Remembering the Farm, the Oklahoma Commune Where Red Dirt Music was Born
Red Dirt Rangers: Stillwater’s music history runs deep.
There is no sign or marker for the Farm. Like the music it gave birth to, the Farm's past exists largely in oral history bordering on legend and mythos.
Part party house, part Okie artist commune, the Farm was a gathering place for Red Dirt musicians in the 1980s and 1990s, a place to work on their craft and trade ideas. What started at a farmhouse outside Stillwater, Oklahoma, eventually changed Texas country music, as alumni of the Farm scene went south of the Red River looking for gigs.
In town, many Stillwater residents have their own stories about days-long parties and fireside guitar-picking, and they can tell the curious how to get there. The six-bedroom farmhouse burned down in 2003, but echoes of the Farm's heyday remain on the property. A fire pit in the front yard shows signs of recent life. Makeshift seating encircles the site of raging bonfires that once burned all night and into the early morning.
Still standing beyond the circle is a weathered frontier-era carriage house that was converted into a homemade concert stage called the "Gypsy Café," which years ago hosted impromptu performances where music wafted across pasturelands for miles on a clear night.
When John Cooper and Danny Pierce first pulled up the gravel driveway in 1979 as college students, they were just looking for a place to live and have a good time. Rent was a hundred bucks a month at the six-bedroom farmhouse, which sat alongside other buildings on 160 acres. The price never went up in 20 years.
As roommates changed, Pierce was the constant and caretaker of the Farm until 1998, when he moved with his wife to Tennessee to become a college professor. Over the years, he estimates, he had 100 different roommates, and many more who crashed on a couch or lawn chair for a few nights.
"It was a college guys place," Cooper says. "It was a place to live and party. And being just far enough out of town, the cops left us alone."
Over time the Farm became a well-known but unofficial gathering place for students from Oklahoma State University, which draws kids from rural outposts as well as cities like Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Dallas. In town, bars would announce at closing, "Time to leave; party at the Farm."
"I think the thing about Stillwater, in particular, is ... its geography," Cooper says. "It's over an hour to Tulsa, over an hour to Oklahoma City. You couldn't just jump in your car and go. We always called it 'creating our own fun.'"
Students who grew up listening to Merle Haggard mixed with those who brought Rolling Stones records to school with them. That mix of people, isolated from the options of big cities, helped create what Cooper and others call "a weird musical vortex." Actor Gary Busey played in a popular Stillwater-based country group in the '60s. Garth Brooks cut his teeth in local venues before heading to Nashville. The All-American Rejects called Stillwater home and, more recently, the indie group Other Lives, also from Stillwater, spent part of 2012 opening for Radiohead.
When Cooper moved to the Farm, he says, he didn't know he was a musician. But at some point he picked up the mandolin and formed the Red Dirt Rangers with his friends. As the reputation of the Farm grew in the early 1980s, musicians and songwriters from the locally grown Red Dirt scene started gravitating to the farmhouse.
"Tons of bands got formed from there; songs got written there," Cooper says. "It was just a place to build a fire, get out the beer and whatever else you had and the party was on. It started to evolve around music. It got to the point where when bands would come to town, they'd stay at the Farm."
Jimmy LaFave, one of the early creators of Red Dirt music, frequented the Farm in the early '80s. It gave him and others a place to stay with like minds and create.
"We were pretty much the odd bunch of hippies in a farmhouse on the edge of town: part Woody Guthrie, part Jack Kerouac, part Bob Dylan," LaFave says. "We were all out there, almost like the counter-counterculture just doing our thing out there in the farmhouse. It was just a magical era and time of creativity."
The first usage of "Red Dirt" as a genre was by Steve Ripley, who like LaFave was one of the early musicians in the scene. Ripley headed a Stillwater band called Moses, and the group chose the label name "Red Dirt Records" when they self-published a 1972 live album.
LaFave still has the record in his archive and remembers when he first read the liner notes, which described the music as "a hue of funk, a shade of sound, a basic spirit" drawing on "the color of the earth" surrounding the band's Stillwater base.
"That's when it sort of jumped out to me that there was a certain melting pot of a little bit of blues and bluegrass and folk and rock and roll that kind of had a special sound that was Red Dirt music," he says. When he started touring Europe and had to describe the songs he wrote, he adopted the phrase: "Just call my music Red Dirt."
As Red Dirt founders and new musicians started hanging around the Farm, the property became more musically focused. A drummer who worked with LaFave before playing with Robert Earl Keen helped guide Keen's tour bus onto the Farm's lawn. Texas songwriter Guy Clark paid a visit, and Cooper remembers a young Garth Brooks watching older guys ply their craft at the Farm.
"I stopped even going into town," Pierce says. "Everybody would be out there, warming up and playing songs, and they'd be like 'Oh shit, it's 8 o'clock, we gotta go play our gig. We'll be back out here at 2 o'clock.'"
Pierce remembers near constant music. He'd go to bed while three or four guys were swapping songs around the fire and wake up to find a different two or three still going. Co-writes became standard. If you weren't sure about a verse, you could take it to the fire circle and get offered a line from someone there. Elder musicians advised those starting out how to tour, where to play, how to deal with money and, most important, how to write a song. As new musicians got on their feet, they were expected to return the favor to those who came after them.
Put simply, the Farm provided a space to create through a simple way of life. In the winter, Cooper says, they would pick 20 to 50 pounds of pecans from a grove to give away as Christmas gifts. Fresh garlic and vegetables grew in a garden that kept the kitchen stocked. They exchanged cherries from their orchard for homemade pies from an older woman who lived down the road.
