By Jared F. Cranke
On January 31, 2003, Mike McClure played what he thought would be his last show with JJ Lester, Scotte Lester and Kelley Green. Together, the four of them formed the Great Divide, easily considered one of the most important musical acts for the generally localized Red Dirt genre, in 1992. After that show, the Great Divide soldiered on with a new lead singer with a solitary purpose in mind while McClure started a very successful solo career in performing and production.
On August 26, 2011, during Tumbleweed’s annual back to school festival, the Great Divide will once again take the stage for what may be another chapter in their collective story. Tumbleweed presents the return of the Great Divide’s College Days August 25-27.
In the late nineties, the Great Divide and former Tumbleweed owner Hank Moore collaborated to create another annual event to compliment their successful Calf Fry. College Days was started as a big kickoff celebration for the Oklahoma State University school year and featured, for many years, the Great Divide and many of their musical friends.
The Great Divide brought the Red Dirt sound to a national audience when they inked a deal with Atlantic Records over a decade ago. Their first single release and music video “Pour Me A Vacation” garnered them mainstream success both at radio and on CMT. It was the Great Divide that paved the way for other successful Red Dirt acts such as Cross Canadian Ragweed, Jason Boland and the Stragglers and Stoney LaRue, just to name a few.
According to JJ Lester, the festival was also a way to give back to the fans and to their hometown of Stillwater.
“To us, it wasn’t necessarily a Great Divide show as much as it was that we were able to do a show with friends of ours and offer a thank you in the form of a reasonably priced show,” he says. “I was certainly disappointed when it turned into something else. I’m glad that [new Tumbleweed ownership] have got the venue and the desire to do a show that’s available not only to college students, but residents of all ages and make it a quality show. People can feel safe about coming out and enjoying music, especially regional and local music.”
New Tumbleweed ownership includes Philip Randolph, Ronnye Farmer, Cary McBride and Guy Clark. Randolph and Farmer also have interests in Levelland Productions and the Wormy Dog Saloon in Oklahoma City, respectively.
“We wanted to bring great live music back to Stillwater and make it a destination for music,” says Randolph. “For us, it is about appealing to all fans of music in Stillwater and in Oklahoma in general. We plan on continuing this tradition at the Tumbleweed throughout the years to come and hope that everyone enjoys the resurgence of concerts in Stillwater.”
Randolph and the other Tumbleweed partners acted as the catalyst for the Great Divide reunion show, according to Lester and McClure.
“They wanted to give us back College Days and wanted to know if we would get together and play a concert,” says McClure. “It was just so out of the blue, but I thought, ‘Well, why not.’ I didn’t know if [the rest of the guys] would be into it or not. They were as surprised as I was.”
It was a planned meeting at Aspen Coffee Shop in April of this year that really got the possibility of a reunion show started.
“I think Mike was in town playing an acoustic show,” JJ Lester explains. “We had the opportunity to sit down and talk. For me, it was definitely exciting.”
“I think everybody was just a little nervous at first,” McClure adds. “After we played that last show, I didn’t see a couple of them for eight years. It’s just bizarre going from seeing someone everyday to not at all. It was cool after the first, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ and bro-grabs. I was pretty nervous.”
It was at that meeting and during a series of phone calls in the previous months that the band was able to reconcile their differences since the infamous break up.
“We got to say a lot of things that were left unsaid from the departure back in the day,” McClure says. “It was really cool to put all that behind us and really just come together as friends.”
“When Mike contacted me, I was thrilled,” adds JJ Lester. “It was something that I was afraid may never happen and that’s heartbreaking. At the end of the day, all four of us do love each other. Mike’s been one of my closest friends. He said it first and it’s true, we literally grew up together. We went through everything together. I was just thankful to see him and know that he’s doing well and his family’s doing well.”
Naturally, with a band as successful as the Great Divide once was, this wasn’t the first time the offer had been put out there for a reunion show. This was, however, the first time that it seemed like a good fit for everyone involved, and that is one of the reasons the possibility of a reunion show was so enticing.
“Really it started out with reconciliation for me and then we talked about doing the show for a while,” JJ Lester explains. “We met a few times and talked about it, weighed some things out decided it would be a good thing to do for everybody for this particular show.”
“All the stars aligned, I think,” McClure adds. “I think everything just seemed like a no-brainer. We’re very famous for no-brainer moves.”
