In our new series, we look at eight cities where live music has exploded – from iconic hubs like New Orleans and Nashville and Chicago to up-and-coming hot spots like Raleigh, North Carolina and Portland, Maine. The latest: Tulsa, where history, social awareness, and bar room jamming make it one of the most fun places to visit right now.
Jack White remembers the first time he walked into Cain’s Ballroom, a Tulsa dance hall from the 1920s where Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys once broadcast their weekly radio shows. “I basically almost fired my booking agent when I walked into this room,” White said recently. “Why don’t I know anything about this place? I was really upset that no one had ever told me about Tulsa. “
DAVID JAMES SWANSON
White fell in love with the rest of the city – including its Art Deco architecture and rich history in film (Francis Ford Coppola directed The Outsiders there) and music (Woody Guthrie and Leon Russell are Okie legends) – and bought a house in Tulsa. As the city grows and develops, its music scene has exploded again; While Cain’s booked an act a month ago in 2002, he’s now booking 120 and will soon be hosting a live radio show. The city is also a major destination for music historians, as the Woody Guthrie Center and the Bob Dylan Archives were recently added. These buildings were both funded by George Kaiser, a philanthropist businessman who wants to make Tulsa a major travel destination. Here’s why he might be right.
Honky Tonk Heroes
In the early 1970s, JJ Cale brought land-drenched rock to Tulsas nationwide. His spirit lives on at Paul Benjamin’s Sunday Nite Thing. A guitar singer with grizzles, Benjaman welcomes a rotating cast of talented local heroes like John Fullbright, whose piano-based heartland folk songs made him a hero in Nashville and beyond. “A different guest every week keeps it fresh,” says Benjaman. “It blends a number of different styles, from honky-tonk to R&B.” Benjaman says the scene is a lot more fun these days: “In the last decade it’s gotten more of a collaborative thing: we all create bands that use each other’s rhythm sections. It’s really easy to hang. “
While the likes of Fullbright and John Moreland are channeling Guthrie’s mind, a new group of rappers is making music that is described as a “politically conscious, subliminal street,” says Steph Simon, who has just released a concept album about the city’s racial riots and massacres of 1921 . “Tulsa is much more diverse than it was 15 years ago,” says R&B singer Branjae.
Dylan’s gold mine
The Bob Dylan Archives, which will open in 2021, already contain 6,000 artifacts from Dylan’s personal collection. This includes his leather jacket from Newport and the lyrics from “Visions of Johanna”. A public museum offers highlights. “As this stuff gets older, you want it to be better organized for generations,” says a source near the Dylan camp.
Take me back to Tulsa
If you’d like to see where Tom Petty signed his first recording deal, schedule a tour at Church Studios. It’s Leon Russell’s historic studio and the former home of Shelter Records, where everyone from Willie Nelson to Dr. John to Peter Tosh, in the seventies. The studio is currently being renovated and refurbished and is expected to be completed by the end of 2020. “There’s a lot of TLC that will be needed to bring it back,” said architect Chris Lilly. Also: Jazz fans should visit the Greenwood Cultural Center. The place where Count Basie discovered jazz is now a museum.
Best day hang
Gathering Place, a new 66-acre park filled with trippy sculptures, is largely the result of millions in donations from Kaiser, the billionaire behind the Guthrie and Dylan centers.