I have a confession. Thank goodness most concert venues are dark because some live music shows I go to cause me cry hysterically. A Zac Brown Band show in 2012 and a visit to the Grand Ole Opry in September 2013 are great examples.
It took me a long time to piece together just why I became a sobbing sad sack at great live shows. Was it a repressed memory from a high school mosh pit gone awry? Do all the musicians I see lately just have sad songs? Was it the booze? Nope. Pardon me, but I have to go back to my parents to explain.
My father was a DJ for parties and such and he’d been in bands as a drummer. He also played guitar occasionally. My mom just had a healthy appreciation for some really good music.
They were ’60s and 70s music people who watched music do magical things like bring people together and even change politics. Like the great original Woodstock festival (which both regretted not attending, although my mom did drive up there but chickened out).
Thus, in high school, if I said “can I go to a party with a few thousand college boys who will be taking the marijuana, on a school night?” I’d be grounded for asking.
So, instead I’d say, “we got tickets for the Phish show at the coliseum next Tuesday, would you mind giving me a ride?”
For the sake of improvisational music appreciation, I would get permission and a ride. This system worked again and again and again. I even got to go to Woodstock ’94. By the time I was 17 and leaving for college, the list of live shows I’d seen was impressive. Black Crowes, David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, Metallica, Aerosmith, Blues Traveler, Melissa Ethridge (3 times, without even kissing a girl!), Violent Femmes, Steve Miller Band, James Taylor, Primus, Cypress Hill, Blind Melon… And many, many more. At least a show per month. I started working before I was even 16 and I think that’s where every penny went. It was Connecticut, and there were numerous venues hosting big names within an hour’s drive. I went because it was what all the cool kids did.
When I headed off to Oklahoma State University for college, you might think I would have missed the big name bands. (OSU is in Stillwater, OK, out in the country and I didn’t even have a car.) I didn’t miss the big shows at all.
That’s because were plenty of live shows in Stillwater. One of the first I remember was a band called the Great Divide, headed up by a guy named Mike McClure. I heard, “Barmaid, play me some Buffett, I’m in the mood to get away; pour me a vacation, I need to leave here right away,” in a funky, really country but not country at all twang. I could see why my new college friends liked listening to this stuff. It was as cool as they were.
That show was at the Wormy Dog Concert Hall, an 18+ venue that was an offshoot of the 21+ Wormy Dog Saloon. Both were located on “the strip,” Stillwater’s street of bars. I never lived more than 4 blocks from that strip the whole 6 years I lived in Stillwater.
When I was 21, and not a day before, of course, I started hanging out at the Wormy Dog Saloon. (I turned 21 in 1999, so let’s say I heard some stuff from “a friend” about what happened there in 1998.)
The entrance to “The Dog” was set above a tall, narrow flight of metal stairs. Inside, it was a relatively small place with saddles mounted on poles for barstools. They had penny beer nights where you would pay a $5 cover and drink all the beer you wanted as long as you put at least a penny in the jar. The bathrooms were tiny and smelled terrible. In a word, the Wormy Dog Saloon was cool. My friends were always there and the music was good. Other bars on “The Strip” had live music, too, but the Wormy Dog was kind of my crowd’s home base.
Things often got rowdy- I remember having beer bottle glass stuck in the skin on my toe for a while that had resulted from a barfight that had gotten especially violent on a night I’d made a poor shoe choice.
Weekends they would have “bigger” bands, usually up from Texas, play. Names like Reckless Kelly, Roger Creager and such.
Weeknights they also had live music, but it was more local boys. Three gentlemen who particularly stood out were Cody Canada, Jason Boland, and Stoney LaRue. Usually one or two on stage with just guitars.
They performed covers of Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keene, David Allen Coe – all artists I’d never really listened to before. They also sang crazy original songs about nymphomaniacs and how boys from Oklahoma roll their joints all wrong and banging your head against the wall because it’s there. They covered each other’s originals. Just because the sign outside said one of them was playing, it didn’t mean one wouldn’t replace another or jump up and play together. Sometimes, around midnight (when they probably could have stopped playing if they wanted to) they’d all wind up together.
They seemed to be having a ball. We had a ball watching them. In fact, I think maybe that’s why I didn’t notice what a special thing I was watching happen. It felt like they were just part of our crew.
