Okemah, Ok. Sept. 1-2, 2007
The Red Dirt Harvest Festival held each September at The Grape Ranch, a vineyard six miles south of Okemah, Oklahoma, has, in just three years, become a major gathering of the tribe for Oklahoma’s Red Dirt musicians and fans. The festival is a unique opportunity to get a full dose of the pure, unadulterated strain of Oklahoma Red Dirt music. All the performers on this year’s roster are from Oklahoma, and most have known each other for years, decades even –as have many of their fans. Speaking of the fans, this may have been a watershed year for Red Dirt music, as it has begun attracting large flocks of teenage girls. The girls were there to dig the younger generation of musicians like Stoney Larue, No Justice, Dustin Pittsley, Randy Crouch (;-)), Mike McClure, and Okemah’s own rising star, John Fulbright, who is so young that it is rumored that two years ago he had to skip school to play at the festival. We hope that’s true.
Several of the bands performing at the festival have been dominating the Texas music charts this past year and it was clear that they have been working a lot. Brandon Jenkins, Stoney Larue, No Justice, and Mike McClure each put on a well-rehearsed show, settin’ ‘em up and knockin’ ‘em down, boom (Hey, y’all, it’s great to be back in Oklahoma!), boom (Y’all havin’ a good time?), boom (We got time for one more! This’n’s done real well for us on the Texas charts! We love ya!).
What their shows lacked in the kind of laid back spontaneity we associate with Red Dirt, they more than made up for in the solid high energy Rock & Roll delivery of one great song after another from the extensive and growing Red Dirt Canon. Those from an earlier generation of Red Dirt musicians, such as Tom Skinner’s Science Project, Randy Crouch, Bob Childers, The Red Dirt Rangers, Greg Jacobs, Bill Erickson, and other Reddirt Graybeards, were, as always, onstage to amuse and entertain themselves as much as the audience, sitting in on each others’ sets, tossing offhand jokes around the sometimes crowded stage, and conjuring that organic magic that always occurs when they settle into a loose, comfortable groove. This is the source of Red Dirt music -its communal sensibility, its groove, and its canon.
Missing in action this year: Jason Boland & The Stragglers, Jimmy LaFave, and Cross Canadian Ragweed.
FROM OUR RED DIRT FASHION REPORTER TERRY “WHITEBEARD” HUTSON*
“The sudden influx of teenage girl fans has greatly improved the Red Dirt fashion scene. Out with last year’s ubiquitous cowboy hats-and crocs ensemble, and in with short, short denim skirts, flipflops and toe rings. For campside morning attire, velvet robes and hightop tennis shoes never seem to go out of style. Onstage remained a fashion-free zone, where even the familiar pearl snap shirt was abandoned this year in favor of the musicians’ uniform of choice for outdoor work: tee shirt and jeans.”
*disclaimer: Terry Hutson is not really our fashion reporter, and this is not his dispatch, although he does, in fact, have a white beard. We just named him to mess with him a little. Sorry, Terry.
A FEW RANDOM NOTES ABOUT THE PERFORMANCES
Greg Johnson, the emcee, and proprietor of the legendary OKC venue The Blue Door, caused a few titters in the crowd when he introduced Stoney Larue by welcoming him “back to the Blue Door!”
Is there any performer more at ease in the spotlight than Stoney Larue? He has a real presence onstage and seems to be genuinely having a great time up there. He also can really sing, writes great Red Dirt songs, and has assembled a crackerjack band. We predict he’ll be the next Red Dirt act to break out of Texas-Oklahoma regional fame into national prominence. If they could just get him to wear the danged hat instead of that red bandanna they probably would have already made him a star in Nashville. More likely he’ll do it his own way, ala CCR.
Okemah’s own fair-haired, freckle-faced favorite son (well, maybe second favorite), John Fulbright astonished everyone again, as he did in July at the Woody Guthrie Festival “over in town”, with how much he’s grown in confidence and style over the last two years. He sings like Tom Skinner, knows a lot of great old songs, writes, and plays a mean keyboard as well as acoustic guitar.
To paraphrase Emerson to Whitman, we greet you at the beginning of a great career, kid.
It’s kind of thrilling to watch Norman, Oklahoma’s Travis Linville play the guitar. Most guitarists become ultimately predictable, playing within the conventions of their genre. There is the time-honored contract of fulfilled expectations between genre artists and genre fans of all disciplines, be it detective novels, landscape paintings, horror movies, or even the amalgam that is Red Dirt music. The thrill is in never quite knowing where Linville is taking you although he knows exactly where he’s going with the music at all times.
Linville’s music is more descended from Bob Wills than most of his fellow Red Dirt musicians, so our relative unfamiliarity with the form may account for the unexpected turns in his playing. Regardless, his playing is nuanced, disciplined, and confident, and when he cuts loose it’s in short controlled bursts of pure hellfire that seem to come out of nowhere and are gone before you quite know what hit you.
