Jason Boland & The Stragglers

It’s admirable when a musician gets back to his roots, there’s no questioning that. But in
a lot of ways, it’s even more admirable when an artist has no need to do that – having
never lost touch with those roots in the first place. Jason Boland falls squarely into the
latter category, having spent the better part of the last 15 years entrenching himself in
the so-called “red dirt” of his native state of Oklahoma and adopted home in Texas and
while spreading his musical branches to cover a remarkable amount of territory.

“I’ve always thought it was important to keep one foot in tradition and the other pointed in
the direction you want to go,” says Boland. “I didn’t invent the G chord, so I’m standing
on the shoulders of the giants that did, and on the shoulders of some great songwriters
that have come before me. I’m using an old stencil, but adding my own colors.”

On their new studio album, Dark And Dirty Mile, Boland and his compatriots use a wide
array of hues to illustrate 11 songs of rejection and redemption, dark clouds and silver
linings, all assembled in the rough-hewn manner that’s earned him an ever-growing fan
base – a following that’s snapped up more than a half-million records over the past
decade and change.

Dark And Dirty Mile is a song cycle of sorts, one that finds Boland seeking – and finding
-- beauty in life’s often-overlooked places, learning tough lessons through experience
and overcoming obstacles with the help of others. That’s evident in the title track, which
opens the album with a vividly drawn emotional landscape strewn with moments of
regret and missed opportunities – but a clear bead on a clear horizon.

A similar dichotomy rolls through “Electric Bill,” a slow burn of a honky-tonk tune that
conjures a picture of a man with an overdrawn checkbook in one hand and the hand of a
loved one in the other – a sentiment he credits to his wife, who he says, reminded him
that, “if everything is taken away tomorrow, there’s still love and hope in the world.”

Boland presents that sentiment without a drop of Hallmark saccharine, however. He
doesn’t sweeten these tunes with easy studio tricks or the sort of pop trickery so often
heard on Music City productions these days. The surface is anything but slick, and the
sinew that runs through songs like the organ-tinged strut “Green Screen” and the high
lonesome desert tone of his take on Randy Crouch’s “They Took It Away” lends a tone
that’s ragged-but-right, ideal for Boland’s always-incisive lyrics.

“People don’t always expect to have a lot there in terms of lyrics,” he says. “Society says
‘if it sounds like this, you have to do songs about that.’ But if you just try to fit things
together in the most simple way possible, you’re just trying to manipulate people, and I’m
not interested in doing that.

“I think of myself as being in the Oklahoma tradition in the same way as Woody Guthrie
– those of us who came up in Tornado Alley can all trace our lineage back to Woody.”.

Boland has been mining that territory for pretty much his entire career. Bowing in 1999
with the regionally popular Pearl Snaps – a first teaming with Lloyd Maines, who Boland
cites as one of several seminal influences on his sonic vision – the Stragglers built a
rabid following from the Panhandle to the Gulf Coast. Over the intervening half-decade,
the band would team with similar kindred spirits – from Billy Joe Shaver to Dwight
Yoakam compadre Pete Anderson to the late Bob Childers – to create an
uncompromising body of work, as whip-smart as it is body-moving.

“We’ve always been lucky enough to work with people who feel the same way we do
about things,” says Boland. “The world doesn’t always make sense, but you meet people
around the campfires who will be there for you. That’s the big secret, 99 percent of
people will share and break bread with you when times are hard.”

Boland himself says that he started to figure things out in earnest around the time he
and the Stragglers went into the studio to record 2008’s Comal County Blue, a set that,
as Country Weekly put it, “vividly chronicle the thoughts of a regular guy trying to make
sense of the world and only occasionally succeeding, while keeping one eye on the
reasons he keeps trying.”

That disc brought Boland’s songs to a wider audience than anything he had done in the
past, but the momentum was slowed a bit by his need to take several months off to
recover from surgery to remove a polyp from his vocal cord. He took the setback in
stride, and now says, in retrospect, “it was a good thing in some ways, since it helped
teach me to really sing and broke me of the habit of yelling – which is an easy habit to
develop if you come up singing in Texas honky-tonks.”

By the time 2011’s “palpably redemptive” Rancho Alto (to quote the Austin Chronicle)
came around, Boland had a firm rein on his instrument, which had grown into a
burnished, evocative baritone, and further honed his pensive-but-not-pedantic writing
style – all of which comes to heady fruition on Dark and Dirty Mile, co-produced by
Boland and Shooter Jennings.

From the steeliness of “Only One,” with its unflagging belief in love in the face of
adversity to the wistful regret of the album closing “See You When I See You,” that
strength shines through. It emerges in the two-step friendly rhythms of “Nine Times Out
of Ten” and it burrows deep into the soil on the soulful swing of “Lucky I Guess” – songs
that evoke the sight, smell and taste of the red dirt of his home territory.

“The t-shirt sellers love that phrase ‘red dirt,’ because it’s so simple,” says Boland. “But it
fits. It was coined by the people making the music – rust in the ground, blood in the dirt.
It’s real and it’s where I come from – and what I refuse to give up, no matter what.”

