Thursday, April 16, 2015

Idaho’s “Red Dirt” Inspirations

I was reminded while streaming the movie Soda Springs, just how much Oklahoma meant to me growing up where the Middle and Northern Rockies of Idaho intersect.

For a few years, KOMA 1520 was the only way kids like me who were coming of age between the late 1950s and 1960s in the Mountain region of the west could hear the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Wolfman Jack.

Atmospheric conditions late at night made the Oklahoma City station seem like the center of our cultural universe.

But the movie reminded me of an even stronger connection between Idaho and the part of Oklahoma around Stillwater, which is the center of “Red Dirt,” a genre of Country rock where indie rock and alt-country intersect into Americana.

Many people think “Red Dirt” emerged in the 1990s but for me it is the sound heard on the bootleg Basement Tape cut in early 1967 by Bob Dylan and what became the group The Band.

Long before they were officially released, Wolfman made many of the songs hits such as I Shall Be Released and Quinn the Eskimo.  You can also hear its influence on music Dylan recorded a few years later with Leon Russell.

Red Dirt music transcends geography.

Today you can hear its influence on Garth Brooks and Miranda Lambert.  The movie Soda Springs reminded me of an Idaho connection to the stars who have remained true to the genre such as Mickey and the Motorcars and Reckless Kelly.

The ancestral ranch where I was born rests where the Bitterroots and Tetons meet along the 5,259 foot Yellowstone Highlands.

A six day ride by horseback from the back of the ranch west of Ashton takes you down across sagebrush valleys and back up to Challis at 5,253 feet in the drier mountains of central Idaho.

About the same population of around 1,000, Ashton and Challis, until recently were also rivals in sports until put in different divisions.

Challis has spawned two of the top Red Dirt bands founded by brothers in the Braun family who are now Austin-based.  They come home to Challis and Idaho each year for a Red Dirt music festival in August that I hope to catch one year on my way to an annual lakeside rendezvous.

The movie features two of my Red Dirt favorites Rock Springs to Cheyenne and Carolina Morning, both of which prominently feature mentions of Idaho, one written by an Idaho native and the other by a transplant and both performed by a band formed in Idaho.

The former was written in 1982 by Kip Attaway based on his seminal trip to Idaho in the “winter of ‘72,” at a time when a few months from graduating at BYU, I was experiencing my own bad stretch.

The latter was written in 1988 by Idaho rancher-songwriter Pinto Bennett but I enjoy the versions performed by the current day Red Dirt band Mickey and the Motorcars.

They predate the song Idaho written in 2006 by Americana artist Josh Ritter.  All three songs emote the Country Rock sound of the early 1970s pioneered by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris and made famous by the Byrds, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne and the Eagles.

Soda Springs the movie, like Red Dirt country, is unpretentious like the state it depictsIt is an hours drive north of where my fifth generation Idaho roots first took hold before it was a territory, long before it was a state.

My maternal grandparents lived in and around Soda from the time I was born until I was in high school.  The mountains are softer there than in my native nook but have their own story to tell.

It is a simple story set in Idaho, unmistakably filmed in Idaho, written and produced and sound-tracked by Idahoans who, like me see it far more for its mountains, rivers, lakes and range land than the corner where world famous potatoes grow.

For anyone unable to discern distinctions, you may find the first few lines of Red Dirt pioneer Tom Skinner’s song Nickels Worth of Difference useful solace.

For anyone needing a country genre scorecard, click here.

If you’ve Never Been Out West or to Idaho, it is true “the mountains touch the sky.” But its subtleties are best experiences on horseback.

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