John Cooper has been performing with the Red Dirt Rangers since the birth of red dirt music in his Stillwater college house 35 years ago.
Affectionately referred to as “The Farm,” Cooper regularly hosted gatherings that became jam sessions and inspiration for the likes of Garth Brooks, The Skinner Brothers, The Great Divide, Bob Childers and more.
“We were outside of town just far enough that the law left us alone,” Cooper said.
Cooper paints a picture of OSU students in the 1970s, with a legal drinking age of 18 and without the distraction of technology, in search of something to do. Separated from Tulsa and OKC by slow, two-lane highways, Cooper’s friends found themselves regularly writing music, and soon Stillwater’s music scene was booming.
At that time, Garth Brooks was playing at Willie’s every Wednesday night and The Strip saw a revolving door of nightly bands. Students frequented the popular local record store, The Record Exchange, and red dirt music started gaining notoriety outside of Stillwater.
“We had to make our own fun, and we did,” Cooper said. “Our fun was music.”
That music warrants a place in the new Ken Burns’ new documentary “Country Music,” which will be premiered in Stillwater Sunday. The screening will begin at 2 p.m. in the Student Union Theatre Sunday and preview 45 minutes of the 16-hour film.
The Red Dirt Rangers will be performing in the Student Union Theatre prior to the screening. The band will go on stage at 1:30 p.m.
Back in the 70s, new bands would play a gig down on the strip before heading back to The Farm to bounce ideas around and play more music, crafting a sound all its own. Cooper is adamant about one thing: red dirt music was born in Stillwater and ground zero was The Farm.
“It just happened,” Cooper said. “A scene started, and it was magic.”
Then, with inspiration from Bob Childers and Tom Skinner, The Red Dirt Rangers were formed. Its members, Brad Piccolo, John Cooper, and Ben Han, have weathered every storm that came their way.
And 35 years later, they’re still performing red dirt music.
Over the years, the Red Dirt Rangers have toured the U.S. from coast to coast and internationally. In 1994, they embarked on the “Oklahoma World Tour” performing 33 concerts in 30 days. And in 2017, The Red Dirt Rangers were inducted into Oklahoma’s Music Hall of Fame.
The documentary is an eight-part, 16-hour series exploring the history and distinctly American art form that is country music. Featuring interviews with some of country music’s greatest stars such as Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Garth Brooks and more, the series had created notable buzz and stirred up discussion on the unique origins and essence of country music.
Cooper argues that while red dirt music has elements of country music, it is not country. He sees red dirt as a unique combination of bluegrass, blues, funk, rock ‘n’ roll, cajun and swing.
Despite the hodge-podge sound that is red dirt music, Cooper welcomes anyone interested in trying their hand at creating and performing it.
“There is no one saying this is red dirt, and this is not,” Cooper said. “We have no gatekeeper.”
While it may not tackle the specifics of red dirt, the Ken Burns documentary works to analyze the rise of country music from its American roots to the mid 1990s. Ken Burns’ decision to stop the documentary in the 1990s as opposed to current day has also stirred some discussion on how country has progressed as a genre.
“We love country, and I want to see it come back to actually being country music,” Cooper said.
Cooper does not stand alone with that sentiment. Country music icons have publicly called out modern country artists for how far they have taken country music from its roots, with artists such as Lee Ann Womack and Merle Haggard calling it unrecognizable. Cooper simply calls it “bro country.”
However today’s country is defined, Cooper has some advice.
“Do yourself a favor and listen to country music pre-1995,” Cooper joked.
But after having interviewed more than 80 country music artists about their experience in the industry and what the genre means, Ken Burns’ “Country Music” is a welcome reminder of country music’s roots.
Though Cooper grew up in Putnam City, he considers Stillwater home and is excited to play on campus this weekend.
The Red Dirt Rangers have been playing in Stillwater for over three decades, and despite considering moving, they stayed because of Stillwater’s unique community. While other scenes like Nashville and Austin can be cut-throat and competitive, Stillwater has remained supportive and loving. Bands care about each other just as the community does.
“When one boat goes up, we all rise together,” Cooper says. “And that's the way it's always been in our scene.”
Stillwater is the official birthplace of red dirt music, a still-growing musical phenomenon, and the rarity of this community is not lost on Cooper.
“That Stillwater thing… it's magic,” Cooper said. “This is it.”