by: Thomas D. Mooney
No banjotars. No synthesized fiddle licks. You can rest assured that bubble gum country isn’t going to be on display when Jason Boland & The Stragglers come to town. Boland and the Stragglers have been able to walk that fine line of staying rooted in traditional country without being a ripoff or gimmick. They’ve been able to sound both relevant to the sound and times of today yet genuinely something you are familiar with–even if you’ve never heard them before.
It’s something Boland and I talked about in detail last Friday afternoon; that you’re able to detect Boland’s heroes without him having an album of songs with titles such as “Hank Williams,” “Merle Haggard,” “Johnny Cash,” and “George Jones.” You don’t have to dig too deep to know who has helped shape Boland and the Stragglers sound–but, you have to still do a little digging and thinking to appreciate them. You’re not going to hear any clear-cut influences per-say, but more like subtle hints and the ghosts of Boland’s honky-tonk heroes.
The Stragglers’ last album, “Rancho Alto,” which came out early last October, is just the latest in a long line of noteworthy albums in which Boland and company can be proud. While I’ve just spent the last few minutes writing about Boland’s allegiance to neo-traditionalist country music, it’s interesting that “Rancho Alto” has a number of instances that are folky–both in subtle sounds and attitude. Like Boland talks says, if you’re singing about the same things you sang about when you were young, there’s something wrong. Song after song, verse after verse, line after line, Boland speaks about the common man. Not the “it’s Friday, time to get drunk” common man of his early days, but the common man who has honestly been effected by a bleak economy, politics, hard times, and the general shrinking of the rural, simpler world. Those thoughts and concerns are most apparent on tracks such as “False Accuser’s Lament,” “Farmer’s Luck,” and the Bob Childers-penned, “Woody’s Road.”
Jason Boland & The Stragglers will be playing The Blue Light tonight (April 5) with Thieving Birds opening. Like Jason Boland on Facebook here.
New Slang: Over your career, you’ve worked with a number of great producers. Lloyd Maines is someone who has produced a few of your albums, including your latest. In what ways has he helped you become a better songwriter and musician?
Jason Boland: I think one of the main things that people love about Lloyd is, like any great producer, is how they take your vision, what you hear, and make it better. I think Lloyd has always understood what we did. We met him through Mike McClure and The Great Divide. They were a big inspiration also on us. It was a natural transition for where we were heading. The way Lloyd responds us. And really, several people out of Stillwater. I think there might actually be this Lubbock-Stillwater connection somehow [laughs]. He brings so much of a musical wealth of knowledge. What makes a song sound nice other than just the chord changes, the melody, the musical interludes. And other than that, just being a really fun person to work with. Just a great guy in the studio.
NS: Yeah. He seems just like he’d be an endless supply of music knowledge. Seems like you could just pick his brain and learn so much. He’s been around for so long.
JB: Yeah. And not just music in general. He’s so good in the niche areas, the things that matter. He’s been inspired by all the right things.
NS: I was going to ask about Mike McClure as well actually. You just mentioned him and The Great Divide being an influence on you.
JB: Oh yeah. Mike’s been a huge influence on me since day one. I used to go watch him play acoustic around the bars around Stillwater. He’s always kind of had a hands-on approach to the new music that was happening around him. Just like the people he looked up to were, like Bob Childers and Tom Skinner, the folks that were hanging around the scene. He was always, I guess to the point of taking it for granted, that he was never “Get out of here, kid. You’re bothering me” type. He was always wanting to hear what new songs you were writing, what direction you were going, what books you were reading. He’s a person who has inspired my life.
NS: One thing about your music, I feel at least, is that it’s still really grounded in fundamental country. You know, the fiddle and steel guitar is prominent. They don’t sound like an afterthought or that they were added to sound “country.” Can you talk about how you guys have been able to stay grounded in that and not straying away into what many consider country music to be nowadays?
