What is Red Dirt Music Anyway?: (Part 3 Moving Beyond Stillwater and Oklahoma.)
What is Red Dirt Music Anyway? (Part 3: Moving Beyond Stillwater and Oklahoma.)
By Tonya Little
This is the third part of a series that outlines the history of red dirt music, which started with the feature ‘What is Red Dirt Music Anyway:(Part one: A History and The Farm)' and continued with “What is Red Dirt Music Anyway? (Part 2 The Next Generation of Red Dirt and The Yellow House)”. If you missed either of those, go read it now and catch up.
We left off in the last feature getting to know more about the Yellow House, and how everyone seemed to find their way there at one point or another, similar to how they had all found their way to The Farm before that. In fact, the next generation of Red Dirt musicians of Stillwater in the 90’s and early 00’s all seemed to find their way to one another, and also had ways of helping each other out, even without even really trying to.
“I had left Stillwater, but I kept playing there. I played Willies for like 15 years, but back in the day the Yellow House guys were fans of mine, they were just little kids. You know I’m probably 10 years older than those guys, they were all like 18 years old and I was almost 30,” recalls Jenkins about that time in Stillwater. “So they were coming to my shows and were big fans, like I did 10 years before that when I was trying to get in with the guys at The Farm, they were all like ‘hey let’s go back to our house and play some jams’ and we were all like “uhhhh, we kind of got to roll out guys” and they were all “ah man come jam with us” and we were like yeah, yeah, ok. Somebody, I think it might have been Boland, was like, ‘hey we’ve got some really good weed’ and then we were like, ‘oh really? Maybe we will stop by for a minute,” said Jenkins with a hearty laugh.
“So we went back to the house there and there was a guy passed out on the couch, and I remember he popped up and he said ‘hey man, my name is Stoney’, and I was like ‘no shit’. We ended up smoking weed and making that connection with them. Subsequently I remember Jason’s friend who later was his manager, this guy named Red, he had some sort of radio show he wanted me to come record a couple songs there at the Yellow House. So I did, and one of them was ‘My Feet Don’t Touch the Ground’, and this was a long time ago, in the 90s. Because I did that, that guy I met on the couch, Stoney, heard that tape and he was starting to do these open mic nights in Stillwater, and he was just an 18-20 year old. He picked up that song and started doing that one and people connected with it. So he kind of got that thing going, even before I recorded it he got people into that song. So I kind of gave him a foot hold as a kid to get in there, and Jason Boland and those guys would open up shows for me and then later on things kind of turned and they kind of gave me a foothold in Texas. A lot of people that knew Stoney didn’t know who I was, but because they knew Stoney doing my songs, it gave me a foothold to get in down there. He opened up for me and now I open up for him,” said Jenkins with a good hearted laugh.
They were all playing the same circuit, the same venues. While most of the older generation got their launch around Willie’s Saloon, The Wormy Dog had a greater hand at launching the careers of the next generation of Red Dirt artists. The Wormy Dog was open from 1992-2004 in Stillwater and served as one of the most popular places for live music in the area. Although Willie’s and The Wormy Dog tend to be the most popular and most mentioned names of the time, there were several music venues on the strip in Stillwater, as well as all around town that had live music available.
“I don’t know, the music scene to me was more playing the acoustic shows, that was what started putting this scene together you know. I’d have a crowd and then other songwriters would have a crowd and we’d get together and the crowds would have just synergy everywhere,” said Mike McClure. “I really think there was a scene between like Tom and Bob but also between The Great Divide and Boland and Ragweed and Stoney. I think just hanging out and playing together those things merged and became a bigger thing and that was a cool little deal, and we’re starting to see that again really, there’s kind of waves that keep repeating themselves, in a good way. I feel like there’s a whole new wave coming along, but there always is and always will be.”
This next generation of musicians were still trying to define what Red Dirt music really was, and at the same time they were putting their own spin on it. Cross Canadian Ragweed and The Great Divide, Boland and LaRue, Jenkins and No Justice, and all the others around at the time; they were all making the music and scene evolve and change even more.
