Oklahoma Sky: The Sooner State Is Poised To Become America’s Next Great Music Scene

By | October 11, 2018

American Songwriter

Taylor Hanson of the pop-rock band Hanson, pictured in Tulsa. Photo by Lynne Margolis

For some years now, the Oklahoma Room has been the place to be at Folk Alliance International conferences; so much Sooner State talent shows up, their “something in the water” claim almost seems believable. But lately, more artists who weren’t born or raised as Okies have been jumping in the pool as well. Creatives getting squeezed out of places like Austin and Nashville are turning to Tulsa, in particular, for its affordable housing, lively, mural-covered arts districts, support of original music and proximity to Oklahoma City, just far enough away to remain a separate tour market. But there’s another factor, too: the energizing momentum of a city embracing its past while working to transform its future. Though it lacks major labels, publishing houses or similar “industry” infrastructure, Tulsa is morphing into a creative mecca — one trying to nurture an economically healthy music community. For both natives and newcomers, that’s a powerful lure. 

When Paul Benjamin’s Sunday Nite Thing finally ambles onstage at the Colony, a tiny club in Tulsa, it’s around 11 p.m. At most clubs, this is the graveyard gig, likely to be observed mainly by the bartender, a few regulars and the occasional out-of-towner seeking some local color.

But as the clock nears midnight, the Colony, once owned by Oklahoma icon Leon Russell, is packed. And the crowd, populated by the movers and shakers of Tulsa’s flourishing music community, is vibrant, as it is most nights in multiple area venues.

Benjamin, an accomplished singer and guitarist who’s hosted this Sunday-night jam for seven years, is joined on this night by John Fullbright — who’s reveling in his role as not-in-charge sideman.

Fullbright, whose Grammy-nominated 2012 debut From The Ground Up helped draw attention to fellow Okies including Parker Millsap, John Moreland and Fullbright’s former bandmates, the Turnpike Troubadours, moved to Tulsa a couple of years ago from rural Bearden, near small-town Okemah — the birthplace of Woody Guthrie. 

He was not expecting to find his groove in Tulsa. In fact, he’d shunned the city, regarding its music scene as cliquish. When he wanted closer airport proximity and his girlfriend wanted to find a job, they planned a move to Oklahoma City, where Fullbright got his start at the famed Blue Door. Then his brother joined Tulsa’s police force, so they decided to give that city a try.

“We got welcomed with open arms,” Fullbright says. “And all of the sudden, I’m playing jam-band music. I’m playing honky-tonk music. I’m getting versed in all of these different things. I’m focused on the piano. Like, I’m playing the piano, and it’s not just about sitting around trying to write songs. It’s about going, ‘I truly love this instrument and I’m being accepted by this entire community.’”

Already a spellbinding performer, his playing is now even stronger. That’s because he’s learned to live on Tulsa time — or, as he calls it, “that whole JJ Cale attitude.”

He discovered it’s all about patience; about easing in only when the moment feels right. It was a revelation. “Of course you want to get up there and cut heads and play as fast as you can,” he says. But that’s not interesting. It’s going up there and saying ‘How little can I play?’ and then building it up into something.”

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“Building it up into something” is exactly what Tulsa is doing, with projects ranging from Duet, a new jazz club, to OKPOP, the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture that’s about to begin construction, and the Bob Dylan Archive, projected to open in 2021.

Maybe Fullbright will record his next album in the very spot where Russell, one of his main influences, did some of his best work: Church Studios. Local businesswoman Teresa Knox and her husband, Ivan Acosta, are restoring the 105-year-old former church that housed Russell’s studio and Shelter Records label from 1972 to ’76 — and became ground zero for that shuffling, gritty blues/soul/country what-is-it-exactly entity known as the Tulsa Sound. (“There is no one Tulsa sound,” OKPOP director Jeff Moore says. “It’s a scene. It’s a brotherhood.”)

“From Dylan to Clapton to Ringo to George, they all converged on Tulsa,” Knox says. “When Dylan was disenchanted with his sound, who did he call? Leon Russell.” That history, bolstered by seeming coincidences such as the couple’s purchase of Daniel Lanois’ Neve 8068 board — the one on the cover of Dylan’s Lanois-produced Time Out Of Mind — helped Knox obtain National Register of Historic Places status for the Pearl District building, which will include exhibit space for their studio archives.

“That will be a real inspiration to this generation of musicians,” says Acosta. “That’s what it’s all about. We can’t live in the past, but you have to honor it in order to move forward.” 

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John Fullbright. Photo by Vicki Farmer

For the past few years at least, the city’s most prominent studio has been Hanson’s 3CG Records, in the Tulsa Arts District. That’s where Fullbright produced American Aquarium’s new album, Things Change. 

In an interview for his Red Dirt Radio Hour on public radio station KOSU-FM, Red Dirt Rangers co-founder John Cooper asked American Aquarium leader B.J. Barham why he chose to record in Tulsa. “He goes, ‘Man, I don’t think people here realize what’s going on. You have John Moreland, Parker Millsap, JD McPherson, John Fullbright, Carter Sampson. All these people … are the beacon of the light at the moment. Oklahoma is showing the way.”

“I really feel like that’s true,” says Cooper, who still tours with the Rangers in addition to the show and his staff job at the station, where music segments include at least three Okie artists per hour.

