It's a fickle business, this music industry to which they've devoted, and almost given, their lives. The Red Dirt Rangers know that better than anybody.
"We've gone from being the hippest golden boys to nobody wanting anything to do with us to being back in the spotlight," band member Brad Piccolo said of the Rangers' 20-year career arc.
It's especially fickle when you play an off-brand of music, one that has a foot in a half dozen styles and yet doesn't truly belong to any of them. After two decades of trying to put a name to it, Piccolo's bandmate John Cooper has taken to just shrugging his shoulders and calling it "danceable protest music."
Oh, sure, they'll always be associated with the red dirt scene. But the truth is, that style largely has been appropriated these days by a bunch of young turks who made the sound their own, exporting it to Nashville and Texas in the process, away from its spiritual home in Stillwater, where it was birthed in the 1970s.
Cooper takes a fair amount of delight in pointing out that the Rangers, despite their name, aren't really even a red dirt band anymore--not if you consider the way the sound has evolved in recent years.
"We don't fit our own scene," he said, laughing. "That term was coined because we couldn't figure what else to call it. We just said, 'We play red dirt music,' and it just caught on. Now we're getting kicked out of our own genre."
That may be overstating things a bit. Nobody's trying to run off the Rangers, and the genre they helped spawn hasn't been ruined by the boys on Music Row yet, no matter how many lame red dirt reality-TV series ideas CMT executives toss around.
"The music from the scene is what's real," Cooper said. "That's what appeals to people."
The Rangers--Cooper, Piccolo and Ben Han--have adhered to that simple principle since the beginning. Long before they ever called themselves a band, they used to get together with other friends in Stillwater or Oklahoma City for all-night living room jam sessions that were fueled by cases of cold beer and their own seemingly inexhaustible love for the music of artists like Doug Sahm, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. It wasn't long before they found themselves collaborating on songs of their own, a series of tunes reflecting influences from across the spectrum of popular music--folk, country, rock 'n' roll, gospel, blues, Tex-Mex and Cajun.
They weren't playing or writing music with the idea of pleasing anyone but themselves. It didn't really matter who was listening or not listening.
From that organic beginning, the trio, joined by a handful of others, took its first tentative steps toward something more serious. The jam sessions became more like real rehearsals. The set list was stabilized. New players were recruited to fill holes in the sound.
They attended a few open-mic nights at a neighborhood dive in Oklahoma City just to get their feet wet.
Finally, on Memorial Day weekend in 1989, they took the stage at the Paseo Arts Festival, an annual three-day gathering in the streets of a then-shabby but funky arts enclave just north of downtown Oklahoma City. Before a modest crowd of curious and perhaps doubtful family members and friends, aspiring artists hawking their creations from nearby booths, slumming suburbanites plowing through Indian tacos and burned-out stoners, the group, which by then had swelled to an unwieldy seven or eight members, performed in public for the first time under its newly chosen name--the Red Dirt Rangers.
It wasn't exactly the greatest show of all time. Some members of the band were still learning how to play their instruments, and, as Cooper would note later, most of them were so unnerved by the thought of playing before a crowd they had to have a fair amount to drink just to screw up the courage to go on stage.
Worst of all, they had not just one, but two accordion players--two!
Still, it was far from a disaster. The Rangers didn't embarrass themselves, and many of those in attendance couldn't help but pick up on the welcoming, laid-back vibe the group generated. There was no sneering, prancing, rock-star posing, just a bunch of shy, twentysomething guys playing music they loved, no matter how unmarketable it was. Actually, it was kind of cool. Hell, a few people even danced.
Cooper, Han and Piccolo have spent a lot of time laughing about that gig during the last 20 years. They may cringe when they think about its quality, but they recognize the tone of that performance. The sense of community it inspired was like striking musical gold. Two decades and thousands of performances later, it is those latter elements that continue to define the Red Dirt Rangers. Firmly established as one of the most beloved, doggedly determined, enduring and proudly Okie groups in the state's musical annals, the Rangers have grown into elder statesmen of the red dirt scene, despite the fact they've never had anything close to a hit song or even a significant record deal.
