A version of this story appears in Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman.
The Great Divide revisits College Days
Column: The reunited red dirt trailblazers again are hosting the two-day music festival, which will showcase up-and-coming Stillwater musicians, established red dirt standouts and Texas country favorites Friday and Saturday at the Tumbleweed Dancehall.
With school back in session at Oklahoma State University, red dirt trailblazers The Great Divide are planning their second musical reunion in their spiritual hometown of Stillwater.
“We’ve gone and played in Stephenville (Texas) and that was a big, big thing for us. But nothing really compares to Stillwater as far as just hometown love and acceptance and people just really having a wild time,” said The Great Divide frontman Mike McClure in a recent phone interview from Ada, where he and his family live.
“But it was always like that. We were pretty synonymous with Stillwater, and I think The Great Divide kind of helped put Stillwater music on the map.”
On Friday and Saturday, The Great Divide’s College Days will showcase up-and-coming Stillwater musicians like Chad Sullins and The Last Call Coalition and Bo Phillips, established red dirt standouts like Stoney LaRue and the Arsenals and the Turnpike Troubadours and Texas country favorites like JB and the Moonshine Band and Aaron Watson at the venerable Tumbleweed Dancehall.
For the second year in a row, The Great Divide will headline the festival they founded back in the late 1990s. The band’s Saturday night set comes about 13 months after the original lineup — drummer J.J. Lester, his brother, rhythm guitarist Scotte Lester, bassist Kelley Green and singer/songwriter/guitarist McClure — healed the rift that divided them for about eight years and played the first date of their reunion tour at College Days 2011.
“It’s going good. You know, we try to get together once a month and play a show. This last month, we actually did two shows; we went up to Nebraska and Kansas. And it’s cool. Every time we go play one of these, it’s just a whole bunch of people (who) come out who are very excited about it because they either grew up listening to the band and never saw us live or used to see us back in the day and they want to kind of go down memory lane. It’s been a lot of fun and it’s been successful,” McClure said, adding that a concert DVD of the band’s first Stillwater reunion show is in the editing phase after the filmmakers spent much of the past year interviewing red dirt musicians about The Great Divide’s influence.
For a decade, The Great Divide not only nurtured their rootsy country-rock sound in the musical hotbed of Stillwater but also took the red dirt beyond Payne County and into the mainstream. As part of that mission, the quartet started College Days and hosted it for about five years until the band’s breakup disrupted the tradition.
“It was my hope and what we did with it was to expose some of the new Stillwater bands, like we had Jason Boland and Stoney (LaRue) and (Cross Canadian) Ragweed when they were all just getting started. It was kind of a way to help expose some local music,” McClure said.
“You know, the whole Stillwater thing is a bit of a homecoming for a lot of people. A lot of people grew up listening to The Great Divide on the back roads and at parties and they really relate that music to their college times in their lives. … I don’t go to any kind of high school reunion stuff or anything where I’m from, so this is about the closest I get to it.”
Red dirt star Stoney LaRue and the Arsenals will headline Friday night’s lineup, which brings back old memories.
“Cody would come around and play acoustic nights with me, and I tried to help get them going. And I can remember Stoney and Jason coming along after Cody. I just always think of those guys together: Cody and Jason and Stoney, they were part of the next crop that came along in the Stillwater scene,” McClure recalled.
These days, red dirt music has spread throughout the state and has influenced the Texas country sound south of the border. The members of the Turnpike Troubadours are scattered in Okemah, Tahlequah, Oklahoma City and Stillwater, while fellow College Days players The Damn Quails are based in what some Stillwater denizens may consider enemy territory: Norman, the home of the University of Oklahoma.
“Turnpike’s doing really well, and The Damn Quails are doing really well. They’re a band on my label, which it’s always cool to see them successful,” said McClure, who is co-owner of the Oklahoma indie label 598 Recordings, which is working on a national distribution deal with Nashville-based marketing/distribution/management company Thirty Tigers.
“And I think there’s always that Oklahoma-Texas rivalry through sports and whatever. But it doesn’t really have to be that way. We’ve gone down and made a great living out of Texas, and I think it’s cool that they come up here, too.”
For Chad Sullins, sharing the bill Saturday night with the red dirt pioneers is a special thrill. Sullins befriended fellow singer-songwriter Cale Lester, Scotte Lester’s son who fronts the band A Hot Mess, after relocating Stillwater to pursue his musical career.
“I got to know those guys — all The Great Divide guys — through Cale and their families, which was really cool because I’d always been a Great Divide fan. … Of course, this was after they broke up and now that they’re back together and playing shows and stuff, it’s really cool for me to be able to say ‘I know those guys’ and to hang out,” Sullins said.
“It’s kind of a dream come true for me that we’re gonna play College Days with those guys this year.”
The Great Divide’s College Days
When: 5:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Doors open at 4:30 p.m.
Where: Tumbleweed Dancehall, Lakeview and Country Club roads, Stillwater.
Friday lineup: Stoney LaRue and the Arsenals, Turnpike Troubadours, JB and the Moonshine Band, Logan Mize and Bo Phillips.
Saturday lineup: The Great Divide, Aaron Watson, The Damn Quails and Chad Sullins and The Last Call Coalition.