What is Red Dirt Music Anyway? (Part 2: The Next Generation of Red Dirt and the Yellow House)
What is Red Dirt Music Anyway? (Part 2: The Next Generation of Red Dirt and the Yellow House.)
By Tonya Little
Stillwater, Okla.- This is part two in a series that outlines the history of red dirt music, which started with the feature ‘What is Red Dirt Music Anyway: a history and The Farm”, if you missed it, go read it now and catch up.
The History of the Red Dirt music scene spans several decades and is full of people and places. Unfortunately at this time it carries on mostly as just an oral history from the people who were around at the time. Sadly some of those people are no longer around with us, but I’m thankful for the people that are, who share these stories and carry on the Red Dirt legacy. It deserves a place in history. It’s my goal to compile all of the stories and history into a book soon, and give it the place it deserves.
We left off at the end of part one at The Farm in the early 90’s, it was thriving and building momentum during that time. Bob Childers moved out there into a trailer onto the property, and all the musicians around knew that it was the place to go for jam sessions at any time. Many bands that traveled through and played gigs in Stillwater just stayed at The Farm in the process. There’s a Youtube video titled “The Farm Stillwater 1993”, just fifteen minutes long, that gives a good look at a day at The Farm and the people there.
“That was as close to what happened and what went on at the farm as anything I’ve ever seen. We had an annual croquet tournament, we talk about going to the prison and we went there that day to play. I wish there was more documentation, there were cameras but not like today,” said John Cooper, of The Red Dirt Rangers about The Farm video.
It was a songwriter’s commune, a place for songwriters to come hone their craft and learn the ropes of the scene from those who had been in it longer than they had.
“We were pretty much the odd bunch of hippies in a farmhouse on the edge of town; part Woody Guthrie, part Jack Kerouac, part Bob Dylan, “ said Jimmy LaFave in an article in The Dallas Observer back in 2014. “We were all out there, almost like the counter-counterculture just doing our thing out there in the farmhouse. It was just a magical era and time of creativity.”
Although the Farm got its start in 79, more and more of the more well known Red Dirt Musicians started filtering in during the 90’s, including Brandon Jenkins, who went to school in Stillwater from 87-92.
“I guess officially, my first official gig on my own at a bar was at Willie’s Saloon in 1990. I had played a couple of other things at Eskimo Joes before that just for these little things, kind of songwriter nights, but it wasn’t my own gig. So when I turned 21 which happened to be in 1990, I could finally play in the bars and I started playing Willie’s saloon,” recalled Jenkins. “I kind of got to be in the crossroads of a couple of different groups of Red Dirt. A lot of people in their mind if you say Red Dirt, there’s kind of different generations of Red Dirt, back then when I was up there, kind of the big drawer or big act of Red dirt was Jimmy Lafave. He had this thing called the Jimmy Lafave reunion weekend, and that’s kind of when I first met the Red Dirt Rangers and those guys, was around a Jimmy Lafave weekend thing. That was kind of my first introduction to The Farm was going to that reunion thing and then afterwards everyone went out to the farm and played and partied. It wasn’t as a singer/songwriter, it was more just the stagger on dude that came out there, I was just in school and nobody knew me from Adam. Everybody just wanted to get their turn playing guitar around the campfire. That’s where I met Bob Childers and those guys.”
That was also around the same time that Mike McClure came onto the scene and found his way there as well.
“I moved to Stillwater in 90 or 91, and I moved and I didn’t know anybody. I was just sitting on my balcony playing acoustic, working on a song and my neighbor who I had just met came over and introduced himself and we became friends and he said ‘hey I’ve got these friends’, they were the Great Divide guys and they need a lead guitar player,” explained Mcclure about his history in Stillwater. “So he introduced me to those guys, really just by playing on my patio is how I got involved in that. We did our first album and Bob Childers showed up at my house and he was this long haired guy. He said ‘hey I’m a song writer I heard you guys are a band’ and he gave me the album Circles Towards the Sun. I listened to it and I didn’t like it at first, but the more I listened to it, it just really grew on me in a strange way. Tom Skinner’s “Used to Be” and Bob Childers “Restless Spirits”, those two songs for me define Red Dirt and that’s what they called it and I wanted to be a part of it and just everybody that went through that Stillwater vortex.”
McClure made it into Stillwater and into the scene just a few years before Cody Canada.