Then again, Cooper, Han and Piccolo--who have remained together through thick and thin and triumph and tragedy, even as others have come and gone--would be the first to tell you that's been the secret to the group's longevity.
"The fact that we never reached meteoric success means we didn't have far to fall," Piccolo said on a rainy day in May as he and his two longtime friends gathered at Cooper's house near Glencoe, 45 minutes west of Tulsa, to talk about the band's 20th anniversary. It was also a day to reflect on their darkest chapter--a helicopter crash five years ago that claimed the lives of two of those aboard and left each member of the trio seriously injured.
Even before that seminal event, the Rangers had abandoned the wide-eyed pursuit of stardom. But the gravity of what they experienced that night reaffirmed for each of them the wisdom of the career path they had chosen, one that emphasized self-determination, stability and cohesiveness over short-term reward and glamour.
"When you reach for the brass ring, if you fall, it's a long fall," Cooper said.
The Rangers came to terms a long time ago with the idea that that brass ring is, in fact, often just an illusion.
After all, "Brass is practically worthless," as Piccolo pointed out. "The whole idea is a scam."
For most bands, publicity is the lifeblood of their career. Nothing creates a buzz, sells recordings and brings out fans like a little attention in newsprint or on the airwaves. By 2004, the Red Dirt Rangers had become pretty media savvy, learning to cultivate relationships with friendly newspaper and magazine critics, as well as radio hosts. They had even staged a so-called "Oklahoma world tour" in June 1994, performing an ungodly 33 shows in 30 days during one of the hottest months on record, taking their act on the road to all four corners of the state and many points in between in an attempt to make themselves known to as many Oklahomans as possible.
But the biggest publicity bonanza of the band's career was entirely unplanned, and it came under the most unfortunate of circumstances.
By June 26, 2004, the Rangers had been together for 15 years. Once a group that had trouble making room for all its players even on the largest of stages, the Rangers at that point had slimmed down to only three full-time members--Cooper, Han and Piccolo--performing by themselves or with a regular rotation of other musicians. On this night, they had been hired to perform as a trio for a private 50th birthday celebration at the Elks Lodge in Cushing, southeast of Stillwater in Payne County.
They never made it to the stage.
But nothing about the show indicated that anything out of the ordinary was in the offing. The group arrived in plenty of time to set up and do a sound check, and Cooper, Han and Piccolo even had time to mill around with some of the guests before their scheduled starting time of 8:30pm.
Piccolo was expecting his wife to arrive at any moment. About seven weeks pregnant with the couple's first child--"feeling fat and ugly," she said--Lisa Piccolo had declined the chance to ride to the show with the band, opting to stay home and color her hair before driving herself to Cushing a couple of hours later. It was the first of many fateful decisions that would determine how the next several hours would play out.
The Rangers weren't the only attraction at the party. Guests were lined up to take advantage of the free helicopter rides that were being offered, and as dusk prepared to settle over the Cimarron River valley on that warm, breezy, partly cloudy early-summer evening, Cooper, Han and Piccolo were encouraged to climb aboard for a quick look at the river at sunset.
Han and Piccolo were eager to accept. Cooper was not.
"I had a feeling in my gut," he said, recalling the misgivings he felt when he mentally recounted how many prominent music figures have died in small aircraft crashes, a list that includes everyone from Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens to Stevie Ray Vaughn and Bill Graham. "It didn't feel right. They saw it in my face."
Ironically, it was Piccolo--famous among band followers for the spot-on impersonation he frequently did of Rolling Stones' guitarist Keith Richards warning would-be rock stars to "stay off helicoptahs, baa-bee"--who finally talked Cooper into it.
Han and Cooper climbed into the back. Piccolo was preparing to take a seat in front next to the pilot--45-year-old Oklahoma City Police Sgt. Darrell Jameson--when a late-arriving passenger--42-year-old Cushing resident Nicholas Knigge--appeared at his shoulder and asked if he could get in front.
"Sure," Piccolo said, happy to join his bandmates in the back.
Piccolo took the right-hand seat, Cooper the left. Han was seated in the middle.
From the door, the helicopter's safety officer, who remained on the ground, gave the passengers a quick safety primer, and then everyone got strapped in and prepared for departure.
Piccolo looked at his friends and smiled.
