A version of this story appears in Friday’s Weekend Looks section of The Oklahoman. To read my new interview with Stoney LaRue, also playing College Days, click here.
Great Divide no longer divided
The seminal red dirt band has healed its longstanding rift and will play a reunion show tonight at the College Days Festival in Stillwater.
The Great Divide is no longer divided.
More than eight years after its original lineup split up, the seminal red dirt band is reviving its College Days Festival and playing a reunion show Friday at the Tumbleweed Dance Hall & Concert Arena in Stillwater.
“It’s really cool. I think our music meant a lot to people. It was definitely something different at the time, and a lot of people have a lot of college memories tied up to that particular music and that particular group playing that music,” said singer/songwriter/guitarist Mike McClure in a phone interview en route to a rehearsal. “So it’s going to be fun to rehash those songs with those guys. It’s just going to be a feel-good summer event.”
The reunited bandmates have spent much of the summer busily relearning their well-loved songs. Seeing the show on his calendar still is a bit of a shock, admitted drummer J.J. Lester.
“It’s freaking me out,” he said. “Yeah, it’s surreal, but it’s fun surreal. I didn’t think that I would ever see that again, for sure. So I’m excited about it.”
Red dirt pioneers
For a decade, Lester, his brother, rhythm guitarist Scotte Lester, bassist Kelley Green and McClure not only nurtured their rootsy country-rock sound in the musical hotbed of Stillwater but also took the red dirt beyond Payne County and into the mainstream.
“Anytime someone would bring up The Great Divide, the only thing I’d think of was the bitter breakup. And going back and mending that fence, now when I hear about it, I can think about all the positive things we did, which was really pretty impressive for a bunch of boneheads from Stillwater,” McClure said with his typically dry wit. “We were the first ones to get a major deal and fly the banner. … That’s the facts; I’m not even bragging.”
The Great Divide started in 1992 and self-produced two albums – “Goin’ for Broke” and “Break in the Storm” – that sold well at all their shows, according to The Oklahoman Archives.
Their albums were so popular with their fans that Rick Blackburn of Atlantic Records in Nashville, Tenn., stumbled onto the fact that The Great Divide’s records were outselling much bigger acts and signed the band without even seeing them live.
The group inked a contract with Atlantic Records and released a repackaged “Break in the Storm,” and experienced moderate success with their Caribbean-flavored single “Pour Me a Vacation.” The band started Stillwater’s College Days to showcase their red dirt brethren like Cross Canadian Ragweed, Jason Boland & the Stragglers and Stoney LaRue.
After the release of their follow-up album “Revolutions,” the band’s momentum stalled, even after a stage show at 1998′s Fan Fair (precursor of the CMA Music Festival) in Nashville, and Atlantic dropped them.
“I feel like at Atlantic Records we were about to cross whatever that imaginary hump is to get to that place where we probably didn’t have to worry quite as much … and it didn’t work out. So that hurt everybody,” J.J. Lester said in a recent phone interview.
“We were burnt, we were tired, I’m sure that all of us were probably doing extracurricular things with alcohol that we shouldn’t have been. Maybe too much, it was too readily available. I definitely think egos got into place, and I think there were a lot of times that we probably could have stepped back and for whatever reason we didn’t. So some of it was in our control and some of it wasn’t.”
In 2000, the group signed with Broken Bow Records, — the indie label now best known as the home of hitmaker Jason Aldean – which released the appreciated “Afterglow: The Will Rogers Sessions.” But their next album, “Dirt and Spirit,” didn’t sell as they hoped, so the group left that label in 2001 and went back to marketing their own music. The quartet independently released the CD “Remain” the following year.
McClure left The Great Divide in 2003 to start a solo career and formed The Mike McClure Band, which has continued to tour vigorously. He has released eight albums and produced CDs for Ragweed, the Turnpike Troubadours and the Damn Quails.
“You put any band together on the road for 10 years, they’re gonna get sick of each other. You know, I just think what I was wanting to do musically wasn’t really what the band was leaning towards,” McClure said. “Every band goes through it, and we were certainly no exception.”
Micah Aills joined The Great Divide as the band’s new lead singer, and the group released the 2005 album “Under Your Own Sun” before eventually calling it quits.
“I think wherever Mike was at in his life, he was ready to change. And I think that speaking for myself and probably for Scotte and Kelley, we were definitely needing change, too. There certainly was a breakdown in communication, and Mike decided to leave,” J.J. Lester said. “It just is what it is, you know.”
Bridging the divide
Over the years, the band members have fielded various proposals to reunite. Earlier this year, the new ownership at the Tumbleweed contacted McClure offering to let the group take back College Days. He sent an email to his former bandmates and, on impulse, followed up with phone calls.
“I didn’t know if they’d tell me to get bent or whatever ‘cause we hadn’t talked. It was kind of an ugly breakup — like most bands go through — back in the day. So, I just sent ‘em and email and told them, you know, there’s an offer on the table and I was into it if they were,” he said.
J.J. Lester said he was surprised to hear from McClure. All four musicians are long married and raising children. For the sake of themselves and their families, they wanted to reconcile, so the former bandmates met for coffee.
“Honestly, I certainly wasn’t expecting it,” J.J. Lester said. “He indicated he was at a place in his life where he had made some changes about how he was approaching things and his extracurricular activities and was thinking a little bit differently these days and … wanted to reconcile, if nothing more than just to be friends.”
The first meeting was a friendly occasion and a clean slate, McClure said.
“It was cool. I think enough time had gone by everybody had kind of gotten over it. I know I had. We had something to do, which was relearn those songs, so we just started playing music again. Which is what we’d gotten away from,” McClure said.
Getting back into the music was a bit more challenging. Except for McClure, the others had pursued careers outside music. J.J. Lester is college pastor at Countryside Church in Stillwater. His brother has an independent welding business and builds houses, while Green works for Stillwater Steel.
“I was a little nervous ‘cause … J.J.’s been playing some, but the other guys haven’t really been in several years. And hell, I hadn’t really played those songs, so I was pretty rusty-crusty, too,” McClure said. “So the first few practices were wobbly, but you know, it was still there. And the last few, I’ve been really confident. After a couple of practices, hell, I was ready to go hit a stage.”
“I’m still scared to death about it,” J.J. Lester added about their reunion show. “The rehearsals have been great. I mean, there’s certainly been some rust spots as far as remembering songs and stuff like that. But there’s still a lot of laughing and remembering.”
While they have enjoyed the memories and music, he said the reunited Great Divide is focused on putting on a great show for their excited fans. A live CD and DVD will be recorded and a documentary filmed at the reunion concert, which is one of only two currently planned.
Now that they are no longer a band divided, the quartet has even talked about making new music together, especially since McClure’s Ada home features a recording studio.
“We’ve talked about it, and I’m down for it,” McClure said. “If they’re up for doing it, I am, too.”
College Days Festival
Friday lineup: The Great Divide reunion show, Jason Boland & the Stragglers, Stoney LaRue, No Justice, Turnpike Troubadours.
Saturday lineup: Pat Green with Kyle Park, Rich O’Toole, Drake White, Steve Brack, Stage County.
Hours: Doors open at 4 p.m.; music begins at 4:30 p.m.
Where: Tumbleweed Dance Hall & Concert Venue, Lakeview and Country Club roads, Stillwater.