Red Dirt Rangers Celebrate the Holidays at Tulsa's Cain's Ballroom

Photo by Kelly Kerr

The Red Dirt Rangers, Oklahoma’s long-standing ambassadors of rust-tinged roots rock, know how to throw a party. With everything from go-go dancers to avant-jazz-grass jams, the Rangers have celebrated the season their own way for close to two decades, packing Tulsa’s Cain’s Ballroom with hard core fans and holiday cheer. This year’s Red Dirt Christmas, Friday Dec. 16 at Cain’s, features the additional talents of John Fullbright, along with a slew of guests, some of whom may be a surprise to the hosts themselves.

“This is year 20, man,” commented John Cooper (mando, percussion & vocals for the band). “It’s hard to believe that we’ve been doing anything for 20 years. It’s hard to believe the band’s been together for 29 in March. We’re going to be into our 30th year next year.”

The band, which formed in Stillwater, or more specifically, in a rambling, old two-story house called “the Farm,” is considered one of the originators of the Red Dirt sound – a heady blend of everything from bluegrass and country to rock and swing. The Rangers (and their music) take their name from the iron-rich clay soil endemic to central Oklahoma.

Marked by a love of collaboration and a stubborn unwillingness to be limited by genre, the Rangers are well loved by their fans and their musical siblings alike.

“One thing we’ve always tried to do since the inception of the band was to not be reined in by categories or definition of genre,” Cooper explained. “We like the fact that we can do anything. We can play with jazz bands. We can play with jam bands, rock bands, country bands, bluegrass bands. That’s the kind of band we wanted to be when we started. The reason we call it Red Dirt music is because we got tired of saying we play bluegrass, blues, jazz, funk, Western swing, Tex-Mex, Cajun. It just got too long, so we called it Red Dirt music, and boy, it seemed to stick.”

That openness has led to some very successful, albeit unusual, pairings over the years.

“We’ve had so many different people on this show. One year we did a show with Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, which was very interesting. People were saying, ‘what are you guys doing?’” Cooper recalled. “It’s like, look, number one, we like these guys, and number two, they’re a really great band. We all had a ball that year. Brian Haas, Reed Mathis and Matt Edwards are some of the finest musicians I know, and we’ve kept that relationship with them.”

Other Red Dirt Christmas guests include Jimmy LaFave, Byron Berline Band, Cross Canadian Ragweed, John Moreland, Great Divide, and Jason Boland and the Stragglers.

“We used to do it with Cross Canadian Ragweed quite a bit. Actually, when we did it with Ragweed, during the zenith of their popularity, we sold almost 1800 tickets to the show. The next day, they came in and redid the fire code. So, we’ll hold the record for the largest show ever at Cain’s Ballroom,” Cooper laughed. “The capacity now, I think, is 1590 in the main hall.”

Celebrating at the historic Cain’s Ballroom is one of the big reasons the Rangers continue their annual tradition.

“It’s fun, and it’s our thank you to everybody every year,” Cooper said. “It’s not about the money. It’s about doing a show at Cain’s. That’s probably as much a part of why we do this show every year. We just love playing Cain’s Ballroom. There is nothing better. I tell people that all the time. Every time we play the Cain’s, it’s just as good as the first time we played the Cain’s. Whenever you step out on that stage with the crowd, it’s always the same. It’s fantastic. It just is.”