“I heard it put, it was put to me by Bob, and I said this on the radio in Dallas Texas about 20 years ago. I’m not bragging, but I know I’m the one that put the name Red Dirt in the ear of Texas radio,” explained Cody Canada. “Bob said this to me, I had asked “what is this, is it folk?” and he said “it’s a little bit of everything, we call it Red Dirt, me and Lafave”. That’s always been the rumor, the legend, the lore, that it was Bob and Lafave. That they named it. He said it was as soulful and honest as the dirt was red, that’s what he said to me, and that was just so romantic you know? I always say if Tom Petty was from Oklahoma, or Bruce Springsteen, it’s the same stuff. You worry about the lyrics, you worry about the song that’s it. You don’t worry about the money or think ahead. You just write the song for the sake of the song. Jason does the country part, and whatever we do, I don’t know, and then the Rangers. I’ve always thought the Rangers were like the Grateful dead of Oklahoma. Medicine Show was always like the Allman Brothers. Stoney was like the Joe Cocker. So everybody does something different. I mean, Jason does the Waylon, he’s a hard core Waylon fanatic. I was a fan of just good rock and roll, and good country you know, the Merle Haggards and Willie and stuff like that. I never really got into much else. When I moved to Stillwater that was right after the Pearl Jam and Nirvana thing blew up and it just blew the top of my head off. I knew I was going to have a really good time in my life because mixing Sound Garden and Stone Temple Pilots with Willie Nelson and the Great Divide, I was like this is going to be a good time, and it has been. It’s been a great time rolling all that stuff into one song or one album. I think to really describe Red Dirt I would just say that it’s soulful, I think Vince Gill, you know he’s a country star, but he’s no more country than Jason Boland, I consider him a red dirt artist. You know Garth Brooks spent his time with Bob Childers.”
Each musician in the scene has their own way of putting what Red Dirt music is, into their own words, just as they do with putting their own spin on the sound of the music.
“I don’t know, I think people have always searched for an alternative term since what we call mainstream country really went off the cliff,” said Jason Boland about what Red Dirt music is. “I mean it’s always had its battles with disco and whatnot, and pop and broadway sounding stuff, like all forms of music do. But once country really started being the point where a lot of people didn’t even want to call themselves country anymore. It’s Okie music, at least that region, some people would even say Stillwater. It’s woody Guthrie meets Leon Russell. It’s folky- rocking- country- bluesy. But then like anything else, it’s so centered around just being original. It’s just Red Dirt Ranger music, Straggler music, each band should still have its own sound even though they come from the same well originally.”
Jenkins also gave his take on what he thinks of as Red Dirt.
“I’ve had so many different definitions of it, I used to say that you kind of had to be in Stillwater, or at least have some sort of connection to it to be Red Dirt, but that’s not really true anymore,” Explained Jenkins. “There’s lots of bands in Texas that are Red Dirt, who have never even been to Oklahoma, and a lot of people there are because of the success of Red Dirt music, and to them Red Dirt and Texas music are the same thing because we pretty much went down there and took over their scene. To them it’s synonymous, and I guess it really is, there’s really not a whole big distinction between Texas country or Red Dirt or Americana, it’s more just a regionalized version of Americana. It’s a brotherhood of these guys. We all play the same circuit down here, so we’re all kind of in the same scene. I would say that defines it more than the actual music itself, because it’s so different, you know everyone’s style, like Jason Boland’s a lot different than me or Mike McClure, or any of those guys. There’s lots of differences in the music yet it’s all Red Dirt.”
John Cooper, of the Red Dirt Rangers, delved in and explained a bit of the changes that happened from the first generation to the next as well.
