Jalan Crossland – How the west was written
Jalan Crossland stands picking his Gibson acoustic and stomping out a beat against the stage at the Beartree Tavern in Centennial, Wyoming. One hand flails the strings and taps rhythm above the sound hole, while the other moves up and down the neck like a frisky teenager on a first date. It seems as though all of Centennial’s residents have squeezed into the Beartree’s back room — no small feat, considering there are almost 130 of them. They’ve come to watch this local boy entertain, unaccompanied, for the better part of three hours. To say that Jalan is local is to understand the social dynamic of Wyoming; in the least populated state in the union, everybody’s a local.
Ten Sleep, Wyoming, where Crossland was born to a third-generation family that ran the local hardware store, is a couple hundred miles away in the Big Horn Mountains. It was there that he began playing music, learning a flailing banjo style from his uncle. At 17, he declared music his full-time gig, playing in rock and metal bands before joining a jazz band that toured casinos. But reading charts next to slot machines didn’t diminish his love of old-time music, as his third album, Moonshiner, attests.
With Jalan on guitar, banjo and vocals, backed by a simple band, Moonshiner presents an atmospheric portrait of rural life. Chicken truckers, junk stores, strippers and Coleman stoves make appearances. Crossland’s influences, from Roscoe Holcomb to John Hartford, are heard creeping around in the background, peeking over junked cars and grabbing a six-pack to go.
Bosler, Wyoming, lies 60 miles away from the Beartree; it’s the kind of town that residents of Ten Sleep and Centennial think is small. It’s nothing more than a dot on the map, a row of empty buildings, a rumor of a few residents. And when Jalan starts in on the song of the same name, half the crowd sings along. It’s about a man getting ready to move out west, but the west he imagines is far different than the cowboy myth that holds sway over so much of America. In fact, it’s no myth at all — it’s dirty-faced children, a breakfast of hot wings and bourbon, Harlequin novels and unemployment checks. Then, the chorus:
“Oh I dream of a trailer in Bosler, Wyoming/With tires on the roof dear and you by my side/We can pitch horseshoes at stray cats on Sunday/Yes I dream of Bosler when I close my eyes.”
Crossland has been surprised by the reaction to “Bosler” and another localized tune on Moonshiner, “Big Horn Mountain Blues”. “I tried to bury those songs on the back of the record,” he says, “and they’re the ones getting all the airplay.” Still, the reception of those personal tunes has been mixed. Crossland has found himself with a Thomas Wolfe dilemma: “You’ve gotta write about what you know; that’s where you get your details and your color. But I alienated half of my community writing those songs.”
That alienation and the grit in Crossland’s songs are testament to the truth he sings about life in Wyoming and the rural west. He’s painting portraits of the new west, where the cowboys who raced across sagebrush flats have been replaced by roughnecks on oil rigs. “You gotta say something that’s relevant to your place in time,” he says. “I don’t just want to be a curator of old tunes. I’m glad there are people who do that, but there’s gotta be somebody who’s talking about where we’re at now, too.”
Next, Crossland is hitting the road as the front man for a bluegrass band, hoping to tour as much as possible. He admits Ten Sleep is feeling a little “squeezy” — haunted, he says, by a character from one of his songs. It’s not just that, though. “Music isn’t really relevant in my little hometown,” he says. “But when I get on the road, it’s the center of everything.”