In the 1970s, the Red Dirt music scene took root in Stillwater and gave rise to artists like Garth Brooks, the Turnpike Troubadours and Stoney LaRue. The Oklahoma Public Media Exchange's Katelyn Howard spoke with author Josh Crutchmer about his new book that details the scene’s history and how it spread across the country.
Katelyn Howard: In the book, you say Red Dirt emphasizes songwriting and a tie to the Earth, but that it encompasses a wide variety of artists and themes and doesn't have quite the same consistency of other sounds like Motown or Muscle Shoals. Even though it's hard to pinpoint exactly what Red Dirt music is, how would you describe it?
Josh Crutchmer: I would describe it as songwriting focused roots music. Its origins really lie with Woody Guthrie, and the earliest examples of Red Dirt really evoked a lot of that Dust Bowl imagery of his music. And I think probably the reason they landed on the phrase Red Dirt for the type of music was just because in the late 70s, when this scene sort of arose out of Stillwater and Payne County, you know, they didn't just look at the ground and say, “Well, we should call this Red Dirt.” They really thought that there was a bit of a spiritual tie to the land between themselves and that land, and it was their music that was the connection. Red Dirt originally was very, very, very salt of the earth Oklahoma.
Howard: And when you were a college student at OSU in the late 90s and early 2000s, you said you found your sense of home and direction in Red Dirt. What was the Red Dirt scene like in Stillwater during your time as a student?
Crutchmer: It was really unbelievable, and there's one part of the book when we do a roundtable chapter that involves Mike McClure and Cody Canada and Jason Boland. I think Boland was the one who said at that time, we would all look around at a place like Seattle and the grunge movement and say, "Wow, wouldn't it be cool if we could do something like that here?” Not realizing that was what was happening. In Stillwater at that time, there was not just live music. There was original, roots rock every single night of the week in multiple places. And of course, the Wormy Dog and Eskimo Joe’s get the lion's share, but if that wasn't your thing, you could walk down about a block from the Wormy Dog entrance to now it's called the College Bar - it used to be Mike's College Bar - and for no cover on a Tuesday, you would get The Flaming Lips and no cover on a Wednesday, The All-American Rejects. It was just quite a time. And nobody really knew at the time that's what we were experiencing, and so in hindsight, it very much was our own grunge. It was our own scene.
Howard: And in a sense, Red Dirt quite literally saved your life. In January of 2001, a plane carrying members of the OSU men's basketball team travel party crashed, killing all 10 people aboard. At the time, you were sports editor of the campus newspaper and had asked to fly with the team to go cover the game, but you canceled. Why did you decide not to go?
Crutchmer: So I really expounded upon this in the book, but there were sort of two things that happened. In the buildup, it was my senior year. It was the last time I would have a chance to cover varsity sports. And I had been invited with the football team the previous fall to travel with them and cover it. You know, I was still covering the game, but, you know, they wanted me and my capacity as a student journalist to join the team. And at the last minute, I didn't because I went to a different concert and sent my assistant sports editor instead. And he got to sit back on the plane next to Bill Teegins and really enjoyed that. And it was a once in a lifetime experience for him. Like I said at the time, "Now I’m going to try to do this during basketball season." Zeroed in on that game, and it was Oklahoma State was playing at Colorado.
