The Great Divide shuffles onto the small stage at Nashville’s historic Exit/In and launches into “Days Go,” a driving guitar and steel-laden treatise about rolling on through life’s speed bumps. It’s a Tuesday night, but the place is nearly packed with enthusiastic fans screaming from their seats down front. They know every word. They sing along. They take bottles of beer to the stage.
From the reaction, one might think The Great Divide is one of Nashville’s new finds, an act being pushed by the Music Row machine. In fact, the Oklahoma quartet has just lost its first major label record deal, come close to calling it quits, and regrouped to find a new home on a fledgling independent label. The fans down front are staffers from Broken Bow Records, a year-old indie that has just released the band’s new album, Afterglow: The Will Rogers Sessions. They’re pumped about the music, and they’re ready to spread it around.
Even without a strong foothold in Music City, The Great Divide is making some of the most honest and refreshing country music out there. Without being preachy, Afterglow is an 11-cut tale of a band that’s been “out on the edge, and right back to the middle,” as frontman and guitarist Mike McClure writes in “Floods.” The band is a study in perseverance in an ever-changing and somewhat restrictive country market.
The Great Divide came together eight years ago in Stillwater, Okla. Brothers Scotte and J.J. Lester, both outgoing, with twisted senses of humor, hooked up with a more introverted, deep-thinking McClure. Bassist Kelley Green, who was working on his agricultural economics degree at Oklahoma State University, completed the lineup. After an auspicious debut on the back of a flat-bed truck at a steer-roping event, the band landed a regular gig at the Wormy Dog Saloon in Stillwater and slowly began to build a following through relentless touring in the Midwest and Southwest.
The group crafted two independent albums, Goin’ for Broke and Break in the Storm, with noted Texas producer and steel player Lloyd Maines (father of Dixie Chick Natalie Maines). Storm was picked up by Atlantic Records in 1998 and repackaged as the band’s major label debut. Atlantic released two singles — “Never Could,” a jangly ode to perpetual adolescence, and “Pour Me a Vacation,” a Jimmy Buffet-inspired romp. The music videos received ample airplay on CMT, setting up the band to break nationally. The Great Divide played their first Fan Fair in Nashville in the summer of ’98 and seemed on the brink of something big.
The Great Divide’s second Atlantic project, 1999′s Revolutions, continued in the vein of previous albums, with smartly written tunes of longing, reminiscing and regret. The video for “San Isabella” once again received attention from CMT, but country radio was slow to follow. That same year, Atlantic Records underwent a management shakeup when President Rick Blackburn retired and the label moved into the joint offices of sister labels Warner Bros. and Asylum.
“About the time the video started airing is when everything at the label shut down [for the transition],” drummer J.J. Lester says. “Everyone went on hold, except Doug Stone. We had a brand new record out, and we’re obviously frustrated because we had made so much headway and then we were at a standstill. They dropped a lot of acts, but they didn’t drop us. We were thinking any minute now we were going to get a phone call.”
The retired Blackburn had signed the band, and the members say his replacement, Barry Coburn, didn’t share Blackburn’s enthusiasm for their work.
“Kelley started trying to get a hold of this new president, but the guy wouldn’t return our phone calls for about a month,” J.J. says. “Kelley made one last call and said, ‘Either call now or we’re coming out there [to Nashville].’ He finally called Kelley back.”
Contractually, The Great Divide owed Atlantic five more albums. The band members say they gave Coburn an ultimatum — promote the next single heavily or release them from the label.
In a statement supplied by an Atlantic Records publicist, Coburn tells country.com, “The company decided not to exercise its option for the band and wished them well in their future endeavors.”
J.J. remembers: “[Coburn] said, ‘I’m not asking you to leave, but I don’t blame you if you want to leave.’ So we began the process to get out of the contract.”
After the band severed its ties with Atlantic, they found themselves at a crossroads.
“I’m not going to lie. There was a tough period there for a couple or three months,” J.J. admits. “We were all mad at the situation, which made us mad at each other. It was touch-and-go for awhile. We had families to feed. Kelley mowed some lawns and Scotte cut some firewood, but we just had to pull together and say, ‘Look, we’re bigger than this and we’re not going to let that keep us from doing what we set out to do.’”
Thus was the origin of Afterglow, a record that started out as an independent project.
