Jason Boland Probes the Universe on ‘The Light Saw Me’

The Light Saw Me is a space wranglin’, time jumpin’ intergalactic tale of man vs the stars that erupts in flares of honky tonk, funky hillbilly jazz, and extraterrestrial balladry. I’ve used the term “Mars Red Dirt” in the past and for this latest album from Oklahoma stalwarts Jason Boland & The Stragglers, I can think of no better nomenclature to illustrate the cosmic mood.

The follow-up to 2018’s Hard Times Are Relative squares off against nature and myth to deliver a sci-fi cowboy epic in multiple parts featuring songs written by Boland and Stragglers bassist Grant Tracy with a particularly awe-inspiring version of Red Dirt godfather Bob Childers’ “Restless Spirits” landing deftly among the narrative.

Produced by Shooter Jennings, the album is propelled at intervals by expositions from Desert Oracle scribe and paranormal commentator Ken Layne, eerily hip segues that add a layer of mad science and X-Files flavored conspiracy.

The Light Saw Me is a thrilling amalgamation of Hank and Heinlein that tells the story of an interdimensional refugee flung across the universe and propelled home by the force of love.

Jason Boland & The Stragglers will be LIVE at Grant’s Lounge in Downtown Macon on Saturday, December 18th. 

AI- I’d gotten the single, “The Light Saw Me”, and at that point in time, I’d not seen the cover to the album, I’d not read anything about the album, and then to get the concept, to find out the story about what was goin’ on… I’ve been able to listen to the whole thing in its entirety, and I’m astounded at the concept, to begin with. I want to dig into the multiple parts of it, but tell me how much of this started with just an idea of hearing Hank Williams sing “I Saw The Light” and considering it from a different angle as an alien abduction?

JB- Only at the point of it becoming that song and the title track. That wasn’t too much of the exact instance of this being representative of the transformative experience more than any of the other ones, but definitely within the narrative of it being the questions that all humans ask themselves: Who are we? Why are we here? What are we doing? And going through that and the stories that we live, the collective story that we tell ourselves, that we live out and having moments where pop culture, for lack of a better term, kinda collapses on itself. I thought that was a cool moment within this character’s transformative experience to be tied to that birth of what you and I would call country music. And just within a pop culture sense– because when does country music start?

There’s no beginning to it, but you and I could– throughout the history that we grew up hearing– easily point to a few moments. Hank Williams, Sr’s definitely a moment you can point to where something happened, something transformative took place. So it wasn’t so much in the conception, but it definitely fit within the concept. I guess you could take it to the level of a “tip of the hat”? But it’s not so much a tip of the hat with something like Hank Williams’ “I Saw The Light” being more like a planet that pulls gravity towards it. It referenced nicely within this narrative.

Another point of origin, “Terrifying Nature” kind of takes us on a journey to that epicenter moment in Aurora, Texas, April 17th, 1897, where maybe the main character of the album becomes abducted. When did you first hear that story? How did you come across it? Did you know it as a kid?

When it just loosely alludes to Aurora with the windmill? See, now that, again, this is told within a loose framework of more of a classic story, a telling of the journey of a character. It’s still being told through this narrative, so I loosely reference that, but not within completely what happened to this character. The way I look at this album, “Terrifying Nature” and the intro with Ken Layne, the narrator from Desert Oracle, from that to the end of track one is a miniature epic, and it tells the whole story of this character’s tragedy– all of ours– through a loose metaphor. And it tells everything.

If you break it down, it goes from, “Come here the tale of a [cowboy] raised up…” And you can take raised up however you want to. There’s a lot of Easter eggs in this– lyrically and whatever! And then he has this transformative experience, this album being the sonic revelation. (Laughs) It’ll start to sound too heady when you explain it, like, “Okay, whatever…” But with writing it, it wasn’t even that hard to do! It gave us a direction to do this so it’s told by and by: What crashed into the windmill? So I do reference Aurora, but it’s not within the story or the telling. It’s only borrowing their narrative. This story is saying, “Have you heard about that?” It’s not even within this story. It’s talking about how do you explain away physical things that happen within the world that a lot of people testify to that nobody gives credence to. What crashed? “Suits took it all away, buried somethin’ up on Boot Hill. It was four feet tall, they say…” And then there’s the question that so few of us are ever ready [to answer]. You’re never ready when something actually happens. Very few of us are. That’s for good or bad.

