The Oklahoma wind carries with it the sound of music. As much a part of our DNA as wheat and oil rigs, our music has roots in every genre. While our hundred-year-old state may be better known for our country offspring, Oklahoma is surprisingly deep in all genres: a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, and everything in between.
Thanks to exhibits like the Oklahoma History Center’s “Another Hot Night in Oklahoma: A Rock & Roll Exhibit,” citizens are learning about the international impact our music has made on the world. Exhibit curator Jeff Moore believes creativity is our state’s greatest export.
“The exhibit has opened a lot of doors for other institutions to embrace Oklahoma’s impact on pop culture,” said Moore. One door will open in 2014—that of a full-scale Oklahoma Museum of Music and Popular Culture, currently in the development stage.
“Oklahoma’s known for country music and Woody Guthrie, but if you look at early influences like Leon Russell and Wanda Jackson, you start seeing the pool of talent we’ve had and continue to have here,” said Moore.
Woody Guthrie put a stamp on his music with political statements that struck the sentiment of the nation in the 1930s and 40s. The son of a politician and cowboy, Woody fused social commentary with wry humor and found a following during the Great Depression. He took his show on the road from California to New York City—travels that inspired his most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land.”
The “King of Western Swing” Bob Mills helped define a new genre, bending the boundaries of country music in the 1940s with his charismatic flair. He’ll always be remembered in the music industry as a renegade and musical maverick. The estate of Bob Wills, who has the official state country and western song, “Faded Love,” has already donated a collection to be featured in the Oklahoma Museum of Music and Popular Culture.
Wanda Jackson was described by Bob Dylan as “an atomic bomb in lipstick—the Queen of Rockabilly.” Jackson was recently named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and isn’t finished yet. She released a new album produced by Jack White III, titled, “The Party Ain’t Over,” a nod to her original 1958 hit, “Let’s Have a Party.” Her gritty and glamorous persona put her on the frontlines of rock and roll, which was then a mostly “all-boys” party.
Fast-forward to the 1960s and Lawton native Leon Russell began to make his mark in rock and roll. Russell played with Phil Spector’s studio group and was singing, playing, arranging, producing and songwriting with and for the biggest talents of the next few decades—including the Rolling Stones, Glen Campbell, Tina Turner, Willie Nelson and Joe Cocker. Numerous hits and Russell’s outstanding contribution to rock were officially noted with his placement in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
Turn on your radio at any time and it is quite common to hear an Oklahoman belting out a new hit song on a country station. From icons Vince Gill, Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire and Toby Keith to young award-winning hit-makers Carrie Underwood, Blake Shelton and new Oklahoma resident Miranda Lambert country is as authentic to our land as the red dirt. Many Oklahoma artists keep a residence in Oklahoma, including Toby Keith, who also launched a chain of restaurants, “Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill,” which serve up classic American food and live music.
On the indie rock front, Stillwater’s All- American Rejects formed in 1999 and have sold more than ten million albums worldwide. Their hits include “Swing, Swing,” “Move Along,” and “Dirty Little Secrets,” before their first international hit, “Gives You Hell.” Hard rock band Hinder formed in 2001 and signed to a major label in 2005. The second single, “Lips of An Angel,” charted in the top ten on Billboard that same year.
Pop rockers and Tulsa natives, Hanson became a teen sensation when they formed in the 1990s and released their hit, “Mmmm- Bop.” The three brothers infuse soul into their sound. On their website, hanson.com, they credit the Oklahoma soil for their rootsy sound, giving a shout out to those who also came from the red dirt of Oklahoma, including the afore-mentioned Woody and Leon. The multiple Grammy nominated band is still performing and recording albums today.
Described musically as “the world’s most predictably unpredictable band,” the Flaming Lips formed in Norman in 1983 and have taken their psychedelic rock around the world in memorable live performances using costumes, balloons, light shows and frontman Wayne Coyne’s signature bubble. Coyne still lives in the Plaza District neighborhood where he grew up. In 2009, Oklahoma named “Do You Realize??” by the Flaming Lips as the state’s official rock song.
Flaming Lips’ manager Scott Booker wants to make sure that the tradition of talented Oklahoma artists continues into the future. In his role as CEO of the Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM) at the University of Central Oklahoma, his sights are set on making Oklahoma a greater music hub for generations to come, by providing Oklahomans the tools to learn how to make it in the music industry. In addition to the college curriculum, ACM offers summer workshops for aspiring musicians, both students and adults alike.
George Lang, assistant entertainment editor for The Oklahoman and host of Static, an online live music show, has been writing about music since 1994. Lang feels a sense of community and energy in the local music scene, as witnessed by the impressive Oklahoma showcase at SXSW (South by Southwest, the annual music and film interactive conference) in Austin in 2011.
“It was pretty astounding to see the broad range of talent that is coming out of Oklahoma,” said Lang. “Sherree Chamberlain, Audra May—both very gifted vocally. Audra wrote a song that ended up being covered by Susan Boyle on her debut album which ended up being the best-selling album of late 2009, which is pretty extraordinary. We have rappers like Jabee, a guy who raps clean and plays with just about everybody. He got up with hard rock band Pretty Black Chains. They are a band to watch.”
“Glam rocker Jacob Abello is an amazing singer who has incredible stage presence at 6’3" with a bright blonde pompadour and unitard. While watching him, you feel certain he’s going to be a star,” said Lang.
Add in the British-influenced band Colourmusic and it’s easy to see that Oklahoma covers the full spectrum of music styles.
Lang believes great resources, such as high-quality studios with affordable rates, help musicians reach their dreams sooner and plant the seeds for strong careers.
“Word is getting out,” said Lang. “People are discovering our music. No other state represented itself like that. The venue [where the Oklahoma musicians performed] at SXSW was filled all of the time. We are incredibly diverse and it will be interesting to see how it develops in the next ten years or so.”
Malena Lott is an author and journalist who resides in Edmond.