By Chris Mosser
(Nov/Dec 2011/Vol. 4 – Issue 6)
Jason Boland is a survivor. The onetime “Bourbon Legend” is now six-years sober, and in recent years has also persevered through a near career-ending vocal cord ailment and experienced a modern-day rite of passage via a tour bus drug bust on a lonely Texas highway. Through it all, the seasoned Oklahoma-bred honky-tonker (now living in Ausitn) and his crack band, the Stragglers, have released some of the sturdiest records to come out of the Red Dirt/Texas music scene in the last decade, including 1999’s Pearl Snaps, 2001’s Truck Stop Diaries, 2004’s Somewhere in the Middle, 2006’s The Bourbon Legend, and 2008’s breakthrough Comal County Blue. The just-released Rancho Alto is a poignant, time-honored true country album that comes in the midst of a trend of genre experimentation amongst Boland’s peers that might appear to be a faltering of faith in what country music is, or should be. Boland and the Stragglers have never been on firmer footing, though, and the new album finds Boland in top form and loaded for bear.
We met up in South Austin, and I managed to pry Boland away from his beautiful significant other long enough to sit a spell and catch up at Opal Divine’s in Penn Field. I suddenly felt self-conscious walking through Opal’s door with him — I had invited a recovering alcoholic to meet with me in a bar. But then I realized that this is a guy who plies his trade in bars every night. Boland’s demons are never too far away.
Well, since we’re sittin’ here in a bar …
You’ve been sober for a good number of years now.
So that timeline is important enough to you to remember the date.
Yeah, I’m not one of those “celebrate the day” types. I don’t go to meetings or anything, but you remember around when it was, for sure.
Take me back there. Was there a catalyst?
It was such a steady curve. Almost paralleling everything in our lives and careers, because it wasn’t just me you know. I end up being the mouthpiece, but the original four of us have been together since ’98 — Brad, Roger, Grant and I — and you know, we have Jeremy Watkins back with us now after many years of having Noah. Still, over 12 years everybody did a haul together and it was a steady curve for everybody. Some of it’s repetition, some of it’s been — it’s a romanticized cliché — but it’s real that the road’s fun and you love the road and to travel, but it’s hard on your body, it’s hard on your relationships, everybody has a tough time dealing with it. Anybody who gets thrown out on the road for even a weekend will say, “Wow, you do that all the time?” Packing for a vacation every week. Sometimes you’re gone a month. Whatever reason, whatever pain you’re killing … everybody can see this in their own lives. We’re kind of like truckers, distributing our product from honky-tonk to honky-tonk. But we don’t have somebody behind us dumping money into it like some do. I think everybody on this level knows it’s grassroots, you just go out there and hope people enjoy it.
But, back to the moment where you decided you were weren’t gonna drink anymore.
Well, I was just sick. It’s not anything all that great, just sick at the bottom of it and ran on it. Wake up with hands shaking until you could get a drink.
Got where you had to have it to be normal.
Yeah, just not even a fun place to be. Now, do I have a weaker threshold? Did I drink more than most? I don’t know what brought me to that level. Growing up, I never knew that if you drink enough for a long enough time your body will become dependent upon it, and that if you try to quit you can seize up and die.
That’s the consensus on what happened to Amy Winehouse recently.
It’s crazy. I found myself in that situation, had a seizure, and then people around me … that’s the greatest litmus test for being in trouble. Do the people around you that love you worry for you? Now, don’t pick your one hypochondriac aunt, but are there reasonable people who love you and you love, not just someone trying to exert control — if they’re concerned and they’re not having fun around you anymore, and you know, they look at you and say, “Man …” You either run from ’em and you can’t be around them anymore, and go find other people to hang out with who don’t say “man,” or you say, “all right.”
That happened with you.
Yeah, it wasn’t what you would call an intervention or anything, but it seemed like everybody knew at the same time. Let’s take a break from this. The old motto was, “let’s ride it till it stops buckin’,” and instead, let’s go back and see if there was something there. We went back to the well and pulled up some good stuff.
So, that’s seven years ago, but because of your job, you’re still in bars all the time, we’re in one now. Tell me about maintaining. Is it difficult? Are you still tempted?
To say I’m not tempted would be to say it’s not tempting, and that’s not true. I still remember how good the stuff works, there’s a reason everybody does it. When I was in rehab, I had one of those really “no bones about it” counselors, and he wanted to know where everybody was going afterwards to continue care, and some of these folks were going to Malibu or somewhere fancy to “sort things out,” which wasn’t feasible for me.
You had to get back into the bars.
Yeah! So my answer was, “Corpus Christi, Fort Worth, Oklahoma City.”
Yeah. I’m going everywhere. And one guy said, “If you want a 100-percent way to stay sober, don’t put alcohol in your mouth and you will stay sober.”
That’s a pretty good method.
