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, ))
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.
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.