Are you generally a fan of sci-fi and extraterrestrial culture and mythology? Was it a stretch for you as a fan of that particular realm of pop culture? Or were you already immersed in it?

I’ve always been interested and always been into some form of sci-fi. I wouldn’t call myself by any means out there calling out (laughs)! Well, I guess so! If I pick the ones I’m interested in, I have my questions with the storylines or their problems with the movies and all that, you know, however you wanna dip into that part of it being fandom. But also, those are just sometimes modern tellings of the older stories adapted from Greco-Roman stories and even older ones. So it’s always been a common, pedestrian interest to me in the several different pop culture versions that we have from Aliens to Star Wars. I grew up through that era for sure. But then you start gettin’ into more things like The Eighth Tower and a little more modern cosmic referencing.

What was weird about this is just having to tell it all– and we’re gonna do this in two sides of a vinyl! So you can have this thing where in the middle of it, you flip it over and it’s a different thing. It’s part of the listening experience. It’s the same if you listen to it digitally, but to then have that constraint, because anything over about 22 minutes– well, some people say anything over 20, but the sweet spot’s right around in there– per side, you start to lose some sonic quality. You can go to a double-disc, but we were just like, “We wanna fit it on one disc and tell the whole story nicely done and told.”

It doesn’t have to be anything more than the simple questions that all humans asked themselves: What’s the point? Why are we here? Who are we? With this one, in particular, we reference love, which a lot of people agree on, if there’s anything magic and if there’s anything powerful, a lot of us like to think it’s love. Once he lands in the future and goes stumblin’ through the dark through “Straight Home” in the future tracks, in “Restless Spirits”, he sees a manifestation of her life force from a hundred years ago, but as a medium through a girl singin’ in a kitchen somewhere.

Let me get into those different parts. So we’ve got the opening, which is the past…

Yeah. Track one is that tiny epic. It is like the carny barker piece of “Come hear the tail of the cowboy” and this existential crisis we all go through– the void is closing, you know? So then you get one of the most narrative locked-in songs, “The Light Saw Me”, and this moment of referencing such a pop culture hole in the ground. I say side one is an EP. That’s one of the cycles. Side one is an EP, and then the whole album is if you need the whole wrap-up and what happens to all of us then you listen to the next side. So I kinda look at the wheel within the wheel, the 3-cycle thing.

Where does “A Tornado & The Fool” fit into the narrative? I’ve been tryin’ to place that one within the storyline.

It’s the most metaphoric, the tornado being man versus nature versus the Titan. The actual narrative part of that is more locked into his persecution by people that he’s attested to his witnessing of this event. And I use those loose terms not because I’m trying to avoid the narrative, I’m just sayin’ how it applies to this story we all tell ourselves: Somebody sees somethin’ that they can’t explain, usually people fear what they can’t explain, and if it’s not locked in with what everybody feels cozy going to bed with at night, then the persecution happens. Within this narrative, in this storytelling, that’s the “Tornado & The Fool”. These songs, all the while, were written by me and going by– well, not all of them, but that one– things in my own personal life too. So they have their own personal references. They’re not all just written out of the blue either just for this straight-up storytelling.

You brought up “Restless Spirits” earlier, and I specifically wanted to ask you about that one. Knowing the role that Bob Childers played in your life and your career, how did that song find its place on this album? Why was it the necessary track for that part of the story?

Bob had a saying, he had several, but one of them was “borderline cosmic”. We all have our hit songs, and I forget who’s attributed with this quote– I’m not plagiarizing by saying I didn’t say this– but, “You’ll always be remembered by the worst things that you do artistically.”

Like Shakespeare: The good that men do is often interred with them while the evil they do lives on.

There you go! Very well said. I think I heard it way, way dumbed down to me by a friend.

