Jason Boland and The Stragglers Combine Cowboys, Aliens, and Big Questions of the Universe
Jason Boland (right) and The Stragglers (photo by Rico DeLeon)
Some people spend their whole lives seeking out the metaphorical light in the hope that finding it will help bring a sense of clarity to their lives. For others, the light is literal and comes from an alien spaceship that abducts them and plunges them 100 years into an unknown future.
The latter is the case for the main character in Jason Boland and The Stragglers’ new LP, the concept-driven The Light Saw Me.
The album tells the story of a cowboy in 1890s Texas who spots a spaceship in the sky. It picks him up and places him in the same location a century later. The cowboy faces an existential crisis, forced away from his love and the life he thought he knew. As a conceptual piece, it’s one part speculative fiction, one part rumination on the search for those moments and emotions that make us human.
While this is the first time Boland and the band have made a record tied to a specific narrative thread, the singer-songwriter doesn’t feel that it’s all that dissimilar to the body of work they’ve built over the past 20-plus years.
“In general, I think most bands talk about a concept album from time to time,” Boland says. “It’s always been kicked around between The Stragglers and myself.
“We’ve been asked if (2013 LP) Dark and Dirty Mile is a concept album,” he adds. “The answer is no, the songs have a similar vibe and the same guys (playing). It’s kind of like a concept album any time we record because it always sounds like a Stragglers record.”
A Search for Meaning
At first blush, an album centered on the search for the meaning of life may seem prompted by the pandemic and its fallout. But its roots date back much further than that.
Philosophically speaking, Boland has been looking to answer that big question since he first started writing tunes. “I’ve been blessed and cursed with asking the deeper questions in my mind for my entire life,” Boland says. “I’m always looking for something where I can have a narrative structure to try to answer them.”
Work for The Light Saw Me started in late 2019/early 2020.
“We were totally underway with the album before the pandemic hit; I’m glad it wasn’t colored through the filter of that,” he says. “At our first (tour) rehearsal in Colorado, we played side one (of the record), kicking around licks, getting ready to get to work.”
Boland was compelled to weave a narrative thread through The Light Saw Me after writing its first two songs, “Terrifying Nature” and the title track. Drawing inspiration from the strange and close encounters book Desert Oracle, Vol. 1 and regularly listening to its corresponding radio show, John Keel’s The Eighth Tower and the long-running Coast to Coast syndicated program, he wrote a pair of tracks that use a reported 1897 UFO sighting in Aurora, Texas, as a backdrop.
“I don’t speak a word of Klingon, but I’ve always been fascinated by what’s out there in the night-time sky,” Boland says. “That, the nature of reality, consciousness, all went in well with what I was listening to at the time.
“‘Terrifying Nature’ and ‘The Light Saw Me’ had the same character, and from there it was off to the races.”
But as cool as aliens and UFOs are (and let’s be honest, they’re very cool), Boland knew he wanted The Light Saw Me to have a deeper emotional resonance.
“If you were to say you’re making an album about extraterrestrials, there’s not really a concept in it; no one says, ‘What I’m going to listen to is a bunch of songs about aliens,’” Boland says. “Once you start shifting to ‘Let me tell you a narrative story,’ you run the risk of sounding preachy or corny.
“I didn’t want people to be hung up on the story, but think about a transformative moment and the questions we have as humans,” he says. “In the story, the light is something for the listener to grab onto and ask, ‘How do these questions play out in my life.’ It’s a search for meaning, something we all look for.”
A Cover That Connects
Within the story of The Light Saw Me, the main character finds that meaning through love. In wandering a future he doesn’t recognize and isn’t even really aware is the future, he spends his days seeking out his long-dead wife.
This journey culminates in the album’s emotional peak, the song “Restless Spirits.” What makes the song’s placement as the emotional fulcrum so fascinating is that “Restless Spirits” is a cover song.
The late Bob Childers wrote and recorded the song over 30 years ago. Boland has performed and recorded Childers’ material in the past, and considers him a transformative figure in his life as both friend and mentor as he came up in the Red Dirt music scene. Usually the songs tend to be deep cuts, but this time Boland saw an opportunity to use one of Childers’ seminal tracks.
“I’m always digging up nuggets of his; I don’t really do his big hits,” Boland explains. “But it was so apparent how ‘Restless Spirits’ fit — her spirit is the connecting thread that shows him reality is real. It was borderline cosmic how the song fit into the album.”
In addition to paying tribute to an important figure in his life, Boland’s use of “Restless Spirits” fits into a tradition of country artists using cover songs to further a conceptual narrative.
“‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’ on Red Headed Stranger, Willie (Nelson) didn’t write that,” he says. “It’s one of those weird things where it just works.”
On Board for Weird
To bring The Light Saw Me to fruition, Boland recruited Shooter Jennings to produce. It was a logical choice given their longtime friendship and prior collaboration on Dark and Dirty Mile — and the fact that Jennings is no stranger to offbeat concept albums, having recorded his own Black Ribbons, a futuristic dystopian-themed concept LP, back in 2010.
After the pandemic forced the cancellation of their tour and stalled activity on a new album in March 2020, Boland and The Stragglers reconnoitered later that summer to lay down rough demos during rehearsals for outdoor, socially distanced shows. These demos were sent over to Jennings in advance of recording sessions in Los Angeles, which took place this past March.
For Boland, bringing Jennings on board was crucial to the process.
“I don’t have enough good things to say about Shooter Jennings; he has the right mix of knowledge while still being a relatable guy to be around,” he says. “There was just one person, it was a very short list (of producer candidates). I came to him with the concept and it felt good to take it to somebody we’ve worked with before.”
On Dark and Dirty Mile, Jennings fulfilled Boland’s desire to record direct to tape and capture The Stragglers’ rough-and-tumble vibe. With this album, he was counting on Jennings’ eclectic listening habits to add different accentuations, whether that means sampling Desert Oracle radio on a few tracks or referencing Nine Inch Nails’ “March of the Pigs” on the track “A Tornado and the Fool.”
Jennings was also crucial in helping to take an abstract concept and turn it into an album that still sounds like The Stragglers and maintains accessibility.
“It was a great way to produce an album,” Boland says. “Anything that gets weird, he’d be on board.
“You gotta know when to lay off the weird gas and he made sure it was still an enjoyable, fun album,” he adds. “But every time we record something, there’s always that concern about what people may think, and it always goes back to this: If you throw us in the studio, you’ve completed step one of a Stragglers record.”