Independent country torchbearers Jason Boland & The Stragglers will take the main stage at Washington Town & Country Fair Friday night, Aug. 3, at 8 p.m. in support of their ninth studio album “Hard Times Are Relative” (May 18, Thirty Tigers).
Together with his longtime band The Stragglers, Jason Boland has remained a true craftsman of genuine, no-frills country music for nearly two decades. In a genre that too often focuses on style over substance, Boland puts substance at the forefront with his intelligent, insightful lyricism that challenges listeners to think beyond the obvious.
His unwavering aversion to artifice and audacious attitude is reminiscent of the genre’s forebearers, while his deep, baritone delivery and the band’s spirited live performances have earned them a fiercely loyal following.
The Missourian’s Currents Arts and Entertainment Editor Ethan Busse was able to speak to Boland about his music and the show next week at the Fair. Following are highlights of that phone interview:
MISSOURIAN: We are pretty excited to have some traditional honky-tonk coming to our Fair this year. Do you like the county fair scene, since it’s kind of where you guys came from?
BOLAND: Yeah, love the fair season! . . . It’s one of those slices of Americana, like the rodeo or anything. Anything else is “Hollywooded” up . . . (fairs) are honest.
MISSOURIAN: Yeah, the real heart of America is in the fans who are at the fairs and the rodeos.
BOLAND: Yeah, at least in the summertime . . . It’s a great snapshot of what we do and why we do it every year.
MISSOURIAN: So you guys are constantly touring, right?
BOLAND: Yeah, that’s what we do — put out albums here and there and just play shows throughout the year.
I do some acoustic stuff, full band stuff, just whatever comes across our path. You never know.
MISSOURIAN: Always willing to take something on?
BOLAND: Yeah, we tend to tour our circuit, but we’ve done some pretty outside-the-box stuff. We played Greenland — the northernmost bar on Earth.
We were doing Armed Forces entertainment. This was back in ’08, and you automatically think they’re going to Afghanistan or someplace . . . but they said, we really need you to go to Greenland. So we went to Greenland in December, where it’s just pitch black.
It was crazy, and that’s where we rehearsed “Comal County Blue” while we were up there too. We got ready and recorded that.
MISSOURIAN: I was going to ask how you find time to record albums, since you’re always on the go.
BOLAND: You just record them Sunday through Thursday . . . every now and then we’ll take a weekend off, but if you take one off here, then you can’t ever take them off for leisure.
We try to work when we can, and if we do take off, we like to go — everybody asks what do you do in your spare time? The funny thing is, a lot of us still go watch music, because we are first and foremost music fans.
That’s really what all of us do mostly in our spare time. And then like anybody else, try to make a baseball game or take a hike.
MISSOURIAN: So with the new album that came out in May, how is it different from any of the previous albums?
BOLAND: In spirit, it doesn’t differ from the course of what we’ve always done, but we always try to push boundaries when we can find ’em and when it makes sense to, and hopefully never at the expense of the sonic quality or the overall tone of the record.
We’ve always written our own music, and we’ve always predominantly played only our own musicians in the studio. We add some different vocals and keyboards and things like that, but they’re our songs, and it’s us doing it, so we always hope if anything, if it’s something new, it’s whatever the evolution is — a new branch, a new growth, something, I don’t know.
We’ve had a couple of trips where we’ve branched out and really put the recording process in somebody else’s hands, but for the most part, we keep it in house.
MISSOURIAN: And you guys have worked with Shooter Jennings (son of country music legend Waylon Jennings) on a couple albums too, right?
BOLAND: Yeah, but it was still with our personnel and our engineers and our studios and everything like that. It was in many ways, we co-produce albums with people well.
Shooter, working with him was awesome . . . You will not find a finer person in the music business . . . I’m truly honored to call him my friend.
MISSOURIAN: Yeah, you guys had great sound (on that album).