Linville and his bandmate, fiddle player and vocalist Jeremy Watkins, are very simpatico in taste and style. Watkins sang a perfect reading of “Trouble In Mind”.
Stillwater’s No Justice is a straight-ahead solid guitar band. Two electric guitars, one acoustic guitar, electric bass and drums. Nary a fiddle, mandolin or accordion within twenty feet of the stage. Their songs and their show are airtight. Boom, boom, boom. They developed such a momentum, such a faith in their prepared show, that they sang and played right through a sound outage without apparently noticing.
They’re among the youngest of the Red Dirt acts, and the teenyboppers were out in full regalia dancing and singing along to their music between the front row and the stage. We know from the Texas music charts, that No Justice is getting a lot of airplay in Texas, but how, we wondered, did these Oklahoma girls hear and learn their songs? Is No Justice being played on the radio in Oklahoma? On stations that teenage girls would be listening to?
Mike McClure Band
A story with a moral:
While the Mike McClure Band was setting up, a plan was hatched at one end and passed down the first row of patrons (who’d staked out our positions in the full afternoon sun and sweated it out until after dark, so we had an investment) for everyone to scoot their camp chairs all the way up against the stage to prevent the expected influx of mini-skirted teenagers from crowding up front to dance and sing along, thus obscuring our view of the band. For some of us this presented a real dilemma, so the execution of the plan only made it about halfway down the row, where it began to meet with halfhearted compliance, meaning our chairs got scooted up, just to go along, but not all the way, and the further along the row, the less compliance, thus creating a wedge of open space in front of the stage. This wedge was all the girls needed.
In retrospect, nothing could have stopped their grrl power from flowing in. Even at the supposedly sealed end of the row, they somehow filled the tiniest niches. They were oblivious to those of us behind them in their unrestrained Red Dirt Rock & Roll joy. Soon, all we seated patrons could see were young mini-skirted behinds waving enthusiastically mere inches from our faces. Some of the girls even had brief choreographed moves worked out. (They knew the songs! How?) We grumbled and rolled our eyes at each other up and down the row but with rapidly diminishing conviction. Soon, we were asking ourselves, “Who’s really being the assholes here, us or them?” Clearly it was us. Who were we to try to inhibit these fan girls’ fun?
The moral of this story is “Either get up and dance, or get out of the way!” We got out of the way.
How was the band, you ask? Well, I was kind of distracted. I’m sure they were great as ever. It was, after all, Mike McClure, Tom Skinner, and Eric Hansen.
Jacobs is a real Oklahoma folksinger. His body of work is filled with stories that come right out of the history of Oklahoma, and form a foundation for the folk-end of the Red Dirt Canon. He’s also a teacher and a rancher. We talked for a while under the beer tent Sunday afternoon. Until this summer he hadn’t performed for about three years. In July he’d played a set for Okemah’s Woody Guthrie Festival, and hadn’t been at all pleased with his performance. But, since he’d decided to perform again, when and where it pleases him, he “got back on the horse” and accepted an invitation to play at the Red Dirt Harvest Festival. One of the great things about Jacobs is that he’s a musician you can talk to about things other than music. While we chatted about the weather, the cattle business, and the price of hay, several musicians came by to tell him how much they’d enjoyed his set, how great it was to see him back onstage.
He told us that in July a fan had come up to him and said, with evident concern, “Greg, it’s so good to see you out again. How is your health?”
“I don’t know. What have you heard?” Greg replied with surprise.
Tom Skinner’s Sunday Morning Gospel Sing
Mid-morning Sunday, the soulful and soul-stirring sounds of old fashioned songs of praise wafted gently through the pecan grove from the second stage. It was just what we needed to give us the strength and faith to get up and make coffee.
THE FESTIVAL SITE
Six miles south of the small town of Okemah, turn right just before a notorious crossing of the Canadian River, then another mile or so west along a dirt (red) road beside the river. The stages and campground are set in the open shade of a mature thirty acre pecan grove in the bottomland alongside the Canadian. The river this year was flowing full, quick, silent, and thick as red-eye gravy. The grounds are meticulously mown and groomed, and outdoor showers are provided, as are plenty of strategically located portable johns. There are several large public fire rings in the shady grove with free firewood. The vineyard and tasting room is up the hill from the grove, providing an overview of the event. The hillside creates a natural amphitheatre for large crowds.
The weather was splendid. Cool starry nights lit by a fat moon for all-night campground picking, and warm sunny days for napping and lounging in the pecan grove, indulging in more campground picking, visiting with old and new friends, or enjoying the afternoon acoustic sets.
BUT HOW WAS THE WINE?
The Grape Ranch has an extensive list of wines they blend, ferment, and bottle from California grapes. This year they will offer their first homegrown vintage, from 2005’s harvest. They had hoped to have it ready by festival time, but it will be a few more weeks. Tip: The 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon is expensive –and worth it!