In the summer of 2004, Marvin Heemeyer fortified a bulldozer with armor and stormed the town of Granby, immediately rolling into Colorado history. To many — particularly those of a libertarian stripe — he is a legend: Wronged by government and journalists, Heemeyer set out in his Killdozer to wreak his revenge on the system.
The man who obliterated a newspaper office, a town hall, a concrete plant, a hardware store and a library, among other businesses (all while being shot at by law enforcement), and ultimately killed himself has become something of a folk hero, to the disdain of many Granby residents who suffered through the rampage.
Still, folk heroes, the virtuous and villainous alike, inspire more than their fair share of songs. There’s “The Ballad of Jesse James,” a paean to the bank robber, a Confederate terrorist who wrote treatises celebrating slavery. There’s "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," about the alleged “king of the wild frontier,” who spent much of his life massacring Native Americans before dying at the Alamo in a fight against Mexican troops. And, of course, there’s “John Brown’s Body,” the tribute to the famous abolitionist who pledged to God to destroy slavery and went on to butcher its proponents, even attempting to start a slave insurrection, before writing “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood” just before being executed, his death remembered by poet Walt Whitman and in the singing of Union soldiers.
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When the members of Front Range bluegrass band Bowregard were looking for subjects on which to base songs for their debut album, Arrows, they found Heemeyer's tale irresistible. “The story itself is almost unbelievable: A disgruntled man secretly builds an armored bulldozer in his shed, then goes on a rampage destroying buildings connected to people who he felt wronged him,” says Justin Konrad, Bowregard’s resonator-guitar player. “It’s a major event in recent Colorado history, and a compelling story.”
But also a troubling one — which the musicians recognize.
“The difficulty...was that the band didn’t want to glorify these actions,” Konrad explains. “While no one died other than Marvin, that was apparently more due to luck than to planning. For example, the local library had a children’s program in progress at the time he drove into the building.”
The bandmates didn't want it to look like they were celebrating violence as a way to resolve disputes; they believe in cooperation and collaboration, and reject divisiveness on principle. Commemorating a man who terrorized a community risked poor taste...but the tale was just too good to ignore.
“There are always better ways to air and resolve grievances without endangering lives,” says Konrad. “Though, of course, those wouldn’t have made for as interesting a story.”
As the bandmates chronicled the Killdozer rampage, they tried to do so as objectively as possible. “The language hints that we don’t approve — for example, calling the armored bulldozer a ‘death machine’ and talking about the cries and screams of bystanders — but in the end, we wanted to tell a uniquely Colorado story without overt moralizing, since it can rob a story of its power if you feel like you’re being preached to,” Konrad notes.
The band did take some artistic liberties to improve the lyrics and renamed the main character John, so that nobody might think it was a documentary effort gone awry. Still, Heeymeyer is undoubtedly the focus of "A Reasonable Man (Killdozer)."
“The title, ‘A Reasonable Man,’ came from Marvin Heemeyer’s writings, in which he portrayed himself as a ‘reasonable man' who was forced to do unreasonable things,” says Konrad. “The irony of this fascinated us.”
The band tacked on the subtitle of the song, “Killdozer,” after audiences chanted the word at a WinterWonderGrass Festival performance of "Reasonable Man."
“Honestly, we knew that writing a song about this subject was fraught with possible misinterpretations,” admits Konrad. “But in the end, it’s such an interesting story that we felt it was worth it to set it to music and see where it went.”
The song — like most of the others on Arrows, which was recorded at eTown Studio and produced by Hot Rize member and eTown host Nick Forster — is hard-driving classic bluegrass, more the stuff of the Appalachians than the jamgrass of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. With that sound, Bowregard has made its name in the local scene, playing alongside groups like Turkeyfoot, Wood Belly, Masontown, Bonnie & the Clydes, Thunder & Rain and the Cody Sisters; winning awards at Ullrgrass and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival; and positioning itself for national tours once the world reopens.
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While the bandmates are willing to play responsibly organized shows in the meantime, there are many more important things to Bowregard right now: supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight for racial justice, for example, and honoring frontline health and retail workers trying to keep people safe and fed through the pandemic.
Bowregard's members are hardly the libertarian types the song suggests they might be. They want people to get engaged and stay engaged. “We encourage everyone to get out and vote this fall, and to support a fair and open election, including remote voting, such as we enjoy in Colorado,” says Konrad. “Politics has become intimately personal in a way it never has been in our lifetimes, and we hope that everyone will step up to that responsibility and make their voices heard.”
And above all, take personal responsibility for making the world a better, safer place. "Wear your damn masks," urges Konrad, "so that we can get things safely reopened and get back to playing shows!”
Hear more from Bowregard at bowregard.com.