"Man, I sure hope they don't read about us in the paper tomorrow," he said, laughing.
The 1983 Bell 206B single-engine helicopter, owned and operated by Interstate Helicopters Inc. of Oklahoma City, lifted off from the grounds at the Elks Lodge, and Jameson piloted the craft north for what was supposed to be a 10-minute sightseeing excursion.
The time was a little past 8:30pm, with sunset rapidly approaching. Cooper noted it had begun to sprinkle. It would be hours before anyone saw him, Han or Piccolo again.
The Cimarron River was running much higher than normal that season, thanks to recent rainy weather on the plains. It was, in fact, at flood stage, two to three feet higher than normal. There was a swift current, and the churning water was rust colored.
Flying above it, Cooper and Piccolo were getting a new perspective on a body of water that had long played an important role in their lives. During the years, each of the them had spent countless hours floating, fishing or swimming in the river, first while living in Stillwater while attending Oklahoma State University, then later when they both bought land and built houses in nearby Glencoe.
They even wrote songs about it, most notably Piccolo's "Cimarron Valley," a wistful ballad related from the perspective of a guy who lights out for the West Coast after a spat with his girl, too filled with foolish pride to turn around and head home: "Someday I'll go back to the land of my father/Where the water runs red like the blood in my veins/When I go back to the land of my daddy/The Cimarron Valley is where I will stay."
"For some unexplained reason, it keeps appearing in our lives," Cooper said last month about the river.
But the pilot, Jameson, was much less familiar with the Cimarron than his passengers. A veteran of more than 7,000 hours in the skies, he had experienced a couple of close calls. He was a passenger in the 1999 crash of an Oklahoma City Police helicopter flown by a fellow officer. And in 2003, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, while flying a wildlife control assignment for the U.S. Department of Agriculture at an undisclosed location, Jameson piloted his craft up a ravine and contacted power lines connected to an oil well. Despite the collision, Jameson was able to land the helicopter.
The Rangers knew nothing of Jameson's history as a pilot. Sitting in the back seat of the cabin as the helicopter approached the river a few minutes after takeoff, the passengers felt the tug of gravity as Jameson banked the aircraft to the west, into the setting sun and over the river, descending to within a few feet of the river. Piccolo noted the orientation of their turn by observing that he was "above" his two friends. He turned to look out the window over his right shoulder and could see the river below. As Piccolo turned his attention back forward, the helicopter began to climb slightly. Seconds later, chaos would break out.
Below, down on the banks of the river, Cushing resident Albert L. Hunziker III had been fishing since 6:30pm at the State Highway 18 bridge. As dusk approached, he had been forced to take cover under the bridge because of a quick downpour and was still there when he heard the churning rotors of an approaching helicopter.
Then he heard what he described to the NTSB as a couple of thumps and the sound of a propeller catching as much air as water, comparing it to the sound an outboard motor makes when it is kicked out of the water. Looking in the direction of the noise, he saw a large spray of water 30 to 50 feet in the air, with debris flying even higher.
When the spray settled, Hunziker could see something in the water, but with a mist still falling from the sky and the fading light, he couldn't make out the shape. All he knew for sure, he told the NTSB, was that something had crashed.
Aboard the helicopter, none of the Red Dirt Rangers were sure about what was happening. Han heard two very loud crackling sounds, and it felt like something had hit the right top side of the aircraft. Piccolo saw nothing but debris and sparks, but he reported feeling the helicopter begin to shake violently.
He compared the experience to being inside a concrete mixer filled with gravel. Cooper said in the aftermath of the collision, the helicopter went into what felt like a three- or four-second freefall before beginning a series of collisions with the riverbed as it skidded hundreds of feet upstream, flipping and coming apart in the process. Still unaware of what the helicopter had hit, Piccolo knew only that the aircraft was going to crash in the river, and he had the presence of mind to put his hand on the buckle of his seatbelt so he could free himself as quickly as possible after the final impact. He could see the heads of his fellow passengers being whipped back and forth and felt debris striking his body.
Han turned his head to each side and looked at his friends in the moments before impact. He was trying to hold himself in place, but it was next to impossible, as the occupants were thrown forward and backward, side to side. Faced with a nightmare of sensory input--violent shaking, flying debris and blinding sparks--Cooper's mind conveyed to him only a single message: "I'm going to die in a helicopter crash."
