By Kelly Dearmore
(LSM May/June 2013/vol. 6 – Issue 3)
Jason Boland and kindred spirit Shooter Jennings had some mighty big boots to fill when they teamed up to co-produce Dark & Dirty Mile, the seventh studio album by Boland and his seasoned band of Red Dirt honky-tonkers, the Stragglers. No, not necessarily those of Shooter’s legendary father, whose outlaw country vibe has been a key component of the band’s sound since day one, but rather those of the highly esteemed pros that Boland and the Stragglers have worked with in the past. Fellow Oklahoma native son Mike McClure steered the Stragglers’ 2001 album Truckstop Diaries; longtime Dwight Yoakam cohort Pete Anderson helmed 2006’s The Bourbon Legend; and Grammy-winning Texas favorite Lloyd Maines produced not only Boland’s 1999 debut, Pearl Snaps, but also 2004’s Somewhere in the Middle, 2006’s Comal County Blue and 2011’s Rancho Alto.
Tough acts to follow, for sure. But apart from their hefty resumes, what Maines, McClure, and Anderson all brought to the table was the savvy to let the Stragglers do in the studio what they do best onstage, and who better to follow that lead than the man who’s led the band for 15 years now?
“We’ve been playing for a long time, and we’re a pretty good little five-piece honky-tonk band,” offers Boland, matter-of-factly explaining the rationale behind recording Dark & Dirty Mile pretty much without a net.
“We did this one straight to tape,” he explains. “We recorded straight to tape, mixed the tape and mastered the tape. We never put it into a computerized environment like Pro Tools or anything like that. The takes on this album are long performances. Most modern recording methods require patching together smaller parts to make everything sound just right, but we really attacked this record in the way we did Pearl Snaps — which meant if we didn’t like a take, we started over and fixed it the best we could.”
Since their inception in 1998, Jason Boland and the Stragglers have carved-out a rightfully deserved spot among the Texas/Red Dirt vanguard, and their most recent output — from the stunning Comal County Blue to the 2010 live collection, High in the Rockies, to Rancho Alto — has found them in particularly fine form. Dark & Dirty Mile continues their hot streak. At this point, Boland and his Stragglers — guitarist/pedal steel player Roger Ray, drummer Brad Rice, fiddle/mandolin player Nick Worley and bassist Grant Tracy — make country gold seem as if it’s as easily produced as a head-spinning buzz is after a Jim Beam bottle is emptied.
Throughout the new album, it’s clear that looking back into the past in order to appreciate — or at least re-evaluate — the present is something that Boland’s rather keen on. A handful of tunes from Dark & Dirty Mile find the songwriter oscillating between being satisfied with his current state and uncomfortable with what he sees around him. That discomfort comes into sharpest focus, though, on one of the album’s two covers, “They Took It Away.” Penned by Oklahoman Randy Crouch (whose trippy “Life on Mars” was covered by Cody Canada and the Departed on their This Is Indian Land), the softly sung, pedal steel-accented song takes an unflinching look at the kind of history that rarely makes it into school textbooks:
“Now I live on an Oklahoma hill, it ain’t Texas, but it used to be
Back before Jackson signed the deal to make it Indian Territory
In the winter that was freezing cold, they marched the Cherokee
In the land restless settlers sold every place that they could be
They took it away, they took it away again …”
“I think, first and foremost, the song makes a valid historical statement,” explains Boland. “These days, we can all wonder what has or hasn’t happened in the past, then we can click over to something to back-up our point, regardless of what our points are. The message of this song is valid also because we’re here in Tornado Alley, and the song talks about the history of this land, and I think it’s important to remember what has gone on here before we were all here.
“Guys like Crouch, Bob Childers, Mike McClure, and the Red Dirt Rangers often have a theme of something bigger inside of their songs,” he continues, nodding to some of the forerunners of the fertile Stillwater, Okla., scene from which Boland and the Stragglers sprang. “Childers used to always say that that in the end, his songs were all about love. You get back what you put out there, so why would you put anything else out?”
Boland has never been one to shy away from using his own songs to stir up one’s emotions or thoughts. In fact, it’s a point of pride. “I love putting things out there for discussion,” he says. “As long as I can drive the discussion towards something more than pontoon boats or where the next party is, that’s great. There are all these songs about how country the singer is and what the singer does in the country, but what does any of that really mean? Creating discussion on worthwhile points is one of the things country music should be about. Now, we have a horrible version of people ripping off hip-hop and urban music, as all the person does is sing about himself and what he does in the trucks he drives. Where’s the meat in that discussion? When does driving a big truck and carrying a bunch of guns result in something? For people like me, it sucks, and it’s getting worse and worse.”