Julius Caesar.

Right on! Good call out! But I think Bob was remembered for his best stuff. He’s one of those guys. There was this greatest hits list of several songs that just everybody did all the time, and “Restless Spirits” was one of ’em. So just bein’ a band out doin’ our thing and still havin’ love and respect for Bob, we were always tryin’ to mine the nuggets. We never really played “Restless Spirits” that much. I know we had done it live a couple of times, but it was weird that we just didn’t already have a recorded version of it. It was weird that we hadn’t recorded that song yet. We’d played it a few times on and off from day one, always loved that song. It’s just one of his beautifully understated little tunes. I mean, he was a master of it! And then the way it met with the whole concept of the light, and in her eyes, I thought, “Oh! She’s the medium for him seeing that something is tied in out there, a greater consciousness tying everything together when he sees the light, the life force in her eyes!”

You went and made this record with your good friend Shooter Jennings. What was the discussion like trying to experiment with different sounds and tones? In a lot of ways, it reminds me of that Sputnik era of country music and early rock n’ roll back in the mid to late ’50s. I think Jerry Lee Lewis called it “atomic” music when the space race was playing a role in popular music that was coming out. All these guys, all these old school hillbilly instrumentalists were using their instruments to make what they perceived to be sci-fi sounds. I hear a little bit of that with what you do on this record, including your old pal, Roger Ray, back with the band for this one.

Yeah, that’s a nuance that I usually wouldn’t tend to preach, but I think you nailed it. It really is! It’s go in there and do as much as you can with what you have. I think it gets forgotten about and it gets layered and it gets overproduced and under-instrumented sometimes. But we did! If you want it to sound spacey, you put a weird delay on and a phaser on and use an electric piano instead. We just changed drums from side one to side two and that’s part of it. The concept was locked in and we were ready to go with that. We had it loosely rehearsed and in a good spot. It was fun to be with people that still really try to get tones and mic amps and don’t just play through plugins and mic rooms and take that part of it seriously. The rest takes care of itself, really!

You talked earlier about working within the constraints of the concept itself. Many other writers have looked at your last record and Squelch as a bit of a concept record. Do you appreciate working within that kind of confine? Does it give you a sharper direction and more of a focus to do what you want to do or what needs to be done?

I’ve had to think about this a lot, and I think I’ve come up with the best reasoning for this. There’s the old sayin’, “You’ve got your whole life to make your first record… And then 16 months to make every one thereafter that.” Pretty much. So if you’re predominantly or your band or people around you are the predominant songwriters of the band, then throughout that era, just chronologically, those tend to be most of the songs that you write and then the artwork would be done through that era as well or picked to match up, again, these pieces. I’ve felt [this] way for a while that it’s not a concept record, but it’s the songs that five of ’em have been written in the last year and a half, two of them were picked because it flowed with the rest of these, and then an old friend’s cover that also kind of fit it too. You’re picking these things to fit the sonic landscape, and it tends to really feel conceptual. And then at the same time, it’s always just in that bein’ in a studio fun way to say, “We should do a concept record! Or, “We should do backmasking!” Or, “Get out the theremin!” Just that feeling of being experimental or goin’ for it in the studio. That’s one of the real “pinky up”, “Let’s go for it! It’s a concept record!” So we do the interlude, the intermezzo (laughs)!

Would you have been able to do this without the pandemic giving you, I guess, room to breathe from the road and time to focus your efforts?

The ironic thing is it really didn’t have anything to do [with it]. I guess a couple of the later songs could’ve been shaped. We have a loose game plan, which does or doesn’t always have to work– and it has and hasn’t always worked– but go in about 50% pretty rehearsed and about 25% kind of rehearsed, and then surprise yourself with about the last little bit. And it tends to work, you know? That’s usually how we go in the studio.