Piccolo briefly experienced the same feeling.
"It was all kinds of dark thoughts going on," Piccolo said of the eternity before the aircraft hit the ground. But then he shifted to a new perspective. "In my mind, all I was thinking is, I'm not going to die because I just found out my wife was pregnant and we were going to have our first kid," he said. "I said, 'I can't die right now, I not going to die and I'm not even scared of dying because I've got to be a dad.'"
As the helicopter finished its gyrations and slammed to a halt nearly upside down in six feet of muddy, rushing Cimarron River water, Cooper and Han knocked their heads together, rendering them both unconscious.
As they would later discover, their helicopter had crashed into the Cimarron River after striking unmarked OG&E power lines strung 30 to 40 feet above ground, losing its main rotor system and tail section in the process. They were approximately one mile east of the Highway 18 bridge, a quarter-mile of thick woods separating them from the nearest road. Other than Hunziker, no one knew where they were or their condition.
Back at the party, as the minutes ticked by and the helicopter didn't return, people began to grow worried. The safety officer who had been working with Jameson that night called the owner of the helicopter to inform him the aircraft was overdue from a flight. The crowd began to buzz as the stage remained empty, the Rangers' instruments resting in their stands.
Recognizing the urgency of the situation, Hunziker wasted little time scrambling up the steep banks of the river, trying to acquire a cell phone signal. The only number he could reach was that of his father-in-law, and Hunziker quickly apprised him of what he had seen, asking him to notify local authorities. Hunziker's father-in-law called the emergency number in Cushing, and the town's rescue team began mobilizing, arriving at the bridge within 15 or 20 minutes and setting up a command post.
Passing through the swirl of flashing lights, wailing sirens and emergency vehicles assembling quickly along the Highway 18 bridge, Lisa Piccolo was headed south toward Cushing, unaware that the source of the commotion was an incident involving her husband and his two best friends. She arrived at the party and noticed immediately the band wasn't playing, well past its planned starting time.
"They're never, ever late to a gig," she told herself. "Something's wrong."
Trying to quell her growing sense of panic, she found some friends at the party and asked if anyone knew what was going on. When no answers came her way, Lisa experienced what she said felt like a knife in her stomach. Recalling the scene she had observed earlier at the river, she put two and two together and realized that was where she needed to be. She enlisted her friends to drive her back to the scene, where a major rescue effort was already unfolding.
About that time, the helicopter's safety officer at the party received a call from the Cushing airport, informing him of a report of a downed aircraft in the Cimarron River, approximately five miles north of town.
Piccolo was the only one aboard the helicopter who had remained conscious throughout the crash. Dimly aware there was something wrong with his back, he put aside the pain and tried to clear his eyes, which were burning and filled with sand from the riverbed and aviation fuel from the ruptured fuel tank.
As Cooper regained consciousness, he and Piccolo exchanged a look as they removed themselves from their seatbelts in the upside-down cabin, then set about trying to free Han in the middle, who was still out cold, his face sagging into the river water that was rapidly filling the cabin. Han's first memory upon waking up was hearing Piccolo and Cooper discussing how to get his seatbelt off, as the buckle was on Cooper's side, but he couldn't muster the strength to push the button. They finally succeeded when Cooper stretched Piccolo's arm across Han's body and guided it to the button.
"When I came to, our choices became very elementary," Cooper said. "I thought, 'We've got to get the hell out of this helicopter.'"
But Cooper was hurt too badly to make it out himself. Piccolo crawled out of the wreckage through a hole where a door had been moments earlier. He helped Cooper out and stretched him out belly-down on a portion of the aircraft that was not submerged, then pulled out Han and left him clinging to the fuselage, chest deep in water. Finally, he tried to wedge his leg into a hole in the partition separating the back seat from the submerged cockpit, where he could hear noises from what he believed was the pilot. But he could feel nothing and soon realized he had no chance of helping the other two occupants.
"And that's just one thing that will never go away, ever, it just won't," he said. "Even though there's nothing you can do, it seems like just knowing that they're only a foot or two away from you..."