The Turnpike Troubadours

Times are tough for just about everyone these days, especially for those who live in what is often referred to as the "flyover states," in the heart of the country. People have become tougher, their skins have grown thicker and they have become much harder to win over. That especially holds true when it comes to the music that rolls into the bars, music halls and honky tonks of their towns. The overwhelming success that Turnpike Troubadours have had on the so-called Red Dirt circuit of those states says a lot about the quintet's authenticity and fire, particularly because their music is not exactly what that scene in known for producing.

"When we first started playing, people couldn't have cared less that we were there," recalls Troubadours' frontman Evan Felker. "They were there to drink beer and raise hell and they didn't really care what music was playing while they did it. But as we went on and as we got better, they started to listen. I mean, they were still drinkin' plenty of beer, but before too long, they were actually coming to hear us and asking us to play our songs, and not just covers of traditional favorites and all the other stuff we'd been doing."

Not only did the crowds get more attentive, they kept getting bigger. As time went on, and the Troubadours broadened their touring circle, they moved on from tiny clubs in the more obscure corners of the Sooner state and started hitting – and selling out – prestigious venues like Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa, the Firehouse Saloon in Houston and Antone's in Austin.

Over the course of the past five years, Felker, bassist RC Edwards, fiddle player Kyle Nix, guitarist Ryan Engleman and drummer Gabe Pearson, have honed the rowdy, quick-witted sound that's brought folks of all stripes together in front of those stages. And on Goodbye Normal Street, the Troubadours' third full-length album, the band takes that blend of nice and easy and nice and rough and distills it into a 43-minute ride that takes in the scenery of America's Heartland and the inner workings of a group of 20-somethings on a quest for something better.

"This time around, we tried to balance things out," says bassist Edwards, who shelved a steady gig as a pharmacist in late 2011 to concentrate on the band. "We wanted to combine the idea of getting something perfect, the way you can only do in a proper studio, with the energy of playing in front of a thousand people jumping around and screaming."

They attack that goal with gusto on Goodbye Normal Street, putting the pedal to the metal on "Before the Devil Knows We're Dead" (a breakneck romp about regular folks who lived hard and died in a blaze of glory) and dialing back to a sensual closing-time waltz on "Call a Spade a Spade" (a cheater's lament on which Felker duets with Jamie Wilson of the Trishas).

Felker, who writes the majority of the lyrics – with an assist from Edwards, who penned the semi-autobiographical "Morgan Street," about the band's hardscrabble early days – has a knack for capturing slices of life in vivid detail. He can hit hard emotionally with a song like "Blue Star" (a bittersweet tale of a veteran returning from war) or tweak the listener with something like "Gin, Smoke and Lies" (on which he contrasts his own romantic plight with that of a rooster who manages to satisfy 20 partners, and not just one).

"All the songs are about people we know," he says. "And yeah, some of them are probably about me to some degree – the guy who ticks off the wrong girl from Arkansas, and the guy who doesn't always like what he sees himself becoming. Mostly though, I think they're just honest."

The band – which took its name from the Indian Nation Turnpike that connected so many of the smaller towns where they cut their teeth – gradually evolved from offering acoustic explorations of tunes by Townes Van Zandt and Jerry Jeff Walker to kicking out three or four sets a night of full-throttle roadhouse country – tinged with the punk rock attitude that was in the air during the members' teen years.

"We all pretty much grew up with hardcore country music around us," says Felker. "I mean, sure, there was rock stuff in there, but the real old-school stuff, plus exposure to folks like Jason Boland and Cross Canadian Ragweed, really affected what we were playing. We're really a product of both our influences and our environment. It wasn't something that we sat in a room and dreamed up in one day."

That's clear. The raw-boned energy of their 2007 debut, Bossier City, cut on a shoestring budget and aimed squarely at getting boots on the dance floor earned raves from many corners, including No Depression, which dubbed it "a testament to the small towns in which they were raised ... with stories of longing, humor, tragedy and general life in rural America." The quintet broadened its horizons on its sophomore outing, Diamonds and Gasoline, which spawned the Americana favorite "Every Girl" and brought them to the attention of folks throughout the country, and overseas.

And with Goodbye Normal Street – the name a reference to another longtime band residence as well as a state of mind that they left behind long ago – they set their sights on conquering even more expansive territories. With songs like the blue-collar anthem "Southeastern Son" and the universally understandable breakup plaint "Wrecked," they look pretty likely to conquer them.

"This music, at its best, can put into words what we have been thinking for our entire lives," says Felker, "and even at its worst, it gets people drinking beer and makes people happy. Either of those is fine with me."

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Show :: 8:30pm (times subject to change)

Advance $25 | Day of Show $27 | Door $29 | Mezzanine (21+) $40

There is a $2 fee that applies to each ticket purchased at the Cain's Box Office.

No re-entry! No smoking! No refunds!

Oklahoma Joe’s will be serving their full menu from 7pm – 10pm.

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Jason Boland & The Stragglers, Turnpike Troubadours

Friday, November 29 · Doors 7:00 PM at Cain's Ballroom

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