One of the most anticipated shows of the year for Red Dirt fans takes over Cain's Ballroom every December as the Red Dirt Rangers hold their annual Red Dirt Christmas concert to gather old friends, welcome new ones, and help out a good cause in the process. Over the years, the lineup has rotated and seen a variety of special guests, ranging from Tom Skinner and Bob Childers to Turnpike Troubadours, Cross Canadian Ragweed, and even Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey on one occasion. Two things remain a constant, however.
First is the Red Dirt Rangers. As hosts and organizers of the event, they always play a central part of the evening. They also consistently bridge the gap between the older, classic Red Dirt artists and the younger, rising acts, providing a forum for both to intermingle.
Second is the sense of community within the Red Dirt music scene. When the Red Dirt Rangers invite the younger acts to join the party, it's not just for show. Any time the Rangers take the stage you can expect a special guest to show up, but when it's the Christmas concert, you never know who it will be.
This concert is as much a family reunion between musical brothers as it is a connection with the fans. A jam session to close out the night with all of the participating artists on the bill is a foregone conclusion, but it's often the people who make a surprise appearance that add the most to the evening, whether it be someone like Brandon Jenkins stopping in while he's in town to visit family, Stoney Larue passing through Tulsa between shows, or Tom Skinner or Dustin Pittsley coming by after their own local gigs.
When discussing this year's concert with John Cooper of Red Dirt Rangers, the conversation turned (as it always seems to) to that sense of community and camaraderie that is synonymous with the Red Dirt music scene. As Cooper put it, "Our shows are always an 'all-in' event, but yeah -- this show always seems to be special. We never know exactly who all will show up and that's part of the fun of it."
He also explained that that sense of community is something inherent to the Red Dirt music scene. Inviting younger acts up on stage is part of handing down the genre's tradition. As much as people like Bob Childers welcomed in the Rangers, the Rangers have made the effort to welcome in younger artists like Stoney Larue, Turnpike Troubadours, and John Fullbright. In turn, those artists have carried on the tradition, welcoming their peers to share the stage with them as well.
Red Dirt Rangers
The Red Dirt Christmas lineup is always a solid one, but this year's show promises to be something special with an amazing blend of younger acts and Red Dirt founders, including a Tulsa reunion appearance for The Great Divide, the first Red Dirt act to sign a major label contract with Atlantic Records in the '90s.
When discussing the Great Divide reunion with Cooper, he said, "They started their band just a couple years after we did. We did a few shows with them back in the day -- in fact, some of the ones we played with Great Divide, Red Dirt Rangers, and Medicine Show were the best."
"We knew them when they first got signed, all the way through their major label deal and having a Top 40," he added. "That was really cool to see them have that kind of success. Now, it's good to see them together again. I'm looking forward to it on a personal level."
Looking back at The Great Divide's history, the band signed with Atlantic records in the '90s and released its major label debut, Break in the Storm, in 1998. The band had a pair of minor hits with "Never Could" and "Pour Me a Vacation," which gained them airplay on both radio and CMT. The band's follow up, Revolutions, debuted at #73 the on the Billboard country charts in 1999. After switching to a smaller label, Broken Bow Records, in 2000 and releasing a pair of albums, lead singer Mike McClure departed the band in 2003. Although the band initially tried carry on with Micah Aills, it eventually folded.
After sitting dormant for almost a decade, the original Great Divide lineup came together for a reunion show in Stillwater for "College Days" in August 2011, playing in front of a crowd of roughly 8,000 people, the largest of the weekend. Since then, the band has played a few shows, but has never reappeared in Tulsa until now.
When discussing the band's impetus for reuniting with J.J. Lester, he said, "Maybe I speak for everyone, or maybe it's just me, but I'm a big believer in reconciliation."
Although the band members were all hurt by the break up, Lester looks to his faith and biblical examples of forgiveness to move forward. He said the band reunion is an extension of that.
On the flip side, he admitted, "It took a lot of years to look back and remember the good times we had. We accomplished a lot together and I wanted to be able to look back on it [the band and its experiences] with a positive memory. I also want my children and family members to be able to look back on it in a positive light as well. It's been a real positive experience for me and my family -- and I think for all the members of the band."
When asked why the group has carried on beyond the initial reunion, Lester said that after the College Days shows, the organizers asked if the band would be interested in playing more shows.
"They asked if we'd be interested in playing a few more shows and we agreed that for a couple of years, we'll do maybe one or two shows a month and maybe take a month off if needed, but it has to make sense for everyone," he explained. "If it doesn't make sense or isn't good for anyone in the band, we won't do it."
When the Red Dirt Christmas concert came up, though, it was an easy decision for the band. "I definitely think of it as a big family reunion," he said. "It's not so much that we haven't played in Tulsa for a long time as it is a matter of having the opportunity to spend with the Rangers, which we haven't had in years."
"I remember us playing with them 15 years ago and everyone being on stage together and it was always a good time," he continued. "Whereas they may not be as nationally recognized, there's definitely something to be said for what they've done for music in Oklahoma."
Beyond just playing with the Red Dirt Rangers, though, Lester admitted, "I was looking at the lineup last night and sharing it on Facebook, and I'll admit it got me wondering and kind of hoping, just who might show up at the show. This is really about musicians and friends helping friends, and how rare is it that you can round up that many people at one time? It's something I'm really looking forward to."
As much as many people are looking forward to seeing The Great Divide again, Lester said that one of his concerns is that he doesn't want the band's appearance to overshadow the bigger picture of the show. Not only is this a great concert put on by the Red Dirt Rangers, it also goes to help a good cause.
Every year, proceeds for the concert have gone to a charity. This year, proceeds will go directly to the Red Dirt Relief Foundation, which the Red Dirt Rangers founded after their helicopter accident in 2004. As Cooper explained, "Generally, when a musician gets hurt or is in need, friends throw benefit concerts. That's just what we can do. After our accident, a friend told us about Music Cares. We contacted them and they helped us with a nice donation. We really took our inspiration from that and wanted to put something together to help musicians on more of a local basis."
After nearly two years in the approval process, the Red Dirt Relief Fund was just officially awarded its 501(c)3 status as a tax-exempt, non-profit organization. That means you can write off any donations you make to the organization as charitable contributions.
Cooper said that the fund had already helped two musicians this year, one with medical expenses, and another who lost his house in this fall's wildfires. Tax-deductible donations can be made at this year's concert and proceeds from ticket sales will go to the fund to assist other musicians in need.
The Red Dirt Christmas concert arrives at Cain's Ballroom this Saturday night, Dec. 15, and not only features Red Dirt Rangers and The Great Divide, but also introduces Bo Phillips (Stoney LaRue's younger brother) and The Damn Quails to the Ballroom's main stage. More than a concert and celebration of Christmas, however, this show continues to be about community and a family reunion amongst musicians.
"This is what Red Dirt is really about to me -- it's not a competition, it's a true brotherhood," Cooper said.
If you haven't experienced the brotherhood before, this is the best time to do it. You'll get to enjoy a cross-generational selection of Red Dirt acts and help others in need as a portion of ticket sales go to the Red Dirt Relief Fund. Tickets are still available for $16 in advance or $18 the day of the show at the Cain's Box Office or online at cainsballroom.com.
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