“[Earlier than six months ago], if anybody came up to me, and they did, and said, ‘Would you ever get together and do a Great Divide show?’ My answer was always, ‘I never say never,’” concludes JJ Lester. “‘But it would take an act of God to get me to do it.’ Well, I think God has acted.”
“When people asked me a year ago or more if the Great Divide would ever reunite, I would say, ‘No way,’” says McClure. “We’d been up and down the road and at each other’s throats over all kinds of stuff. It just got bad, like bands will do. People wanting to go in different directions, that’s just a natural process. Looking back, it all seems easy, but that was the most difficult period of my life.”
But McClure and JJ Lester are anxious for the show and excited to hear the buzz that the announcement has made around the Oklahoma music community from their fans, new and old.
“I just think it’s cool there are that many people who care enough about this set of songs and this group of guys playing those songs,” McClure adds. “That says a lot for it. I think a lot of people really connect to that time period and to those songs. It’d be nice to look back on all that positively. You know, towards the end, it was kind of bad. But in my own mind, it’d be a shame to discount all the good times over a little bit of the bad. That’s been really cool and rehearsals playing through those old songs is hilarious. I think all that to everybody just seems like another lifetime ago and it really was. It’s so strange. That’s kind of what interested me about this was just the whole strangeness of it.”
“If anybody does still listen to the music, then we accomplished what we wanted to in the first place, which was make music that people would still want to listen to 10, 15, 20, 30 years down the road,” JJ Lester adds. “That’s a good feeling for sure. For all intensive purposes, the Great Divide hasn’t performed in nine years. I guess I don’t sit around and assume we have a ton of fans. I feel like some of the people are going to be walking around saying, ‘Great Who?’ I don’t know if they’ll know who we are. I hope they do. I’m thankful to God that I get to do this show with three of my best friends and guys that I grew up with. For whoever comes, I’m grateful and I hope people, maybe having heard the name but never having heard the music, walk away going ‘I totally get it now.’ I feel good about it and the response has been good. I think there has been a contingent of old fans, near and far, who are coming to town for the show so I think it will feel that way.”
One “fan” even commented on a photo online and that comment rang true for JJ Lester.
“I think I saw this on Facebook,” he explains. “There was a picture of us from a rehearsal that we had done and somebody put, ‘Hey, it’s the GRAY Divide.’ We’re all old and crippled now.”
As humble as the members may seem, they are sometimes weighed down by the public responsibility of being considered pioneers of the Red Dirt music movement. This was something that was reintroduced to JJ Lester after a nearly nine-year sabbatical during a previous interview.
“From the perspective of being called the pioneers of the Red Dirt sound or anything like that, I’m flattered that people say that, but I don’t feel that way. If it’s true, then praise the Lord. We did something positive for the music around here and the community. I’m flattered and I’m humbled by it and thankful for it but I don’t think any of us sit around patting ourselves on the back because we cut down the trees that paved the road. I know people will say that, but we just don’t feel that way. We feel like there were others before us that did just as much. For whatever we’re recognized for, we’re certainly thankful. From time to time, I’ll get kids that say, ‘You were in that band? I can’t believe that.’ and I go, ‘I can’t believe you’ve even heard the name.’
When McClure left the band, there was a flurry of accusations hurled in every direction from Internet rumors, other media outlets and even fans at the shows. McClure had already recorded a solo CD, Twelve Pieces, during some downtime while producing Cross Canadian Ragweed’s “Purple Album.” McClure was immediately able to go on the road on his own and start building his solo career hot on the heels of the Great Divide’s success.
“I know that Mike took a lot of heat when he left the band,” JJ Lester explains. “There were certainly Great Divide purists that probably hacked him and called him names. Likewise, there were also Mike McClure purists who hacked us for going on without him.”
“There were a lot of people mad at me,” adds McClure. “I’d say it was a year long process. I’ve seen a lot of other bands, when a guy goes solo, he goes in a completely different direction. People come to shows to hear songs they know. But you have the fans that come out and they want to hear [Great Divide] songs, and I didn’t play a lot of them for a while. I didn’t want to feel like I was riding the coattails. People don’t really understand that right off the bat. Hell, I didn’t even understand it.”
While McClure was riding high in the critical acclaim of Twelve Pieces, the other members of the Great Divide had a bigger problem to deal with -- debt.
