 and 7, “Enough About Hard Times” and “Wore Your Ring” are also standout songs.

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Tom BrosseauNorth Dakota Impressions

Tom Brosseau has been one of my favorite folk artists since I first played him at KRFC-FM, on recommendation of the community radio station in Grand Forks, North Dakota.  Tom grew up in the Red River Valley, and as long as he’s toured from a home base in Southern California, he is a Dakota boy at heart.  His work is older than Country music, more folk than Bob Dylan and too honest for radio.

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Reagan BoggsEmpty Glasses

Reagan Boggs is another artist I know next to nothing about, having missed her earlier work.  Hailing from Appalachia, there’s a bit of Gretchen Wilson in her cover shot.  There’s a LOT of Dixie Chicks and Emmylou Harris’ Red Dirt Girl in the emotional 2nd cut “Emily”.  The opening track “The Graves” is classic John Prine “Paradise” meets Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”.  A quality bit of mountain music Kick-started here.

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Hot Club of CowtownMidnight on the Trail

Hot jazz from the heart of Texas brings back an eclectic selection of western swing and cowboy ballads.  The Austin trio put together a nice collection for the way-back machine that is better than darn near anything on the new release charts.  They’re braving the snow & cold to visit our Midwest friends in Michigan and Minnesota in January, good for them.  As long as Hot Club of Cowtown is around, Bob Wills will still be the King of Country AND Western Music.

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Margo PriceMidwest Farmer’s Daughter

Margo Price earned the #4 spot on the No Depression readers’ poll for her debut Midwest Farmer’s Daughter on Jack White’s Third Man Records.  It’s a good album, and her opening track “Hands of Time” is among my favorite songs of the year.  But where Brandy Clark seems to downplay her social status, Ms. Price is a vocal liberal voice in the mold of Steve Earle—more folky than country.  The AMA loves it (she earned Emerging Artist of the Year) but it turns me off.  I’m all for free speech and all, but I get enough preaching from the politicians.  Good songwriters tell stories, and good stories are all about life, including the plight of the oppressed and down-trodden.  Keep it in the songs, please, and better luck next year.

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I enjoyed some very good albums aside from these as well.  Carrie Rodriguez celebrated her heritage with the Spanish-themed Lola—the West Texas Llano Estacado rolls through so many great Country/Folk artists’ subconscious.  Lucinda Williams released one of her better recent albums this year, in her distinct style, with The Ghosts of Highway 20.  I continued to enjoy 2015 releases as well, including Corb Lund’s Things That Can’t Be Undone (and the tear-jerker “S Lazy H”), Brennen Leigh Sings Lefty Frizzell, and Asleep At The Wheel’s Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.

Rumor has it Jason Isbell is planning to record a new album in early 2017.  Looking forward to it and to much more good new Americana music.




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On the Brink of War — America’s Christmas 1916

Power of Peace in the Time of War

Christmas 1916 found America walking a tightrope of neutrality as the World endured the third year of the Great War.  While the Assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in June 1914 precipitated the global conflict, the roots of the war lay in a longstanding system of interlocking alliances and lethal gamesmanship.  While war in Western Europe may seem unthinkable today, people speaking German and people speaking French (and people speaking English) had been shooting at each other pretty much since there were people speaking German and French (and English).

So in the summer of 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Czarist Russia came in on the side of Serbia.  Germany then mobilized against Russia while demanding France stay out of the conflict despite treaty obligations (hoping to avoid a two-front war).  Germany then attacked Luxembourg and declared war on France when Belgium refused to permit German troops to cross its borders.  The UK then declared war on Germany in response to the incursion into Belgium.  And the dominoes fell and Europe got is Great War.

So two entangled alliances took the field.  Germany and Austria-Hungary were the core of the Central Powers, supported by the Ottoman Empire (reduced after the war to the modern nation of Turkey).  The Allied Powers began with Russia, France and the British Empire, along with Serbia, Montenegro, and Belgium.  Japan and Italy even allied with the Allies in the First World War.

On the Western Front, the German and French armies dug into trench warfare across Belgium and France—the Battle of Verdun lasted from February to December 1916, with 700,000 to 1,000,000 casualties in total.  The British Army joined the French on the offense in the Battle of the Somme from July to November 1916.  The Brits lost 420,000 casualties in the Somme, the French 200,000 and the German an estimated 500,000.  In December 1914, in the first year of the war, regular soldiers from both sides took up the spontaneous Christmas truce, putting down their guns for pick-up games of soccer and share good will.  The holiday truce was not to recur again.

