Like a steady drum beat shaking the rafters at Cain’s Ballroom, there’s momentum building in Tulsa.
And city leaders feel the wood floor shaking under their feet, basking in its joyful noise.
With the announcement this month that the Bob Dylan Archives are coming to Tulsa due to a partnership between the University of Tulsa and the George Kaiser Family Foundation, people around the world are taking notice of what is happening for this blossoming music city.
“We got it,” said Abby Kurin, director of the Tulsa Office of Film, Music, Arts and Culture. “We have the history. We have the music scene right now. Then you add in the Woody Guthrie Center, the Bob Dylan Archives, and OKPOP museum — it’s all of those items that continue to put Tulsa on the map.”
As these pieces come online, with Dylan’s archives making their way here over the next two years and groundbreaking on the OKPOP museum expected in 2017, Tulsa leaders hope to position the city as a destination for music scholars, historians and fans from across the world.
With the BOK Center, Cain’s Ballroom and Brady Theater, as well as smaller venues that highlight locals like The Shrine and The Colony, Tulsa can be the next great music city, as long as it stays true to itself, experts say.
“I think the momentum is just getting started,” said Jeff Nickler, general manager of SMG Tulsa, which manages the BOK Center. “It seems like finally instead of inventing something new for Tulsa to promote, we decided to promote the assets we have had all along, which is our musical heritage and our musical talent here. And across the board, people are recognizing that.”
A new hub for music scholars
With the announcement in 2011 that the George Kaiser Family Foundation was purchasing the archives of Woody Guthrie and moving them to Tulsa, to be housed in a new center dedicated to his legacy, the city’s music future wasn’t clear.
The Brady District was still a scattering of empty warehouses, though work was well underway to transform the neighborhood north of downtown, which would change Tulsa.
But Ken Levit, executive director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, along with many community partners, had big ideas.
“We wanted it to energize music and culture generally in our Tulsa area,” Levit said. “I don’t think there was ever a big plan to do other archives, really. Our foundation is at a stage where we can seize opportunities when they come about. I think it was in the back of our minds that things like this would emerge.
“And lo and behold it did when people from the Dylan archive contacted us,” Levit said.
Add in the Phil Ochs archive that was donated to the Woody Guthrie Center and the organizations that have seen the successful care and display of Guthrie’s work, and Tulsa’s legacy as a music town has gotten some serious credentials. The Woody Guthrie Center was the second designated Grammy Museum Affiliate in the world.
Tulsa is now home to the actual notebooks and papers that Oklahoma-native Guthrie used to write some of the most iconic songs in the country’s songbook. “This Land is Your Land” is handwritten on a piece of notebook paper, and is stored here in Tulsa.
Having that actual, physical material is an automatic draw to even casual fans. And to see it, to study it, they have to be here.
“I’ve learned there’s something powerful about having the original source material physically here that reverberates and has a power to make things happen, which is a little bit surprising,” Levit said. “If we just had a Woody Guthrie Center here, it wouldn’t be the same without the original materials here. There’s something about the magnetic effect of having the source materials here that artists and students and scholars can come and touch and be inspired by.”
Fans of Bob Dylan from around the world will come here to see some of the 6,000 pieces of work in his archives, which is being collected, digitized and stored at the Helmerich Center for American Research at Gilcrease Museum until a more permanent space can be established in the Brady Arts District.
For a city on track to become a music-lover’s destination, it’s an enormous draw.
“I think Woody got a lot of attention for sure and was noticed and has a very dedicated following,” Levit said.
“Dylan has been a little bit of a different experience because of the global interest in him.” Levit said. “I was probably somewhat taken aback by just the magnitude of the response and how overwhelming it is. The number of people who posted about wanting to move to Tulsa, it is rather stunning.”
While a space for Dylan near Guthrie in the Brady Arts District is in the works, other projects in the works are coming to give even more context to Tulsa’s musical past. The Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture is on the way, and with it the story of Oklahoma in music, movies, television and more. Thanks to a bond issue signed by Gov. Mary Fallin last year, OKPOP will launch forward the notion of Tulsa as the culture center of Oklahoma.