“Asking me about the Red Dirt scene and Red Dirt music is like asking a fish about the properties of water. I’m in the middle of it. I can’t tell you exactly what it is, I can just tell you what I think it is. I think it takes someone on the outside of it to figure out exactly what it is,” said Cooper. “I think you really nailed it well by saying there’s a Red Dirt scene and then there’s a Red Dirt sound. I still don’t know what that is really, but I think they are different. I think they are different but in the same family in the same way. I think it would create more interest if you could come up with more of a definition of it, but I also think part of the beauty of it is that you can’t quite put your thumb on what it is. We’ve been trying to explain to people what it is for thirty years and I still can’t do it. It started really as a singer/songwriter thing; the real nut of it with Jimmy and Bob and Skinner, early Red Dirt Rangers, Medicine Show, we were all writing our own tunes. I guess when it hit Great Divide and Ragweed it kind of took a left and become more of a ballroom, raucous, rock and roll, shit kickers, break a beer bottle over your buddies heads get drunk kinda thing. Which whatever, the thing is we’ve never had a gatekeeper. There’s no one standing at the gate saying you are Red Dirt and you aren’t, you can be in and you can’t. We never had that, which I think that’s what makes it so broad. But like I said that’s also what gives it a certain magic, because you can’t define it which I think is cool. That’s the thing, we’ve always as a scene been very accepting of everything, because there’s only two kinds of music; good and bad. If you’re good come on, if you’re bad get good and then come on.”
It wasn’t long before everyone started taking the Red Dirt sound and movement out of Stillwater and into Texas.
“We were one of the first ones through the wall, you know the first ones through the wall get the bloodiest. But then Ragweed came along, but I don’t know it’s been such a strange thing to be in the middle of and it’s hard to see it from there,” said McClure about The Great Divide breaking into the Texas music scene.
Although The Great Divide blazed the first trail, it didn’t take Ragweed long to follow behind them.
“The Great Divide was basically gone, I never saw Mike, and that was my whole reason to be there in Stillwater. The Farm was vacant, we just didn’t see anybody any more, and I was kind of in a rut. I had been playing Stillwater for about 4-5 years, every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, my acoustic shows were drawing more than Ragweed,” recalled Canada. “Oklahoma was fun, but there wasn’t a lot of places to play; there weren’t any casinos, there was nothing really to play. Oklahoma City was shit, there was just nothing. So we ventured over to Tulsa, that grew bigger and bigger and bigger and then we said let’s go to Texas. So Gary P. Nunn, another Okie, got us a gig at Gruene Hall. Well it wasn’t really a gig, he let us play. We were at the Wormy Dog in Stillwater and he said ‘you guys wanna open for me tomorrow night?’ and we said ‘where at?’, and he said Gruene hall, and I said I’ve never heard of it. He said ‘you’ve never heard of Gruene hall? New Braunfels?’ And I said no, I haven’t been anywhere dude, I had been to Luckenbach with Boland, that’s it,” said Canada with a laugh.
“So we went down to Gruene and Gary had thought we were lying and we showed up and he was like ‘oh shit I already told another band they could have it’, and we said that’s fine ,and he said ‘no I’m a man of my word’, so we played 30 minutes in the middle, and that was it. We went home and I told Shannon, we’re done, we’re out of Oklahoma, it’s beautiful down there and there’s no tornados. It was right after the May 99 Moore tornado, and she’s from California so she’s not used to them either. We left and then we started hitting it super heavy down in Texas probably 2001. It felt like a rocket it really did, Randy Rogers he always said that we did it overnight in the beginning, and we said Bullshit. We started in 1994 practicing 7 days a week for a year, until we got good enough to play in public, we worked our asses off,” said Canada.
The Great Divide and Cross Canadian Ragweed may have started the transition for this generation into the Texas scene, but soon everyone started following. Boland and the Stragglers made the move in 2002. Jenkins moved in 2003. LaRue had joined them by 2005.
“I officially moved to Austin in January of 2003, but of course I had been coming down for years and year, since like the mid 90’s,” said Jenkins. “I was going down and playing SXSW and stuff as early as 94-95. I had been going down and trying to make a way down there, but it really didn’t go over. I would say the first real big spark of success of Oklahoma music was the Great Divide, they kind of got something going, and then when Cross Canadian came down they kind of all just plowed a new road for all of us, just the stuff I had been trying to do forever. It wasn’t working and then suddenly it started working.”
It didn’t take long before all of the Okie musicians were making the Texas circuit and finding themselves on Texas radio and into the Texas Music charts. Which led to an even bigger pool of Red Dirt artists as well as the merging of Red Dirt and Texas Country. That’s where we will pick up for the next installment of this series; Red Dirt Evolution and the differences between Red Dirt and Texas Country.