On The String: Tulsa Builds A Music Future on Swing, Shelter and Shared Pride
On a late March afternoon at Tulsa Strings Violin Shop, the tempo of life feels decidedly adagio, which in music speak means slow and easy-going. The curvaceous bodies of violins and violas hang in rows. A young woman is practicing Bach on a cello down a hall. In back, work benches hold the mysterious and intricate tools of violin repair. That’s Jacob Mehlhouse’s specialty.
“Almost everyone comes in with a story of a grandparent playing an instrument or even teaching them,” says Mehlhouse, the founder/owner of Tulsa Strings. “So even if they’re not on stage, everybody had some kind of comfortable exposure to it of having it around. The fiddle is almost a way of life.”
Mehlhouse has a good view of the grassroots, ground-up side of Tulsa, OK, a vibrant music city that sits at the boundary of the East and West, on Native Land, on Route 66, and on oil and gas that made it wealthy. There’s a long, living history of live and recorded music here, as well as key recent developments in cultural stewardship in the form of major new music museums. And that’s why WMOT agreed to send me here on assignment, to find out why the musical community of Tulsa is energized and how it became a launch pad or home for Americana standouts such as John Moreland, John Fullbright, J.D. McPherson and Parker Millsap.
More artists are there to be discovered, including the guy who invited me out and showed me around. Jared Tyler is a singer, songwriter and record producer who’s at the heart of this week’s special radio field trip edition of The String. He’s hanging out this afternoon at Tulsa Strings Violin Shop as well, because he has deep ties here. He and owner/operator Jacob Mehlhouse have been in a committed relationship for 15 years. “Helping out here has been the difference between me being able to tour with people and not,” Tyler says. But for Tulsa, he says, “this place has been part of the heart of the music scene, not just fiddling, but from the (teaching) workshops and being a hub of where people would meet up. When we opened it was kind of a jam central.”
Tyler grew up in nearby Owasso, OK and was inspired toward music in part by a mandolin picking grandfather. He’s been gigging professionally in Tulsa for almost 20 years, with a couple of stints in Nashville. He made his recording debut in 2006 when producer Russ Titelman signed him to a boutique record label. Since then Tyler’s released two albums on his own, including 2017’s Dirt On Your Hands, which was recorded in both Nashville and Tulsa. Since about 2000, Tyler’s been a support musician and record producer for the mystic Appalachian songwriter Malcolm Holcombe, which is how I met him. For years, Jared has championed the Tulsa scene and urged me to come explore it. So at last I did.
“The energy here is hard to even describe,” says Deana McCloud, executive director of the Woody Guthrie Center, a five-year-old museum and archive in the heart of a fast-growing arts and business district adjacent to downtown. “You’ve got the foundation of Leon Russell, Woody Guthrie, Bob Wills. Those are some pretty heavy hitters. Those are the folks that we’re building are reputation on. The music scene in Tulsa right now is phenomenal. The local musicians are incredibly gifted. We’re right now still kind of the nation’s artistic secret. We need to be prepared, because the news is getting out.”
So at the risk of getting the news out, here are some of the places and people included in The String’s audio postcard from Tulsa.
WOODY GUTHRIE CENTER
America’s archetypal folk singer/activist was born 70 miles south of Tulsa in Okemah, OK. He saw the Dust Bowl first hand and migrated to the west along with thousands of other Okies. He knew whereof he sang and wrote. In 2013, Guthrie’s archives moved to Tulsa after they were purchased by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, a vital Tulsa philanthropist. Their home is the absorbing Woody Guthrie Center in the fast-developing Brady Arts District. Director Deana McCloud said that besides Guthrie’s manuscripts, his sketches and artifacts, the center is most centrally about Guthrie’s commitment.
“It’s a place where we want to make people feel better about the world and their place in it and their ability to change it. While we have Woody at the center of our story, it’s really a history lesson on who we all are as a people. It’s a social consciousness and a social justice message we’re carrying here with Woody’s words. That was the important part of what he was doing. He was using his music as a conduit for expressing the change he wanted in the world.”
Cain’s Ballroom has played a similar role in Tulsa music history as the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Built in 1924 as an automotive garage, the structure was converted to a dance academy, then a dance hall, where Bob Wills secured his throne as the King of Western Swing over KVOO radio in the 1930s. But that was just the beginning. From the 1970s on, Cain’s was an all purpose music venue, hosting U2, Van Halen, The Police, the Sex Pistols and countless country and rock and roll icons. It remains as eclectic today under the ownership and management of the Rodgers family since 2002. Chad Rodgers described how his family got involved, quite spontaneously.
“My family and I in our separate homes saw that it was for sale on a Sunday night on the news. So my Dad called me. We set up a meeting to come down on Tuesday and look at the place. My dad grew up here but had never been in Cain’s. I had been in a couple times. I knew what it was. So we came down. It was in disarray for sure. There were leaks in the ceiling. It was dusty. You had to look around some of that to see what was so special about it. My Dad just goes ‘Man this is a jewel. Someone’s got to take care of it. Why don’t we do this?’”
THE CHURCH STUDIO
If roots music embraces Saturday night and Sunday morning, then what better place to make soulful sounds and rock and roll history than a converted church? That’s what Leon Russell pulled off when he retreated to his home town of Tulsa in 1972 as one of the most in-demand figures in popular music. At 304 S. Trenton, Russell built a home for his label Shelter Records, a clubhouse for his friends like Eric Clapton and J.J. Cale, and a top flight studio. It was owned for many years by the late Steve Ripley, but now it’s being renovated top to bottom by a Tulsa businesswoman and arts philanthropist Teresa Knox. She talks about her thorough approach, which involved talking to about 200 people.
"Growing up here, there were a lot of urban legends about who recorded and what happened. And I wanted to know. So I interviewed a lot of musicians, but I also interviewed the gentleman who was 15 years old when he and his dad installed the control room glass. So he talked about that experience and what it was like to work with Leon and his partner. I also interviewed the two original Shelter Records secretaries, and they had a very different perspective than the artists. I met the construction manager who converted the church to being a studio space and what that was like - removing the church pews and repurposing that wood. Leon made some beautiful furniture out of that old wood. So it was a really wonderful experience to me."
At the end of the day, literally, there’s no more OK place to wind up in Tulsa for live music and western ambiance than The Colony, a honky tonk that’s been quenching Tulsan thirst in one guise or another since the late 1950s. In the 70s, Leon Russell owned this place too, and today, his spooky portrait hangs on the wall, watching the joy and revelry and shared swing of a great country music bar. The night we visited, Jacob Tovar was holding his weekly residency. Jared Tyler had just come from one highly collaborative and spontaneous show of his own with visiting artist Abbie Gardner and her bass playing husband Craig. As Jared recounts, that spirit - a very Tulsa sense of artist camaraderie - continued at The Colony later that night.
“And they’re in the middle of playing and – I didn’t expect to be called up – that was just a normal night. So he gets me up to sing a song. We sing some harmony and then he has me do a couple songs with the band. And then he gets Don White up, who is just this legendary guy. He’s got a radio show and he played with J.J. Cale before anyone knew him. And then Jacob gets Abbie up to sing. And her husband gets up and blows everyone’s mind on bass. So that happens just about every night in Tulsa.”
Here's a playlist of the music heard in this week's String, along with selected artists who are defining the new Tulsa Sound.