Morgan, Brad, John M. Cooper, & John Fullbright — 21st Annual Woody Guthrie Festival, 2018

Woodyfest 2018: Red Dirt Rangers

Red Dirt Rangers

Red Dirt Rangers: Days of Future Past

The Red Dirt Rangers [Sidenote: The ninth install­ment in our 2018 Woodyfest series fea­tures fes­ti­val favorites the Red Dirt Rangers.] may not have birthed Red Dirt, but they helped mid­wife the musi­cal genre into the world. And like so much Oklahoma music, Red Dirt has made its influ­ence felt far beyond the state’s borders.

Starting in the 1930s, when Kansas City Jazz arose from the ashes of the Oklahoma City Blue Devils, [Sidenote: Originally located in the city’s Deep Deuce dis­trict, the Blue Devils oper­ated from until , when their for­mer pianist, William “Count” Basie poached most of their best play­ers, includ­ing Lester Young, Walter Page, and Jimmy Rushing, for his newly formed orches­tra. The Blue Devils had relo­cated to Kansas City .] Oklahoma has been ground zero for sev­eral impor­tant American pop­u­lar musi­cal styles. There’s jazz-gui­tarist Charlie Christian, born in Texas but raised in Oklahoma City, whose horn-like play­ing paved the way for the mod­ern gui­tar sound — influ­enc­ing not just jazz, blues, west­ern swing, and rock gui­tarists, but a whole pas­sel of non-gui­tarist musi­cians as well. [Sidenote: [Black Sabbath’s first song,] “A Song for Jim” [was] an absolute Charlie Christian take­off. — Jim Simpson, quoted in Martin Popoff’s Black Sabbath FAQ, Backbeat Books, .]

Western swing got its start at Tulsa’s Cain’s Ballroom, where cou­ples danced to Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. A few decades later Leon Russell con­verted a church into a stu­dio; soon after, Russell and his Tulsa Mob gave rock ’n’ roll radio sta­tions around the world the “Tulsa Sound” — influ­enc­ing musi­cians as far away as British rock­ers Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler. Clapton played var­i­ous Tulsa venues so often in the [Sidenote: Clapton’s band at the time con­sisted of Tulsans Carl Radle, Dick Sims, and Jamie Oldaker.] that critic Robert Christgau wrote Whatever Eric isn’t any­more … he’s cer­tainly king of the Tulsa sound. [Sidenote: Christgau, Robert, Rock Albums of the ’70s: A Critical Guide (Da Capo Press, )]

Roger Osburn in Conversation with Randy Crouch — 21st Annual Woody Guthrie Festival, 2018
Roger Osburn con­verses with Randy Crouch shortly before the Red Dirt Rangers’ set

In From Blue Devils to Red Dirt: The Colors of Oklahoma Music, author John Wooley spec­u­lates that Oklahoma’s geo­graph­i­cally cen­tral loca­tion, with music from the rest of the USA swirling through it from all sides, was one fac­tor in the cre­ative fer­ment going on in the state through­out the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. Whatever it was — some­thing in the air and water, out­law genes passed down from the Sooners, the state’s geo­graphic and demo­graphic diver­sity — the music has always trav­eled in both direc­tions. Think of how dust blow­ing in from the north­ern plains caused a young Woody Guthrie to hit the road with his gui­tar and pen. Every school­child in the nation knows the first verse to “This Land Is Your Land.”

Another such musi­cal style, Red Dirt, began at the late Bob Childers’ home (“The Farm”) in Stillwater in the . Along with Childers, the late Jimmy LaFave, and the late Tom Skinner, the Red Dirt Rangers got their start at The Farm. The ram­bling five-room home served as a musi­cal com­mune for Red Dirt musi­cians for two decades. Everybody lived there. [Sidenote: Conversation via Facebook Messenger with John Cooper, .] The Farm burned down in 2003, but the music lives on.

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.

John Cooper

Comprising gui­tarists and singers Brad Piccolo and Ben Han and man­dolin­ist and singer John Cooper, [Sidenote: Drummer Rick Gomez, bassist Don Morris, and fid­dler and multi-instru­men­tal­ist Randy Crouch round out the band.] the Rangers have played every Woodyfest except in , when they barely sur­vived a heli­copter crash near Cushing that killed the pilot and a pas­sen­ger. Piccolo did appear and play a few songs that year, [Sidenote: Piccolo was still heal­ing from sev­eral bro­ken ribs, knee dam­age, lac­er­a­tions, and a bro­ken coc­cyx.] so you could say their streak is unbro­ken. Their Thursday night main stage per­for­mance marks their twen­ti­eth (or twenty-first, depend­ing on how you’re count­ing) Woodyfest appear­ance, apart from the times they’ve sup­ported other guest artists.

Gallery: Red Dirt Rangers


About Chris J. Zähller

International Man of Mystery. Cocktail Nerd. Occasionally designs websites. Sometimes snaps a picture or two.

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