Mike McClure Seeks ‘Providence’ on First New Great Divide Album in 20 Years: ‘It’s Full Circle’
"I'm trying to find hope."
Mike McClure is chatting on the phone from his home in Seymour, Texas, and preparing to celebrate the release of a new record with The Great Divide, a band he started in Stillwater, Okla., in 1992, and a band that broke up a decade later. It seems surreal to McClure that he's doing press for a new Great Divide album in 2022.
"It's a time trip, man," says McClure, "but it's really cool how everything is coming together. We've been doing live shows since 2012, kind of sporadic, and we put a few new songs together, but we haven't gone in and made a cohesive record from start to finish in the same room in 20 years. It's really cool."
McClure catches himself for a second.
"I say 'really cool' way too much."
In his defense, what he and his bandmates—original members bassist Kelley Green, guitarist Scotte Lester and drummer JJ Lester, and newcomer Bryce Conway on the keyboards—are doing is really cool. The new album, Providence, dropped on Oct. 28, and it simultaneously captures the historic magic of the band while forging a fresh, new path into the future.
"I feel lucky, through all of these changes over the years, we've found our way back to getting on a stage and playing together," McClure says. "Something about that makes it powerful. I can feel it every day. It's a spiritual deal."
Jason Boland once said that all of Red Dirt music has to be divided into two eras: pre- and post-Great Divide. "Their impact on the alt-country scene cannot be overstated," he remarked. "They continually blazed up in the halls of convention, and hurled bottle after bottle at the mainstream monolith." This was certainly true when they released their first two LPs independently and remained so even when they signed with Atlantic Records and released their major label debut, Revolutions, in 1999.
"Man, I get flummoxed even talking about our history," McClure humbly says when he hears accolades like what Boland said, or when he hears how American Aquarium's BJ Barham called him the "Best Songwriter in Oklahoma."
"That's exactly what I wanted to do, I wanted to get a guitar and write songs and play them and touch people and move them and make them want to learn those songs and sing those songs. To be influential on a bunch of bands that were younger than us and then watch what they do and who they influence, it's this continuing, beautiful thread."
For McClure, this is something he knew he wanted to do when he was 10 years old. After seeing Willie Nelson rocking out with his friends in Honeysuckle Rose, he immediately felt a calling.
"Following Willie, being influenced by him, it was this seed that was planted," he says. "So to think that I influenced other people after me ... the beat goes on. That's the beautiful part about music that we can forget when we get busy — when we work too much and live too little."
McClure and The Great Divide's influence carried on as they released three more albums in the first three years of the 2000s. Unfortunately, it seemed like they were perhaps working too much and living too little; in 2003, the band called it quits.
"Too much brotherly love, that'll do it to you ... just ask Abel," McClure says without any ounce of sarcasm. "I know we were all drinking way too much, and there were other contributing factors of that nature. It was just the classic story — we were arguing all the time, over management, over what the next song is, over who's doing what. It wasn't us against the world, it turned into us against each other. When you're young and drunk, you take a lot of stuff for granted. I know we did. That's part of the reason it all went south."
While a demise of a band might signal the end of their influence, that couldn't have been further from the truth for McClure and his legacy with The Great Divide.
"The band blazed a path out of Stillwater that artists still follow to this day," John Crutchmer writes in his book, Red Dirt. "Multiple generations have come and gone without realizing the significance of the four-piece ensemble."
For McClure, there's immense hope in that truth.
Getting Back Into the Studio
Even though The Great Divide eventually got back together in 2012, the idea of putting together a new studio album was never on their radar. The influence that their music from the '90s and early-'00s continued to carry seemed good enough for them—and it was no doubt good enough for fans who were still filling up venues to see them play live.
But eventually, the band did get back into the studio, and McClure gives full credit to one guy and one guy alone: keyboardist and the only non-original member of the band, Bryce Conway.
"We met him back in the early-'90s when we played this club called JC Cowboys in Weatherford, Okla.," McClure remembers. "He was the DJ there and he was a big Great Divide fan. He played keyboards, and he was going to come out and play a show with us. He had a bus, and he was going to bring it, so we said, 'Hell yeah.' We would've taken an average keyboard player with a bus, but it turned out he was really good."
Conway's presence onstage with The Great Divide felt natural, and his energy offstage was infectious. McClure was still writing and recording his solo material, and nobody seemed too interested in doing a full Great Divide record, but Conway changed that.
"His energy really transformed us," McClure says with admiration.
The keyboardist was relentless and got the band into the studio, which immediately sent McClure to work because once the studio was booked, he had a deadline.
"I sat down and started gathering up songs I already had that I thought might fit," he says. "I trimmed that down to about 10 and then I spent my time trying to write songs that were better than those 10. That was cathartic for me as a writer."
Also cathartic was the fact that this was McClure's first time writing a Great Divide record with the clarity of sobriety and the joy of his new relationship with partner Chrislyn Lawrence.
The opening track on Providence, "Wrong Is Overrated," captures McClure's newfound perspective while not being afraid to confront the past.
"It talks about how I made a big mess of things when life got complicated when we were younger," he says. "It's really me owning up to my part of the original Great Divide demise. Everybody's doing the same. There's been a lot of growth and I think that washes over the lyrics of these new songs on the record. It's a snapshot of where the Great Divide is now."
Keeping the Faith
There is a lot of personal introspection on Providence, whether it's the humble tone of "Wrong Is Overrated," the conviction of "Good Side" or the battle with the divine on "Heaven Is High." That kind of soul-searching is nothing new for The Great Divide or McClure, who to date has released nine solo albums, all of which continue to carry the influential legacy of his voice and words.
But on the hope-drenched "Set It All Down," McClure shines like never before, thanks in large part to his lifelong journey with, for lack of a better word, faith.
"I think faith has played a really big part in The Great Divide ... It's hard to explain God, let me see if I can," McClure says, laughing to himself. "For me, faith, God, whatever it is, it's about slowing down and going out into the wilderness and being off by yourself to hear the voice of your own heart and your own conviction. My faith, personally, it runs like that. I believe God works through you and somehow, you, me, we're part of God."
McClure starts to question himself and isn't sure if he even wants to venture down this path in the conversation.
"Faith is a tricky one for me, man. There's a line in that song, ["Set It All Down"], that is an old proverb: "Go on and call on God / But row away from the rocks." I stole that from whoever came up with it a long, long time ago. But I like it. I like that idea. Don't just put things on a God outside of you; take care of those things through the way you live, through your works."
As McClure continues to pontificate, the name of the new album makes more and more sense. The idea of "providence" is something deeply spiritual that points a person — or perhaps, a band — forward toward peace, safety and hope.
"For me, it's this full circle. A return. A spiritual cycle. Birth, death, resurrection. And providence."
Ultimately, though, McClure is just happy people even care about what he thinks or what he's singing about.
"There's been so much growth with us, man," he says. "I'm so proud of that. I'm 51 years old and I'm still playing music with the guys I started playing with in 1992. That's pretty special. And even more than that, seeing all of those years on people's faces when we're playing those songs for them..."
"I'm going to say it again. It's really cool."