“I opened up for Toby Keith when I was 16 in Yukon, where I grew up, and I met a DJ there named Dave Dodson who lives in Corpus now, I still see him. I saw him again after that Toby show, I have a fake ID and I saw him at Incahoots and he was there, in the bathroom, and he just kinda stared at me from the corner of his eye and I said ‘hey man’ and he said ‘hey, don’t tell anybody I’m here’ and I said well don’t tell anybody I’m here, I’m 16 years old,” laughed Canada. “Really that kind of blossomed our friendship, and after that we just had a laugh at Incahoots, and then he said ‘I want to introduce you to a band called The Great Divide, they are looking for another dude, and I think you need to do something original not a cover song’. I went and met them and I never really went back to Yukon. I played in the band for a little bit, practiced and played a couple shows and then Mike said‘the other guys, respectfully, don’t want you in the band’. I said well I’m gonna go home and gather up some of my friends and we’re gonna start up a band. Went home and called Ragsdale and we made Ragweed and then I moved all my stuff to Stillwater and slept on Mike’s couch. This was 94. I had recently been kicked out of high school, it was perfect timing, I needed something to do. I didn’t know you could do your own music, I was just naïve, I thought other people wrote for you I didn’t know you could write and sign your own songs.”
They all have their Farm stories to tell, of days and nights spent soaking up the energy and experiences.
“When I’d go out there I hung out mostly with a guy named Scott Evans who’s a great singer/songwriter. He was out there a lot, the Red Dirt Ranger guys and Skinner would be out there, you just never knew who would be out there jamming. Trying out and playing new songs that everyone had written and that was cool because it was like a trying ground to go play your song. You would hear a great one and go home and start rewriting it trying to make it better, that’s mainly what I gained from The Farm. Just a writing training ground, not trying to be, it just was by default,” said Mcclure
In fact Canada says he made his way to The Farm because of McClure.
“I went out to the Farm for the first time one night, I was crashing on Mike’s couch and he told me to come out. I didn’t have a car at the time, I had one but it didn’t run so he said ‘hey just take my bike and if you ride this way just about 4 miles and on the left there’s a little gate and a farm house, you should come out on Sunday and see what it’s like, you’ll like it I think’. So I went there and ended up staying there for a few nights and ended up sleeping on that nasty couch. That’s where I met Skinner, and man he just took me under his wing, and really I felt like I was there every day. If I wasn’t there playing or watching, I was visiting, because you know Bob lived there and Scott Evans lived there and Eric Waldo our drummer, we shared him, Mike and I,” explained Canada. “We had some good nights out there. I remember this one night, I don’t really remember why so many people were there this night, like people drove from Nashville and Kansas and Nebraska, and there were some people that were just fans, and it was just a big jam, nothing special. Just for some reason everyone was there, and it really sunk in that night, because I saw Tom singing a Bob song to Bob, like singing a song back to him and I remember Bob saying ‘you can always sing other people’s stuff better, you can definitely sing it better than me’ and I thought, man that’s love. I mean and balls, singing somebody’s song right to them for no other reason than to say ‘hey I learned your song’ and that’s when I realized this is where I’ve gotta be. I knew we were in something, that something was blossoming, but I didn’t know what it was. I knew that someday I would know what it was. I remember every night, every night growing up in Stillwater, I remember the Farm. It really was a magical experience.”
Another well known name that came upon the scene at the time had his own Farm story to tell as well. Jason Boland sat down and shared his experiences with Dan Murphy of Just Beyond the Red River about his history in Stillwater during this time period.
“The first time I walked out there I knew where it was, and I heard Mike McClure and Cody Canada were going out there. Mike was still kind of the connection there, he was a little bit older than all of us by just a couple of years. He had been going out there longer than us, had just gone through the process of meeting all of these people. It’s hard to really step back and think about the pre-internet world again where you had to search out music that wasn’t fed to you through the radio,” recalled Boland. “The first time I walked out there, Mike and Cody had already gotten there, and I could just see a ring of a campfire and all of these people. It happened to be Danny, who was the guy on the lease at the farm, and they would just leave their rent in jars out there and if someone was short someone else would just add some in there. I think it was him that was walking out from the fire and you could just see a silhouette, and growing up in the places we grew up, a lot of times when you walk up on a campfire you are real ‘hat in hand’ wondering what kind of vibe you are about to approach. You expect to hear ‘whats up’, or ‘hey man’, and all I heard was this voice coming from the fire that said “welcome”, Danny said it. But it was just that, not a ‘who are you?’, and that was really just the way the farm was. Then you sit down and listen to one time around the circle of pickers and you realize you need to go work on your songs. You’re a kid and your writing about kid stuff and then you hear these from a deeper place and better crafted and it gets to your turn and you think, ok I got one that I’m not completely embarrassed about, and that’s inspiration when you are challenged that way.”
But all good things must come to an end, and after two decades of being a songwriter’s paradise, The Farm started dwindling down, and eventually burned to the ground in 2003. The younger guys on the scene were just paving their way and a new place emerged where they collaborated and found musical fellowship; The Yellow House. Like the Farm, the Yellow House was full of musicians who just wanted to play and learn and hang out.
