Sitting right in the middle of the country, with music from the rest of the USA swirling through it from all sides, Oklahoma has understandably been the source of several influential pop-music movements. Invariably, those styles can be traced not just to a city, but to a specific place within that city, as well as to an act that sums up what it’s all about.
You can begin in the 1920s with the Oklahoma City Blue Devils, who’d become a huge force in the creation of Kansas City jazz, coming out of the downtown OKC area known as Deep Deuce. Not long afterwards, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys popularized the music now known as western swing from the Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa; several decades later that same town’s Leon Russell turned a church into a studio, introducing the Tulsa Sound to the whole doggone rock ‘n’ roll world.
Like the others, Red Dirt music grew up in a specific place in a specific town. The town is Stillwater, home of Oklahoma State University. The place was a two-story, fivebedroom, funky old place called the Farm-for two decades the epicenter of what would come to be called the Red Dirt scene.
The act that represents Red Dirt? You couldn’t do any better than the Red Dirt Rangers, who’ve been carrying the banner for Red Dirt music since the late 1980s. And years before the band existed, Ben Han, John Cooper, and Brad Piccolo became an integral part of the Farm’s musical brotherhood, trading songs and licks with the likes of Jimmy LaFave, Tom Skinner, and Bob Childers-and, later, with such white-hot acts as Cross Canadian Ragweed, Jason Boland and the Stragglers and Stoney LaRue.
“We would keep on coming in, every weekend, and whoever was playing music at the time, we’d just chime in,” recalls Ranger lead guitarist-vocalist Ben Han, whose journey to the Farm began in far-away Borneo. “Living-room jams became jams for beers, and then it was, ‘Hey, we’ve got something going on.’ We just proceeded with what we already had, called a couple of friends, and the next thing you know, we’re pickin’ and grinning.”
That casual approach to becoming a band is the very antithesis of the ambition-driven grab for the stars that makes shows like American Idol possible. But the Rangers’ laidback road-less-traveled style splendidly evokes the musicians who honed their chops in the living room, front porch, garage (aka “The Gypsy Café”) and campfire-dotted acreage of the Farm, where the sheer joy of creating music with friends transcended everything else. As Rangers mandolinist-vocalist John Cooper has noted, “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.”
In the summer of 2004, the three Rangers all went down in a near-fatal helicopter crash. Guitarist-vocalist Piccolo believes that whole experience helped return them to their Stillwater roots.
“A lot of times, you’re just kind of rambling along, and it takes an epiphany like that, a defining moment, to let you know what your purpose is,” he explains. “Now, I just want to make good music and send a good feeling out there to people.”
This year is gearing up to be a huge milestone for the Rangers. The band will be celebrating 25 years together and will embark on the aptly named “Oklahoma World Tour”, visiting every corner of the State and beyond. In addition, a new CD titled “Lone Chimney” is about to be released. Produced by Steve Ripley and featuring many worldclass musicians, this long awaited album promises to their best yet.
As Bob Childers once said, “Kick back and enjoy the ride”…and most of all, keep on spreadin’ the dirt!
— John Wooley
“For the past 30 years we’ve been proud to represent the music and musicians from the state of Oklahoma. After traveling coast to coast, border to border, and internationally, we realize that Oklahoma is held in high esteem in music circles everywhere we go. Our state has produced some of the finest musicians the world has ever known, in all genres of music. We are honored to be a link in the chain of the beautiful tapestry that is Oklahoma music, it’s magnificent past, incredible present, and bright shining future,” said John Cooper of Red Dirt Rangers.
For more information and to listen to their music, please visit the Red Dirt Rangers’ listing in the Oklahoma Music Directory.