And right at that time was when I feel really, really, really deep into not just liking the music, but liking the people. And on that particular weekend, there was a concert in Stillwater on Thursday night that turned into an all nighter at this house in town where the musicians lived called the Yellow House. And then on Friday night, Cross Canadian Ragweed at that time, you know, they were very much up and comers, but they were the hottest thing in Stillwater. They were the best band I ever knew. (They) were playing on Friday night in Tulsa at the old Steamroller Blues - now it's a different barbecue joint on 18th and Boston. And then on Saturday, they were playing at the Wormy Dog. And so all that sort of built up to it was a great opportunity, but now there were all these concerts I wanted to go see instead. And it was pushed over the top by me, by happenstance, happening on in my possession, a hat that belonged to Cody Canada, the front man of Ragweed. And just that week, literally it couldn’t have been more than a day after I had gone to the Sports Information Director Will Hancock, and said, “All right, let's do this. I'm in. Can you make it happen?” It may have been within hours of that conversation that Cody said, “Hey, would you bring me my hat back?” Then I started going, “Well, I'm supposed to go to this basketball game this weekend.” And so he starts prodding me and says, “Well, look, if you come out to Steamroller Blues tomorrow night, we'll get you on the guest list. You don’t have to worry about being a sellout. You're in, but bring my hat.” And so that kind of really sold me. So I drove to Tulsa for that show that night. I mean, once he said that, I had just gone back to Will Hancock and said, “Man, no thanks. Just not going to happen.” And, you know, I was bummed, but also I was so, you know, in with the band at 22 years old that I was just sort of starstruck and didn't care all that much all of a sudden.
So I went to the Tulsa show on that Friday night, gave him his hat back. And then so the plane crash happens on Saturday. We're all back in Stillwater. And maybe 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. before Ragweed was playing at the Wormy Dog, word starts getting out and filtering around. And it took a really long time for me to even - because it was such a shocking thing… It was one of those deals where my first reaction was just to be sort of kind of, you know, overwhelmed by the magnitude of it… So my first thought was just, well, that's really awful. And just you're kind of - it’s a gut punch. And then the names start rolling in, and you realize this is just a flat out tragedy. But I just sort of instinctively, I guess, was a journalist first, and it wasn't until much later when I actually got back to the Wormy Dog after having gone to the campus paper alone or watch the news reports and just thought about what our Monday newspaper would look like. It really wasn't until I got back to the Wormy Dog and saw everybody that I remembered those conversations and went, “Oh, yeah. I was probably supposed to be on that plane.” And then, you know, there were so many factors that still could have derailed it, but it's very obvious that if a student journalist had gone, he would have traveled with that media on that plane. And so, you know, immediately you put two and two together, and then you have your own personal, you know, sort of panic attacks.
So that happens when I see the artists back at the Wormy Dog Saloon, and then not 30 minutes later, all the other editors and coworkers from the paper, without any provocation from me, they all rush in the front door of the Wormy Dog trying to find me because they thought I had gone on that (plane)…. But they showed up thinking I was - they thought I was in Colorado and were hoping I was at the Wormy Dog. So they saw me there, and that's when it really all set in. And I didn’t realize when I got home, there was voicemail after a voicemail on the old, cordless phone answering machines just worried sick. And so the guilt that I felt was a little weird because it hadn't dawned on me to let everybody know that I had just stayed home to go get drunk at a bar and listen to music…. So that happens, and it was rough. And you do feel like, you know, music probably saved my life.
So they not long after that staged a benefit concert, just trying to raise a little bit of money - also at the Wormy Dog. And when that was over, I got all the signs and the banners that were on the wall for that show. I took them home and put them in a box. And it wasn't until - it would have been January of 2017, because it was my first year in New York - that I actually got that box out and went through it and looked through all the people had just signed the back to me, and they were, you know, there were musicians, friends, the bartenders. The owner of the Wormy Dog had given me these banners. And that had been - I had sort of suppressed my role in all that because I really wanted my legacy to be how I handled that as the sports editor and how I did my part to help the campus sort of grieve and recover. And so it really wasn't until 16 years later that I actually went through and sort of a processed, you know, the personal side of that. That’s how it went down, and it’s become such a part of Red Dirt. The artists all know the story… And so, you know, I can talk about it a little bit matter of fact. But certainly in that moment, it was just overwhelming.
Howard: Wow. To shift gears a little bit, I was born and raised in the western part of Texas so I would hear people interchangeably use the terms Red Dirt and Texas Country or mesh the terms together. But while many of the barriers that separated the genres have diminished, what are the key similarities and difference between Red Dirt and Texas Country?