“Well that was when The Farm had started kind of going down. I think that Danny had moved away, he had taken care of it for the last 20 years. He had moved out east and The Farm, no one was taking care of it and people started breaking in and spray painting it,” McClure explained about the end of the Farm and the beginning of the Yellow House. “I guess Cody and Jason and maybe Stoney lived together, and I’d go over there because I knew those guys and we all played together acoustic. I played Monday nights at the Wormy Dog, and then I got Cody to come play Monday and then he got Tuesday nights and he got Boland Wednesday nights and it was cool. It was kind of a place where again that songwriter and brotherhood, just helping each other out as far as creating a scene you know? I came from the 80’s more of a metal mentality between people and it was real competitive and this was more encouraging. But Yellow House was kind of the place after The Farm.”
Boland and a group of high school buddies from Harrah began renting the Yellow House, located on University Circle near the college campus, in 1996. Boland and his friends actually held a poker game to determine who got what room. Boland won the game and got his choice of the largest room on the second floor. It was that summer that Boland first decided to play music, playing by himself for a couple years and then forming the band with the Stragglers in 1998. During that entire time, the Yellow house thrived as another hub of Red Dirt activity. The residents constantly changed, and the open door atmosphere allowed many people the ability to hang out and crash on couches.
Boland had almost the same things as McClure to say about the closing of The Farm and the transition to the Yellow House.
“The Farm started to dwindle you know, it was weird how that happened. I guess it was almost predestined by the fact that Danny, the only guy that had his name on the lease was fixing to graduate, he was a recreation major, which I always thought that sounded awesome. I guess the guys were just out getting their own places, I remember Brad James was one of the last guys from Medicine Show to still live there, he had a trailer out there. Of course Bob lived out there until his place burned down and then it was just that The Farm started to drift so you needed different places,” Recalled Boland. “I think the Medicine Show guys, some of them had a house in town and that was a good jam place. Then our place, as the guys like Jim Wilhelm who managed the Wormy Dog and worked with us in the early years, he moved in there, Stoney lived there for a while, Cody lived there before the basement flooded and then he moved in with Shannon and that’s who he’s married to now. Everybody kind of knew everybody. More and more would move in there, and it just became another place where you weren’t going to bother anybody, you could show up at any time, nobody had a key to it.”
Canada shared his experience of making his way to the Yellow House.
“I played Monday night at the Wormy Dog in Stillwater with Mike, and then we split off. Then Chuck, the owner gave me a Tuesday night so I went from playing with Mike to playing by myself. Then I met Boland, and he came in and he’d give me $10 for a Hank Jr song every night. We were at a party one night and I said “I’m playing, you oughta get up and play sometime” so he got up and played and he really didn’t stop. I mean I got him up for a break at a place called Key West and then he would get up and play the Wormy Dog with me,” explained Canada about his start on the scene. “It was like 3 years later, but Jason lived in this Yellow House with all of his high school buddies and then I just started basically crashing. I was living with a girl not too far from the Yellow House, and me and Jason’s friendship really split that relationship up, which was a blessing. Then I moved in, I moved into the basement. There were about 9 dirty mattresses in there, so we went in there and pulled all that out and had a burn party in the backyard. Then after I moved in, Stoney moved in, and then Ted our merch guy, and Red who was Boland’s TM for a while. Basically we ran all the students out and musicians took over , and I lived there for 4 years, something like that.”
Cody picked the least wanted room in the house and transitioned it into the most visited room in the house.
“I said I wanted the basement and everybody laughed because it was so dirty, but I went down there and there was just so much shit piled up in the bathroom. That whole place was about to fall down, it was terrible. When it rained the ceiling would leak and melt. So when I said I wanted to basement everybody just laughed at me because everything that broke upstairs got shoved down there,” said Canada with a laugh. “But I went in there, the toilet upstairs leaked so bad that it rotted a hole in the ceiling, but nobody cared. I cared, but I’m not going to do anything about it. And like the dog drank from the toilet water and it was just nasty. So I went to the basement and cleaned it all out. Once we got everything out of the bathroom down there we realized that the shower was really nice. I put a new toilet in it, and painted the walls and got the fireplace cleaned out, it was a gas fireplace. I laid new carpet and it was so awesome. Then everybody was down to come take showers down there and party every night in my room. Then I left, and it flooded the whole thing, my bed, everything. The only thing I really got back were my CDs, because you know, you couldn’t ruin them. But it was a good time. Jason and I learned to write together. Mike would come over on occasion, he was really busy then. The Great Divide had just signed a record deal, so they were never home, and when he did come home it was the whole prodigal son returns thing. Everybody surrounded him, and it was the same way with Lafave too, he would come home, and there wasn’t a musician in town that didn’t come out, go down to The Farm and see him and hang out.”
The Stillwater scene at the time was definitely hopping, and everyone loved their hometown guys. In the next part of this series you will continue to learn a little more about the next generation of Red Dirt musicians and their experiences with the Yellow House and around Stillwater, and how the music infiltrated Texas. Stay tuned.