By Richard Skanse
Although just about every artist and band making a decent living on the Texas/Red Dirt music scene today can claim at least some degree of spiritual lineage with the “outlaw country” movement of the ’70s, the fact is that very few of them actually sound like they could have held their own with the Waylons and Willies of yesteryear. Sure, those boys from Oklahoma in Cross Canadian Ragweed and any number of young Texans from Pat Green to Randy Rogers have all done their part to carry on the independent fire first sparked by their maverick forefathers, providing a brand new generation of discriminating country music fans a welcome alternative to the watered-down stuff still being pumped out of Nashville. But let’s face it — you’d have to be higher than Willie in Jamaica to mistake such latter-day “Texas country” anthems as “17,” “Carry On” or “Tonight’s Not the Night” for anything that the rednecks and hippies might have grooved to at Nelson’s inaugural 4th of July Picnic back in 1973. They’d all stand out like Rascal Flatts at a Larry Joe Taylor Festival.
Now, before you cry blasphemy and get your autographed Ragweed panties in a wad thinking I’m comparing today’s Lone Star (and Okie) mavericks to Music Row Cheese Whiz … that’s not my point at all. As Waylon himself proved on both “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” and “Bob Wills is Still the King,” you don’t have to sound just like your rebel heroes to be a rebel yourself. Change is good, because too much of the same old thing — even the good stuff — is the root of all mainstreams.
And yet … for every new generation of outlaws, there’s still room — and a need — for at least one true traditionalist. Back in the heady daze of Austin in the early ’70s, it was Asleep at the Wheel, who did sound just like Bob Wills and continue to fly the Western swing flag in the 21st century. In the ’80s, while Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle were shaking up the Nashville status quo by attacking it from out of left field, George Strait and Dwight Yoakam each hit just as hard with their straight-up takes on Texas dancehall honky-tonk and the long dormant Bakersfield Sound. Austin favorites Dale Watson and the Derailers followed suit in the ’90s; they were unabashed traditionalists who sounded as far removed from the rest of the No Depression-worshipped alt-country crowd as they did from Garth and Shania.
Which brings to our Artist of the Month for November 2006, Jason Boland. You’ll have to pardon the big set-up, but Boland — who started his career in his native Oklahoma but now lives with his wife in New Braunfels — is such an anomaly on the current Texas music scene that you kind of have to take a wide-angle look at the big picture to fully appreciate the unique role he fills. Boland alone out of all of his peers seems to have been cut from the same long lost mold as the original outlaws. But nothing about his music — from his original songs to his loyal band, the Stragglers, to his deep rumble of a voice, as fearsome at times as the rolling thunder of Ol’ Waylon’s bass lines — suggests imitation. You get the sense that Boland sounds like the real deal because he is the real deal, built not as a latter-day replica but rather as part of the same production run as Waymore and Co. Maybe that’s why his 1999 debut, Pearl Snaps, still sounds nothing like the typical “shitty first record” (to quote Pat Green’s term for such things) that most fledgling artists cut their teeth on, but rather like the fully-realized masterpiece of an old soul. Subsequent releases — 2001’s Truckstop Diaries, 2004’s Somewhere in the Middle and the brand new The Bourbon Legend — have only further affirmed his classic vintage.
The Bourbon Legend, produced by fellow traditionalist Pete Anderson (best known for his guitar and production work with Yoakam), opens with “The Last Country Song.” Like the album’s title track, it almost sounds like it could have been a premature epitaph; Boland, like many a bourbon legend before him, almost took the whole outlaw thing too far for his own good. But after a harrowing wake-up call — or rather, a wake-up collapse — last fall, he checked himself into rehab and emerged sporting a renewed sense of purpose and an extended warranty. He may be one of the last of a dying breed, but God willing, Boland still has a lot of miles left in him before he sings his last country song.
Hello, Jason. How’s it going?
Pretty good. Sorry I’m a little late calling you. Me and Drew Kennedy are sitting here pounding on some songs, and I lost track of the time.
The Bourbon Legend isn’t even in stores yet, and you’re already writing the next one?
Hey man, I’m not letting what happened to me for the last three years happen to me again! Besides, you don’t make records — you record records. So I’m trying to just keep songwriting a constant thing, and then you pick songs and record a record, instead of having to deal with that whole stress of, “Oh, it’s time to make a record — damn!” I hate that.
Do you find that writing on a regular basis helps you keep your head on straight?
Yeah. But then I also think you get into some situations with writing where it makes you even crazier. It’s all a process.