“For reasons that aren’t worth talking about, when Mike decided to leave the band he did what he needed to do and he did what he felt like he had to do,” JJ Lester says. “Bygones are bygones and we love each other and we’ve forgiven each other for anything that we’ve done to each other. I certainly have forgiven Mike and I feel like and believe he has forgiven me. That being said, when Mike left the band to do his other thing, there was still a business. There was still a touring company and a corporation that had debts. The only thing that we knew how to do was play music. That’s what we were invested in for the last ten years of our lives. So we weighed out the options. We didn’t want to go on as the Great Divide but we didn’t have any other options. At the end of the day, we said the only thing that makes the most sense for us to do is to go on and at least generate enough revenue so we can get back into the black and lay it down.”
That plan of action involved hiring a new lead singer, which they found during an extensive audition process in Micah Aills. Aills joined the band in mid-2003, recorded one album, Under Your Own Sun, with the band in 2005 and remained as lead singer until the band officially called it quits in 2006.
“Micah wasn’t an experiment as much as it was a necessity for the rest of us to move on with our lives,” explains JJ Lester. “That’s the truth. Believe me, we wanted to stop. We did not want to go on and that was difficult. Just like I’m saying, I know that Mike had taken lots of hits too. We were taking hits and being accused of using the name to just suck money off of stuff, which was friankly the opposite. The truth of the matter is that we put every dime that we made back toward the company just to get it in the black. That was the purpose of doing the thing with Micah. Now, had it worked out, would we have done another album? I don’t know. I certainly didn’t want to and it’s nothing against Micah. I just was done. I wanted to move on and I think the other guys did too. It probably wasn’t very fair to Micah but we didn’t keep him in the dark. He’s a good guy and he knew what he was getting into when he came. That’s the bottom line, the Great Divide has always been Mike McClure, Scott Lester, Kelle Green and myself. Unfortunately, that’s just the way things happened. We never anticipated making a record with Micah in the hopes of getting back to some level of glory. We weren’t looking for Sammy Hagar -- no matter how good or bad he was.”
According to JJ Lester, Aills has returned to his home state of Ohio and is currently performing with his former band mates and enjoying his new hobby, photography.
“I believe he’s doing the things he likes to do,” he adds. “To the best of my knowledge, he’s doing okay.”
Besides McClure, the other members of the Great Divide have stayed almost entirely out of the music lifestyle. Green has worked for Stillwater Steel for some time and has two sons. Scotte Lester has stayed busy by building houses, developing land in the area and also raising two children, one of which happens to be Cale Lester of the local band A Hot Mess. JJ Lester has followed his true calling to the ministry, which he was very involved with even during the last few years of the Great Divide. He is entering his fourth year as the college pastor at Countryside Church and has two children with his wife of 20 years.
“For the last ten years, I’ve been involved in ministry,” JJ Lester continues. “Even when the Great Divide was going on, I spent most of my time at the church serving with youth or college students. I feel blessed to get to do it and I enjoy teaching the Bible and studying the Bible. I’ve always enjoyed theology. It’s fun. The college students and I get along great. I guess that’s really my cognitive capacity is about 20 years old. We communicate well.”
McClure, on the other hand, has dealt with another kind of demon in the recent past.
“I quit drinking about 16 months ago,” he says. “It’s just this job, man. I’m inclined to drink every day and a lot. [Now] I don’t make as many dumbass mistakes.”
As well as getting sober, McClure, the married father of two daughters, has been instrumental in the creation of 598 Recordings, a new record label in Oklahoma, with partner Chance Sparkman. McClure has co-produced, with Joe Hardy, the debut release from the Damn Quails, which will also serve as 598 Recordings’ first release. The album, Down the Hatch, will be released August 12.
“I’m excited because [Sparkman] is willing to put up a good chunk of dough into promoting the albums,” says McClure. “That’s where everybody flops, they put all their money into recording then they don’t put any into promotion. I’ve been enjoying putting it together. I’ve seen so many bands that just don’t have some sort of outlet once they’ve recorded an album. I’ve been putting together a publicist, a booking agent out of Austin and some other companies out of Nashville to be pushing it to radio promotion. I think it’s going to be cool. All the music, I’m really into, so I can try to help them get noticed.”
On May 24, the band got together to practice for the College Days show for the first time. According to McClure’s blog, the first song they played was “Used to Be,” which “felt like an old pair of shoes I hadn’t put on in a long time. I couldn’t help but grin like a fool a few times.”