Crutchmer: The key similarities is that its original music, and the emphasis is very much on songwriting. On the Texas side, it predates Red Dirt. You know, we're going back to Willie Nelson’s move to Austin, and certainly down in College Station with Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen on the porch with The Dixie Chick’s on whatever porch they were on at the time. And the old Kent Finlay days at Cheatham Street Warehouse. And in west Texas, originally it was Stubbs and now it’s the Blue Light and the Amarillo, you know, bars. Those places are all just so full of their own lore. In west Texas, it was Joe Ely, and it was just those types of musicians and artists that were writing their own songs, and they were skewing heavily toward storytelling. And that was also what Red Dirt was doing. Red Dirt was telling stories too, but, you know, the classic Texas music song “The Road Goes On Forever” and the quintessential Red Dirt song is “Used to Be.” And “Used to Be” by Tom Skinner and Bob Wiles is just looking at the fate of all the old landmarks on Route 66, which once again, that's a very Oklahoma thing. That is Dust Bowl… And they were trying to imagine what they would be like if they hadn't all been passed over when the interstates happened. So I always felt a little bit more like Texas was telling stories that were more fun and of the moment, and Oklahoma music was telling stories that were a little more - dark isn't the right word - but they were certainly more reflective of the old Dust Bowl mood where Oklahoma was looked at as a sympathetic figure. So those, I think, were the key differences. They're both storytelling genres. Texas does focus a lot more on the old image of a Texas outlaw that was kind of a party animal. And Oklahomans kind of focused on the notion of "The Grapes of Wrath" figures that were leaving the trepid state, and it worked out for both. But you can hear some subtle differences even today.
Howard: And there were Red Dirt artists that had become regional stars, but the Turnpike Troubadours brought the scene to its highest of heights in the late 2010s. How was Turnpike the first Red Dirt band to reach this level of success while staying in Oklahoma.
Crutchmer: OK, so what I really think happened - first of all - you had The Great Divide in the 90s who really were a big wave, and they kind of went the exact proper route. They drove out to Nashville at the invitation of Garth Brooks and slept on his couch for a week and sought out a record deal. They landed it, and then Atlantic Records placed their music on the radio and then Atlantic Records fell into the late 90s bust era of Nashville record labels, and The Great Divide was caught up in that. And I think both sides felt their time was up, and then they moved on. So Ragweed comes along, having learned lessons from The Divide and demands a lot of control over their record deal, and they get it. And Universal South Records says to Ragweed, “We're not going to change you.” And largely, they don't... Then one day, Universal South went under. And they felt, you know, kind of left out in the cold, and they were done with it. I think by the time it came around to Turnpike, they had some very good, you know, previous cases to compare themselves to. And so there's that. There's sort of an urge to just not bother with the traditional routes, but also just by a stroke of good fortune, that early 2010s was just a time when independent - well, I mean previously independent - artists that had gone to Nashville and got record deals were losing them all… So that was all happening, and I think Turnpike just looked at that and said, “We're not even going to bother with this.” And just sort of made a commitment to just always be this independent machine that would just hit the road for 280 dates a year and spread their word that way, and they were relentless about it. And everywhere they went, they just won people over because nobody had ever quite seen this rocking, fiddling band do it quite like that, and people just fell over themselves for that. So once they built that following, they just said, “We don't need to do anything else except let this play out for us." And boy, did it ever work out for them.
Howard: And you were able to interview Garth Brooks, the best selling solo artist in U.S. history, for this book who you say used Red Dirt as the fuel to launch his musical career. What was it like interviewing him?