Cooper’s Okie history also includes helping to birth what became known as Red Dirt music at the Farm, outside of Stillwater. That’s where Bob Childers, Tom Skinner, Garth Brooks, Jason Boland, Cody Canada and others honed their chops while partying down. So did the late Jimmy LaFave, a master Dylan interpreter and Guthrie acolyte who helped secure his legacy in Tulsa.

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As he’d done 60 years ago, Guthrie again inspired Dylan, whose collection will be kept at the University of Tulsa’s Helmerich Center for American Research and exhibited at the Bob Dylan Archive, a block away from the Guthrie Center. Whether Johnny Cash’s archives are also headed there, as rumored, remains unconfirmed, but if that happens, three of the greatest influences on what we now call Americana music — not to mention each other — would be together, cementing the region’s status as a music center.

Guthrie actually helped spur revitalization efforts well before his archives arrived, because the popularity of Okemah’s annual Woody Guthrie Festival fostered acceptance of his leftist legacy in a state that once disavowed it. But without Tulsa’s “Daddy Warbucks” — multibillionaire philanthropist George Kaiser — and his George Kaiser Family Foundation, much of the development designed to strengthen the city and state’s creative environment would not be happening. 

Brian Horton, who founded Tulsa’s nonprofit Horton Records label with Colony manager Brian Fontaine, says the foundation’s impact on Tulsa is unparalleled.

“It’s creating community. It’s breaking down social barriers, and not just in music and arts … To live in a city like this when that kind of transformation is happening, and you have the opportunity to participate and be a part of it … it’s a really special time.”

Percussionist Amira Al-Jiboori had been planning to leave, but changed her mind. “I figured that I could go somewhere that is already big and things are already happening,” she says, “or I can be a part of that growth and be able to make this community what we want it to be.”

She and pianist/singer Casii Stephan cofounded MisFEST, a festival showcasing and empowering women. “I’m a 30-something, and to see young people making changes in Tulsa and Oklahoma is really encouraging,” says Al-Jiboori.

One hears similar comments from both veterans and rising stars like Branjae, a soul singer who’s often tapped for promotions sponsored by the Tulsa Office of Film, Music, Arts & Culture or the Oklahoma Film & Music Office.

The state offers an additional 2-percent rebate to film productions spending at least $20,000 to record in Oklahoma or license music created by a resident and recorded in-state. It also created the web-based Rhythm and Routes Oklahoma Music Trail, which points tourists toward musical attractions, events and historical sites. The Tulsa office, which just launched its talent and resource registry, promotes the city’s creative initiatives at Folk Alliance, South By Southwest, the Sundance Film Festival and other industry events.

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Horton says Tulsa’s music community is aware of growth-related issues besetting other music hubs and sounds alarms about development that might displace creatives or threaten venues.

It’s also been careful to protect historical sites like the Brady Theater and Cain’s Ballroom, still known as “the home of Bob Wills” 76 years after Wills and His Texas Playboys popularized western swing there.

OKPOP’s Moore credits Kaiser with understanding the value of investing in cultural resources as developing assets, which began with the 10-year-old BOK Center, an award-winning, top-selling music-centric arena in a city with no professional sports team. More investment followed, including Kaiser’s acquisition of both archives. The foundation also funded Guthrie Green, an outdoor expanse for free concerts and other programming, and spearheaded the Gathering Place, a 100-acre, $450 million riverfront park project.

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Stepping deftly around gear cases, merch boxes and stacks of Hanson Brothers Beer Co. brews as he conducts a 3CG tour, Taylor Hanson says the brothers chose to become involved in Tulsa’s downtown revitalization so they could help define and shape opportunities, such as Hop Jam, their annual beer and music festival.

They also talked OKPOP planners into locating the museum near the “sacred turf” of Cain’s Ballroom and the Brady Theater rather than another site.

Hanson loves Tulsa’s support of independent thinking and authenticity, but he also notes that, instead of treating the arts as charity, “The key is to turn your perception of the arts from a cause into an engine … that actually generates growth.” And investing accordingly. 

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While it doesn’t have a Kaiser or many venues where local artists can play originals, Oklahoma City deserves credit for “building something up,” too. Two notable assets are the Academy of Contemporary Music, founded by the Flaming Lips’ longtime tour manager, Scott Booker, and Greg Johnson’s Blue Door. The academy trains students for careers both onstage and behind the scenes; the Blue Door, a 100-capacity listening room, hosts both young unknowns and international stars like native son Jimmy Webb, who love its intimate vibe.

“When we got our first gig at the Blue Door, I thought, ‘Well, this is it. We’ve made it,’” Millsap recalls. “That’s where all of my friends and heroes played, so when we finally got to play there, it was a big deal.”

For Johnson, it’s about more than ticket sales. “The Blue Door would not exist if we were just a venue that sold out all the time,” he says. “We wouldn’t be doing what we’re supposed to be doing, which is fostering the talent. I don’t ever tell someone they can’t come back because they didn’t draw.”

In Oklahoma, talent is expected to grow. And John Cooper, for one, couldn’t be more pleased.

“I see young people continually coming up who are astounding,” he says, adding, “I can’t wait for the next one to emerge.”



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