JB: Yeah. It’s the same thing that happens with all forms of music. There’s always going to be the more thoughtful version or the version that is more true to its roots. And then there’s always going to be the fame-seeking, money-chasing, pop version. I think country falls prey to that even easier than rock’n’roll. For example, Merle Haggard put out a great new album, but I don’t know if you’re going to hear that anywhere but Sirius. I don’t know when that changed. We’ve always just taken it as, we’re going to play what we’re influenced by and try and make it a natural progression out of it. We’re not going to go back and be tribute band trying to copy exactly what Hank Sr and it be king of the knockoff or nostalgic thing. With our influence of that growing up and it being cross-pollinated with a little more 80s hair-metal, because that’s what was around when we were growing up and it wasn’t around when Jimmie Rodgers was growing up. You know, so be it. It’s art reflecting life. I think it comes from us not over-thinking it and just trying to do what we do and be original rather than, “Hey man, this will be a good gimmicky Top 40 hit.” I think first and foremost, we try to please ourselves. We’re going to make music that we’re proud of and enjoy, not whether if somebody has heard it. I’m not saying people don’t enjoy what they do, but it’s probably more based on enjoying it because of the popular success.
NS: I read something in an album review about you guys that I think describes it spot on. I think you’ll agree. You guys don’t just name drop Merle Haggard or Hank Williams in a song you’re singing. You show that influence by the song actually sounding like it’s influenced by Haggard and Williams.
JB: Yeah. That’s almost a genre of music now. If you want to play an actual country influenced song, you get a banjotar and talk about them in the song. It’s the same way that most of the funny movies now days are about movies or behind the scenes because that’s all they know about [laughs]. No one takes the time to research anything. Or set down and read a book and be inspired. Or sit down and really get in touch with a feeling that makes you produce something original or something moving to yourself. It’s more about a commodity. You can make any kind of music infectious, but that doesn’t make it real. The times they are a-changin’. And who knows who is right. It’s just whether or not you’re trying to follow the machine and keep it greased up or you just do what you do and are able to look yourself in the mirror.
NS: You guys have been around for a while now. You have about seven studio albums and a couple of live albums. Obviously, you have grown as musicians, songwriters, and artists in general. Where do you think you’ve grown the most?
JB: I would like to think first and foremost, that we’ve grown as musicians, just the proficiency on our instruments. But I’ve also seen, in our younger years, what you talk about. And it’s staying true to yourself. When you’re younger, you talk about what’s important to you when you’re younger. And if they don’t change as you get older, well then something is wrong. Like people, they’ll justify listening to something bubble gum because “Man, I work all the time and work hard and now I just want to hear about somebody going to the lake or something.” And there’s nothing wrong with going to the lake. There’s nothing wrong with party songs, or dancing songs, or dancehall songs, or road-trip songs. There’s nothing wrong with those. But when there’s no alternative to that, when that’s all there is, when there’s no substance and it’s all the fluff. People will say, “I don’t want to sit and have to think about something after a hard day’s work.” I really don’t think people think that way, but they’re told to feel that. “You’ve had a had day. Just sit back and listen to drivel.” Well, maybe here’s a song that’ll help you make sense of why your day was so hard. Here’s some folk music to empathize with you because they get it too. It may not change anything, but it’s not telling you what they think you want to hear.
NS: Last question for you. This goes back to when you had vocal cord surgery. There was a small chance that you may have not been able to sing again. What was going through your head before and after the surgery? And, what do you think you would have done if you hadn’t been able to sing?
JB: Once I got up to Vanderbilt, they really put my mind at ease. It wasn’t an acute thing. They were able to say, “hey, we’ll take care of this.” I kept a positive attitude. I told myself that I was going to keep positive attitude until I found out what was going on. And once they were able to they were going to be able to get it fixed, I didn’t even let myself think that it wasn’t going to be alright. It was just going to be a while. And if that didn’t happen, I don’t know. I’m sure I would have sat down and took some time off. Work on my songwriting. I would have always done something involved in music. I might have just gone down to my farm in Meeker, and planted a few rows of veggies, and got some chickens, and taken it easy [laughs].