Cradled in the trees of an undeveloped part of Oxford down North Lamar, a wooden structure stares over a meadowy, overgrown lawn. The maze of rooms inside were once host to DIY shows, parties and late nights, and for a number of Oxford artists, it was home, too.
And now the Dude Ranch is empty.
It was here that connections were made between older Oxford musicians and those stepping into the scene for the first time. It was here that generations of music lovers, weirdos and artists in Oxford could express themselves.
The ranch’s dusty walls and counters, once littered with stickers of music promotions, the dark wooden beams where excited youth swung, and even the pool, filled with detritus and leaves of seasons past, now await an uncertain fate.
Whatever meanings the Dude Ranch held for those who lived there or frequented the place now repose in the empty rooms and stale air.
It began five years ago.
Two Stick still existed on the Square. Red Star Bar still held shows in the front room of The Lyric Theater. Rent was cheap. The End of All Music was a Mexican grocery, and Blogspot was still a thing.
Dent May created the Cats Purring Collective – described on its website as a “North Mississippi Infotainment cult” – with other musicians and curators such as Thomas Cooper of Gray Things and Michael Bible, editor of literary zine “Kitty Snacks.” He began booking shows around Oxford at venues like Proud Larry’s, The Lyric and Red Star Bar. They called Taylor home and there gave birth to what would become Oxford’s Do-It-Yourself music scene.
“The phrase ‘cats purring’ was bouncing around for a long time as a sort of inside joke that makes no sense,” May wrote in an email this summer. “Michael Bible, Steven (Bevilaqua) from Flight and I started naming the places we lived, starting with the double-wide trailer in Jim Dees’ backyard out in Taylor we called the Cats Purring Dream Trailer. At the time there were all these signs around Taylor pointing to the Southern Living Idea Home at Plein Air, which was supposed to be some sort of tourist attraction, so we put up Cats Purring Dream Trailer signs with arrows pointing to our trailer.”
Then they moved to the Cats Purring Country Club. Still in Taylor, May and his roommates began hosting live music in their garage, named the Teen Wing.
Members kept the collective’s Blogspot — still extant at catspurring.com — meticulously curated and updated, with detailed descriptions for booked artists, links to music, custom gifs, and almost constant exposure for new music released by the Cats Purring “family.”
As 2010 neared its end, five friends were set to move to the outskirts of Oxford, into a former Boys & Girls Club that had once been the home of touring band Zoogma.
Peyton Houchins had been a key member of the Cats Purring Collective, a beloved friend and a musician who played with several bands in Oxford. He was also the fifth roommate at that ranch-style house on a county road. A few days before the new year, Houchins suddenly died.
“He’s the reason the Dude Ranch exists,” said Cole Furlow, a former resident at the ranch and musician under the moniker Dead Gaze.
Furlow said Houchins, who was a close friend of a number of those involved with Cats Purring from high school in Jackson, “lit a fire under all of us.” His death left the future tenants at 49 CR 178 heartbroken, but closer and more inspired than ever to put their ideas into action.
“It was my house, I have memories there. That place kind of united me and four of my really close friends immediately after the death of my really close friend,” said Len Clark, a friend from Jackson and Ole Miss who lived in Nashville, Tennessee, and moved back to Oxford immediately following Houchin’s death to live at the Dude Ranch.
Clark would play drums or tour with almost every musician living in the house, including the Dent May Band.
“When Dent lost a drummer, he actually was like (to Clark), ‘You’re going to be my drummer now,” Furlow said. “(Clark) was like ‘OK,’ and then we went on a month-long tour after that.”
Dent May began booking shows at the ranch from the first months they lived there — officially holding the first show in February featuring Oxford bands in a “Cats Purring Jamboree” — and continued for the next few years. Throughout 2011, May hosted Dirty Beaches, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Bleached, King Tuff, Alex Bleeker and the Freaks, Colleen Green and more. Some of the shows were held only a few days apart.
