Music Spotlight: The Great Divide

Jul 01, 2024 at 03:56 pm by Bethany Bowman

There is something called Red Dirt Country that evolved 25+ years ago in rural Oklahoma. Many red dirt acts started playing in local bars surrounding Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The genre also encompasses the music made south of the Red Dirt River in Texas.

The Great Divide is one of those bands who heralded this sound.  The original lineup consisted of lead singer Mike McClure, rhythm guitarist Scott Lester, bassist Kelley Green, and drummer JJ Lester. Recently they added award-winning keyboard player, Bryce Conway

In the late 90s, The Great Divide made an impact nationally in addition to the Oklahoma and Texas radio markets with the smash hits, “Yesterday Road” and “Pour Me a Vacation.”

I talked to drummer, JJ Lester to see how the band got their start. He and his brother, Scott, all attended OSU in Stillwater where they met Mike McClure who would turn out to be their lead vocalist. JJ met Kelley Green doing rodeo long before the band started.

“It was just kind of a providential situation where we all ended up together in the same spot and we were determined to write good music,” he reported.

I wanted to know where the red dirt moniker came from. JJ explained, “Being from Oklahoma, for my grandparents, country music was the white man’s blues. They were cotton pickers. My mom picked cotton. They didn’t have running water and used an outhouse. They were poor farmers who survived the Great Depression and World War II. So, the music was just the storytelling of your life. That’s how red dirt got associated with Oklahoma music.”

There is also Texas Red Dirt country, and the genres are similar and often overlap. Either way, the music has songwriter-driven stories about real life in much the same way John Mellencamp’s songs do.

Being the huge country music fan that I am, I am all about the songwriting. But even when The Great Divide was part of Music Row’s Atlantic Records, their music was completely different than what was coming out of Nashville 20+ years ago. Their song “College Days” from 1999 is a perfect example of their genius storytelling about everyday life.

The Great Divide’s “Break in The Storm” is the perfect composition of country-roots and rock. It truly is its own thing hence the Red Dirt label. It is poetry set to music.

In 2003, Mike McClure broke off and had a solo career, but in 2012, the band did a reunion show. They were expecting several hundred to attend and more than 5000 people showed up. And while they don’t tour full-time and have other careers, they enjoy bringing live music to their fans when they can.

In 2018, they released a compilation album, 25 Years of the Great Divide. And in 2022, The Great Divide released new music with their record, Providence. It begins with “Wrong is Overrated,” which is a direct conversation between Mike McClure and the rest of the band.

McClure stated, “We’ve been technically re-united since 2012, but it hasn’t necessarily felt that way until recently when we decided to make this record.”

Providence brought gems like “Infinite Line,” “Set It All Down,” the “Good Side” and their current single, “I Can Breathe Again.” Their unique roots and country-rock sound have their fans and red-dirt traditionalists clapping for joy.

And while they are certainly known for their authentic, original music, their take on the highly coveted, “Milk Cow Blues” is as good (maybe better) as any version out there. Mike McClure wails on his bluesy guitar but Bryce Conway steals the show with his Hammond B3 sounding improv. 

Now, nearly 30 years after the band’s inception, The Great Divide is finally making their Opry debut. With their brand of music, they’ve always felt like a little bit of an outcast in Nashville as they refused to play by the unspoken rules as they recorded their music in their own space, their own way. But now as Nashville has become more inclusive and welcoming, they are getting their chance to show everyone why they belong on that stage. The band will make their Grand Ole Opry Debut on July 10th.

The band has long been a favorite on the Texas music scene and last year the band won "Country Band of the Year" and "Single of the Year" at the 2023 TCMA awards (Texas Country Music Association), and Bryce Conway won "Keyboardist of the Year."

A documentary is currently being made about their reunion. Additionally, they plan to record new music in the fall.

The Great Divide has long been considered godfathers of the Red Dirt music scene and influenced young emerging bands like Cross Canadian Ragweed, Stoney LaRue, Jason Boland, and The Stragglers. Now there is a whole new generation of music fans who are discovering their music. I am honored to have stumbled upon them myself.

Check out their touring schedule here.

Be sure to follow The Great Divide on their website, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and all streaming platforms.

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Bethany Bowman is a freelance entertainment writer. You can follow her blogInstagram, and X.