Rejoining his bandmates outside, Piccolo took stock of their grim situation. Still aflush with adrenalin, his pain was minimal, even from his right knee, which was puffed up like a balloon. Like the other two, he was covered with abrasions and bleeding. Cooper, both lungs punctured from broken ribs, was having difficulty breathing and was in intense pain. Han's face was grotesquely swollen, and he was unable to speak as blood poured from his mouth. From the inside of his left forearm, a long curtain of skin dangled, looking like a torn shirtsleeve. Both Cooper and Han were in shock, fading in and out of consciousness.
"I had a very heavy head," Han said, recounting he could hear Cooper's moans.
Piccolo did what he could to make them comfortable. The three joined hands and began counting to 10, a process that was repeated dozens of time as Cooper and Han continued to lose consciousness in the middle of the count. As night fell, Piccolo peered upriver to the west, where he could see the headlights of vehicles moving across the bridge a mile away. The powerful fumes of aviation fuel clung to them, and the temperature had fallen. Cooper and Han began to shiver and turn blue from shock and hypothermia.
Their main concern was staying above water. Buffeted by the current, the fuselage was shifting continuously, leading each of them to fear it would be overturned, and they would be washed downstream, too weak and injured to hang on or swim for safety.
Refusing to give in to despair, Piccolo continued to do what he could for his friends. As the minutes crawled by, he repeatedly encouraged the two to hold on, telling them he could see the lights of approaching rescuers and that they would soon be safe.
"I knew he was lying, but I wanted to hear the lie," Cooper said.
Piccolo also believed he was simply reassuring his friends. Little did he know his pronouncement was about to come true.
Arriving at the command post at the bridge, Lisa Piccolo walked into a swarm of emergency vehicles--at least 10 police cars, three to four helicopters, and several fire trucks and river rescue units. "It was people and noise and carbon dioxide and fumes coming up in a big, ugly cloud of confusion and panic," she said. "That's the way it carried on."
By that time, she was aware the Rangers had been involved in a helicopter crash. She was joined at the scene by Nicholas Knigge's wife. Emergency personnel kept trying to shoo them away, but Lisa was having none of it.
"I was not going to let them push me around," she said. "I thought, 'If my husband is dying, I have a right to be there. I'm not going to stay behind the yellow tape.' I was very assertive."
The two women weren't aware of it, but, thanks to Hunziker's call, rescuers had a good idea of where the helicopter was located. They just couldn't get to it. They trudged from the nearby road to the river, only to discover the craft in the middle of the water, out of their reach. Back at the command post, rescuers carried their boats down to the river and headed downstream, not sure of what they would find.
Not even 60 minutes had passed since the accident, but to the Rangers, it seemed like hours. The darkness was deepening, and Cooper and Piccolo were deeply worried about Han, who was shivering uncontrollably.
Then, out of the pitch-black night, Piccolo heard voices.
"Where are you?" someone called. "How many of you made it?"
Piccolo yelled back that there were three survivors, one of whom was bleeding profusely. He continued yelling information to the rescuers and soon was rewarded with the sight of lights from approaching john boats. Rescuers secured their boats to the downed aircraft, then began the process of evacuating the three survivors. Han was lifted into a boat first, then Cooper. Piccolo was able to crawl in on his own. The boats turned upstream to the command post a mile away, where medical attention waited.
The worst of the ordeal was over, but not all of it. Piccolo soon realized the boat he was in was rapidly filling with water. Cooper could only laugh.
"I remember thinking, 'This is funny as shit,'" Cooper said. "'He's going to drown in a boat after surviving a wreck.'"
At the bridge, Lisa Piccolo still knew nothing about her husband's fate. All she had been told at that point was that three men had survived, while two had died.
"I was so sure he was dead, then I saw this tiny, tiny white light" out on the river, she said. "And I knew then the next day I was going to be planning either a funeral or a party. I had thought I might be raising this baby by myself. I didn't even know why they would be in a helicopter."
Lisa estimated it was almost midnight before she finally found out her husband and his two bandmates were alive. They had been in the river for between two and two and a half hours.