"It was just about living life at a really basic level. Not trying to get anything over on anyone or be ahead of anyone," Cooper says. "It was communal living. It was a modern Okie commune."
That spirit drew not only musicians but artists of all kinds. Poets, writers and painters started to intermingle with guitar pickers. Artists would set up easels and either paint or sketch musicians in charcoal. Almost anyone was welcome, and in two decades the farmhouse that had no locks never had one theft, Cooper says.
"Living together in a mindful manner, long before 'mindfulness' became hip," he says. "This was teaching us how to live our lives with integrity ... in ways that made sense."
A curious thing happens when Red Dirt musicians talk. Their stories are laced with praise for others in their scene and deference to the ones who came before them. No name comes up more often than Bob Childers, considered the godfather of the scene in Oklahoma. He made his home at the Farm.
Across a three-decade career, Childers wrote more than 1,500 songs. The Tulsa World reported that at least 200 artists had covered his catalog. He died at age 61 of lung-related illness in 2008.
Childers was a West Virginia native who grew up about an hour north of Stillwater in Ponca City. He studied music at University of California-Berkeley and made stops in Austin and Nashville, but he always gravitated back to Stillwater and the Farm. After returning to Stillwater one more time in the '90s, Childers started living at the Farm, in a modest trailer filled with mementos inside and two pink lawn flamingos outside.
"That was definitely a turning point in the musical scene out at the Farm when Bob moved out there," Pierce says. "We'd been having parties, been having music, now Bob's there. So the songwriters are coming out more to pick songs and swap ideas."
"Cross-pollination" was one of Childers' favorite phrases, a reference to both types of music made and how the musicians collaborated.
"'It's all just one big damn band. It's like 50 guys all in the same band,'" Pierce says, quoting Childers. "Who's got the gig tonight? We'll show up, maybe we'll get on stage with ya, maybe we won't. That was just the community and the philosophy of it. I think people still feel that way. It's still one big fucking band."
Singer Monica Taylor remembers her first encounter with the prolific songwriter. A native of nearby Perkins, Taylor moved to Stillwater at age 19 or 20 for school and joined a bluegrass group. The band was practicing for a show one night and Childers came by to listen. When asked to play something, Childers sang a song called "Restless Spirits."
"It blew me away that such simple words like 'blue eyes crying in the rain' — a simple song, very few words — can spark so much emotion, picture (and) story in my mind," Taylor says.
After leaving Oklahoma for a while, Taylor moved back to Stillwater, where she lived next to Childers' trailer in a tent she'd cover with a tarp when temperatures dropped. She remembers musicians knocking on Childers' trailer door at all hours, wanting to get his blessing or guidance on a new song.
"He'd pull out a cigarette and sit down and cross his legs, and he'd say 'All right, whatcha got?'" she remembers. "And then he'd listen, and he'd lean back. I could always tell when he really liked a song. He'd lean back and his eyes would get kind of squinty and there'd be that smile, that toothy smile, and there'd be a glint in his eye, and he'd lean forward after the song."
If Childers leaned the other direction when the song ended, arm thrown over the back of the chair, that usually signaled there was still more work to be done.
As the Farm transitioned from party spot to a music mecca for Red Dirt singer-songwriters, a younger generation of musicians who would go on to merge the scene with Texas country came to learn. Cody Canada, a frontman for Cross Canadian Ragweed and then The Departed, moved to Stillwater in 1994 without a car and rode his bicycle to the Farm.
"I was at the perfect age where everyone thought I was going to college. I wasn't. I got kicked out of high school. Everybody asked if I'd gone up to Stillwater to learn," Canada says. "I always just told them 'yeah,' because I did. I moved up there because of the music, and I didn't leave until I really felt like I'd learned enough ... and I could go out and do it on my own."
Canada found kindred spirits in musicians like Jason Boland or Stoney LaRue, who before they were old enough to drink all came to the Farm looking to learn the trade. Sleeping in truck beds, the three eventually shared a home in town, Canada says, and tried to replicate the creative collaboration they'd learned on the Farm.
Canada's Cross Canadian Ragweed was one of several to use what they learned on the Farm to make their mark in Texas and beyond, touring the country as ambassadors of the Texas country/Red Dirt sound. He says he was used to pointing the finger at guys like Childers, LaFave and others when asked why he got into this, but he never expected the roles to be reversed. While at a recent festival in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, he sat down for an interview beside fellow Farm peers Boland, LaRue and a newer Red Dirt band called the Turnpike Troubadours.
"This Texas radio station wanted to interview all the Okies at once, and I ... always considered myself a student. I'd never ever, ever put myself in the teacher category," Canada says. "I remember they asked Evan (Felker), who is the lead singer for the Troubadours, 'What made you do this for a living?' He looked at the three of us ... and said, 'These guys did.'"
The Farm closed down around 2003, and the Red Dirt sound is less centralized than it once was, as new musicians make it their own across Oklahoma and Texas. Still, the philosophies that the Farm instilled carries on with those who label themselves "Red Dirt." Make no mistake; it's still one big damn band.
"I've done so many interviews for Nashville papers or (radio) ... and people (ask), 'Do you think this scene is going to last forever?' And some of those people are being kind of smartasses about it," Canada says. "And yeah, I do. As long as everybody keeps looking out for each other, then this scene will be here forever."
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