George Lang had a good article on the history of Oklahoma music in The Oklahoman yesterday. Some notable bands and musicians were left out, but he covered most of his bases.
Oklahoma’s music roots run deep
By George Lang
Assistant Entertainment Editor
Almost as soon as Thomas Edison invented a way to record sound, Oklahomans were stepping up to the microphone. These days, Carrie Underwood, All-American Rejects, Toby Keith, Hinder, Rascal Flatts and The Flaming Lips are putting Oklahoma on radio playlists. But look back on every decade for the past 80 years, and native Oklahomans were burning up the national airwaves.
In 1924, a former member of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, Billy McGinty, assembled a group in Ripley that would become the first nationally popular Western band, Otto Gray and the Oklahoma Cow Boys.
Shortly after that group’s rise, a young songwriter from Okemah named Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie practically invented 20th century folk music with his “Dust Bowl Ballads,” odes to American workers and an honored staple of American music, “This Land Is Your Land.”
Guthrie’s influence cast a long shadow, influencing generations of folk and rock singers, but the homegrown evidence of his legacy is seen in the current “red dirt music” of Oklahomans Cross Canadian Ragweed, the Red Dirt Rangers, Kevin Welch, Bob Childers, Travis Linville, Jason Boland and the Stragglers, and Gene Autry of Ravia, the “yodeling cowboy,” became a country icon, movie star and baseball team owner. And when Nashville needs fresh talent, Oklahoma is its best farm team. The best-selling solo artist in pop music history is Yukon’s Garth Brooks, selling 120 million albums from 1989 to the present and popularizing country music around the world and beyond stylistic borders. Reba McEntire of Chockie was the queen of country music in the ’80s and ’90s, pulling down 18 No. 1 singles and selling 50 million records.
From the mid-1970s, when he was performing with Guthrie fiddle legend Byron Berline’s band Sundance and moving on to front Pure Prairie League, Oklahoma City’s Vince Gill has wowed audiences with his mellifluous vocals, superb guitar work and stellar songwriting. In 2006, Gill partnered with the great pop songwriter and Elk City native Jimmy Webb (“By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” “MacArthur Park”) to write a new state anthem titled “Oklahoma Rising” to celebrate the Oklahoma Centennial.
These days, some of the biggest country stars in the business hail from Oklahoma, including Moore’s Toby Keith, who released his latest hit disc, “Big Dog Daddy,” this year on his own label, Show Dog Nashville. Ada’s Blake Shelton hit it big in 2001 with “Austin” and has continued his swift rise in Nashville, Tenn..
Bryan White of Lawton and Ty England of Oklahoma City both enjoyed huge success in the mid-’90s, and former Tulsan Ronnie Dunn, one half of Brooks & Dunn, is one of Music City’s hottest songwriters and in-demand collaborators today.
Then there is Carrie Underwood, the Checotah native who won “American Idol” in 2005. Since then, she has transcended her win on that talent show, racking up multiplatinum sales for her debut compact disc. And Rascal Flatts, which has the No. 1 country album on the Billboard charts this week, “Still Feels Good,” features the guitars of Picher native Joe Don Rooney.
The success of today’s stars would be unimaginable without the groundbreaking work of Oklahoma City’s Conway Twitty, Ray Wylie Hubbard of Soper, Jean Shepard of Pauls Valley, Gus Hardin and Joe Diffie of Tulsa, Ada’s Mae Axton, “Hee Haw” host and guitar standout Roy Clark of Tulsa, Hank Thompson of Oklahoma City, Roger “King of the Road” Miller and Sheb Wooley from Erick, and Western swing guitar legend Spade Cooley and Henson Cargill of Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma can currently boast three hugely successful rock acts on radio. Oklahoma City’s aggressive pop-rock band Hinder swept onto the charts last year with “Lips of an Angel,” becoming a massive national success both on radio and in the concert business. Since its release in 2005, Hinder’s “Extreme Behavior” has sold more than 2 million copies. And All-American Rejects from Stillwater can boast two platinum discs, including their latest, “Move Along.”
In terms of critical success and worldwide renown, The Flaming Lips are psych-rock legends and some of the most gifted musicians and performers in current alternative rock.
Oklahoma was an early breeding ground for jazz, blues and their child, rock ‘n’ roll. The state was a hub for some of the best swing bands in the region in the World War II era, which brought the great jazz guitarist and Oklahoma City resident Charlie Christian to the attention of Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. In the ’50s and ’60s, Stillwater’s Chet Baker became an idol for his cool trumpet style and sweet alto voice.
Oklahomans were at the forefront of rock in its 1950s beginnings. Just before rock took off, singer Patti Page became a superstar with straight pop hits such as “(How Much is That) Doggie in the Window” and “Tennessee Waltz,” and Kay Starr had a sizable hit with “Wheel of Fortune.” Mae Axton helped spearhead rock ‘n’roll by writing Elvis Presley’s 1956 hit “Heartbreak Hotel,” and Oklahoma City’s Wanda Jackson became Presley’s touring partner and rockabilly’s first female star with hits such as “Let’s Have a Party” and “Fujiyama Mama.” In the ’60s, Hoyt Axton, son of Mae, wrote “Greenback Dollar” for the Kingston Trio, “Never Been to Spain” and “Joy to the World” for Three Dog Night, and “The Pusher” for Steppenwolf, among others.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Lawton-born Leon Russell became one of the top session musicians, songwriters and performers, playing on a huge number of hit records beginning with Phil Spector’s girl groups and having giant solo hits with “Lady Blue” and “Tightrope.” His presence in Tulsa gave rise to such artists as smooth pop-rock singer David Gates and Bread, blues-rock legend J.J. Cale, country-rock songwriter Steve Ripley and power-pop icons Dwight Twilley, 20/20 and Phil Seymour.
Recent decades saw the rise of great vocal bands such as the tight R&B group The GAP Band from Tulsa (“Party Train,” “You Dropped the Bomb on Me”), Oklahoma City vocal group Color Me Badd, and Tulsa’s Hanson, a trio of brothers who helped spearhead the late-’90s teen-pop scene with “MMMBop.”
Other Oklahomans who kept the world rocking include Tulsan Carl Radle of Derek and the Dominos; Eric Clapton sideman Jamie Oldaker; Miami’s Steve and Cassie Gaines, who went on to join Lynyrd Skynyrd; and Norman’s contributions to alternative rock, The Chainsaw Kittens and The Nixons.