BOLAND: He knows where to put mics. The first thing I always say, especially in our process, when you tape to tape, we don’t do digital editing. Every take is a take. There wasn’t one harmony for vocal and they get to do it one time, and fly it every time on “Searching for You” that’s Nick and Brad in there nailing that stuff on tape. Take after take.
We go back and we do punches. We record normally. It’s just old school.
Now everybody is like, yeah, we get in there and roll tape. Yeah, you roll tape and use this program called CLASP that dumps it into the digital as you’re doing it. And you might even dump it back to tape to warm it up again. But that’s the whole point.
You’re doing it as a trick to warm up something.
In your mind it’s big because the performances are big, and they’re emotional. So we try to do that more and try to capture that, rather than just go in there and do a bunch of takes.
It’s fun, and it’s fun to find people who will do it.
MISSOURIAN: Yeah, because it’s real. It sounds real. You can tell it’s real.
BOLAND: It is. There’s no pitch correction on it, and if there’s some funky stuff, there’s some funky stuff. But I would rather cringe when I hear a pitchy note or something that I did off timing than hear it completely digitally corrected and know that I didn’t do it.
It’s counter to what we want to do.
MISSOURIAN: The fact that you guys can sound so good and real without any of that stuff, the extra digital stuff, is a testament to the work you’ve put into it through all the years.
The new album sounds great. I like that you have that old Van Morrison song at the end. I like your take on that.
BOLAND: That’s from the “Squelch” sessions actually. . . .
MISSOURIAN: I always felt that was a country song.
MISSOURIAN: We have some questions from some fans. One is: Who were your biggest inspirations to get into music, and then combined with that, who’s your favorite contemporary artist?
BOLAND: Bob Childers, Mike McClure and Cody Canada got me into music. And you can hear our music and know what I listen to.
Those three guys got me into music, and then my favorite contemporary . . . I’m really diggin’ Stoney (LaRue’s) show still. He’s just a talented musician . . .
And Matt Hillyer . . . always dug what Matt Hillyer’s done.
MISSOURIAN: Another question we got is: What is something fans might not know about the band?
BOLAND: The thing they would really be shocked at about us, everybody says “I listen to everything,” but the rabid amount of music that we still consume and listen to. All over the genres, all over the spectrum. We consume a lot.
You know everything about us because everybody hears our music and the fact that we all hang around each other that long, everybody knows we’re nice guys. We have no mystique. We used to have mystique that we were outlaws and outside the system, smoked some weed or something, but now weed is legal in half the country.
Our main thing is to keep turning out good music. It’s not about being famous. It’s about turning out music.
MISSOURIAN: What is your favorite place to play or your favorite show?
BOLAND: Favorite place was probably Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa. Favorite show is a hard one, because it’s so time-to-time and where you are . . .
This last Cain’s Ballroom “Leftover Turkey” show that we do every year on Thanksgiving, this last year, Roger came and sat in with us, and we’re better at what we do than we’ve ever been, and when something like that happens, it gives you an injection.
That show, there’s never been a better one, and there’s been a lot of those.
MISSOURIAN: Hard to pin down one show.
BOLAND: I’m glad that I’m still having as enjoyable of performances that I can have this far into it.
MISSOURIAN: What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened on tour?
BOLAND: We picked up a hitchhiker from Ireland who was hiking across country one time.
We’ve had people hop in the front seat and try to drive our tour bus. Not even people who were at the concert. Just some guy off the street.
The Irish hitchhiker was a good one. That was early on too. We just pulled over in a gas station and this guy goes, “That guy has a mandolin. If he’s going east, let’s take him.”
“Where you headed?” “New York.” We thought we caught an accent, so we asked where he was from. “Ireland,” he said. He stayed in Stillwater with us for a couple of days, and we ended up giving him some cash, putting him on a Greyhound.
MISSOURIAN: What kind of show can we expect?
BOLAND: A live show is always a journey through the years. We don’t throw out one or the other. We’ll play a couple of new ones and then a trip through as many sing-alongs as we can in about two hours.