“But I think if you really look at why OKPOP is in Tulsa, it makes perfect sense,” said Jeff Moore, director of the OKPOP Museum. “If you look at Tulsa as a music city, now it’s a big deal with Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, and the collections coming with the POP, Leon Russell and all those stories.”
The museum, which is close to finalizing the selection of an architecture firm with a goal of breaking ground in summer 2017, will also have collections from the likes of Roy Clark, The GAP Band, Kristin Chenoweth and JJ Cale. It will take the threads of these different musicians and weave them together into a pattern of context for Oklahoma’s vast cultural influence.
Drawing people to Tulsa for those experiences is just part of the overall goal of making Tulsa a destination. A big part is nurturing the musicians already here.
Building up the scene
From Bob Wills to John Fullbright, musicians in Tulsa have shaped the music scene here to fit the time and the people. The blues and country roots morphed into a rock adolescence, nurturing talent all along the way.
Now, the city seems to be taking advantage of having that community and helping to build it up even further.
In the side bar of Cain’s Ballroom last month, the Tulsa Office of Film, Music, Arts and Culture hosted its next series of panel discussions on how to succeed in music, with tips from local leaders in the scene. It was a standing-room-only event.
Kurin, one of the event’s organizers, said the interest in that speaks to the strength of Tulsa’s creative community combined with its desire to build itself up.
“I think Tulsa has an incredible entrepreneurial spirit,” Kurin said. “What I feel like we always try to convey is our filmmakers, musicians and artists are still entrepreneurs. That’s their startup. That’s the thing about Tulsa: You really can craft what you’re trying to do here.”
One of the city’s arguably most successful musical startups called the Brady Arts District home when there was little else there.
The Tulsa-natives Hanson got their start at Mayfest and have for more than a decade established Tulsa as their home base.
They have taken their music around the world, but have expanded to beer, music festivals, art and more. They see a spirit in Tulsa that is found in few other places, with a class of creative people who are making their own way, but doing it together as a community.
“The word scene is important because that’s just a collection of people,” said Taylor Hanson in a recent interview from their studio in the Brady Arts District. “That collection of people colliding together creates opportunity. But it never happens on accident.”
Tulsa has dozens of music venues, many of them with packed schedules featuring local musicians every night of the week. In order for them to succeed and break out of Tulsa, they need more support and resources. The music business is just that: Business. It takes recording studios, management, engineers, more support throughout the industry for it to grow.
“I think deciding to say it’s worthy of investment in and it’s worthy of treating it like this is a real industry. This is a real thing that involves people’s businesses and talents and resources,” Hanson said. “We need to be able to keep talented people and get talented people to say, ‘Tulsa. I want to be there.’ ”
Tulsa: A music destination
If people want to make Tulsa a music destination, the BOK Center has shown its place as one of the anchors. Nickler said that 41 percent of ticket buyers are from outside the Tulsa metro area.
“Before we opened our doors, people said it would never work,” Nickler said. “It’s hard to find one of those naysayers now.”
In the more than eight years since opening, the BOK Center has brought iconic musicians to Tulsa, several of them choosing Tulsa over bigger markets. Tulsa is considered an “A” market now, Nickler said. But to get there, they stand on the shoulders of those who came before them.
“When we go out and pursue shows and talk to agents and promoters and really tout Tulsa as a music destination, we tout our musical heritage and our places like Cain’s that have built a wonderful destination here,” Nickler said.
Dylan and OKPOP will only continue that momentum. It’s a momentum that’s taken a while to build up steam, though.
“When New York is taking notice, when .L.A. is taking notice, when Nashville is taking notice, that’s a good thing,” Moore said. “Now we need to recognize that and say, ‘This is our DNA.’ ”
As the drumbeat continues to get louder and louder, local leaders hope to grow in a way that maintains Tulsa’s identity. Nowhere else can someone see the stage Bob Wills made famous. Or sit in the small bar where the iconic Tom Skinner held court and mentored generations of musicians for years at The Colony. Or throw out a blanket on the Guthrie Green while a parade of local and national talent entertain families on a spring day.
“We’re our own place,” Kurin said. “Tulsa is not the next Nashville. We’re not the next Austin. While we have mad respect for those institutions, we’re our own thing. We’re creating something that’s going to be recognized for decades to come.”