Why did the chicken cross the road?
To get to the chopper to strafe the coppers who were tracking the cow that was packing the Uzi.
At least that’s how that old joke goes in Dana Lyons’ world.
Except that the Washington state singer/songwriter/activist’s version is barnyards beyond your usual chicken yarn — it’s actually a riotous song, “Cows With Guns,” written now more than five years ago.
Lyons was touring in Ireland when we talked by phone recently — “Cows With Guns” has been on the Irish Top 40 since October. (It’s already been a hit in Australia, while in the U.S., it’s topped several major metro cities’ request lists over the years, and was No. 1 in 1997 on wacky-music-meister Dr. Dimento’s Twisted Tunes chart.)
This tale of bovine freedom — a big Moo you! from the cud-chewing crowd — with its continued but ever-changing “Cows with guns” refrain, gave Lyons pause when he was asked to perform the song recently at an Irish grammar school. But the kids already knew all the words, including the off-color “Cow well hung.”
“I told them, ‘I don’t usually sing this at primary school,” Lyons admits with a laugh. “‘Pissed in his eye’ is their favorite line.
“Everywhere I go, they now refer to me as the ‘Cows With Guns’ guy,” he adds with another chuckle.
Though Lyons, whose style crisscrosses the musical map and whose singing alternates between a sweet tenor and a wonderfully campy baritone, couches much of his socio-political commentary in twisted humor, he’s not just some musical comedian a la Corky & The Juice Pigs. He finds comedy refreshing when it helps to make his point, he says.
And sometimes, the message is pretty pointed indeed.
The goofy cabaret of “I’d Go Anywhere to Fight for Oil to Lubricate the Red, White & Blue,” written in 1991 (concerning the first Gulf War), was revamped last November and re-released as a single on Lyons’ own Reigning Records. The song, now boasting a brass section but with lyrics untouched from the original, is timely all over again.
Lyons, abroad since the Iraq war started, intends to be cautious about playing the song live when he returns Stateside. The subject matter can be polarizing, he explains.
“When I play Asheville, I’m gonna take a hard look at the audience and just follow my instinct,” Lyons elaborates. “If there’s people there that I think will be upset by the song, I won’t play it. I just don’t see my job as to preach to people; my job is as an entertainer, and I want everyone to feel welcome.
“I will sing war songs, and I’ll probably speak about [the war], but I’m going to try to do it in an extremely respectful fashion, so that anyone who has family in the war — I have family in the war — will know that I respect them. That’s my bottom line.”
“Oil” has been unofficially banned by BBC Radio affiliates in England, Lyons reveals. Meanwhile, it’s a hit on Ireland’s own national station.
A Lyons cut from the mid-’80s, “Our State is a Dumpsite,” has an even stranger success story.
“Our state is a dumpsite,” go a few of the lyrics. “Plutonium 239/ Our state is a dumpsite/ Just set it over there, that’s fine.”
More than a dozen representatives in the Washington State Legislature co-sponsored a resolution to make “Dumpsite” the official state song; alas, the measure didn’t pass. The song is listed in Washington’s Songs and Lore, the state’s centennial songbook (it’s No. 75).
Talk about subverting the proverbial paradigm!
So Lyons is an activist first, or a musician? It’s not that easy, he says.
“I’ve always done both,” Lyons explains.
His Asheville show is in conjunction with his WNC visit as part of the private environmental-activism-focused 2003 Roots & Shoots College Summit at Warren Wilson College on April 9-13 (see “Scientist/Activist Jane Goodall to Swing Through Asheville” in the Notepad section of this issue).
In 1990, Lyons released a set of environmental songs for kids (At Night They Howl at the Moon), recorded live with Australia’s John Seed at Washington-state summer camps. One song, “The Tree,” became the basis for Lyons’ well-received illustrated children’s book of the same name (Illumination Arts, 1987).
You will actually find love songs scattered throughout Lyons’ seven-album recorded output — though even those tend to harbor some bigger social message. Which begs the question: Is Lyons ever able to turn the activist side of himself off?
“Probably not,” he admits with a hearty laugh.
“Honey, would you please turn that side of you off?” he quips.
Activism is often a matter of perspective, Lyons adds more seriously. As Pete Seeger has said, all songs are love songs.