That’s not to say that Dark & Dirty Mile is all, well, dark and dirty. Like Childers, Boland knows his way around a love song, too, as shown on the album’s most beautiful tune, “Lucky I Guess.” Mastering the art of simplicity isn’t simple at all, nor is delivering your desired message with only a few well-worn clichés; yet Boland displays his deft hand at both with lines like, “Never found a four-leaf clover and I tend to spill the salt/Anytime a mirror breaks, you can bet it was my fault … But somehow I still wound up here with you/Just lucky, I guess.”
Coming from an artist who’s had a few major hurdles to jump in recent years — from going through rehab for alcoholism to divorce to needing career-saving vocal cord surgery — the song’s message about recognizing life’s blessings becomes particularly poignant. “I’m sure I’ve fallen prey to not noticing when seemingly small things happen to me,” Boland admits. “But so many times, the small things I don’t notice end up being anything but small.”
One of the “small things” Boland has always paid attention to, though, is the importance of subtlety when it comes to delivering lyrics like that — and in playing music in general. Take the easy way out and over-sell a line or hook, and the rewards are far more fleeting than emotional wallops landed with a little more finesse.
“I heard a song on the radio the other day — I won’t even say which one it was, so I don’t give it any credibility — but the singer really went for it, just completely over-the-top,” he says. “It was a willful manipulation of human emotion for the simple sake thereof. I thought about how Guy Clark would’ve delivered that song as he was finger picking along with it, and I just know it would be different. We’ve never lost sight of how lucky we are to be where we are, and we’re not interested in manipulating our fans. So when we do touch on the softer emotions and maybe reach for the lower-hanging fruit, we still try to keep the gloves up and try to make the lyrics something different than the predictable guy-gets-the-girl-and-wins Hollywood ending.”
If Boland and the Stragglers’ story had been scripted in Hollywood, odds are they’d be bona fide country music superstars by now. But the hard-earned, real-world respect they’ve garnered outside of the mainstream suits them much better. The Stragglers were one of the first bands to represent the merging of Oklahoma’s Red Dirt music scene and the insurgent Texas country movement of the late ’90s and early 2000s. Fifteen years on, they’re a regional institution, having outlasted even that other Stillwater band of boys for Oklahoma (Cross Canadian Ragweed) and weathered more than a few seismic shifts on the landscape of the scene they helped pioneer.
“When we started, the new version of this scene hadn’t arrived yet,” Boland says. “When we recorded Pearl Snaps, we were in the middle kingdom, and then, this newer and bigger kingdom has developed in the past few years. After Jimmy LaFave and the Red Dirt Rangers had been playing in Texas a bunch, Robert Earl Keen came along and started doing what everyone since has emulated, really. But this new kingdom — the industry — now has a bunch of people saying, ‘We’re in the woods — if you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly.’ It’s all a big business plan to follow now. But early on in my career, a guy named Ben Ewing, who’s involved with the Americana scene, said to me, ‘At the end of the day, there’s a song.’ As corny as that sounds, I just stick to that. I keep writing songs that tickle my own ear, and the rest hopefully falls into place.”
And, despite his rather grim take on the way in which some facets of what was once a defiantly independent cottage industry have been swallowed whole by the industry, Boland still sees the terms “Red Dirt” and “Texas country” as legitimate markers for fans to identify something that’s uniquely theirs.
“Because Red Dirt and Texas country point towards a specific region, I think they are still relevant,” he says. “Not that either of them define a sound, but it has had and will always have that regional application. When we started out, there was an ad that described us as an ‘alt-country’ band, or a ‘No Depression’ act, or something like that. Even ‘Red Dirt’ was still something that was mainly kicked-around in Stillwater, and it just referred to the rust and the blood in the soil. I think the labels work because of the strength of the fans. There’s a regional patriotism that’s reflected in the way the fans fuel this scene. At times, the music from this area can be the kind of pop where the winner is whoever is screaming the loudest or who has the loudest guitar or biggest light show, but there will always be Todd Snider with just his guitar, and that will always kill.”
And based on the no-nonsense, honest honky-tonk heard throughout Dark & Dirty Mile and at every one of their live shows, so too will the music of the Stragglers. Ever since becoming sober from alcohol several years ago, Boland’s commitment to making the best music he can has never been stronger.
“It’s made a huge impact on my productivity,” he says. “And I think that shows on each of my records since I became sober. Life’s an ongoing process and I just look to keep improving on the process.
“If you’re on a spiritual quest or search, you’re not on it for just certain times, and then off of it at other times,” he continues. “I live my life on the quest or esoteric search for truth. That’s always going to permeate my writing. That search is always going to be the template I spray-paint everything through.”