Josh Crutchmer immersed himself in the Red Dirt music scene during his college years at Oklahoma State University.
Did Red Dirt music change his life? Absolutely.
Did Red Dirt music save his life? Probably.
A plane carrying members of the OSU basketball team crashed Jan. 27, 2001, killing all 10 people aboard. At the time, Crutchmer was the sports editor of the campus newspaper. He had asked for a seat on the plane but canceled the request because he wanted to see a Cross Canadian Ragweed show at Stillwater’s Wormy Dog Saloon. The atmosphere turned mournful when news broke about the plane crash. Crutchmer and others at the Wormy Dog spent an unforgettable night grieving together.
Nearly 20 years later, Crutchmer has written the definitive book on Red Dirt music. “Red Dirt: Roots Music Born in Oklahoma, Raised in Texas, at Home Anywhere” can be pre-ordered at reddirtbook.com.
The book delves into the history and rise of the genre. Chapters are devoted to Red Dirt’s most significant bands and figures, including Bob Childers, described by the book as the closest thing to Woody Guthrie that Red Dirt ever had. Crutchmer wrangled an interview with Garth Brooks, who, according to the book, launched his career into orbit and used Red Dirt as fuel.
Here’s an important question to ask before continuing: What is Red Dirt music?
Like the “Tulsa Sound” that came before, Red Dirt can be difficult to define.
According to the book, Red Dirt is a music scene loosely based around Stillwater, dating to the early 1970s, that emphasized songwriting and a tie to the earth that is nearly spiritual. The book said Tom Skinner did not create Red Dirt music, but he became the tie that bound its generations.
Steve Ripley is credited for the earliest use of the term Red Dirt in regard to music. Ripley chose the label name Red Dirt Records for a 1972 live album for his band, Moses.
Jimmy LaFave is the reason Red Dirt is Red Dirt, according to the book. The Red Dirt Rangers “found their name” because of lyrics in LaFave’s song “Red Dirt Roads at Night.”
A dirt road led to “The Farm,” a house on the west edge of Stillwater that John Cooper of the Red Dirt Rangers and others called home while attending OSU. Rent was $100 a month. It was a party house, but musicians gravitated there and “The Farm” became part of the Red Dirt story.
“Stillwater was just far enough away from Tulsa and Oklahoma City that we couldn’t just jump in the car and go,” Cooper said in the book. “And the roads were really crappy back then. There was a two-lane highway from Stillwater to I-35. There was no Highway 412 from us to Tulsa. So we were kind of isolated and, by God, we created our own fun.”
Cooper said people used to ask what kind of music his group played. They got tired of mentioning all the styles of music (just about everything), so the answer became “we play Red Dirt music.”
Medicine Show’s Scott Evans, called a Red Dirt legend by the book, said this: “When Red Dirt first came up, me and Mike Shannon used to joke, just sort of philosophically, critically, what is it?
“And Mike first observed to me: If you think of the other sounds, like Motown or Muscle Shoals, the reason they have the same sounds is because they have the same musicians. There was a continuity to it, at the fundamental level — it’s a rhythm section, it’s a utility player. Then you bring in different artists for the harmonies and solos. That’s a real interesting mix because the root is always the same.
“There’s nothing like that in Red Dirt because you have a whole bunch of different people. You had the Red Dirt Rangers doing psychedelic Tejano music at that time. But it had different themes all over. It had a Western theme, that psychedelic theme, a rock theme, Tex-Mex. You name it, it’s there. And we were, at that time, a Grateful Dead cover band that could also do Hank Williams and ZZ Top.”
B.J. Barham of American Aquarium provided the introduction for the book. He cut to the heart of Red Dirt when he said if you try to come into Oklahoma or Texas and try to make money and be famous, people will see right through you.
“If you come in and you’re true to yourself, which is what we did, well, they appreciate the honesty,” he wrote. “This scene is like a musical lie detector. If you come in with (crap), they’ll spit you right back out.”
Crutchmer (you can read more from him in a companion piece that accompanies this story) said he ran into skeptical publishers and agents when he was putting the book together. He said he got a lot of “this is too niche to sell”-type rejections. But personal experiences told him readership was out there. He saw a line of fans stretch down a Stillwater street to see The Great Divide 20 years ago, and he saw fans line up again for a Cross Canadian Ragweed show in Chicago and a Turnpike Troubadours show in New York City.
Crutchmer wrote that he had been talking about writing a Red Dirt book for at least 10 years before a 2018 conversation with Cooper, who said, “Man, if you don’t write this now, it’s gonna get lost to history.” Crutchmer said Skinner and Brandon Jenkins had died in the three years prior to the conversation and Ripley died not long after.
Crutchmer, a print planning editor at the New York Times whose newspaper stops included The Oklahoman, grew up in Okmulgee. While attending OSU, he and Red Dirt music found each other. The twilight of his OSU experience became less about college and more about Red Dirt exploration. Even though he was sports editor of the O’Collegian, he said he wrote about Red Dirt — sometimes as many as three or four articles per week — like he was auditioning for Rolling Stone. The coverage earned him an “in” with Red Dirt music figures of that era.
Crutchmer’s Red Dirt adventures led to him being in possession of a hat that belonged to Cody Canada of Cross Canadian Ragweed. Canada asked Crutchmer to return the hat. Crutchmer agreed to do so on the weekend that he could have been on the plane that crashed. He had asked for permission to accompany the Cowboy basketball team to Colorado and back. He never got assurance that a seat would be saved for him but withdrew the request so he could go to the show and return the hat. And the night the plane crash happened, Crutchmer said he was “going through hell” with everyone else in the bar.
There’s a chapter in the book about Jan. 27, 2001. Cross Canadian Ragweed chose to perform that night to help with healing.
“When I looked out in that crowd, I saw everybody struggling,” Canada said in the book. “Nothing like that had ever happened there or to them. I felt like, in that moment, we had to do for them what it is that we do. We play music.”