How are you doing these days? After the whole rehab chapter, do you feel like you’re back in fighting form?
Oh yeah. I’m feeling 110 percent. But really, I was only off for a month and a half, I think. Everybody keeps saying, “Where are you going for continuing care?” And I’ll go, “Uh, let’s see … Corpus, Fort Worth, Oklahoma City …” [Laughs] Because we were hitting the road a week after I got back.
Is performing any different for you now?
It’s more fun. I’m more into the music. What I try to tell people now who might have the same issues is, “You gotta let people get past you to get to your music. If they can’t even get past you, how are they going to hear what you’ve got to say?”
How much do you think your condition before rehab was affecting your performances? Do you think the negative affect was less obvious to the audience than you might have thought, or was it definitely taking its toll?
Oh, I was a total liability. I don’t think you can really label it or quantify it. It just was what it was, you know? No more than … I mean, it’s like talking about the seasons. Life’s all a process and learning. Thank God we’re given promises like, “Knock and the door will be answered, seek and you shall find.” If you’re really doing that, I think everything comes around.
What was it specifically that led you to make that change in your life?
It wasn’t one specific incident. It takes hitting the bottom, and realizing that you’re powerless by yourself.
So how did you get back up again?
It was God. I didn’t do any of it. And a loving family and friends, a loving wife sticking with me through all of it.
Have you always considered yourself a pretty spiritual man, or is this a new thing in your life?
It’s not a new thing. I was almost a preacher at one point in my life.
Yeah. I was on the state youth evangelistic team for the Freeworld Baptists. Really involved, almost went to seminary. It was almost a deal where, if I had ended up on the national evangelistic team, I would have gone to seminary. But I didn’t make it in there, and I saw that politics were all over the earth … it didn’t matter where you went. So I just decided on a different road.
So did you start playing music right after that?
Well, first I decided to go to college at Oklahoma State. I studied business. I still always played music — in high school I’d played, you know, just garage stuff, but never really played out except for maybe parties and stuff. But later on, when I started really getting into songwriting, and that’s when music finally took over.
How big of a music fan were you growing up?
I would cue up a tape in my car before I’d drive around the block. I always loved music.
What were you listening to back then?
Well, you know, growing up, you just listen to whatever your dad listened to — Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, and some folk music, and then just whatever was on the radio. And as far as more modern country, the things that really interested me … I liked Clint Black’s early stuff, a lot of that was great. Those were some of the country albums from my generation that really blew me away. And then of course I listened to rock, too: Pantera, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden.
Were you ever close to going down that path, instead of country?
Oh, I played rock in high school — you know, when you’re young and pissed off at everything! But after I mellowed a little bit, I went back and got more into Steve Earle. Country music was starting to take its dip right about the same time, but when I discovered guys like Steve Earle and Guy Clark, that kind of set things in a different direction for me. I liked that they wrote honest music. It wasn’t packaged for anybody except for the sake of the song.
What about Waylon? Was he as big of an influence on you as one might assume?
Oh yeah. I like everything about the guy. The whole from hell and back thing … from the Crickets, and then trying to be fit into the mold of what people wanted him to be, and then rebelling against it. I just think it’s the total legendary package. And he just made the kind of music that really moves me — backbeat-driven, honest, raw. That to me is country rock. Everything else now is just pop. It’s totally over the other edge. Country rock still has to have some country in it.
I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but your voice really has an almost uncanny similarity to Waylon’s. Especially on songs like your new album’s first single, “No One Left to Blame.” I think it’s great, but do you ever listen back to a track and think, “Hmm, maybe that’s too Waylon”? Or, do you ever actually make a conscious effort to capture that particular vibe on a song?
No I don’t. I don’t go for it. I mean, no more than I’m sure Merle Haggard listens back and thinks he sounds like Lefty Frizzell, you know? We’re all influenced by people. From the first time you heard a guitar, you were influenced by whoever was strumming that guitar at that time. But there’s nothing contrived about it. In fact, I don’t hear it, because you almost can’t hear it in yourself. I’m one of those people who has a real tough time listening to themselves.
Do you listen to your records at all once they’re done?
I’ve actually listened to this one more than all the other ones combined.
Why is that?
Because it’s the album that I wanted to make, exactly.
How’d you come to work with Pete Anderson on this record?
It was through our new label, Sustain. They were going through a list of people to maybe produce the record, naming off a bunch of guys that I’m sure would have done a good job at what they do. But once his name was mentioned, I forgot everybody else they said. I went, “Make that happen.”