Crutchmer: I was struck by two things. He was not exactly the first person I reached out to, he was one of the first. And I was struck by how receptive he was when I just approached him, you know, through his people because he's writing his own books… And so my real concern was that he wouldn't have the time of day for me. And so I just pitched it to him as a very candid look at Red Dirt and his time here, and he was in immediately. That was like my first real push to go full throttle ahead with his book when I saw how receptive he was. What was the interview like itself? I prepare myself for that by just forming this idea of what Garth Brooks is like in my head and preparing myself for. And then that's exactly what it was. He was the same disarming, intimate conversationalist in that interview that he is onstage. And he talks in the book about, you know, his residency at the Wynn or the shows he plays now, his approach being no different than it was when he played Willies Saloon in Stillwater. That was his approach with me. By the end of the interview, he was so hung up on the fact that I was an Oklahoma State grad, but I work at The New York Times and had designed that day's front page of The New York Times that we would get sidetracked. We would have a conversation about music, and he would go, “Yeah. If you’re from Stillwater, you can do anything, including design the front page of The New York Times.” And he was just so, you know, whether he was actually blown away or was just doing that for my sake, I don't know, but it certainly worked. He was just taken by this idea that that's what I was doing. And it was so disarming because then all of a sudden you're not talking to the bestselling solo artist in history. You're just talking to this guy who is really interested in what you're saying and you're doing. For like a 25 or 30 minute interview, it really made it very rich because he cut any awkwardness or any starstruck-ness off at the pass, and then we were just talking.
Howard: You would write Red Dirt concert reviews and columns for OSU’s student newspaper, but for the most part, you put aside writing about Red Dirt over the last 20 years to avoid a conflict of interest since you'd become close friends with people in the scene. What ultimately made you decide to write this book?
Crutchmer: Because that's what you do when you’re in Red Dirt. Once I decided that's who I was - and I do talk in the book like one day I just walked out of my life and into this music scene. It's really sort of human nature with people that are really in those circles to want to find a way to make their own contribution. And I knew the second I left Stillwater, and I wrote from 2000 to 2010 maybe five articles total… But for the most part, I hung it up and I said, “I'm just going to be a fan.” But even at that young age at 22 and leaving Oklahoma State, I said, “I'm going to come back and tell this story one day.” And I got a little bit of a push when Ragweed broke up in 2010… That was my first push, and then Tom Skinner died in 2015… And when that happened, and I started realizing that some of these icons were going to get lost to history - either in the metaphorical sense in the breakup of Ragweed or the very real sense in the passing of Skinner - I said, “I got to figure out what to do.” And finally, I found myself back at Eskimo Joe's with Cody Canada and John Cooper in 2018, and John Cooper said, “Man, you just got to write this book. Just tell the story or it's all gonna get lost.” And so I just sort of committed on the spot to do it. And now it took two plus years to come to fruition, but once I committed to doing it, I wanted it to be thorough. I wanted it to be what what you see. I didn't want it to be a Wikipedia entry, and I didn't want it to be a memoir. I wanted it to be built largely around the artist voices with enough of my experiences thrown in to make it real. That's what took so long, but that's also why it took so long.
Howard: And the COVID-19 pandemic has, of course, created uncertainty for everyone in the music industry, but where do you see the Red Dirt scene heading in the future?
Crutchmer: The loss will be the venues, and it's just goning to be heartbreaking. There are just going to be venues that aren't going to make it, and there are going to be just iconic places that in Oklahoma and Texas - if you’re a music fan - you can’t live without. But at some point, that is going to happen, and then the pandemic will end one way or the other. And then there'll be new places. There'll be a new venue. It won’t have the same charm as the one you lost, but it'll be there. And those artists are gonna go there and play, and they're going to pack them. What the pandemic has done for these artists is it's really doubled down on the roots of their own music, which was very much cultivating a fan base. And they started doing live streams to raise some money and raise some virtual tips. And suddenly, there's this whole digital arm of Red Dirt - and Texas for that matter - music that is so connected to the fans that the result is that all the things that made these artists what they are have been strengthened. And when it's all over - wherever it takes place - they’re gonna be right back on stage and the fans are gonna come right back out.
Howard: Red Dirt: Roots Music Born in Oklahoma, Raised in Texas, at Home Anywhere will be released Sept. 19. Thanks for joining me today, Josh.
Crutchmer: Thanks for having me. This was great.