May announced his song “Fun” recorded at the Ranch, would be released as a 7″ single. John Barrett
of Bass Drum of Death moved into the Ranch that summer. He would film his music video for “Get Found” there.
“No one rocked the Dude Ranch harder than Bass Drum,” Furlow said. “In some ways, John’s shows embodied all that was the ranch. We always say Dent May is the ranch, but everyone played their part.”
The ranch was a haven for artists. Dark wooden beams sprawled under the ceilings of the 4,237-square-foot structure. One half of the house, the cabin-like large room used for performances, practices and play, is made almost entirely of wood planks that line the floor and walls. The ranch-style construct, which, from the outside, looks like a cross between a large, wooden shack and barn with a fantastic front porch, lies on a verdant and somewhat unruly 1.4 acres.
“There’s the couches, there’s air conditioning, there’s water, there’s bathrooms — not one bathroom, but bathrooms — there was carpet, there was beautiful music, there was herb, there was booze, there was everything you could ever want all around you, and for a touring band, stuff like that is golden,” Furlow said. “And not to mention, the best part about the Dude Ranch, the most beautiful thing about the Dude Ranch that people never ever thought about, was that it had this beautiful land around it. If you were a touring band in a van with, like, four other dudes for a long period of time, just taking a walk around the Dude Ranch to clear your head was such a beautiful thing for people.
It truly made people remember the place in a way that most venues don’t ever have the chance to be remembered.”
Artists at Home
While maintaining a DIY venue and home, the guys at the Dude Ranch were producing content, music, touring and repping Cats Purring the whole time.
“I met a lot of artists on tour who said they’d never played in Mississippi. So we’d help them book something and then make sure they had an amazing time,” May said. “We threw a lot of Cats Purring parties at Proud Larry’s and The Lyric, but I specifically scouted out the Dude Ranch as a venue for shows.”
Word spread as more acts made their way to the ranch and May’s booking picked up in pace. People were able to keep up with upcoming shows on catspurring.com and social media. The ranch and the musicians who lived there were also beginning to harbor attention outside of the South on music blogs and websites.
On March 3, 2012, the Dude Ranch was administered a test. Grimes, just after the release of critically acclaimed “Visions,” and Born Gold played a show so excitable the floor below nearly collapsed into the garage as the toilets overflowed.
“There’s a different side to everything,” Clark said, describing how he and about six other guys stood beneath the floor during the performance, trying to steady the support beam in the garage.
At times like these, the question arose: had they gone too far?
The floors didn’t fall through. The roommates remained at the ranch, making music, and May was still booking shows.
Easter Sunday in 2012, indie-rock band Real Estate performed at the ranch, a highlight for May, whose band had toured with the group.
“Those guys are some of my best friends,” May said.
Only three days later, DIIV (pronounced “dive”) visited the Dude Ranch for their show.
The next Cats Purring Dude Ranch event wouldn’t be until March 2013. But the impressive line-up proved the ranch was still up for whatever mayhem the music, music-lovers and party people brought. Ducktails (the solo project of Real Estate’s Matt Mondanile), Chris Cohen, Empress Of, Moon King, Idiot Glee and Caveman would be the rain to a seemingly perennial Dude Ranch that spring.
The ranch in 2011 looked similar to how it might have at a show in June. Kitschy, framed photos and paintings lined the walls. In the corner, a mannequin might have been lounging indifferently, a silent witness to everything that happened in the home. She, like the luxurious golden curtains that hung behind the performance area, was donated by Taylor photographer Jane Rule Burdine.
In the backyard, a pool, whose dingy, blue tile-print lining barely gripped its sides, created sludge that
eventually spawned two small trees.
“The house was cool. It was a weird house too,” Clark said. “When we moved in, there had been a homeless guy sleeping in my closet… There were certain doors that I’m sure still don’t lock. I think I’m still one of the people that has a key to the house.”
