Red Dirt Rangers

Sitting right in the middle of the country, with music from the rest of the USA swirling through it from all sides, Oklahoma has understandably been the source of several influential pop-music movements. Invariably, those styles can be traced not just to a city, but to a specific place within that city – as well as to an act that sums up what it’s all about.

You can begin in the 1920s with the Oklahoma City Blue Devils, who’d become a huge force in the creation of Kansas City jazz, coming out of the downtown OKC area known as Deep Deuce. Not long afterwards, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys popularized the music now known as western swing from the Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa; several decades later that same town’s Leon Russell turned a church into a studio, introducing the Tulsa Sound to the whole doggone rock ‘n’ roll world.

Like the others, Red Dirt music grew up in a specific place in a specific town. The town is Stillwater, home of Oklahoma State University. The place was a two-story, five-bedroom, funky old place called the Farm -- for two decades the epicenter of what would come to be called the Red Dirt scene.

The act that represents Red Dirt? You couldn’t do any better than the Red Dirt Rangers, who’ve been carrying the banner for Red Dirt music since the late 1980s. And years before the band existed, Ben Han, John Cooper, and Brad Piccolo became an integral part of the Farm’s musical brotherhood, trading songs and licks with the likes of Jimmy LaFave, Tom Skinner, and Bob Childers – and, later, with such now white-hot acts as Cross Canadian Ragweed, Jason Boland and the Stragglers and Stoney LaRue.

“We would keep on coming in, every weekend, and whoever was playing music at the time, we’d just chime in,” recalls Ranger lead guitarist-vocalist Ben Han, whose journey to the Farm began in far-away Borneo. “Living-room jams became jams for beers, and then it was, `Hey, we’ve got something going on.’ We just proceeded with what we already had, called a couple of friends, and the next thing you know, we’re pickin’ and grinning.”

That casual approach to becoming a band is the very antithesis of the ambition-driven grab for the stars that makes shows like American Idol possible. But the Rangers’ laid-back road-less-traveled style splendidly evokes the musicians who honed their chops in the living room, front porch, garage (aka “The Gypsy Café”) and campfire-dotted acreage of the Farm, where the sheer joy of creating music with friends transcended everything else. As Rangers mandolinist-vocalist John Cooper has noted, “ The Farm was as much an attitude as a physical structure. It allowed a setting where freedom rang and all things were possible. Out of this setting came the music.”

The physical structure burned down in 2003. But the attitude prevails in not only every Red Dirt Rangers show and song, but also in the acclaimed new disc Ranger Motel – produced by Red Dirt godfather Steve Ripley at Tulsa’s legendary Church Studio -- which finds the band consistently conjuring up the spirit of the Farm and Stillwater. Opening and closing with two direct evocations of their old hometown, LaFave’s “Red Dirt Roads” and Piccolo’s longingly wistful “Stillwater,” Ranger Motel is chock-full of connections to those golden days at the Farm, In addition to songs penned by such Red Dirt compadres as Childers, Skinner, Mike McClure, Greg Jacobs and Ranger bassist Don Morris, it includes a spirited remake of “Lavena,” a tune from the band’s very first album, the cassette-only Cimarron Soul (1991).

Along with longtime musical pals Randy Crouch on fiddle and Tulsa Sound legend Jim Karstein on drums, Ranger Motel features appearances by another Tulsa great, harmonica player Jimmy Markham, and Texas-based keyboardist Augie Meyers, whose genre-twisting work with the Sir Douglas Quintet and Texas Tornados had a major influence on the Rangers’ music.

Another influence on the disc is far less joyful. In the summer of 2004, the three Rangers all went down in a near-fatal helicopter crash. Guitarist-vocalist Piccolo believes that whole experience helped return them to their Stillwater roots.

“A lot of times, you’re just kind of rambling along, and it takes an epiphany like that, a defining moment, to let you know what your purpose is,” he explains. “Now, I just want to make good music and send a good feeling out there to people.”

That’s exactly what the Red Dirt Rangers do with Ranger Motel, channeling the deep and wondrous vibe of the Farm, and playing it forward to a new generation.

-John Wooley

John Fullbright

“What’s so bad about happy?” John Fullbright sings on the opening track of his new album, ‘Songs.’ It’s a play on the writer’s curse, the notion that new material can only come through heartbreak or depression, that great art is only born from suffering.

“A normal person, if they find themselves in a position of turmoil or grief, they’ll say, ‘I need to get out of this as fast as I can,’” says Fullbright. “A writer will say, ‘How long can I stay in this until I get something good?’ And that’s a bullshit way to look at life,” he laughs.

