Red Dirt

Photo by Daniela Buvat

Jason Boland takes the Wooly’s stage with a rock star’s gusto and the swagger of John Wayne. It’s a Sunday in Des Moines, and the crowd—donning ball caps, plaid shirts, and cowboy boots—is ready for a night of country music. But this isn’t a show filled with motifs of trucks, riverbanks, and girls named, well, “girl.” Boland and his band, The Stragglers, are a Red Dirt group.

Red Dirt isn’t a song, a band, or even a record label. It’s a genre— one that’s tough to define. Artists with an array of sounds have fallen under Red Dirt’s tent. Country, folk, blues, and even rock ‘n’ roll can be heard among its ranks. It’s the indie-rock of country. The genre isn’t built around a strict definition, but rather the idea of neo-traditional music that has something to say. It’s a genre that’s moving forward, yet never loses sight of where it’s from.

Red Dirt originated in Oklahoma, where the name pays homage to the state’s red clay soil. Boland says Red Dirt’s roots trace as far back as 1940s folk artist Woody Guthrie. From there, it’s taken hold on acts like Bob Childers, Tom Skinner, and the Red Dirt Rangers.

Boland traces his own musical roots to his college days at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma. There he discovered Bob Childers’ country home, a place called The Farm, where artists would gather to jam and write songs.

“Childers was the greatest influence, as far as confidence, work ethic, and crafting songs,” Boland says. And if Childers gave him his inspiration, fellow musician Mike McClure gave him the means. McClure introduced Boland and The Stragglers to the Red Dirt sound. He showed the band that it’s possible to do country differently—and that there are people who will listen.

The term Red Dirt mostly serves as a way for artists to separate themselves from the popular version of country music. “If somebody’s going to think by you saying you’re a country band that you’re what’s going on in Nashville, you might try to stratify it a little more with your answer,” Boland says. “So I’ll say Red Dirt—but personally, we’re a country band. We have a pedal steel and a fiddle, and we always have.”

Pedal steel guitar and fiddle may seem foreign to the popular notion of country today. And that’s kind of the point. Boland says—whether one side is wrong or right—that there are entertainers, and then there are artists making music to create a new riff in the world.

Boland’s assertion that he and The Stragglers are true country artists shines through in their sound. Upbeat songs like “Hank” feature a chugging, Waylon-esque backbeat, while slow story ballads like “Lucky I Guess” ring with pedal steel guitar. The sound has consistently grown over the last eight studio albums. Boland says he always tries to make music that’s true to his life. “When it was college age, it had more partying,” Boland says. “But as we go along, we get more and more perspective.”

The band’s latest album, “Squelch,” is proof of that growth. The album features songs like “Fat and Merry” that criticize gentrification and instant gratification. “Everybody kept saying, ‘It’s really political,’” Boland says of “Squelch.” He asserts that they aren’t nearly as political as other classic country acts like Merle Haggard or Hank Williams, Jr. “People just aren’t used to hearing anything assessive anymore.”

“Squelch” also shows Boland and The Stragglers at their most experimental. Tracks like “I Guess It’s Alright to Be an Asshole” sound a little California punk with a speedy, distorted power-chord-fueled melody. While the album also has the twang listeners expect, these innovations help Red Dirt acts like Boland grow a loyal fan base. The music is new, yet familiar. And it’s genuine.

The search for something genuine pushed Jason Boland to a career on the edge of country music. He’s working to start his own label to help others make it in the tough, fringe world of country. Maybe someday he’ll pass the Red Dirt torch off to a new act, just as it was passed to him. Until then, he’ll keep playing the roadhouse circuit and making music for those with a love for country outside of Nashville.