“I think the first rehearsal, we were all pretty nervous,” adds JJ Lester. “Mike’s playing is as good as I’ve ever heard it. I think when we met that first time, the question was brought up, ‘What do you not want the show to be?’ The answer is I don’t want to go out and suck. I don’t want people to have whatever it may be that people have built up in their mind, whether true or just legend in their head, and then we get up there and people go, ‘I thought they were better than that.’ I think we’re trying hard to be the best band we can be. For me, that’s about all we can do. Rehearsals have been fun because we’ll play a song and it’s just a wave of memories that we all stop and laugh about. The songs remind you of the things that happened, all the things we’ve gone through over our time together. We don’t want to get up there and play just for ourselves, get our rocks off and talk about how cool we are after the show.”
“They really impressed me with how well they played,” McClure says of the rest of the band. “I go out all the time. I’ve been on the road for 20 years straight, playing three to four shows a week. I hopefully have gotten a little better. But they impressed me with how quick it all fell into place. It was always more of a rumble sound that we made instead of anyone of us being a real virtuoso.”
Many of the great divide songs, McClure hasn’t played in nearly a decade, which introduced a whole new set of problems for him.
“I was sitting there Googling my own song lyrics,” laughs McClure. “I had to buy a couple of songs off iTunes cause I couldn’t find the discs. It was pretty weird. I went back and learned a couple of solos, like ‘Never Could’ had a distinct solo. Going back into all that, sometimes I would kick into autopilot mode, and it was strange, but then other times I was just completely blank. It’s been a little bit of studying for all of us. It’s getting comfortable enough with a song again to actually relax and just play it with each other. The first day, everybody was kind of over thinking everything. The last practice was a lot of getting outside the box and it was fun.”
For fans who can’t make the show in Stillwater, there may be another chance to see the Great Divide live in the near future, but don’t get your hopes up for them to return to the road anytime soon for a full tour.
“I think that we’re close to doing a show in Stephenville, which is kind of our second Stillwater, as far as popularity goes,” JJ Lester explains. “I’d like to be able to do some shows. Anything that I can do with the Great Divide, that’s good for everybody involved and also good for my ministry, I’m all about. Do I think that we’re going to get together and do 300 shows a year like we used to? No I don’t think we’re going to do that at all. We’d like to do more shows, at least, we’d like to continue to do College Days. If it’s as much fun as it has been rehearsing with the guys and spending time together, that would be great.”
“It all just kind of depends,” McClure adds about future shows. “JJ’s got his job as pastor, he’s not wanting to go jump on the road, and I’m not either. It’d be nice to get through these two and maybe work out some more, but nothing is set in stone yet. In all honesty, I’d go and do a handful of shows a year. It all depends on what they want to do. I’ve just been so much on the road all the time, it’s just not as attractive as it used to be. I just turned 40 this summer and that kind of makes you reassess some things.”
Another special aspect of the College Days show is that it will be recorded and video taped for a potential live DVD and CD. There may even be a few new studio tracks included, according to JJ Lester.
“There has been very positive and moderately serious discussion about recording at least three new songs for [release on the live CD,]” JJ Lester says. “I hope that happens. I would love to collaborate and I’ve always enjoyed producing records and being involved in that. I would love to get together in a studio and do something.”
Now all that’s left is to rehearse for the shows, learn the lyrics and figure out how to not suck on stage. McClure also has to find his inner “cowboy” again, which he seems very excited about.
“[I just need to] get a deep seeded and a faraway look,” he says with a laugh. “That’s cowboy talk, buddy. I minored in rodeo just by being in this band. I used to really love it because I don’t know shit about rodeos. I’d never been around it. A lot of those people just really liked the band and it was like a whole other lifestyle.”
The fact that the Great Divide are playing another show together is nothing short of a miracle and a pleasant one at that. McClure believes that the stars aligned just right for a reunion while JJ Lester describes it as “an act of God.” Whatever forces guided this from fan hopes to reality, it promises to be a great show with a very Biblical lesson for those who have been paying attention.
“I hope people walk away noticing the importance of loving each other and reconciling your differences because it’s not worth it,” he concludes. “We were able to accomplish some things together and the thought of not being able to be friends for the rest of our lives together is terrible. I hope people will see that and want to reevaluate anything that is going on in their lives and maybe reconcile some differences too. I think that is the important thing and I think that has been one of the most positive things about all of this for me.”
The Great Divide perform as part of the three-day College Days Festival. Tickets are available now at www.protix.com for individual days or all three. For more information, please visit www.calffry.com.