There were lots of people in there who really wanted help, and there were others who had been forced to be there or were going through the motions, and these counselors can see right through that, very quickly, just like you can look through CDs when they get slung to you. Never shit a shitter.
Sure. It’s treacherous to judge something by superficial appearances, but yeah, you can sure get an indication.
I have my boundaries, I don’t go to after-parties or hang out late night. The other part of being on the road is just the wearing out of your body physically. I gotta take good care of my throat, so I’m not up late yelling, smoking cigarettes and carrying on.
That was another trial for you, the voice problems. Is that all done and gone?
Yeah, everything feels great. My voice feels better than ever.
What was it that happened?
It was a polyp — an acute injury. If you see an old-timey tire with a big bubble? That’s exactly how it appeared.
A stress injury.
Yeah. It was damage to a natural weak spot on my vocal cord where it bashes into another one. Just the wrong day, the wrong note, the wrong something, and I popped it.
Do you remember that moment?
Yeah, it was a big rodeo show.
While we’re on the subject of obstacles you’ve had to overcome in the last few years, let’s talk about the pot bus incident your band had. Where is that now, and how do you feel it impacted your career?
I don’t think it impacted the band in any way. We’re completely through it. I didn’t really deal with anybody (with law enforcement) that really wanted to destroy anybody over it. But they are sure out there looking for buses and trailers for that exact reason. I won’t even say who’s right or wrong anymore. But as far as pot versus alcohol, there not really much different medically, they each have pros and cons, but one is completely shoved down our throats from the time we’re kids, sponsors everything, it’s the way to end the day. And the other one is the vilified destroyer of our youth, the gateway to everything completely evil. One is accepted and prevalent, and one is vilified. I think that if pot is ever decriminalized, it will come from people finally wearing down the powers that be with questions of, “why?” It’s total hypocrisy and contradiction.
Having had that topic thrust upon you in a public way, do you feel compelled to make a stand in regard to it? Do you think it might actually benefit you by making you seem, for lack of a better term, more legit?
Well there’s nothing “cool” about getting tossed into a jail cell.
A lot of us have been there at some point or another.
Yeah. Isn’t that crazy? But I didn’t think there was anything cool about it at the time. There are lots of people speaking up about pot, but I’m not sure how many other people are really listening. The medical community seems to know that it’s not any more harmful than alcohol. The taboo is very strong, even though it’s based on lies. It’s been put into the same class as substances that will really destroy you, really quickly. It’s so intense, the demonization of pot, that I think it becomes more interesting to some people.
Talking to you over the last couple of years — I don’t know if this had to do with getting sober, because I didn’t know you until after you quit drinking …
Aw man! You missed the “Bourbon Legend?” [Laughs]
Yeah, I missed the “fun” Boland. But in the time I’ve known you, I’ve gotten the impression that you’re the kind of person who’s got his so-called “third eye” open. You seem to have a perception on life, and the way the world works, that’s perhaps a step or two beyond what a lot of people seem to have. Does that make sense?
I’ve always been a curious person. As a kid, I was the “why” kid, which would lead to another “why” and another “why,” and I never lost that. I’m also made as uncomfortable by this crazy world as a lot of curious people are, so to make sense of that, I’m a bullshitter too. So, I’m a curious bullshitter — I know a little bit about a bunch of stuff, but not the greatest amount about any one thing.
We’re in the midst of a screwy Presidential election cycle; we’re in the midst of economic uncertainty that nobody seems to have any answers for. But then again, for now, most of us have roofs, a good number of us still have jobs, and relatively speaking, life is good — but there seems to be darkness right underneath the surface.
Well, we’re told that if you have a roof over your head and your toilets flush, don’t complain.
What are we missing?
I think a lot of the stuff you’ve heard me spout was when I was really impressed by reactionary people, what they see that just doesn’t make sense. We look at all of these people who go to these prestigious universities and institutions and we’re basically asking them to balance a checkbook, aren’t we? And it’s not balancing. And I think a reasonable but maybe not as intelligent person looks and that and wants to know why not. Why can’t the brainiest people we have figure this out? And the voting masses say to our leaders, “don’t just listen to big business, listen to us and help us maintain our shot at the American dream,” but they forget that a lot has changed.
But what are people missing in their thought process? In a general way?
Curiosity. Because a lot of times it gets to be frustrating to try — systems and stuff are confusing and it gets hard to get to the point, and by then you have to go pick someone up at soccer practice.
We’re busy, we’re working all the time, as all Americans do, and we end up thinking how great it’s going to be to be able to watch some football on Sunday, if we get out of church on time.
So many distractions. I saw something you said on Rita Ballou’s website (Katie Key’s “Cluttered Corner” interview): “I want to be part of the revival, not part of the distraction.” How do you envision any kind of revival that might come along, from a musical standpoint or with this bigger picture?