Much like Fat Possum records, Dent May brought musicians to Oxford that may have never stepped foot in Mississippi before. It was his ear for good music, his ability to be ahead of the curve and his understanding of the industry that built the idea behind the ranch — one that would remain until its end as a venue.
“(May) organized the Dude Ranch to be this beautiful well-oiled machine for touring bands,” Furlow said.
Bands from across the states, the world, even, became part of the Cats Purring circle. The networks May and the other musicians had built put Mississippi on the map for shows.
As May began turning his focus to his own work and booking shows at other local venues like Proud Larry’s and Lamar Lounge, Deg Ronilo began booking shows at the Dude Ranch, where he would eventually move.
Leaves of Change
In the years following May’s departure from the house, new tenants moved in and new generations of bands and guests sifted through the halls of the home.
Through the transitions, the spirit of the ranch lived on. While the faces that filled the crowd changed, the Dude Ranch remained a haven for touring bands and indie culture in a small Mississippi town.
“You know the turnover of people in Oxford,” Ronilo said. “It’s like graduate, then maybe stay a year. There are so few jobs. It was a completely different crew of people, but some of the same things.”
While the mannequin would still hover as the unofficial mascot and the swimming pool would continue amassing filth, eventually the curtains hung behind the performance area would be replaced with metallic tinsel that played off the dim, colored lights. Each new tenant brought their own style to the place, mixing and overlapping with the remnants of the house the original roommates left behind. It wasn’t just a place to make art for the people who lived there. Members of the community both inspired and contributed to making the Cats Purring Dude Ranch special.
Indie-pop band Reels played their last show after only one practice at the ranch this summer, and Kate Teague, frontwoman for the now-disbanded group, said the void is palpable.
“It has left a hole, and it’s really hard to fill. I’m sure there’s been like a million people saying this now, but everyone’s kind of scrambling to find a new Dude Ranch,” Teague said.
Just four months ago at an Ole Miss baseball game, a sea of red and blue stretched behind a circle of boys who looked just a little out of place. The band Whitney was here on one of several trips to Oxford for their second performance. Here they had found a guitarist in local musician Print Chouteau and made a music video for their popular song “Golden Days” at the ranch.
“I think it’s my favorite place in the country,” Julian Ehrlich, Whitney’s singer and drummer, said. “Oxford is very special to me; I’ve spent quite a bit of time here.”
Erlich had previously played at the ranch with Unknown Mortal Orchestra and had visited with Whitney guitarist Max Kakacek when they were both in Smith Westerns, eventually becoming a part of the ranch’s community.
“It’s like the best late-night boys and girls club, it always retained some sort of boys and girls club vibes,” Kakacek said amid the chants of the students cheering on their home team.
“But like the late night men and women’s club!” Ehrlich interjected, laughing.
“There’s something about it that’s still charming,” Kakacek added.
During the final days of the Dude Ranch, the property was owned by Brenda Alderson, whose son Mike Alderson helped her oversee 49 CR 178 and other properties in Oxford.
The property’s sale had always been a possibility, but not one that seemed imminent. Roommates Deg Ronilo, Mikayla Skinner, Zachary Winter, Ian Kirkpatrick and Shane Prewitt had, this spring, prepared to sign a lease for the upcoming year with their then-property manager, Will Cook.
That April, among the spring’s flowers, a “for sale” sign also popped up in the front lawn.
Alderson told Ronilo the tenants would be allowed to renew their lease for the upcoming year and anyone who bought the property would have to honor their lease.
A few weeks later, the tenants said they received their new lease, signed it, and were waiting for the property manager to pick it up.
On April 20, Pamela Roberson of Rebel Realty was hired to replace Cook in managing Alderson’s properties and went by the Dude Ranch to appraise the property.
“I did not see a future lease.” Roberson said. “The previous property manager did not work for the owner on April the 20th, so that may be a legal issue between the property manager and the owner, but I was not privy to that information.”