On the Eastern Front, Russia quickly attacked Austrian Galicia and East Prussia at the start of hostilities, but were driven back and lost Warsaw in 1915.  In November 1916, Germany and Austria re-created the Kingdom of Poland from formerly Russian territory as a puppet state.  Dissatisfaction with the war grew in Russia as Tsar Nicholas led from the Austrian front, leaving governance to Empress Alexandra and the now infamous Grigori Rasputin, until his assassination at the end of December 1916.  Revolution was coming to Russia in the New Year, which would collapse the Eastern Front, but this was not a foregone conclusion at Christmas time.

In the Balkans, Austria-Hungary and Serbia, and their allies, attacked and counter-attacked.  Bulgaria declared war on Serbia, while Romania later came in for the Allies.  In Greece. the pro-German King Constantine and Franco-Britsh forces contended for control before the King abdicated.  Meanwhile, Italy, which had been allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary, had secretly allied with France with an eye on gaining territory on the Dalmatian coast.  In May 1915, Italy declared war on Germany but suffered from poor strategies and tactics in the mountainous terrain.  From April 1915 to January 1916, Britain, France and Russia engaged the Ottomans in the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign, causing about 250,000 casualties on each side.  Winston Churchill, veteran of India and the Boer Wars, served in the British Admiralty at the beginning of the war but resigned after the Gallipoli campaign, going on to serve on the Western Front.

The United States of America stood on the sidelines through all this, for the most part.  However, on the high seas German cruisers and the British Royal Navy systematically hunted each other and each others merchant ships.  In 1915, German U-boats sunk the passenger ship RMS Lusitania without warning, sending 1,198 passengers and crew to a watery grave, leading to widespread condemnation from neutral nations as a breach of international law.  Sinking the Lusitania, on top of the 1914 Rape of Belgium, seemed to have broken American opinion in favor of war, despite equally wide-spread isolationism in the U.S. leading up to the Presidential election of 1916.

Looking back a century later, it might seem obvious that America would get sucked into the Great War.  The Central Powers and Allies had extended their battle fronts from Europe across the Middle East, Africa and the Orient.  Unrestricted naval and submarine warfare put Americans and American merchants in very real danger everywhere.  But at the time, the Great War had not hit the homeland.  While Pancho Villa had crossed the Mexican border, at Christmas 1916 we were still weeks away from the devastating Zimmermann telegram.  At Christmas 1916, it was still THEIR war.  It was soon to become OUR war.



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Top Americana Tunes for 2016 — From Radio and Print

Joe Haupt on Flickr, CC Attribution

Joe Haupt on Flickr, CC Attribution

The top music of the year lists are coming out in time for Xmas holiday gift-giving. I’m more of a traditionalist and save MY lists for 1 January, but you can’t fight the machine all of the time. So think of this as a preview of MY “real” list to come….and if you’re looking for Christmas gift ideas (hint, hint).

No Depression Readers’ Poll
The once and now again No Depression magazine (alt.country, whatever that is) has evolved a bit over the years. They nominate 300 new releases and let their readers (with website log-ons) vote by comment, for their nominees or other worthy opponents. It’s a bit of a mess, but pretty close to grassroots polling. I often agree with much of the No Depression Top 50 list. I often disagree with just as much. This year is a mix.

  1. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
  2. Drive-By Truckers – American Band
  3. Lucinda Williams – The Ghosts of Highway 20
  4. Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
  5. John Prine – For Better, Or Worse
  6. Alejandro Escovedo – Burn Something Beautiful
  7. Hayes Carll – Lovers and Leavers
  8. Wilco – Schmilco
  9. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
  10. Amanda Shires – My Piece of Land

I like Sturgill, and I’m glad he’s taking the country by storm, but I like him when he’s more country than pop.  I was underwhelmed by A Sailor’s Guide, which will probably end up in my Top 20 if I give it another try.  I think he can do better, but it may just be he’s moved farther from his roots than I like but the rest of radio land will reward him for his flexibility.  Drive-By Truckers and Lucinda Williams are established veterans with solid releases that didn’t really catch me like I thought they wood.  Margo Price is a rising star but she’s got a Steve Earle preacher-ness to her that turns me off.  I know it was a disappointing election year and all, but leave the preaching for the choir.  John Prine has another classic duets album that came out late in the year.  And I’m a Son Volt-guy—I don’t pay much attention to Wilco even without all the other good music out this year.

