Jason Boland is killing time before sound check at Bubba’s Brewhouse, a bar on a stretch of state highway in the small town of Durant, Oklahoma. After playing close to two thousand gigs in his career, Boland and his band, the Stragglers, dispense with it quickly. “It’s the only time responsibility befalls any member of this organization,” he quips in his mellow drawl. Later, he’ll visit the medical marijuana dispensary he owns in town before what he calls “the power two hours,” playing his high-intensity blend of honky-tonk, country, and rock and roll while the giant mid-September corn moon rises overhead.
Lately his set lists have entered otherworldly territory as Boland, a veteran of Oklahoma’s Red Dirt country scene, has been testing out songs from his tenth studio effort, the sci-fi-inspired concept album The Light Saw Me. The record centers around a cowboy from the 1890s transported by aliens to the late twentieth century, where he’s searching for his long-gone wife. Don’t roll your eyes; Boland’s not that high. Over the eleven-song, three-section narrative, the deeper meaning unfolds. “Being zapped into the future by aliens wasn’t the point,” he says. “It’s just the backdrop to ask the questions we all want answers to: Is there meaning in anything? Is anything real, lasting, or connected? For the cowboy, the touchstone is the love of his wife.”
Concept albums can be dicey propositions. The great ones—Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and Emmylou Harris’s The Ballad of Sally Rose among them—are offset by head-scratchers like Garth Brooks in…the Life of Chris Gaines. As with Nelson’s Stranger, Boland’s album weaves heartbreaking details of tragic love, bad decisions, and a search for peace and redemption. Except with The Light Saw Me (a play on the Hank Williams tune “I Saw the Light”), you might need to suspend a little more disbelief.
Growing up in rural Oklahoma, Boland was infatuated by anything with “wizards, dragons, and Star Wars.” He also listened to a ton of Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, leaving for college in the early nineties at Oklahoma State in Stillwater, which had become the hub of the Red Dirt sound, a mix of roots music and traditional country with a rock edge. Boland hung out at the Farm, where Red Dirt pioneer Bob Childers lived and the headquarters for a motley collection of musicians. “We all thought country music was going to go the Steve Earle way, but it didn’t,” Boland says. “If you abandoned Merle Haggard, you abandoned country music. ‘Nashville sucks.’ That was the battle cry.”
Boland’s new material finds him at his most vulnerable, unafraid of confronting life’s burning questions. Musically, the palette has expanded as well. “Here for You” and “Future” marry Americana twang with slow-burn psychedelic laments, while majestic songs such as “A Tornado & the Fool” and “Straight Home” sound like Pink Floyd making a pit stop in West Texas. Boland’s uncompromising attitude and penchant for experimentation have long resonated with his peers, including his friend Shooter Jennings, who produced the album. “He’s totally underappreciated as a songwriter,” says Jennings, who also helmed Boland’s 2013 album, Dark & Dirty Mile. “There are very few artists who have stayed true to themselves for twenty years and gotten better with every record.”
While they now tour around the country, Boland & the Stragglers are still one of the top draws on the circuit of clubs and dance halls that stretches from Manhattan, Kansas, to New Braunfels, Texas, close to where he now lives with his wife, Mandy, and their bulldog, Gary Stewart Boland. For shows in 2022, he’s contemplating if he should play The Light Saw Me from start to finish (he should). “I still see us always challenging who we are as musicians and songwriters and performers,” he says. And given that UFOs have been spotted over Durant, you never know who might be listening.