Return Of The Great Divide
A legendary Stillwater band buries the hatchet for a reunion show.
It may have been the Tulsa World’s Cathy Logan, an editor with a knack for turning phrases both clever and economic, who created the headline for my Feb. 7, 2003, story in the newspaper’s Spot magazine. Whoever it was, he or she summed things up perfectly in just two words: “Divide splits.”
It was a story I didn’t much want to write because it seemed to be about the end of a band I’d long admired, one that had not only been around and working for a good decade, but had also been an early purveyor of Red Dirt music, that earthy amalgam of country, folk, and rock ‘n’ roll – among other elements – born and raised in Stillwater, Okla. Contemporaries of such pioneering acts as the Red Dirt Rangers and Old Crow Medicine Show, The Great Divide had been the first Red Dirt band to sign a major-label deal (with Atlantic Records in 1998) and get on the Billboard country-singles charts (with, notably, the Jimmy Buffett-esque “Pour Me A Vacation”). Perhaps even more important, the Divide showed that you didn’t have to play covers of the songs on the pop-country radio charts in order to pull crowds into country bars and nightclubs. The members stuck to their guns and played pretty much what they wanted to, inspiring other bands to do the same and making live country music around here a lot more interesting.
There was something else that made the story a tough one. I’ve written in this space before that I firmly believe all bands end badly, but, in this case, there seemed to be an especially vast chasm between lead singer and primary songwriter Mike McClure, who had already put together a new group to play, he said, music “a little more free-spirited,” and the rest of Great Divide – brothers J.J. and Scotte Lester, who played drums and guitar, respectively, and bassist Kelley Green. They were all good, talented, likable guys, and it was hard to see them peel apart.
After the story came out, the band played a handful of dates, ending with a final show in March at the Tumbleweed dancehall in Stillwater. Then, McClure went off with his Mike McClure Band (whose first discs carried the slogan, “Twice as loud and half as popular”), while the rest of the members, after taking a few weeks off to regroup, soldiered on for a couple of years with a new front man. Eventually, while McClure continued to tour and record, his former bandmates found other full-time employment. The only one to stay around the music business was J.J. Lester, who continued working intermittently as a producer and studio musician, even as he became a pastor specializing in campus-oriented ministry.
And that’s the way things might have stayed forever, had one of Tumbleweed’s current owners, Ronnie Farmer, not come to McClure with the notion of getting the band back together to play the College Days Festival in August, an annual back-to-school event. Although McClure’s first impulse was to pass (“It had been so long, and it wasn’t a good split,” he explains), the more he thought about the idea, the more he warmed up to it.
But then there was the little matter of getting the rest of the members on board, a task made dicier by the fact that McClure hadn’t really spoken to them in more than eight years.
“I thought, ‘Well, let me call the guys, because before I even invest a thought in it, I want to know if they hate me,’” he recalls. “So I called and ran it by them, and they thought about it for a little while and decided it’d be fun. I hadn’t been in the same room with them for eight or nine years, but when we all got together in Stillwater, it was like old times, really. I got a chance to apologize, not for what I did, because I’d do it again, but because I knew it affected them really harshly and it was a rough thing. I just apologized for that, and they apologized for the way things went down on their end, and everybody just shook hands and hugged, and man, I didn’t know what a weight had been on me about that.”
“It was a surprise,” says J.J. Lester, recalling the initial phone call from McClure. “I don’t mean that to sound like Mike’s incapable of caring, but it was a surprise. I had pretty much reconciled in my heart the fact that probably – unfortunately – things would never go down that way. I figured I would see Mike at some point again in our lives, but it would probably be in passing: ‘Hey, how’s it going? See you later.’ The truth of the matter is, when (the split) happened, I was in a bad place because of the way things had gone down, and I think Mike would agree that he was in a bad place then.”
It took him, he adds, about two years, but he did forgive McClure for everything.
“Maybe he didn’t know that, though,” says Lester, “and I certainly didn’t know if he’d forgiven me. I just thought, ‘Well, he wanted to leave, to do whatever it was he needed to do to get wherever he thought he needed to be, and I’m not going to be the one to bother him.’”
It’s likely that the other two members felt much the same way. But with the air cleared, all four of them were then able to begin doing something together they’d rarely done before. Meeting at what Lester describes as “a secret location” halfway between Ada (where McClure lives) and Stillwater (home to the other members), they began to practice songs they hadn’t all played together since the breakup.
“It’s funny, because the truth is we didn’t ever rehearse,” says Lester with a chuckle. “So getting together and rehearsing is really weird, because it’s definitely uncharted territory for us.”
It may be uncharted, but it’s a voyage they’re all enjoying.
“I guess the only thing I can relate it to is being with somebody you’ve always loved,” says Lester. “I say `’somebody,’ but it’s three guys I’ve always loved and enjoyed and fought through the hard stuff with and grew up with. So when you can get together and maybe recapture that feeling a little bit, that’s a positive for me.”
“We’ve practiced three times now, and occasionally, man, it’ll slip into gear and everybody’ll kind of grin,” adds McClure. “It’s just that stupid racket of making music, you know? Whatever it was, it’s still there.”
UPDATE: The renaissance of interest in pioneering pulp-magazine superhero Doc Savage, created by former Oklahoman Lester Dent, continues, with a brand-new audiobook adventure, Python Isle. This eight-hour recording joins the earlier Adventures of Doc Savage, which was the topic of my January column. For more information on both CD sets, visit www.radioarchives.com.