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Q&A: Jason Boland

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of their debut album, "Pearl Snaps," Jason Boland and The Stragglers will play the record front to back along with favorites from their extensive catalog.

G.K. Hizer
March 28, 2020

If you trace the Red Dirt music scene back to its roots, you’ll end up at The Farm in Stillwater with the likes of Bob Childers, Tom Skinner, Jimmy LaFave, and Red Dirt Rangers with their Midwestern, country-tinged songwriting. By the time Red Dirt was expanding with its second wave, however, the next generation was working out of Yellow House and bringing even more diverse influences to the tables.

Yes, the core was built around folk-inspired songwriting and lyrics, but the scene as a whole was gathering more rock and outlaw country into its sound as well. While there were numerous artists in that movement, two stood at the figurative epicenter of it: Cross Canadian Ragweed and Jason Boland.

While Cross Canadian Ragweed represented the decidedly more rock side of the movement, Jason Boland and The Stragglers gave Red Dirt a more traditional Texas and outlaw country flair, drawing from the likes of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard.

Boland and his band have been at it, making music and touring tirelessly for over 20 years now, having formed in 1998 and immediately connecting with fans who saw glimpses of themselves in his earthy, everyman lyrics.

The album that started it all, Pearl Snaps, was recorded quickly in Austin in 1999 and captured the band’s heart and energy. It rapidly became a fan favorite in Red Dirt circles. With the album recently reaching the two-decade mark, Boland is celebrating its success by revisiting the record for a 20th-anniversary tour that stops April 17 at Cain’s Ballroom.

During that tour, Boland took time between stops to chat with Preview 918 about what made that album special, what keeps the band together, and more.

Q. What makes Pearl Snaps so special to the fans?
A. Initially, I think it was a connection to the Red Dirt scene, which was contrary to the pop-country norm. For us, it was about reacting against pop trends. That was a very bare-bones album, recorded tape-to-tape, with a common-man vibe that I think some people connected with. And one crucial part was working with Lloyd Maines. I can’t overstate how important he was to that record, with how amazingly green we were. We were all music lovers and listeners and became somewhat proficient at our instruments. So, the next step was to do a record, but we’d never been in a studio and were so new to it. He did a fantastic job of getting the best out of us and making a good record.

As for our fans, we have no perspective on that album and how it relates to them, but I think the one thing that helped keep it relevant is that we never left that album out of our performances. We may not play all of it every night, but there have always been one or two songs included in our shows.

Q. How have things changed since then?
A. I think the big shift was digital recording. We recorded that first album to tape, and it just had a warmth that goes with it. Then everything shifted to digital, and we’ve fought our way back, ever since. From then on, we started searching to get back to that sound.

I had a conversation with Shooter Jennings, and he said if it were him, he’d do it all analog, so we had him produce Dark & Dirty Mile [2013], and I think that’s maybe the closest we’ve gotten to the Pearl Snaps sound. We’ve done the last three albums old school, all analog.

Q. Where do The Stragglers fit within the Red Dirt scene?
A. I don’t think about that, but if anything, I’d say we’re maybe a little more country. A lot of the scene is based around country and basic songwriting, but we all go our own direction with it. We’re maybe a little more in the traditional country direction. As I said, we were a reaction against the pop-country trend, and it felt like we were almost at the point of someone’s got to do it, so it might as well be us.

Q. Who or what influences your writing and style?
A. I think it comes down to who are your thinking influences? If you’re conscious of it, you can overthink things. Step one is to keep whatever infrastructure together that inspires you. I might be inspired by other tunes or humming something in my head. Step two, for me, is reading. I don’t read as much as I should, but I feel like if words get jammed up in my head, I go read some John Steinbeck, and it frees things up. A lot of people find ways to say something different, and that’s what I look for.

Q. What’s the secret to keeping a band together for 20 years?
A. It’s really about respect. You put a group of guys together in close proximity, with several different catalysts, and it’s a challenge. Just as people, though, I think we were always, as much as we could, respectful of each other. Were we perfect in that? Absolutely not, and least of all myself. But in the end, I think we all respected each other. Sometimes things happen — and sometimes music happens. Roger [Ray, guitar] retired after 16 years to spend more time with his family and take care of some personal issues. Brad [Rice, drummer] stepped down after 20 years. He just moved in a different direction, and it was time to move on to a different phase in his life. I respect that, and we’re all still friends. Roger still plays with us on occasion when we’re in the same area.

Q. What is it that makes Cain’s Ballroom such a unique venue?
A. Well, first off, I think it’s that it has a longstanding history and tradition as someplace we can all gather and play off its energy. I think it’s a few different things, though. Its location, just off the highway, feels special, and people are drawn to its history. Mostly, though, I think it’s the collective energy there.

Jason Boland & The Stragglers
Cain’s Ballroom
423 N. Main Street | Tulsa
April 17: 8:30 p.m.
POSTPONED: Aug. 21: 8:30 p.m.