That plainspoken approach is part of what’s fueled the young Oklahoman’s remarkable rise. It was just two years ago that Fullbright released his debut studio album, ‘From The Ground Up’ to a swarm of critical acclaim. The LA Times called the record “preternaturally self-assured,” while NPR hailed him as one of the 10 Artists You Should Have Known in 2012, saying “it’s not every day a new artist…earns comparisons to great songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Randy Newman, but Fullbright’s music makes sense in such lofty company.” The Wall Street Journal crowned him as giving one of the year’s 10 best live performances, and the album also earned him the ASCAP Foundation’s Harold Adamson Lyric Award. If there was any doubt that his debut announced the arrival of a songwriting force to be reckoned with, it was put to rest when ‘From The Ground Up’ was nominated for Best Americana Album at the GRAMMY Awards, which placed Fullbright alongside some of the genre’s most iconic figures, including Bonnie Raitt.

“I never came into this with a whole lot of expectations,” says Fullbright. “I just wanted to write really good songs, and with that outlook, everything else is a perk. The fact that we went to LA and played “Gawd Above” in front of a star-studded audience [at the GRAMMY pre-tel concert], never in my life would I have imagined that.”

But for Fullbright, it hasn’t been all the acclaim that means the most to him, but rather his entrance into a community of songwriters whose work he admires.

“When I started out, I was all by myself in a little town in Oklahoma where whatever you wanted, you just made it yourself,” he explains. “I didn’t grow up around musicians or like-minded songwriters, but I grew up around records. One of the most fulfilling things about the last two years is that now I’m surrounded by like-minded people in a community of peers. You don’t feel so alone anymore.”

If there’s a recurring motif that jumps out upon first listen to ‘Songs,’ it’s the act of writing, which is one Fullbright treats with the utmost respect. “When I discovered Townes Van Zandt, that’s when I went, ‘You know, this is something to be taken pretty damn seriously,’” says Fullbright. “‘This is nothing to do with business, it has to do with art and identity.’ You can write something that’s going to outlast you, and immortality though song is a big draw.”

But just as important to Fullbright as writing is careful editing. “I can write a first verse and a chorus fairly easily, and it’s important just to document it at the time and come back to it later,” he explains. “That’s the labor, when you really get your tools out and figure out how to craft something that’s worthwhile.”

Fullbright inhabits his songs’ narrators completely, his old-soul voice fleshing out complex characters and subtle narratives with a gifted sense of understatement.

“My songwriting is a lot more economical now,” he explains. “I like to say as much as I can in 2 minutes 50 seconds, and that’s kind of a point of pride for me.”

The arrangements on ‘Songs’ are stripped down to their cores and free of ornamentation. Fullbright’s guitar and piano anchor the record, while a minimalist rhythm section weaves in and out throughout the album. That’s not to say these are simple songs; Fullbright possesses a keen ear for memorable melody and a unique approach to harmony, moving through chord progressions far outside the expected confines of traditional folk or Americana. The performances are stark and direct, though, a deliberate approach meant to deliver the songs in their purest and most honest form.

“I’m a better performer and writer and musician now, and I wanted a record that would reflect that,” he says. “We tracked a lot of it live, just me and a bass player in a room with a few microphones. The basis is a live performance and everything else supports that. I think you just get as much energy and skill as you can into a take, and then start building from there. And what we found is that you don’t have to add too much to that.”

The songs also reflect how drastically Fullbright’s life has changed since the release of ‘From The Ground Up,’ which launched him into a rigorous schedule of international touring. “Going Home” finds him appreciating the simple pleasure of heading back to Oklahoma, which he likens to The Odyssey. “When you’re gone for so long, once you know you’re headed in the right direction to your own bed and your own home, that’s one of the greatest feelings you can have,” he says.

“I Didn’t Know” is a song he premiered live at concert hosted by Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, a story he tells still somewhat incredulously, while “When You’re Here” is a somber piano love song, and “The One That Lives Too Far’ is a raw account of the strain that distance can put on a romantic relationship. “All That You Know,” which features just voice and Wurlitzer, implores listeners to appreciate what’s right in front of them, and the finger-picked “Keeping Hope Alive” is a song of resilience through hard times.

To be sure, ‘Songs’ has its moments of darkness, tracks born from pain and heartbreak, but for a craftsman like Fullbright, there are few greater joys than carving emotion into music, taking a stab at that lofty goal of immortality through song. It makes him—and his fans—happy, and there’s nothing bad about that.

The replay of John Moreland’s network television debut is…glorious and affirming and a sucker punch. He is announced by Stephen Colbert, lights dissolve, and the camera slowly focuses on the person midway across the unadorned stage, revealing him beneath muted blue lights.

He is a big man.

Seated, alone, cradling his acoustic guitar.

He looks like nobody who is famous.

Then he begins to sing, to caress the song “Break My Heart Sweetly,” and all that remains is to whisper, “Oh, my god.”

