BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
There's been a lot of ink poured around the Tulsa World,
trying to define and describe Red Dirt music, the elusive
mix of country, rock, blues and folk native to Oklahoma and
centered around Stillwater. It's like nailing smoke to a
wall. You can see it, you can smell it, but how do you grab
hold of it?
In all the interviews with musicians classified as Red
Dirt players, a lot of names come up as influences. A lot
of folks hearken back to the Tulsa Sound days of Leon
Russell and J.J. Cale. Some trace their sound back to Merle
Haggard, others tell stories about Garth Brooks' days in
the Stillwater bars. Songwriter Bob Childers is pretty
universally hailed as the genre's godfather.
But one name comes up more than all the others. In a
recent search of the Tulsa World's electronic archives
(stories back to 1989), 176 stories mentioned Red Dirt
music, and 143 of those mentioned Woody Guthrie.
If Red Dirt is the great consolidation of American
music, especially south of the Mason-Dixon, then surely its
crucible can be found in the tangled woods around Guthrie's
old Okemah home site. Guthrie was famous for a certain
slice of his music — frank, topical folk songs — but he wrote
and performed every conceivable genre of music in the
decades he wandered this land with his guitar slung over
his shoulder on a rope.
The comprehensive four-CD, boxed set from Smithsonian
Folkways Records, "The Asch Recordings," covers most of this --
his cowboy music, his Tex-Mex, his kids songs, his blues.
Guthrie respected differences in people and in music.
"The unifying theme in Woody's music is that he wrote
about the land he loved," says Tulsa scholar Guy Logsdon. "He
played the melodies and music that came from the land he
loved, from Oklahoma, one of the most culturally diverse
places in America. Let's also say he modified it. He used
the music he heard as a foundation and built upon it.
"That's what these Red Dirt guys are doing. The Garth
Brookses and Jimmy LaFaves and Tom Skinners and there's a
guy in Bristow named Brett Graham — they use their heritage
as a foundation and build their own sound on top of it. It
just happens to be a very broad foundation," Logsdon said.
LaFave, who grew up in Stillwater but relocated to
Austin to make his career, is considered one of the
principal standard-bearers of the Red Dirt ideal. He cites
Guthrie's influence consistently and has become a pillar of
the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah.
Another expatriate Stillwater son, Bruce Henderson now
in New York City, cites Guthrie among the lathes that
shaped his easy-going, country-rock songwriting. Regional
singer-songwriter Brandon Jenkins said in a '98 interview,
"I've been real involved with Woody Guthrie music lately,
and it got me back to writing music for my own reasons, not
to have a hit."
"It's about finding your identity," Logsdon said. "Often we
search for ourselves and discover we're part of something
greater." "Where is Woody Guthrie in Red Dirt music? In
the truth," said John Cooper of the Red Dirt Rangers this
week. The Rangers are probably the ultimate example of Red
Dirt's nebulous but potent mixture of styles.
"It's in the lyrics, in trying to tell the absolute truth
as you see it. Woody said you can only write what you know
about, and it's true," Cooper said.
The Rangers themselves have struggled throughout their
11-year existence to explain to folks what they do, what
their music is. Someone once called them "Woody Guthrie gone
In '95, Cooper told the Tulsa World, "A lot of people
think we're a country band, which is true, but we do a lot
more than that. It shows in the kinds of gigs we do. We've
done kids shows, bluegrass festivals, rock 'n' roll events,
city festivals, prison shows and private parties."
The broad base of their sound and influences allows them
to be that versatile. But it's that element of truth that
separates them from most style classifications based purely
on musical form. It's almost like Christian music, a
musical category containing every possible style of music
but segregated purely because of its message. Red Dirt
places a higher importance on truth in the lyrics than most
other genres, certainly pure country.
"Like a song on our upcoming record, ‘Leave This World a
Better Place.' I'm serious about that," Cooper said this
week. "I didn't write that just to be catchy. I want people
to hear that and believe as much as I do that that's what
we should do."
That does not imply that Red Dirt music is protest
"It's not necessarily political like Woody got sometimes
and like he's so well-known for being. You can't take the
politics away from Woody, and really from us either, but
we're more about the politics of love, if that's not too
"Our connection to Woody is through that desire to tell
the truth and to lift people up no matter what kind of
stories you're telling them," Cooper said.
"Woody was the voice of all people who struggle," added
Ranger singer Brad Piccolo, "but people struggle in many
different ways, not just political stuff. There has to be
honesty in every area of playing music, because people come
to music for a lot of different reasons."
Even Guthrie himself didn't know what to call his music.
In 1940, a reviewer included a discussion of Guthrie's "Dust
Bowl Ballads" under the heading "Americana." In his scrapbook,
Guthrie scribbled his response: "Americana is a new one on
me, but when these fellers hire out to write a column every
day they ain't no telling what kinds of words they'll fall
back on to make a living."
Guilty as charged.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.