Americana Radio Chart
I was a member of the Americana Music Association soon after it started up, when I was active in the start-up at KRFC-FM.  I’ve followed the AMA since, both their annual Awards program and their weekly Americana Radio Chart.  Some respected Roots Radio commentators pooh-pooh AMA as a liberal Janus to the mainstream CMA & Nashville’s Music Row.  It’s definitely the Establishment of the Counter-Country Establishment.  That said, I try to at least sample each week’s Top 10 on my Spotify lists.  The Americana Radio 2016 Top 100 end of year’s radio spins, tho, tracks my tastes much less than No Depression.  But it’s still interesting:

  1. The Avett Brothers – True Sadness
  2. Tedeschi Trucks Band – Let Me Get By
  3. Bonnie Raitt – Dig In Deep
  4. The Lumineers – Cleopatra
  5. Hayes Carll – Lovers and Leavers
  6. Parker Millsap – The Very Last Day
  7. Mudcrutch – 2
  8. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
  9. Colvin & Earle – Colvin & Earle
  10. The Jayhawks – Paging Mr. Proust

My Americana maven friend Sacha K. loved the Avett Brothers’ release.  I played it once.  Much too pop for my country roots.  The Twitterverse thinks its the AAA-crossover radio stations calling it Americana for lack of better terms and throwing the chart.  #meh.  Hayes Carol is another solid Texas folky Americana, Bonnie Raitt is a class act, and Steve Earle is an institution, but again, I was underwhelmed with what made the list.

Freeform American Roots (FAR)
The third list I usually track is 3rd Coast’s Freeform American Roots (FAR) Chart, that I also contributed to back in KRFC-FM days (reporter JCS). 2016 has been a tough year on musicians, and we said goodbye to music critic John Conquest, who published the FAR chart. I’ve heard there are efforts in Austin to keep his legacy alive. I hope we do because the FAR Chart was the best thing in American Roots Music since Townes Van Zandt, and I’d stand on Steve Earle’s coffeetable in my boots and say so. #RIP John C., and God Bless Real Country Music.

The numbers will come together over the next two weeks, but Xmas time is mostly Xmas music.  Left Arm Tan’s Lorene is my Album of the Year, and they would have even more Scrobbles on last.fm if they were on Spotify.  Dori Freeman’s “Where I Stood” off her self-titled debut is my Song of the Year.  It tells a story with catchy instrumentation.  And I played Merle Haggard more than any other artist in 2016.  Watch for the rest of the lists come New Years.  #RIP.



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The Election of 1916: “America First” to First World War

America First 1916

100 years ago, in November of 1916, America was also recovering from a controversial Presidential election.  Progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson, PhD, had taken the U.S. presidency in 1912, when the Republican Party had split between incumbent President William Howard Taft and previous President Theodore Roosevelt, the later losing the nomination and taking his voters to a third-party (the Progressive “Bull Moose” party).  “Progressive” at the time was a much different term than today, but I digress.  Roosevelt outpolled Taft, but lost the popular vote and Electoral College to the professor from New Jersey.

Increasingly concerned about Wilson’s academic peace policy, Roosevelt put his hat back in the Presidential ring in 1916, but at the convention he mended fences with the GOP Establishment and supported compromise candidate Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes.  Among the typical domestic issues, the campaign took place against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution that had spilled across our Southern border in March of the year, when Pancho Villa attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico.  Villa’s guerrillas killed a dozen U.S. soldiers and lead John J. “Black Jack” Pershing and the U.S. Cavalry on a fool’s errand incursion into the deserts of old Mexico.  The Great War in Europe, which was rapidly expanding across Africa and the Middle East, loomed even larger.

The race was close.  As was traditional for a sitting President, Wilson relied on surrogates to campaign while Hughes criss-crossed the country hammering the incumbent.  Results the evening of November 7th, 1916, indicted a Republican victory.  It wasn’t out of the question, since no Democrat had won a second term since Andrew Jackson in 1832.  California tipped the vote for the incumbent.  The popular vote ended up 49% to 46%, with the Socialist candidate gaining 3%.  The Electoral College gave Wilson 277 votes to Hughes’ 254, which was sufficient for re-election.*

In line with public sentiment, Wilson had pursued a negotiated peace and Wilson’s supporters had campaigned on keeping America out of the European conflict.  Yet despite his campaign promises, within a month of his March 1917 second inauguration Wilson was asking Congress to declare war.

*Montana also elected Republican Jeannette Rankin as the first woman in the U.S. House of Representatives.  She would vote against that declaration of war the next year.