In Colbert’s studio everybody stood, like they were in church.

Big Bad Luv is the record John Moreland made after, after everything in his life changed. For the better.

He sings in one of those accents from flyover country that’s impossible to locate and implausible to mimic. (Texas, by way of Northern Kentucky, but mostly Tulsa, as it happens.) He sings directly from his heart, with none of the restraint and filters and caution the rest of us would apply for public protection. He sings with resolute courage.

He sings.

And writes. Writes with simple eloquence about love and faith and isolation; the human condition; what every song and poem and novel is about, at the core: Life.

“Break My Heart Sweetly” came from his second solo album, released in 2013 and titled In the Throes. High on Tulsa Heat, released through Thirty Tigers, landed him on Colbert’s stage (that’s the LP Colbert held up). Song placements on “Sons of Anarchy,” an emerging artist nomination from the Americana Music Association.

Enough sales to compel Moreland to give up his DIY label operation, and sign with 4AD. “It grew to the point where I couldn’t really handle everything myself,” he says. “Even with a manager and a small team, I came to the conclusion that I’d like to play music and not worry about the other stuff.”
Enough success to buy a measure of peace, and not more pain. “I expected to just play in the corner of the bar and have people not really pay attention, make $100, go home and go to work the next morning, doing something I didn’t like,” Moreland says. “So, yeah, I didn’t really expect to be here. But, then, on the other hand, I did. I feel like I’m good enough to be here. And I’ve always been confident, even when I probably shouldn’t have been. I knew I was an outsider. I didn’t have a lot of faith in the music industry to let me in. But I guess they have. To some extent. That’s what I hoped for, but I wasn’t sure that would be how it worked.”

“In churches learning how to hate yourself/Ain’t grace a wretched old thing” he sings, the song called “Ain’t We Gold.” Big Bad Luv is unmistakably a rock ‘n’ roll record. If, that is, one understands the term to include Ray Wylie Hubbard, John Hiatt, and Lucero. Or The Band, maybe. Insistent songs, coming from a voice as elegant as unfinished barn wood, songs which insist upon their words being heard.
His fourth solo album, not discounting two records with the Black Gold Band and a third with the Dust Bowl Souls. Nor discounting early excursions into hardcore which were not youthful indiscretions but crucial training in the emotional honesty of confessional songwriting. A rock album, to be performed by a rock band. A partial break with the solitude of solo touring.

“Two or three years ago,” Moreland says, “it would have been impossible to picture touring with a band. Now that’s changed. I think I’ll still do some solo or stripped down shows, but I have the option to bring a band with me if I want. Ultimately it’s just what the songs felt like they should be.”

Big Bad Luv was recorded down in Little Rock, mostly with a crew of Tulsa friends: John Calvin Abney on piano and guitar, back from Tulsa Heat; Aaron Boehler on bass; Paddy Ryan on drums; Jared Tyler on dobro. And then Lucero’s Rick Steff on piano, which ended up being the catalyst for completion.

“I always start off writing whatever comes naturally,” Moreland says. “Once I’ve got seven or eight of those, then I’ll take stock and look at what I’ve got, figure out what belongs on a record together, and what might not. Then I’ll figure out what kind of songs I need.”

Three sessions over ten months, sandwiched between touring dates and life. The final sequence roughly approximating the order in which songs were written. “I chose the sequence for what I thought worked best musically,” he says, untroubled.

“Quick bursts of recording,” Moreland goes on. Gives off a quick laugh. “It’s not like we’re sitting there over-thinking the performances, I’m definitely a fan of just hit record and play it. But then there’s long stretches where I’m not in the studio, when I’m listening to what I did, asking how do I turn this into a record?”

The key turned out to be Rick Steff’s promise to record next week, even though Moreland didn’t have songs, not a one. “I went home and wrote five songs in four days and finished up,” Moreland says. Another deep, wry laugh.

Big Bad Luv is, at least by comparison…maybe…a happier record? “I don’t think I’m writing songs that are that much different,” Moreland says. “It’s always been a positive thing at heart, even if a song isn’t sunshine and rainbows. At the very least my songs have been a way to exorcise negative feelings so that I can move on. And hopefully they provide that same experience to listeners. So that’s what I’m still doing. I think it’s a positive thing. I think this record, there’s definitely a change in attitude, but it’s the same point of view.”

Oh, yeah. And Tchad Blake mixed it. “He’s also the only person I’ve ever worked with on a record whose name I can drop.”

“Slow down easy, I’ve been hauling a heavy soul,” he sings, this song titled “Slow Down Easy.” Carrying it for all of us, but no longer alone.

$18.00 - $30.00

Tickets


Show :: 8pm (times subject to change)

Advance $18 | Day of Show $20 | Door $22 | Mezzanine (21+) $30

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