Her first conversation with her husband was a strange one. By all accounts, Piccolo had kept his wits about him throughout the ordeal, even through the worst of it. But by now, even he was beginning to show signs of strain, albeit in a humorous way.
"He asked me, 'Does my hair look OK?'" Lisa said. "Then he told me he forgot to take the garbage out. Then he asked if Ben and Coop were OK."
The process of transporting the injured musicians to the hospital began. Cooper and Han were loaded on to med-evac helicopters and flown to St. John Medical Center in Tulsa, but Piccolo refused to get into another helicopter and was transported to the hospital in Cushing.
The night had been a ghastly one. The pilot, Jameson, and the front-seat passenger, Knigge, were dead. And each of the Rangers had serious injuries. Cooper's left leg was broken in three places. He had a broken pelvis, broken ribs, two collapsed lungs, a broken left clavicle, internal bleeding and a concussion. He would spend three weeks in the hospital and another week in a rehabilitation center.
Han had a broken left cheekbone, a broken right clavicle, a massive laceration of his left arm that would require 30 to 40 stitches, bruised lungs, bruised ribs, a sprained left ankle, massive contusions all over his body, bloody eyes and several teeth knocked loose. Days later in the hospital, he would develop an atrial fibrillation. He spent nine days in the hospital.
Piccolo had an injured clavicle, a cracked rib, bruised lungs, a badly sprained right knee, several cuts and bruises, whiplash, five herniated discs and three fractured lumbar vertebrae. He did two weeks in the hospital.
The accident report compiled by the NTSB, issued months later, would show the main wreckage of the helicopter was recovered in the middle of the river, approximately 1,500 feet from the power lines, three of which had been severed. The fuselage came to rest inverted and was 90 percent submerged. The main rotor system landed approximately 200 feet ahead of the fuselage, while the tail boom was found about 200 feet behind the fuselage. The main rotor mast had been fractured. Only eight feet of one blade remained attached to the hub, while only three feet of the other blade remained attached. The left front section of the fuselage had been crushed, the left aft door had been separated and a portion of the left fuselage structure had been destroyed. The only section of the aircraft that remained substantially intact was the area where the back seat was located.
The NTSB accident brief, issued Aug. 24, 2005, more than a year after the incident, put the time of the impact with the power lines at three minutes before sunset, which had occurred at 8:48pm, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory. The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident was the pilot's inadequate in-flight planning/decision and his failure to maintain obstacle clearance. Contributing factors were low-altitude flight, sun glare and the static wires.
Over and Out
Word of the accident got out fast, though not necessarily accurately. Even though nearly every media outlet in the state was covering the story, rumors that all or various band members had been killed circulated for several hours on Sunday before being squelched. Piccolo did a short phone interview with Tulsa World music writer John Wooley from his Cushing hospital bed on Sunday even as the band's former bass player, Bob Wiles, was running interference for Cooper and Han at St. John as the media converged on the hospital. Dozens, then hundreds of visitors and callers from around the country were trying to get through to the Rangers to express their concern, an outpouring of support and emotion that stunned and humbled the survivors.
Lisa Piccolo described the scene as a media circus. Trying to fend off the reporters while keeping her parents and Piccolo's parents updated about her husband's condition was exhausting, but she didn't sleep for 48 hours, despite being in the first trimester of her pregnancy. Still, in every interview she did on her husband's behalf, she was careful to temper her gratitude with sensitivity for the families of those who had died in the crash.
"I couldn't focus on my own joy," she said, knowing that others were suffering. She also had come to the realization that if not for her decision to travel to the party on her own at a later time, she would have been in the helicopter with the band--most likely in the front seat, with the guys in the back. "I could have been on board so easily," she said.
The same thought had occurred to Wiles, the Rangers' longtime bassist who had quit the band a couple of years earlier.
"I was starting to wonder what in the world I had done. It was so much fun being in that band," he said. The accident quickly put an end to those thoughts. "Then it was like God was saying, 'You made the right move,' " he said.
Wiles saw it as his obligation to his friends to let them rest while he kept the army of reporters and well-wishers at bay, but he realized he wasn't needed anymore when he learned that Cooper had called a press conference in his room for Monday.