In country music, it’s the rebirth of the folk spirit. The storyteller — the balladeer by the campfire who told you the tale of woe that happened to your countrymen. That folk responsibility to tell the story. We find out new things if we’re curious, but if we’re not we just end up dancing and fist pumping. There’s a time for everything — I mean, end of the night when we’re winding down on the bus, it’s SportsCenter and cartoons, just let the mind unwind and have a couple laughs before you crash. But does that mean we should do that all the time?
It seems like in order to recover some of that presence of mind, as far as the way things are going in our country — I think there’s too much of the daily grind, and there’s too much of the mindless distraction that people are reasonably drawn to to relieve the stress of the daily grind, and by that time 24 hours is up and you start over. You don’t have to invest hours and hours a day though, to make an effort to gain some understanding of what’s happening.
I have to wonder, are people really doing that and taking a true side, or are they just picking hot topic issues that are designed for people to side one way or the other? It’s always these buzzword, hot-topic, emotional moral dilemmas that people could argue about forever, and as long as you keep throwing those out there, you’re gonna be able to divide people. And I think, after divide comes conquer.
Your new record has a certain “old soul” quality. In a very real manner of speaking this is your first album since Comal County Blue, since the High In The Rockies live CD was last.
The live one was almost like a half of a release. It doesn’t feel like it’s been three years since Comal but it has. Comal really expanded our fanbase — people outside of here are infatuated with this area, they have this really romanticized idea about Texas. “What’s it like down there floatin’ on the river?” Well, it’s great! [Laughs]
Beautiful. You know, I think like anybody else, I take it for granted, just like those people probably take the more interesting parts of their area for granted. But here, we have this huge, amplified megaphone mouthpiece called the Texas Music scene.
Yeah, it’s the soundtrack to it all.
I still trip a little bit when I see the big Duck Boats driving around Austin.
Yeah! Watchin’ the bats.
There are tons of people who come to Austin, just to see Austin and to be here for a little while. And it’s weird to see that when, like we were talking about with distractions, you’re rushing through downtown, worrying about your day and trying to get to work, there are folks right there taking in the coolness of the place you live every day, and you don’t see it.
So on the new record. It’s got a time-honored feel but it’s not what I would call “classic country” — it’s a Stragglers record for sure and it doesn’t seem like you guys have changed course much in the overall feel, it’s consistent. The foundations are in tradition.
We’ve always tried to take it a little further than we’ve found it. Once it all becomes commerce, it’s about staying true. Everybody has dreams of doing a rock album or something a little more out there, but I can’t see us wanting to change just simply to do something different. That’s a weird line to cross: What are you trying to tell people to listen to, as opposed to what inspired you to write and record and perform.
Do you find that to be a conflict?
I usually enjoy the same music as the fans do, I think. Our stuff is part throwback, but I’m never gonna do Merle Haggard better than Merle Haggard. You’re either gonna be drenched in nostalgia and doing what would almost be “tribute” music, or acknowledging that you’re influenced by Bocephus. I’ve got a stack of Bocephus that’s seamless from Hank Live to Hank Jr. and Friends. I’ve got that and you’re gonna hear it in what I do. I don’t see how there’s really any way around that but I also want to stay true to myself and find new things to say and ways to say it. I think that comes from the moment you meet those inspirations: take it further. The Stillwater crew did it for us. I think every album, just like how every day and moment is random chaos, if you stay true and don’t go and try to fix it all with computers, is going to be unique. This one, one of the aspects was Riley Osbourne’s keys, that added a different overall vibe.
What do you think of the current state of the scene and its growth? What’s the long term view?
You have to view it in trends. When people are talking about the battle country music fights, it’s really about the battle not to become rock or pop or something else. It’s all really about the quick buck, finding that big ol’ line-dancing megahit. The franchise. But longevity is hard, the bubble always seems to burst. Will country be part folk-media-watchdog, singing about the sinking of the Ruben James, or is it just gonna wave its arms and yell “Hey, look over here!”
Like a carnival barker.
“Come buy this!” And not to be disparaging on rock — everybody fights the fight between commercialism and making money, and making waltzes.
There’s a couple of nice waltzes on the record.
Three of ’em!
That’s keeping it country! I’ll end on personal note. How’s life in general treating you outside of music? Your girlfriend seems real cool.
Thanks. We’re living in downtown Austin. We walk around everywhere, it’s great. Wonderful places to eat; Zilker Park; cool, happy people walking around everywhere. It’s cool to live in a place that’s the capital of such a big, heavy hitting place like Texas, but it’s still got an interesting funkiness to it and it’s safe.
The trendiness of it can be cool, but it can also be a threat.
Yeah, that’s pop culture versus the city. They’re quick to tear down important stuff sometimes. We talk about moving off someplace just to see some places, but this will always be home for us.