This is country music.
In a recent commercial-country star’s genre-defining song, the act of singing about Jesus, tractors and little towns is portrayed as an unfashionable act that runs counter to the current of societal norms. Rebellion is drinking a cold one, getting a little loud, although it’s never mentioned what the country folk are getting loud about. Country music seems to be an increasingly neutered genre, where nothing at all is said, where a hit song that welcomes a world where a black man could become president was seen as a bridge too far by some. Contrast that discomfort with the bravery of an artist like Merle Haggard producing a song like “Irma Jackson” in the late 1960s. That The Hag is name-checked by so many current country stars as an influence is ironic, given that the bravery exhibited in this one song is greater than the combined bravery of every artist currently on the country chart.
Into this tepid landscape, Jason Boland releases his latest album, Rancho Alto. Even though its songs are not likely to be topping the country charts anytime soon, Jason is adamant that this is country music. “It may fit in with some other types of music, like Americana maybe, but I’m not ready to give up on the idea that country music can be relevant,” says Jason. “And country music is what I play. My fans are George Strait fans. They go to the dancehalls to see shows. I know these people. They are more capable of complex thought than the country music industry thinks they are.”
Jason was born and raised in Harrah, Oklahoma (like the casino he says – “there weren’t any around where I grew up, I used to joke, and now there are”) and went to college at Oklahoma State University, where he formed a band with some like-minded mates. Jason Boland and The Stragglers went on to become one of the most popular bands of that region, having released five albums since 1999 and having played in front of millions of fans during that time. Boland has certainly had his challenges along the way. His fraternal college drinking turned into frightening full-blown alcoholism, and was ultimately admitted to Sierra Tuscon Rehabilitation Center for 28 days in October of 2005. In 2008, as his most recent studio album Comal County Blue was being released, he ruptured a polyp on his vocal chord, and doctors thought that he might not be able to sing again. Because the journey has been difficult, Jason operates with a deeper resolve to say something worth saying.
Many of the characters that populate Rancho Alto are struggling and reacting to their travails. The album’s lead track, “Down Here In The Hole,” tells of a miner who is stuck in a cave-in, maintaining hope despite his predicament (“I’m finding out when troubled, the sprit can glow”), but also ruminating on the limited options that put him in the hole to begin with (“Some say I fell between the cracks and some say I was shoved”).
Less resigned to his fate is the protagonist of “Pushing Luck,” a man who has been living outside the law in order to take care of his family. He sees little difference between his “hustle” and the government’s, where the government has taken money to perpetuate its existence, and with which it has funded the assault on his homestead. He has a bulletproof vest on, underneath his overalls, and stands ready to fight the power.
Rancho Alto has moments that are not quite as fraught with political tension. Jason has two outright love songs on this album. “I never really wrote love songs before,” he says, adding that having found a stable love allowed him to channel these sentiments more readily than before. “Mary Ellen’s Greenhouse” is a love song of a different sort, written for the mother of one of his first band mates, who would let the trio put on jam sessions in her greenhouse, as well as feed them. “I wanted to write a song to thank those people who support us broke-ass musicians and allow us to do what we do.” Boland also shows his immense imagination, songcraft and reverence for country music in “False Accuser’s Lament.” He takes a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern turn on the classic country song “Long Black Veil,” where the song is sung from the point of the view of the accuser whose false testimony led the protagonist of the original song to his execution.
But at heart, this album is about embracing the truths that country music used to tell, but that it can seemingly no longer stomach telling. That spirit is behind two of the covers that Jason chose to record for the album. One is the legendary Bob Childers’ “Woody’s Road,” in which Jason sings about reaching out to the helpless and hopeless “and the folks nobody wants to know.” In the final song of the album, the Greg Jacobs-penned “Farmer’s Luck,” Jason tells the tale of a farmer who made his living and raised his family on his bottomland farm, only to have the government declare eminent domain on his land, dam the Canadian River and turn that bottomland farm into the bottom of a lake, made for recreational purposes. Power makes a cameo, declares it progress and leaves the stage. Meanwhile, people grill out and water ski, never considering a man’s home, life and labor were put asunder for their recreation.
It used to be that a country artist would sing about the farmer that lost his land. Now they glorify that party at the lake. For those of you who love country music, but hate what it's become, Jason Boland will sing you back home.
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