The day they sent us home from this West Coast run– well, it wasn’t all West Coast ’cause we were in Colorado– we’d gone out through the south part, went down to L.A. and then we were bouncin’ back to Colorado, and we were about to head to Seattle and Portland and all that. We were watchin’ the news, and they were a couple of the first places that they were sayin’, “Ah, this isn’t lookin’ good.” We were in Rifle, Colorado settin’ up to play, and we thought, “Hey, I think we’ve done enough bus talkin’– let’s run through the new stuff!” We’d talked about the concept of how they’ll flow together as the songs, and we pretty much ran through side one in our first rehearsal as we were settin’ up, sound checkin’! Everybody’s lookin’ at each other and thinkin’, “Yeah, cool. We got somethin’. This is gonna be fun. We’re gonna play these the rest of the tour and get in the studio.” That was March of 2020. So we had to sit on it until we thought January, and because we were doin’ it out in L.A. with Shooter, it got hot that second time, and we had to bump it to March [2021]. We did it in March, and then that put the mixing people behind on their date and everything!

I joke about it, I always say to the crowd, “Hey, we got a new record comin’ out, we’ve been working on it… It’s in their hands now. You know, the fun part!” And I give the wink! And there is, there’s just a lot of moving parts. I don’t blame anybody. It was a crazy year! But we actually sat on that for a long time. I still would say maybe there was a couple of the songs still didn’t get finished up until the very end. Maybe there was a couple of lyrics that might’ve been a little more ambient and dark, and I don’t know, had a little more teeth.

On the song “Future”, you say, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Having reasonably just passed the anniversary of Pearl Snaps— and last year, I’m assuming you intended to celebrate that milestone much grander than you had the opportunity to do– how do you feel 20 years on from that album that? From Pearl Snaps to The Light Saw Me?

Oh, and that was a song that Grant Tracy, the bass player, wrote. He is also one of the founding members that’s been doin’ it since day one. That was a song that fit in once it really got goin’. I had heard him playin’ that song around that time and thought, “And that! That’s got to go!” I’ve always been cuttin’ a song that Roger did, or whoever had somethin’ that they felt like would contribute to one our records.

Now to answer the question… 20 years in? It’s the future, and it’s the same. It really is! There’s not a lot new because we’re all just repeating cycles that are all relative to do with our age. Certain things are popular at certain times. You evolve and develop what you do and find ways to entertain yourself and play your part within this little meme of pop culture that we do as folk singers. Or if we take it seriously, whatever we’re charged with doing.

I think that’s where people feel let down by mainstream country. It just never talks about anything! At best, it’s some kinda jingoist thing, but the rest is just all relationships good and/or bad, hanging out good and/or bad, and then the occasional tragedy or a health song. You know what I mean? That just summed up all of it! And then it’s like, “Well, if you like more heady music bro, go listen to Americana!” And you look at Americana, and it’s just vague and it’s a lot of “what if” songs and then it’s just, “Well, okay, but…”

I don’t want to be like, “Look at my stuff,” but where’s a song like “Ludlow” or somethin’ like that? You can still do it. There’s still some songs throughout our era that have the Pearl Snaps vibe. Like “The Party’s Not Over” on [Comal County Blue] and “Right Where I Began” was on Hard Times Are Relative. I’m still a sucker for shit-kickin’ country music, honky tonk, whatever you call it! Love it! But we just have always tried to do more and tried to keep it within the borders of just American music. We just tend to usually sound like the way we sound.

You got your grand Ole Opry debut coming up December 7th, I believe– a huge accomplishment for you and the band! Tell me what other huge accomplishments you are settin’ out for in the new year.

It’s always to get out albums to people. That’s always what we’ve been about. I think first and foremost, we’re music fans. People get obsessed with this. “Well, what are you when you’re not [performing]?” You see it in all forms of music. Like rap, “If you’re talkin’ about a certain thing then are you really this?” Or in country music, “Well, if you’re talkin’ ’bout this, do you ride bulls every day?” Most people in the music business do music all the time on some level of it. When you’re doing the songwriting and the production, it’s always fun and challenging to try to write new kinds of songs that relate to people in just as many different ways as you can.

The Light Saw Me is available now through all your digital platforms and directly from the artist! Don’t miss Jason Boland & The Stragglers LIVE at Grant’s Lounge on Saturday, December 18th!