Last spring, multi-instrumentalist Steve Varney was preparing for another summer of playing in singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov’s band. The group was poised to continue touring the world, and even perform at Coors Field on a locals-only bill with the Lumineers. Of course, COVID-19 wrecked those plans. Since then, Varney — whose solo project is called Kid Reverie — has spent most of his time teaching music lessons via Zoom and writing and reflecting at his home on Isakov’s farm in Boulder, where the string player lives with his partner and seven-year-old daughter.
This spring, a skeleton of a song popped into Varney’s mind, and then, before he could finish it, a gunman opened fire at a Boulder King Soopers store. Ten people died, and our world stopped again, for different reasons: grief, confusion, rage. Varney, a Columbine High School graduate, wrote new words for the song he was working on, both in response to the Boulder shooting and to honor the 22nd anniversary of the shooting at Columbine, where his older brother was a junior when the massacre happened on April 20, 1999.
Looking back on the Columbine shooting, Varney says, “It just presented the immediate need to grow up so fast. It felt so dreamlike, and then you heard about another one and another one, but I didn’t feel the way that I felt on that day ever again until the Boulder shooting."
Varney was fourteen years old, attending Ken Caryl Middle School, when the Columbine massacre happened, and he didn’t know whether his older brother, Matt, had survived until Matt came to pick him up. Earlier in the day, at Columbine, Matt chose off-campus lunch and drove away moments before the shooting started.
Being a part of the first freshman class at Columbine after the shooting, knowing that the upper classmen had experienced something so horrifying, so unthinkable and traumatic, was disorienting, says Varney, whose younger brother is now an English teacher at the school.
“This kind of feeling was never, like, put on me, but it definitely was like, ‘We weren’t here for that, but everyone else was,’" he says. "They tried to hit ‘refresh’ as much as they could, but there was the annual reminder of where I was going to high school, and the odd things toward the beginning, like watching people come by in tour buses. But then, at some point, you’re just in high school, thinking about if anyone’s gonna want to go to prom with you.
“It wasn’t hard to achieve a normalcy feeling, but I definitely was aware that anyone in a grade above me was having a very different experience, a very traumatic experience," he continues. "And teachers, too. A lot of families broke apart, and there were a lot of suicides around those families. You would hear about somebody years later...just, ‘They never got better.’”
The King Soopers shooting brought a lot of those feelings back for Varney, who feverishly wrote the sparse, straightforward “Wild West,” which mixes the Americana drawl of early Dylan with a poignant, thumping irreverence not unlike Kurt Vile; the song also includes the Lumineers’ Lauren Jacobson on beautifully lyrical violin.
“Wild West,” drawing a line between Columbine and the King Soopers shooting, is careful to provide more questions than answers and boasts “by far” the most lyrics Varney says he has ever included in one of his songs. He was even compelled to whittle it down from the original, longer draft.
“At some point, I quit writing about what my ideal gun policies would be, and I just really began to grieve through the song,” he says. “I cut a lot of things out, like harping on certain politicians and mentioning other shootings. I didn’t try to be cryptic or go into poetic lyrics. I didn’t get overly eloquent with the language. I let the artfulness give way to just saying a lot, and that’s a first — to just be so blunt with the lyrics and not let metaphor take it at any point. I had an index in my mind of things I wanted to touch on — all the feelings I’ve had for 22 years.”
“Wild West” is crafted in such a way that any backlash Varney might receive will have to include an answer to his two basic questions: “Aren’t you tired of this happening?” and “How can we stop it?”
Outside of his open-ended song, though, Varney does have opinions and ideas, of course.
“I like guns; I’ve enjoyed guns my whole life,” he says, “but we’re really bad at having them. I’ll take a country where we say, ‘No, you don’t get assault rifles. That’s one of the things we don’t allow.’
“I’m kind of stunned by what people can get,” he continues. “I don’t think we would be creating a really hyper-exclusive society, or highly restrictive society, to say, ‘Citizens don’t need body armor, silencers, tactical gear.’ I can hear the argument from the other side already: ‘I wanna feel like I’m in my beautiful, free country as well.’
"There seems to be this imbalance of ‘We’re worried about guns hurting people’ and ‘We’re worried about guns being taken away,’" Varney concludes. "No one’s trying to take guns away. No one ever talks about that. That’s not even discussed. But people are hurt, a lot. So whose fear is more valid and proven?”
This story has been updated to clarify Matt Varney's experience of the shooting.
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