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On Top of the Red Dirt Mountain (By Era)

Ric Flair famously proclaimed “To be the man, you’ve gotta beat the man.”  A farcical taunt in the world of pro wrestling about who was the biggest, baddest and best at any given time.  Someone who puts butts in seats and causes a reaction.  Last week on Twitter, in the build-up to the release of Turnpike Troubadours’ new album, we made mention of how they’re the biggest band in the scene at the moment.  A torrent of replies, DMs, texts and messages followed.  Many of the affirmative “hell yeah!” variety.  A few of the, “they’ve never been the biggest band in the scene!” variety.  And, so we were asked who we would grant that title to at various time periods.  We gave our response there in brief, tweet form, and below follows an extended look at that study. Rankings of music are stupid and subjective…but fun.  So, here we go (no pun intended).

The most recent boom of Texas/Red Dirt Music can be set at approximately 1998.  Prior to that the regional scene was a hodgepodge of Outlaw clingers, coffee shop folk singers and feisty garage bands.  Robert Earl Keen, The Great Divide and Jack Ingram provided a bridge to a new era.  And starting in 1999, things exploded.  Venues opened, online outlets sprung up, bands formed, songs were written, radio stations changed formats, festivals were created, booking agencies began etc.  This boom can be traced to the success of one man, Patrick Craven Green.

Criteria for being the biggest band in the scene is fluid…but generally involves buzz, radio/streams/sales, gate receipts/draw, social media reactions and the *scientific gut.

*not scientific at all


1998-2003:  Pat Green

Charismatic, loud, unrefined.  Pat Green took elements of the Americana singer-songwriter and paired them with a Garth Brooks level-intensity live show.  Name dropping Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Walt Wilkins gave him cred, but his ability to market himself online at the dawn of the information age pushed him over the top.  It didn’t hurt that he had a distinctive singing voice and the guidance of Greg Henry behind the scenes. Word of mouth joined with online phenomenon to make Pat Green the hottest ticket in the region.  He sold thousands of cd’s without major distribution or a label.  Then, despite him having given up on them a long time ago, Nashville came calling and Green waved his way to Grammy nominations and nationwide appeal.

2003-2005:  Cross Canadian Ragweed

Busting out of the Stillwater scene of the late 90’s, this Cody Canada-led outfit made Red Dirt synonymous with Texas and turned southern rock on its ear by adding heavy doses of alternative influences and songwriting prowess. Their live shows became a true event and pandemonium ensued.  Songs about county fair workers rolled out alongside blistering covers, odes to marijuana and tender ballads.  Canada and company never stayed in one lane too long and the crowd followed them to the end.  They were Texas and Oklahoma rock stars…and are still.

2005-2010: Randy Rogers Band

After a cheap live cd and a steel-guitar, Steve Earle combo of a debut studio album, Randy Rogers reshuffled his band and came up aces with the addition of Brady Black on fiddle. Ever the smart marketer, Rogers hustled Radney Foster to sit in the producer chair both to give his music Foster’s touch and his band Foster’s clout. The recipe was deliciously successful.  The album Rollercoaster was a landmark moment in this scene.  Smart songs full of energy, piss, vinegar, vitriol, heartbreak and enough hell-raising verve to make rockers dig in. The major labels came calling and the RRB became a machine.  They have consistently been road warriors and studio studs and have yet to put out a bad album. They remain in the top echelon of touring bands in the country, 12 years after the ride blasted off.

2010-2012: Josh Abbott Band

Josh Abbott set out to copy Randy Rogers’ formula, but be more commercial.  JAB smartly focused more on marketing than the songs at the outset, writing songs for a very specific demo (college aged females).  It was the Bret Michaels/Nikki Sixx aesthetic of draw the females to the gig and the guys will follow…before you know it, everyone’s there.  Everyone showed up for the simplistic, good-time nature of songs like “She’s Like Texas” and “All of a Sudden”.  It wasn’t deep, but it was good.  Since first rising to the top of the mountain, Abbott and his band have striven to make more complex music with more imaginative lyrics and have found success.  Despite the uptick in thought, the numbers haven’t dipped.

2012-2015: Turnpike Troubadours

The Diamonds and Gasoline album made a statement that this band from Oklahoma was different.  Catchy melodies with deceptively heavy subject matter that all came in a twangy yet accessible package.  Evan Felker’s lyrics spoke to everyone and these guys jumped from an Econoline to a Prevost at record speed. When they dropped Goodbye Normal Street in 2012, they took their rightful place atop the throne and proclaimed to everyone that they were going to be a legacy act.  The type your grandchildren will know about.

2015-mid-2017: Cody Johnson

Being a singing cowboy has always been profitable and popular, when done right.  And nobody has done it more right in recent memory than the guy the kids refer to as CoJo.  I once referred to him as Chris LeDoux 2.0 and some scoffed.  Nobody is scoffing anymore.  Johnson has continued to sell records and tickets and at a substantial rate; including a headline appearance at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

mid-2017- ?: Turnpike Troubadours 

A Long Way From Your Heart is their finest recorded moment and has vaulted them back ahead of Cody Johnson in the consciousness of the scene at large.
Many artists have had super solid years such as Cory Morrow in 2001 or Kevin Fowler and Aaron Watson at various times, 2016 William Clark Green, 2002-2006 Jason Boland & The Stragglers, 2003-2008 Stoney LaRue, Ryan Bingham won a freaking Oscar…and so on.  Who is the next band to rise up to this list?  Cody Jinks? Koe Wetzel? Only time will tell.

Until then, we can all debate, listen and jam.  Drop your picks in the comments.  This will be an upcoming discussion on The Co-Write as well.

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