Side note here- this was Red Dirt Music, named for the color of dirt in Oklahoma. (You can read more about it at the Red Dirt Rangers site here.) I’m no music expert, but I will try to tell you my impression of it.
It’s rocking, soulful and falls pretty far outside the Nashville country music “formula.” But it’s definitely country. It has a lot of what I think of as “old school” country elements. You’ll find fiddles, peppy swing rhythms, and quick, melodic guitar riffs. But the voices are rough- certainly not out-of-key rough, these are talented vocalists- but manly and purposefully unpolished. While lyrics do cover fun stuff like traveling, drinking beer, and falling in love; they also cover darker, more personally emotional subjects like drug addiction, alcoholism, ghosts, poverty and family. A lot of topics that don’t fit in real well with the current trucks/parties/girls landscape on nationwide country radio. (At least the really poppy stuff that makes it way up to 92.5 here in Connecticut.)
Now, back to Stillwater and the Wormy Dog and these guys playing the background music for some of the most fun nights of my life.
When Cody then Jason started getting more and more gigs with their full bands (Cross Canadian Ragweed and Jason Boland and the Stragglers respectively) at the bigger weekend shows, it was fun. When they released albums, I bought them and listened and sang along over and over. Slowly but surely they gave up their regular gigs and I’d have to go to bigger venues to see them play. Eventually they made their way to become a part of the Texas music scene and beyond. Cross Canadian Ragweed is no more, but several of the original members play now as Cody Canada and the Departed.
Stoney hung around Stillwater a while longer. While I was never friends with any of the aforementioned fellows, (that would have been the COOLEST), I remember at least talking to Stoney. The first time I talked to him, I pretended I didn’t know who he was and casually mentioned I was from Connecticut and that I was impressed by Stillwater’s music scene. (It seemed cooler than leading off with, “I dig your music, pal.” Also, I was trying to avoid the impression I was hitting on him, because I wasn’t.) Almost like a little kid, he was so excited to talk about the music on the scene and politely mentioned he was a part of it. A little while into our conversation, I told him I was kidding, I’d lived in Stillwater for 5 years and I knew exactly who he was and that I’d seen him a bunch of times and was already a fan.
He told me I was wrong, then, he wasn’t Stoney LaRue, he was actually Ted Nugent. Any time I saw him play after that, if he saw me in the crowd I’d get a lick of “Cat Scratch Fever.” It made me feel SO cool. At one party where I ran into him he was even kind enough to teach me the opening riff to Cross Canadian Ragweed’s song “Alabama.” It involved using his thumb and I told him my guitar teacher would not have approved. He said that’s why he hadn’t ever had lessons. It was very cool to learn from him.
Now, Stoney is also very well established on the Texas music scene. In fact, he’s touring all over the country with Four on the Floor– a heavy hitting Texas lineup that also includes the Randy Rogers Band, the Josh Abbott Band, and Wade Bowen. They’re actually playing NYC at Terminal 5 on Saturday night and then in Cambridge, MA at the Sinclair on Sunday. Maybe they’ll wave to me when they drive through Connecticut.
Alas, I moved to Tulsa late in 2002 and then back to Connecticut in 2004. Live music really didn’t fit into my new life that went from career-focused, to marriage-focused, to being-a-mother-focused. Every once in a while I do like to see a good live show, to remember what it was like when I was young and “cool.” But there is nothing cool about the teary mess I become.
Back in those days at the Wormy Dog around the turn-of-the-century (that’s accurate, isn’t it?) I was just trying to drink some beer and be cool. While I wasn’t looking, Red Dirt Music had stirred my soul. Now, when I go to shows with talented artists who really connect with audiences it’s like running into a an old lover I never really got over. It’s so wonderful it hurts a little. And I cry. Like a ridiculous little girl.
So, to Cody Canada, Jason Boland , and Stoney LaRue, thanks guys; thanks for having fun and being real and staying real up there. I honestly appreciate it, even if it does make me cry. I’d like to introduce you to Connecticut sometime. Maybe you could stop and play a show here sometime in between your NY and Boston gigs. I promise I will get a babysitter and drag my husband out and even dress up a little. You know, put on some lipstick and such. I’m probably going to skip the mascara, though.
Here’s three songs that launch me back in time to the Wormy Dog; I linked directly to the iTunes pages: