I first met Mike McClure in the latter part of the ‘90s when he was lead vocalist, lead guitarist and primary songwriter for the trailblazing group, The Great Divide. At the time, that band had just become the first of the Stillwater-based Red Dirt acts to sign with a major label, and the group’s affiliation with the powerful Atlantic Records and its publicity arm got the guys into a lot of big country dancehalls – including Tulsa City Limits, one of the clubs on what was known as the “A” country circuit. (Other venues in that group included Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth and the Grizzly Rose in Denver.)
Two kinds of acts played those places. One was a touring headliner with at least one or two hit records. These performers, almost always signed to a record label, would play one 90-minute show on a specific night – usually a weekend – and travel on down the road. The other was referred to as a house band. It could be from out of town, but, lacking major-label clout and national name recognition, it usually was booked for several days in one place, the members churning out three or four sets a night when there wasn’t a headliner, taking the opening spot on the bill when there was, all the while hoping to get noticed by someone connected to a record label and start the climb to stardom.
Tulsa City Limits, like the other big venues on that circuit, had certain criteria for its house acts. Owner Gary Bentley and booking agent Chuck Proctor preferred big, full, bands on stage – four members were minimum, but five or six were much better. They liked for the groups to have an element of showmanship. And they wanted lots of covers of popular country tunes, with no more than one or two original songs per 45-minute set.
In the late ‘90s, the Great Divide wasn’t exactly a house band, but it wasn’t exactly a chart-topping headliner, either, despite landing a couple of songs in the middle part of the national country charts. But when it played the big places like Tulsa City Limits, the Divide simply didn’t act like most other bands, and certainly not like a house act hoping to be a big country radio presence someday. There were only four of them, they weren’t showmen, particularly, and when they did a cover song in their mostly original sets, it was far more likely to come from Van Morrison than George Strait.
And all of that – as McClure told me in an interview for my 2007 book, From the Blue Devils to Red Dirt: The Colors of Oklahoma Music – was intentional.
“I think the biggest thing we did was coming up with a style of music that was our own,” he said, “and then going into clubs that demanded Top 40 covers and not doing that.”
The reason I delve into this history is to illustrate how McClure has often gone against the grain, or at least against conventional wisdom, in his career. In 2003, he left the popular Great Divide to form his own, more rock ‘n’ roll-oriented, Mike McClure Band (whose early discs carried the slogan, “Twice as loud and half as popular”). And recently, he helped form a new record label, in an era when many observers are declaring CDs dead and the record-company model no longer workable.
“Well,” says McClure. “That’s exactly why I should do it, then.”
In fact, it’s done. The label, 598 Recordings, has already signed four Oklahoma acts, with two discs – one from McClure, the other from the Norman-based Damn Quails – currently on the market.
“A friend of mine, Chance Sparkman, who’s kind of followed my career, wanted to start a label,” explains McClure. “He brought the Damn Quails to me, and I thought, ‘Well, this sounds crazy enough to try.’
“The main problem (with labels) is people will put out a record, spend all their money making the thing and then there’ll be no money left to promote it,” he adds. “Chance agreed to do that, so I agreed to be the face for the label. We got the name because we’re both from Tecumseh, Oklahoma, and 598 is the first three numbers in both our phone prefixes.”
The promotional dollars provided by Sparkman seem to be paying off. “Horseshoe,” the first single from McClure’s new Fifty Billion disc, recently spent several weeks in the Top Five of the Texas Music Chart, which tracks airplay on Americana-style stations in the state.
“We hired a guy out of Amarillo to work the Texas Chart for ‘Horseshoe,’ and when it got up to No. 2, I thought, ‘I really don’t know what that means,’” he says. “Then I went to Larry Joe Taylor’s (Texas Music Festival in Stephenville), and as soon as I kicked the song off, the whole crowd started singing along. So it actually worked.”
In addition to playing Taylor’s prestigious event with his own band – featuring Red Dirt godfather and 598 Recordings artist Tom Skinner on bass and Eric Hansen on drums – McClure also performed there with the other original members of the Great Divide, who reunited after eight years for a much-ballyhooed show in Stillwater this past August.
“My band played one of the main stages, and the next night, I played it with the Great Divide,” McClure recalls. “That was kind of cool.”
Although it’s not literally addressed in his tough and compelling new disc, the healing of the rift between McClure on one side and guitarist Scott Lester, bassist Kelley Green, and drummer J.J. Lester on the other underpins many of the songs on Fifty Billion. When I suggest to McClure that it’s a mid-life record, looking both backward and forward, he agrees.
“It’s just a snapshot of where I’m at now, really – resolving a lot of the past, and looking forward to what’s coming,” he says. “I’m far enough along now to be comfortable in a bunch of different areas of life, from my home life to my music life, and I think that comes out in the writing, maybe subconsciously. Making amends with the Great Divide brought a lot of comfort to me. That was a weight I was carrying around, and I didn’t even realize that I was.”
Following the well-received reunion concert, the Great Divide has played a handful of dates in the Oklahoma and Texas area. The plan, says McClure, is to do a show a month, “which won’t wear everybody out, and keep it fresh for us, too.
“You know, for those years (he and the Divide were split), someone would bring it up at every show I did. Now, I can say, ‘We got back together and we’re playing – so leave me alone,’” he adds with a laugh.
Meanwhile, Fifty Billion continues, justifiably, to attract national as well as regional attention. “Yeah,” he says, “it’s getting out there a little more and a little more. I figure by the time I’m just beat down and almost dead, people will discover me.”
It could be worse, I counter. It might not happen until after his death.
He laughs again. “I’m trying to be optimistic,” he says.