Ronilo said he showed Roberson the future lease during her trip to appraise the property, and that Roberson also brought a copy of the tenants’ current lease. There are two accounts of what happened next.
“So, the two leases are side-by-side. They’re on the metal table outside, and she does this like sleight-of hand thing where she puts her clipboard on top of the new lease, and then just sort of took it. We didn’t notice it at all, because it’s like a magic trick, so five minutes after she has left, Zach says, ‘Where’s the new lease?’ He texted her and said ‘Did you take the lease?’ and she said ‘No.’ he said, ‘Will you check your folder please?’ She said, ‘It’s not there.’”
When asked if she did take the lease when she left the property, Roberson was adamant that she did not.
“They had the lease in their hand,” Roberson said. “I left with no papers in my hand whatsoever, got in my vehicle, 15 to 20 minutes later they start texting me … saying that I took it. I left empty-handed with nothing but my car keys.”
When asked if she had a clipboard, Roberson said she did have her clipboard. Roberson denied using the clipboard to take the new lease.
Eventually, the tenants were given a 30-day notice and were kicked off of the property, ending the era of the Dude Ranch. Roberson said the house was under contract and the buyer did not want any tenants on the property.
Alderson confirmed some of what Ronilo recounted. Alderson said he told the tenants they could renew their lease and that any buyer for the property would have to honor that lease, but he also said he was unaware of the property acting as a music venue until Roberson’s inspection.
“(Roberson) went in there and immediately called my mother and was telling her how the place was like a bar and they were running a venue in there,” Mike Alderson said. “My mom called me, and we had no idea. We told Pamela, ‘This has got to be shut down.’ There’s no way that they can do that, liability, insurance reasons, and Pamela said the place was filthy and they weren’t taking care of it. At that point in time, Pamela took action to get them out, to evict them because of the condition of the house.”
Ronilo said his dispute with the Dude Ranch ending didn’t stem from the house being sold, but rather the manner in which it was done.
“It’s their property. They can sell it if they want to,” Ronilo said. “It’s just about the way it happened. I’m sure they have a different perspective of the whole thing, but it’s such a classic scenario that it’s almost cliche. We all know how it goes. And there’s not going to be a place like the ranch for a while. It’s sad.”
As of Tuesday, Sept. 13, the property is sold and there is a construction company’s sign in the yard.
End of Days
The post-May ranch had continued to book impressive and memorable shows, including indie-legend Calvin Johnson and a number of Fat Possum signees like Yung. They hosted a Fourth of July party in 2015 featuring Canadian hardcore punk band Fucked Up as the headliner.
“That Fucked Up one, even though it was so much work, that was super fun,” Ronilo said. “And the fact that it was such a success, having like 300 people there, and everyone seemed to have a great time. I was really happy with that one.”
The ranch’s last show on July 1 epitomized the legacy and aims of the first shows held there: to bring fresh and exciting music to Oxford that before had been devoid of a place devoted to that.
Oxford-based Starman Jr. played their debut show that night, introducing Oxford to their mellow sound, and Fat Possum signee Hoops played for the first time in town and are now touring across the country.
“College towns will always have fresh faces coming in and making great music,” Dent May said. “Bands like Bonus, Starman Jr. and Swear Tapes are proof of that, and they’re making music that’s as good as if not better than any music being made at the ranch five years ago. I don’t feel that Cats Purring, as an entity, is over. It’s just that this particular building is no longer its home.”
The long hall filled with all manner of Oxonians and its shimmering performance area, once home to indie-pop icons and local Oxford groups trying to build their first fan base, witnessed the fade of its final reverberation.
“By no means do I think of Cats Purring as the be-all and end-all of Oxford music,” said May. “The Dude Ranch was just one tiny detail in a long list of things that are great about Oxford. I just hope it brought some joy and inspiration to a few people along the way.”