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The Holcroft Covenant

The Holcroft CovenantThe Holcroft Covenant by Robert Ludlum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

History repeats itself…unless it doesn’t. Unless we learn the lessons of history, and many times lessons are better learned in stories, mythology and tall tales. Robert Ludlum was a master of post-war mythology, spy stories and larger than life characterizations. After the 2016 election, I pulled an old copy of the Holcroft Covenant off my shelf, not for the first time but as an antidote. No spoilers, but let’s just say recently truth has been stranger than fiction, and this fiction is even more believable today than it was a generation ago.

“They were everywhere. It had only begun.”

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Getting Ahead of the Aging Curve

Preparing for Demographic Change in Rural America

Metro-NonMetro Popultion by Age

Reprinted from the Small Town & Rural Planning newsletter, Fall 2016.

The other night, Planning Commission was looking at demographics in our rural county of about 12,000, with a touch of skepticism.  Archuleta County grew rapidly during the last boom, and fell hard in the housing bust.  Nobody expects that level of growth to return to our corner of the Western US, but things are picking up again.  Oil & Gas are down, but the Four Corners region continues to attract tourism, and we are on track this year to issue the most new single family home permits since 2007.

So what’s changed?  The world has changed, that’s what.  Or more particularly, the demographics of our known world has changed.

As the STaR newsletter noted in Summer 2015, Millenials (ages 18-34 in 2015) now outnumber Baby Boomers (ages 51-69) nationwide.  Generation X (ages 35-50) continue to plug along, caught between the two.  And the Millenials continue to swell, according to the Pew Research Center, as young immigrants follow the American dream.

Small towns are used to hearing about “brain drain” of young adults leaving home for college and life in the big cities.  If you look at US Census figures for population by age, it’s clear that Metropolitan Areas across the US have a younger population profile, with a larger share of population in every age category under 45 years old.  Like much of life, the story—the rural narrative—is more complicated than the sound bite.

Ben Winchester, research fellow with University of Minnesota Extension, has highlighted a trend he dubs “Brain Gain”.  When you look more closely at the Census data, many rural communities are attracting 30-49 year-old adults and their young children, mitigating some of that out-migration.  Going out and talking to real people making this move, folks told Winchester they were looking for “a simpler life, safety and security, affordable housing, outdoor recreation, and.. a quality school.”

Generation X are not the only life-style migrants on the move.  Baby Boomers have been disrupting “normal” their entire lives, and many are entering an “Active Retirement.”  The Baby Boomers, confounding the experts as always, are moving less and when they move are avoiding the expected migration magnets, especially in larger metro areas notes Jeremy Goldstein of Renaissance Planning.

Some Boomers may be trapped underwater by the housing crisis, but others are choosing to age in place, creating “naturally occurring retirement communities”.  As the Urban Land Institute highlights, this creates both challenges and opportunities for local government.

Last year at the APA National Conference in Seattle, the AARP launched the Livability Index, a simple online tool reflecting research into amenities important to many senior citizens—housing, transportation, neighborhood character, environment, health, and civic engagement.

And here’s where it gets interesting.

Millenials are seeking many of the same lifestyle amenities as the Baby Boomers.  As the Urban Land Institute also points out,  Millenials are looking for sustainable, safe, walkable neighborhoods, but also are increasingly concerned with affordability.  As one young professional in Denver explained about their urban neighborhood “There’s sense of community here, with people of all ages doing things together. This is important; it roots me to where I am.”   Even if  you’re not growing, if you build no new homes people are going to look elsewhere.  Build a quality community attractive to Millenials and you’ll have a community attractive across generations.

Affordable housing is a big concern in my mountain community.  Where just a few years ago, foreclosures drove down single-family home prices, it is now  difficult to find long-term rentals, whether due to the popularity of Air-BnB or the general pain-in-the-neck factor of being a landlord in a small town.  To make the rental situation worse, local contractors have not built one new multi-family unit in the County jurisdiction since 2007.

Critics pin the blame for housing inflation on over-regulation, such as building code requirements for minimum square footage and flush toilets, minimum lot sizes and separation of uses.  Maybe there’s something to that.  In September, the White House issued a “Housing Development Toolkit” using the bully pulpit to attack local zoning restrictions and lengthy public review processes.  When both the Cato Institute and President Obama agree on an issue, we better pay attention.

John C. Shepard, AICP, is Planning Manager at Archuleta County, Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and outgoing STaR VC-Communications.


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