Since becoming one of Red Dirt and Texas country’s flagship acts in the late Nineties and early 2000s, Jason Boland & the Stragglers have been a steady, reliable source of smart, gritty songwriting and hearty country-rock albums. But after 20-plus years, it’s not always easy for Boland to continue generating new ideas at the same pace.
“We’re nine studio albums in and I’m starting to get to that point of, ‘What do you say to people?’” he says, sipping coffee in the lobby of Nashville’s boutique Russell Hotel with a scarf loosely bundled around his neck and a Jim Ward hat on his head. “I’m not going to keep kicking it out for the sake of kicking it out. When the muse happens, it just gets stuck and you write it and it feels good.”
When the muse last hit Boland, it gave him one of his most ambitious ideas yet: a concept record about a 19th-century cowboy who gets abducted by extraterrestrials and flung through time into the 1990s. The Light Saw Me, produced by Shooter Jennings and released in late 2021, unfurls the story like a Western epic, using a psych-tinged country backdrop to pose some big questions about existence, love, and our connectivity to one another.
“Is love in our brain cooked up?” Boland asks. “Are we eternal? Are we out there, or are we all in here?”
We asked Boland — well-versed in all manner of paranormal theories and histories — to explain the arc of The Light Saw Me, the concept albums that influenced him, and why his cosmic LP still works in the honky-tonks.
With The Light Saw Me, if you only look at it on paper, it’s easy to get lost in the heady concept and go, “Say what?”
It’s way scarier on paper.
But when I listen to it, I can hear how it would work when played at, say, Gruene Hall.
And we have! It’s all the same questions people ask themselves. Bands always talk about concept albums: It would be fun to do this kind of album. So I’m working on these riffs, playing a lot of ukulele at the time, and it [became] “The Terrifying Nature” and “The Light Saw Me.” “The Light Saw Me,” it just that [snaps fingers], made me want to go fishing. So I got this guy fishing in that song, looking up through the trees and seeing a light. I’ve always been fascinated with extraterrestrial phenomena and anything folks can’t explain.
Where did that begin for you?
That’s just all my life. Anything people can’t explain. When you look out and you find out that’s not a firmament, that’s not a blanket in the sky. There are more stars in the known universe than there are grains of sand on earth, and you think, what’s the distinguishing factor of where we see life in this solar system. There’s a green zone where liquid water happens. It burns off in here, freezes out here. That’s where life really seems to do its thing. How many chances are there out there? If we come from carbon…
We’re all made of the same stuff that’s out there…
Yeah. You’ve also hit problem one with talking in rural America to country fans. It’s like, “Whoa now, what do you mean ‘evolve’?” You know, evolution. The fossil record we have. So the other riff for “Terrifying Nature,” I could hear the tale of the cowboy, or the tale of the farmer. What if he’s abducted by aliens, transported into the future, ripped away from his wife and his home? Consciousness, connectivity… What is reality? What is meaning? You see something, you have an experience, and that’s the thing that ties the whole album together. That’s the light.
There are places in the album where you seem to equate the “light” with a kind of mystical, religious experience.
The Pauline conversion [of St. Paul on the road to Damascus]. It talks about a lot of them. Joan of Arc, St. Catherine, Fátima. There’s been some weird things happening with the lights in the sky.
Have you personally experienced anything like that?
I haven’t. I’ve never seen a phenomenon I can’t explain. I have two people I know and trust, my drummer and bass player, and it was on the way home from a gig, and they saw the orbs.
Where was that?
Out in northwest Texas, coming back from Midland. I know these guys like brothers. These four orbs trace out, come across and get even with the road. I’ve seen some of the videos of the orbs and that’s what they were seeing everywhere. The conspiracy theories say they’re Skunk Works [the U.S.’s experimental aircraft program].
Concept albums are often two-hour or more commitments, but you’ve managed to condense this story into a tight 41 minutes.
That was part of the goal, like Red Headed Stranger. Once I got rolling on it, I put on [the Willie Nelson albums] Red Headed Stranger and Tougher Than Leather. I know those both fit on one disc.
Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime was another. What were some more you looked to?
That’s a good concept album. The White Mansions stuff with Eric Clapton and Waylon. The Confederate Tales with Levon [Helm], Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels, Albert Lee. And [West Texas musician] Terry Allen. Shooter Jennings’ concept [album], Black Ribbons.
Beginning with the track “Transmission Out,” through “Transmission In” and into the song “Future,” the LP plays like one continuous sequence, the way a Pink Floyd album might.
It’s the same riff [in those songs]. It goes from acoustic guitars and Dobro to electric guitar. And if you watch, the beat straightens out. It goes from a swing to a modern-rock beat. We change drum kits. And that’s when you flip the album and [the protagonist] lands in the future. If I sat here and gave you every Easter egg, every word, there’s a lot. I don’t know if that’s pretentious, but we went for it.
I think it shows you really care about it.
We do. People’s perception of what they hear is funny to me. When I was done with this record, I remember thinking, “I don’t care if people like it or not, because I know it’s good.” I don’t feel that way after every album. But with this, it’s like, if you don’t get it, sorry.