"Somebody said, 'He seems to be enjoying it.' I said, 'He's on morphine--he'd be enjoying anything right now," Wiles said, laughing. "He's spent 10 years trying to get some press, now he's finally got it."
But keeping people away from the injured musicians and letting them begin their recovery was starting to become a major concern. After developing an irregular heartbeat, Han had to be moved to intensive care.
"A lot of people with great intentions wanted in to see them," Wiles said, indicating that many of those folks didn't want to take no for an answer. "I think it was the first time those guys saw what it was like to be a celebrity. It ain't all it's cracked up to be. Cooper, of course, was totally gracious, as he always is. I would have been throwing a shoe at somebody."
As devastating as the incident had been, it took only hours before Cooper's thoughts turned back to music. Just weeks before, the Rangers had accepted an offer from their old friends in Cross Canadian Ragweed, a next-generation red dirt band that had been strongly influenced by the Rangers, on its way up to open for them in a late-July show at the Zoo Amphitheater in Oklahoma City, an 8,000-seat facility that would provide the Rangers with one of its biggest crowds ever. It was a golden opportunity that now looked to be in serious jeopardy.
But Cooper was having none of that. As soon as he was able to communicate with Han and Piccolo, he started lobbying for the three of them to keep their commitment to play the show. Whatever misgivings Han and Piccolo may have had, Cooper's insistence soon rubbed off them, and they agreed. On July 29, 2004--five weeks to the day since the accident that nearly ended their lives--the Red Dirt Rangers returned to the stage, earning a standing ovation from an adoring crowd before playing a 45-minute opening set for CCR.
"Physically, it was a mistake," Cooper said, admitting that the performance was so demanding it put each of them back in recuperation mode for another couple of weeks afterward. "But mentally, I needed to do that gig just to get back to what we do and why we do it."
The experience seemed to be the same for each member of the band. Rather than feeling like the accident had changed their minds about what was important in life, they realized their commitment to music, family and friends, and each other--the same things they had always lived for--had only been strengthened.
Han, in particular, had been overwhelmed by the love the band's friends and fans had displayed in the aftermath of the crash, supporting benefit after benefit to help offset the hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills the Rangers had accrued because of their lack of health insurance.
"I felt a duty and an obligation to get back out there and play music for other people," he said. "That's our purpose."
There was never any question, it seems, that the Rangers would continue their career together.
"That would be like dumping the thing that saved your life," Piccolo said. "Music is the thing that almost was the cause of your demise, but it saved you as well."
Cooper was even more direct.
"Music has been my place of safety and solace," he said. "Music is the place that gives me comfort, so why would I want to get out of that? I can't imagine living life without it."
Five years after that incident, the Red Dirt Rangers have fully resumed their career. In fact, they're busier than ever (see sidebar on page xx), despite the fact they now joke about being a tired, old band overshadowed by many of the younger, and more famous, red-dirt acts they helped inspire years ago, like CCR, Jason Boland and the Stragglers, and Stoney LaRue.
But the guy widely credited with coming up with the term "red dirt" to describe the genre, Wooley, certainly doesn't see the Rangers' influence waning. In his mind, the band still personifies the best of what that moniker implies.
"I love their music, and I love what they do," said Wooley, who cites the band in his book "From the Blue Devils to Red Dirt: The Colors of Oklahoma Music," an exhaustive history of popular music in the state. "But the thing is, with real artists, people who are committed to what they do, you don't know where the artist stops and the person starts. That's the case with them. You can't make music like the Red Dirt Rangers make and be a poseur."
Steve Ripley--one-time lead guitarist for Bob Dylan, front man for the platinum-selling group the Tractors and former owner of the legendary Church Studio in Tulsa--became well acquainted with the group after producing its two most recent discs, Starin' Down the Sun and Ranger Motel. He, too, believes the Rangers are the standard bearers for the musical style with which they share their name largely because of their personal philosophies.
"I think that's why they bear the name rightly," he said, noting the serendipity of the band's choice of monikers two decades ago. "They're not big stars, and they don't draw the most people, but they're appropriate ambassadors or evangelists to be at the top of the red dirt genre."
Ripley, Cooper and Piccolo are practically neighbors, all living within a few miles of each other near Glencoe.
