Oklahoma: A Hotbed of Music Talent & Tradition

Somewhere between the big T’s of Texas and Tennessee and just west of the Deep South, Oklahoma sometimes gets overlooked in appreciations of American music. But a century after Woody Guthrie was born there, the state continues to be a wellspring of tradition-based talent and hotbed for new sounds.

Look at recent Americana charts and you can’t miss the growing presence of Oklahoma artists. There’s the unflinchingly raw songwriting of John Moreland, a DIY upstart who made the jump to influential British label 4AD for last year’s Big Bad Luv. There’s the country rock of Turnpike Troubadours, whose two straight Billboard Top 5 country albums earned a coveted Austin City Limits TV segment. There’s former Troubadours member John Fullbright, a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter who’ll bring a cast of his friends to SXSW this year as part of a Tulsa music showcase.

Work outward from the core and the picture gets even broader and more intriguing. Parker Millsap is a fire-and-brimstone shouter whose apocalyptic tunes such as “The Very Last Day” (the title track to his 2016 Americana chart-topper) burn with gospel-infused fury. J.D. McPherson, who’s made records for influential indie labels Rounder and New West, digs into rockabilly grooves to harken back to the R&B-heavy days of early rock ’n’ roll. Samantha Crain, a Native American singer-songwriter who made her first record a decade ago as a teen, turned toward indie-pop on last year’s You Had Me At Goodbye and recently has been producing, working with Okie upstarts Annie Oakley and Kierston White.

Add the likes of soulful singer Audra Mae, country-folk rambler Wink Burcham, Moreland’s accomplished sideman John Calvin Abney, sweet-voiced Carter Sampson and many more waiting in the wings, and you see that Oklahoma is in the midst of an Americana boom.

Turnpike Troubadours. Photo by David Mc Clister

Turnpike Troubadours. Photo by David Mc Clister


“People compare us to either the next Austin or the next Nashville, and certainly we take that as a compliment,” says Abby Kurin, director of film, music, art and culture for VisitTulsa and a longtime curator of shows for the city and state at SXSW. “But if you look back on what Tulsa has been doing and Oklahoma as a whole, it’s always had that rich history.”

Indeed. Tulsa’s magnificent Woody Guthrie Center, a museum and archival home to works by the likes of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, is a constant reminder of the state’s foremost American music icon. Many legends followed in Woody’s footsteps, from Roger Miller to Leon Russell and J.J. Cale to the Axton family (mother Mae of “Heartbreak Hotel” fame and her son Hoyt’s “Joy to the World”).

Mainstream country stars ascended in the ‘80s and ‘90s with Vince Gill, Reba McEntire and Garth Brooks. And the late Jimmy LaFave, who died of cancer last year, helped spread the state’s legacy to his adopted town of Austin, where he and fellow Oklahoman Kevin Welch became honorary Texas troubadours alongside Butch Hancock, Joe Ely and Robert Earl Keen.

“But if you look back on what Tulsa has been doing and Oklahoma as a whole, it’s always had that rich history.”

That Austin-to-Oklahoma connection has an integral patron in Greg Johnson, who lived in Austin for many years before opening Oklahoma City’s Blue Door venue a quarter-century ago. “If I hadn’t been in Austin, the Blue Door would not have happened,” he says, explaining that he opened the venue in 1992 partly to bring his Texas favorites north of the Red River.

Parker Millsap Photo by Samantha Foulks

Parker Millsap Photo by Samantha Foulks


What he found, gradually, was a budding Oklahoma scene that filled the gaps of the roots-music scene that Bob Childers, Tom Skinner, the Red Dirt Rangers and others had forged in the ‘70s. First came the “red dirt” bands: Cross Canadian Ragweed, Jason Boland & the Stragglers and other roadhouse warriors whose proliferation mirrored similar Texas-circuit acts such as Reckless Kelly and Randy Rogers Band.

The current crop of talent pulls from influences well beyond red dirt. Fullbright’s gravitation toward piano suggests the influence of Oklahoman Jimmy Webb, the masterful songwriter responsible for many of Glen Campbell’s biggest hits as well as pop smashes such as “Up, Up and Away” and “MacArthur Park.” A few years ago at the Blue Door, the pair did a spectacular duo performance of Webb’s classic tune “If You See Me Getting Smaller.”

And it’s not out-of-place for Oklahoma roots acts to give props to the Flaming Lips, the Oklahoma City band that grew from dive-bar underdogs to theatrical mega-sensation by the turn of the century. Or Hanson, the sibling pop trio that parlayed their 1990s bubblegum smash “MMMBop” into adulthood roles as ambassadors for the Tulsa music scene with their state-of-the-art 3CG Studio in the downtown Brady Arts District.

Such facilities, and the production assistance of Fullbright, lured rising roots-country band American Aquarium from their North Carolina home base to Tulsa in late 2017 to make their upcoming album. Band leader B.J. Barham says he’s impressed at the bonds between artists that have transcended stylistic boundaries.

“They just look at it as music,” Barham says. “A lot of those folks are just friends, and they don’t look at it as genres. It’s more of a scene, and that’s a cool thing.”

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