In the wake of what can only be described as America’s mass shooting epidemic, some local folks use music to express sentiments of camaraderie over fear and intimidation. During a cool late-October dawn, dozens of free-spirited musicians congregated toward the middle of the Ronald Kirk Bridge, tuning their instruments on park benches as Dallas’ skyline stood behind them.
These song-strumming friends strolled onto the pedestrian walkway over the Trinity River to jam at the fifth Open Carry Guitar Rally, which started as one man’s parody and has now turned into a veritable community gathering.
“We’re carrying our guitars in a show of peace and harmony and to show what music brings to the community,” Dan Newland said, while plucking strings on his headless Steinberger bass.
Few formalities were present. Like a busker free-for-all, rallygoers circle around and start to play instruments. As one might slap hands to a blue wooden beatbox, another might begin to sing.
Annie Benjamin, who sports blue hair and a pink tutu dress, strummed her Gretsch acoustic and sang Ida Cox’s “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” a vaudeville-style blues song, as others backed her rhythm. Several costumed civilians celebrating early Halloween walked by from a festival at the bridge’s end. Some stopped to watch.
“I think it surprises a lot of people who are walking along,” said Benjamin, a full-time musician who attended the first rally. “They hear us and say, ‘What’s going on over there? What’s with all those weirdos playing guitar?’ and then they come and start singing songs that they know too, and it just becomes a real joyful experience. I think it’s important, especially right now, because we are all disjointed. We’re holding so many directions, and music unifies people.”
Barry Kooda, who hatched the idea, moseyed up from the skyline horizon like the hero of a spaghetti-western flick, with a black guitar slung behind his back, and joined the jam.
Kooda, born Barry Huebner, grew from Dallas’ punk scene, where he bashed and trashed with his band The Nervebreakers. He’s nestled himself in the local music community for decades. And in 2014, he found a way for his fellow musicians to celebrate peace, love and harmony through music, in response to people toting large firearms as a Second Amendment expression.
“To carry [assault rifles] in public is just intimidating and makes people uncomfortable,” Kooda says. “And when people started carrying guns into restaurants we said, ‘Dude, this is wrong.’ Yes, you have that right, but I have the right to stand in the middle of a playground full of kids holding two rakes in both hands spinning in circles. I can say, ‘As long as I don’t hit someone, it’s my right.’ But it’s not right.”
In response to some gun activists, he stepped onto his front porch to parody open carry firearm movements of the time. His wife snapped an iPhone pic and posted it to a Facebook page. Soon after, Kooda’s antic kick-started Dallas’ open guitar carry concept.
“It was a joke. It was a joke page,” he says. But after about 1,000 people responded on Facebook, indicating their planned attendance, the first open carry guitar rally came to fruition.
This year’s spectacle culminated when rallygoers called for Kooda to lead David Bowie’s “Heroes.” He ambled to the middle of the jam circle and strummed his stickered guitar. Others caressed chords and sang altogether, “We can beat them, just for one day. We can be heroes, just for a day.”
Kooda sang the song at the first rally, where friends canaried the tune as a token for their cause. Now it’s become the event’s unofficial anthem.
After the session, Kooda handed yellow stickers around, to be slapped onto guitar bodies. The stickers depict a snake bannering the words “Don’t Shred on Me,” a logo Kooda’s friend created to boast the rally’s tongue-and-cheek, but relevant, message.
The Open Carry Guitar Rally might be testament to music’s inclusivity, but the event serves as playing grounds for one local sect’s reoccurring desire to radiate peace and unity during turbulent times.
“I like the message,” Benjamin says. “I think Barry's a phenomenal human being, and I love the idea of pulling all these musicians together to sing about love and friendship and working things out through art rather than with guns and weapons. I just love it, and it’s now become kind of a rite of passage for all of us to come hang out."