"They're genuinely great guys," Ripley said. "They now rank among my best friends because they have all those things that are almost textbook like in terms of being polite, intelligent and silly, syrupy stuff. The helicopter crash put a certain emphasis on that, I suppose, but they didn't need a life-changing event.
"They're great guys, and they make a great sound together. What's great about a band is when they make a noise that is a whole lot bigger than its parts. When you hear them, they have that thing they do together that is more band like than three or four guys playing together. That's what makes a band a band."
Greg Johnson--a longtime music journalist and promoter in Austin who has run the Blue Door listening room in Oklahoma City for more than 15 years--believes the kind of band the Rangers are is reflected in their personalities.
"John is the most kinetic of the three," he said. "Brad is the most laid-back, Okie farm boy, and Ben is the outsider who's not really an outsider, along with being the best musician in the group. You put all that together, and it's amazing."
Wiles believes the thing that separates his former bandmates from so many others is a lack of ego and a genuine commitment to the community-building aspect of music.
"I think it's that willingness to share the spotlight," he said, adding that any time a younger musician arrived on the Stillwater music scene, such as CCR's Cody Canada, the Rangers were quick to welcome him into the fold. "They never really saw him as a threat. They always said, 'Come on up on stage with us,' or 'Let's write a song together.' They never were territorial."
It was Wiles himself who voiced the most famous line about the band in an interview with Wooley several years ago in an interview for one of the Rangers' annual red dirt Christmas shows at Cain's Ballroom. He said, "We skipped having a career and went straight to being an influence."
That line still makes Wooley laugh to this day, but he points out the Rangers have had a career--a very good one, in fact, one in which they have avoided chasing fame, selling out and having to make compromises in their work.
"I'm not sure the crash changed them all that much," Wooley said. "They didn't need to change what they were doing because what they're doing is what anybody would be doing who really enjoys life."
The Rangers' flirtations with mainstream acceptance have been brief and unsatisfying, typified by a visit to Nashville in 1996 to meet with Bill Carter, a well-known Music Row power broker who has worked with Lone Star, Rodney Crowell and Carlene Carter, among others. After giving a quick listen to one of the band's tunes, he turned to them and said, "Boys, you need to figure out what kind of band you want to be. I'm hearing all kinds of things."
Carter advised them to pick a specific style, go back to Oklahoma and work on becoming the best band in the state in that genre. "Then come see me," he said.
About that time, Carter's secretary knocked on the door and advised Cooper he had a phone call. Confused, Cooper picked up the line and found the band's friend Kevin Welch--another fiercely independent Oklahoma musician who has experienced plenty of frustration in dealing with the Nashville establishment--on the other end.
"How do you like the speech?" Welch asked, laughing.
"It's kind of crazy," Cooper said.
"Yeah, it's the speech everybody gets," said Welch, a critically acclaimed songwriter and performer who rejected Music Row's attempts to turn him into a Nashville pretty boy in the 1990s and went on to form his own label, Dead Reckoning.
The Rangers went back to Oklahoma and never entertained thoughts of going to Nashville again. The lesson they took from that experience, Piccolo said, is that they could be happy just having the career they were having.
"I think a lot of people think if you're not touring the world and selling millions of records, you're a failure," he said. "But man, there's a lot of room between the two--there's a lot of room for a career. We've thrived and done well and been happy without any of that."
Johnson said it's virtually impossible to figure how the Rangers have managed to have such an impact while remaining so far under most people's radar at the same time.
"You can't plan what the Rangers have done, you just have to keep doing it and doing it," he said. "That's the essence of the Rangers, and they'd be the first to admit that. The fact that you can't really describe it and can't really explain it--that kind of explains it."
The Rangers have found plenty of validation on their own during the years, but they were gratified to see themselves included in the "Another Hot Oklahoma Night" exhibition, a show focusing on the history of rock 'n' roll in the state, while attending the opening night reception last month at the state History Center in Oklahoma City.
"Seeing we were a part of that, it hit home then, to see us behind glass," Piccolo said. "Your whole life, you're trying to be a musician, and then one day you wake up and realize you're not trying anymore--you've become what you were trying to be. It happened to us, and the realization of that is very powerful and overwhelming."
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