“We said, ‘Let’s go make a record,’ but we didn’t know how ’cause we didn’t have a budget,’” Kelley says. “Then we got an endorsement from Pemmican Beef Jerky, so we rented a theater.”
The band won’t say how much money Pemmican gave them to fund the album, but they did say the company shipped them “all the beef jerky we could eat.”
Because they couldn’t afford a studio, the band set up shop for two weeks in the Will Rogers Theater, an old movie house built decades ago in Oklahoma City. Longtime Great Divide sound engineer Danny Miller loaded in his recording gear and put on a second hat as producer. The experience was fraught with interruptions, from jackhammers out back to employees from a sushi bar next door.
“The sushi guys would just walk right in while we were recording,” J.J. says. “And this environmental company was taking core samples from an old gas station next door. They had jackhammers right outside, so we had to work out a schedule. They’d go down the street and work for an hour so we could record. Then they’d come back for an hour and we’d take a break.”
Despite the headaches (figurative and real — from the gas fumes), the acoustics in the old building produced a warm and inviting sound for McClure’s sometimes deceptively upbeat songs of disillusionment and recovery. “Afterglow,” the album’s title cut, is a subtle take on the band’s hangover from the Atlantic experience. “And I’m standing here in the afterglow/My head is spinning around/And I don’t ever want to hear I told you so/’Cause I ain’t about to lie down/No, my wheels are still spinning around.”
McClure also tackles the cosmic question of why things happen as they do on “Days Go,” the album’s opening track and first single. It’s a pep talk from someone on the other side of a bad experience with lines like “Things get pushed up in your face/To teach you how to deal/Sometimes you’ve got to get way down/But you get to what’s real.”
“I think adversity definitely builds character,” McClure says. “This album was a lot of me just looking at my life and writing it down. Adversity certainly tries your faith, ’cause when it’s not working out like you thought it was, like your pre-conceived idea, it’s almost a way of showing that God has a plan for you. When you start thinking you’re in control, He’ll jack it up.”
Not all of Afterglow’s tunes are so cerebral. Listeners who hang on long enough to get to the hidden track after cut 10 will find “Livin’ Like Thanksgivin’,” a jammin’ little discourse positing the theory that Scooby Doo character Shaggy actually has a drug habit. The rest of the tune extols the fun of “bustin’ out funky rhymes” and “throwin’ back like a Cracker Jack.” Really.
“We’re going to start a contest on our website homepage to give us a 100-word definition of that song, what it means to them [fans],” Scotte jokes.
While McClure is the creative force behind The Great Divide, writing most of the band’s songs solo, the tunes also speak to the experiences of the other members.
“We all totally connect with it because we live what he lives,” J.J. says. “We’re so fortunate to have a wealth of writing talent in the band. Mike’s got stacks of songs we’re waiting to record.”
It’s those stacks of songs that have staffers at Broken Bow records excited. A&R (artists and repertoire) Director Chris Neese says McClure’s unique voice, both in song and songwriting, gives The Great Divide its edge.
“He’s a phenomenal talent,” Neese says. “You’re going to hear a lot about this guy in the future. With his creative element and the guys in the band, with their perseverance and belief in what they’re doing, to me, it’s just an unbelievable package.”
McClure recently scored a cut on fellow Oklahoman Tyler England’s new Capitol Records album, Highways & Dance Halls. “I’d Rather Have Nothing” got to England through his producer, Garth Brooks.
“I played that song for Garth a long time ago, and he recorded it for a couple of his albums, but it never made the cut,” McClure says. “I’d love to have more cuts, but every time I’ve tried to pitch something it has never worked.”
Instead of a huge national campaign for Afterglow, Broken Bow plans to break in new markets slowly, starting with the Southeast. For “Days Go,” the label is focusing its promotional efforts on stations that report to the Gavin chart, Neese said. The next single also will go to the Radio & Records panel.
“We don’t want to be unrealistic in our expectations for this record,” says Neese. “I think it’s a marvelous record, and I hope it breaks through. But we’re going to use it as a tool to increase awareness of them throughout the country. That way, on the next record they’ll have a lot more name recognition.”
The band is optimistic about its new deal and the support from Broken Bow. Regardless of the outcome, the members of The Great Divide are just glad to be making the music they actually want to make.
“A lot of people will compromise their integrity to get a little further on the ladder,” McClure says. “You’re kinda expected to do that out here. But we didn’t, and we can’t. We’re going to put out what means something to us.”