I assume his old partner, Dwight Yoakam, had to have been a big influence on you, too.
Oh yeah. He was the lifeline to country music. And his sound can be attributed so much to Pete.
Had Pete heard your stuff before?
Yeah. Well, he’d listened to it before he signed on. Pete’s one of those guys who you can’t pay him to do anything he doesn’t believe in. He does it if he believes in it. So he listened to it, and he liked what we were doing. He enjoyed working with us.
Where’d you make the record?
Out in L.A. Burbank, technically.
What were the sessions like? How were his methods different than say, Lloyd Maines?
Lloyd’s so great at letting things flow and finding ways to make you better. And he’s real good at doing things on the fly. I did more pre-production on this one. We went out and really nailed down the stack of the song. I would say that’s the only difference. But as far as the assembling of the songs and the genius of what they hear, they’re both just phenomenal producers.
Do you have a favorite song over all on this record?
“Up and Gone,” “The Last Country Song” … You know what? On this one, it changes from day to day, but there’s really not a dead one on the record, I don’t think. It depends what mood I’m in which song will grab me the most at any moment.
I’m still really impressed by Pearl Snaps. I’ve always thought that’s a cut above a typical debut album. How has that one held up for you?
I’m still super proud of that record. Drew and I were just talking about that, how you’ve got your whole life to write your first record, and you’ve got a year and a half to write the next one.
How confident were you in yourself going into the recording for that one?
I was too dumb to know any different. Too green to be scared! That’s where it helps to have a great producer working with you. You just offer up your trust and do what you do, play your songs.
Once you started writing songs, how long did it take you before you felt like you had the knack? Was there a particular song that just seemed to really click for you?
I would say “Proud Souls,” when I wrote that. I had a person tell me that’s their favorite song ever. If even one person tells you that, you gotta think that you might have something going here.
You’ve had the same group of guys playing with pretty much from the very beginning. What’s the secret to keeping a band together for so long?
One of our first rules was no egos, and to just be able to laugh at each other, take each other with a grain of salt.
Can you imagine making music without these guys?
That was just the thing. Our sound has just been fiddled away and developed for so long, it would be jumping out of a hot tub into ice water.
Speaking of being thrown out of your element … how much time have you spent in Nashville?
Just enough. [Laughs]. Plenty!
Do you want to be on country radio?
Absolutely. I just don’t really want to rent space from them; I want to take as much of it from them that I can. We’ve never been the type of guys to really over-extend ourselves; we just try to constantly take steps forward. That’s not to say that we haven’t taken some back, too!
What about touring outside of Texas and Oklahoma? Has that always been part of the plan?
Definitely. That was one of our other statements, to uncompromisingly take our music to as many people as possible. And we’ve … being from Oklahoma, we’ve always played, rather early on in our career, not only Texas, but also Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado … If you actually mapped out all the states we’ve played in, we’ve played a great deal of the country. We do really well in Kansas, and Colorado’s getting pretty good, too.
You’ll be going back to Colorado in January for the annual Steamboat Music Fest. How many of those things have you been to now?
This will be our fifth or sixth year, I think. I definitely know my way around. You’ve got your little haunts and your little routines. I like it because you get to hang out with everybody that you don’t normally get to see for more than an hour at a time on the road. We all get together and compare scars and swap war stories.
What do you look forward to most when you get up there?
Skiing! I don’t get to do it much anymore, and I love it. My aunt and uncle moved up to Colorado when I was a freshman in high school, and we used to go up there once or twice a year. I’m not the most athletic person in the world, but I was kind of like a fish in water on the snow. I mean, for being a flatlander.
And what’s your favorite thing to do whenever you have time for yourself back home in New Braunfels?
Fish, when I can.
Are you a good fisherman, too?
Is anybody a good fisherman? [Laughs] No. It’s just one of those things where I don’t get into it so much that I don’t enjoy it if I don’t catch fish. Like getting into golf so much that you don’t enjoy it if you don’t hit anything.
So what brought you down to our side of the border in the first place? There is still a pretty happening scene going on up north, isn’t there?
Yeah. But, it’s kind of like Mike McClure said one time: “You can’t be a prophet in your own town.” I told him, “That’s a good line!” And McClure goes, “Yeah … I think Jesus said that.”
Between you and half of Ragweed living there, New Braunfels is starting to sound like New Stillwater. If McClure ever finally moves down here, we’re gonna start getting nervous and think y’all are up to something.
[Laughs] Nah, man. We just all do what we do. I don’t ever throw the Red Dirt thing in anybody’s face. It’s all just geography!