Tulsa’s Western Swing Renaissance
Musicians old and young are bringing Tulsa’s indigenous music form back home.
Seventy-eight years ago this month, three dispirited music men – fiddler and bandleader Bob Wills, trumpeter and announcer Everett Stover and business manager O.W. Mayo – motored into Tulsa, the chilled and drizzly day reflecting their collective mood. The musical group that provided their livelihood had just been bounced from Oklahoma City radio station WKY, thanks to the long reach of a vengeful ex-employer named W. Lee O’Daniel. Nicknamed “Pappy,” a reflection of his carefully cultivated populist persona, O’Daniel would go on to become a Texas governor and United States senator. At the time, however, he was the general manager of Fort Worth’s Burris Mills, maker of Light Crust Flour, a favorite of Southwestern housewives. As an original member of the Light Crust Doughboys, the radio band whose daily show promoted the Burris product, Wills had locked horns with the autocratic O’Daniel several times, finally splitting – with some of his fellow Doughboys – to form his own group.
O’Daniel hadn’t taken kindly to the uprising, and he’d used the substantial advertising-dollar clout of Light Crust Flour to run Wills and his band, now called the Texas Playboys, off the WKY airwaves before they could even get established. In the dead of winter, Bob and the Playboys were suddenly jobless, and their prospects looked as bleak as that February afternoon.
But then, acting on an idea from Mayo, the three managed to talk their way into a midnight tryout over Tulsa’s 25,000-watt barnburner, KVOO. It was the start of a remarkably successful connection between the radio station and the band. About a year later, Cain’s Ballroom joined the partnership, becoming Texas Playboy headquarters. For the next several years, broadcasting over KVOO from the Cain’s six days a week, Wills and his bandmates popularized a new kind of dance music that blended pop, blues, hillbilly, cowboy, jazz and high-plains fiddles. Eventually dubbed Western swing, it is to Tulsa what the blues are to Memphis and jazz is to Kansas City and New Orleans.
I’ve long maintained that a visitor should be able to go somewhere in Tulsa every weekend – preferably Cain’s Ballroom, the Carnegie Hall of Western swing – and see and hear a live Western swing band. While that hasn’t happened yet, it’s gotten a lot closer, thanks to a recent renaissance of Western-swing acts from Tulsa.
One of them, the Tulsa Playboys, performs at monthly dances at Cain’s, usually on the second Thursday night. There, they offer up eminently danceable tunes, most of which were originally made famous by the bands of Wills and his brother, Johnnie Lee, who took over for Bob in 1942 and kept the broadcasts going from the Cain’s for another 16 years.
“We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” says bandleader and multi-instrumentalist Shelby Eicher. “We wanted to be nostalgic in the way we looked and sounded. We’ve got horns, twin fiddles, a non-pedal steel guitar – to me, that’s the classic sound for Western swing.”
Eicher, who spent years on the road with Roy Clark, leads a group of well-known musicians, most of whom have national credentials. Trombonist Steve Ham, trumpeter Mike Bennett, steel-guitarist Steve Bagsby and piano player Spencer Sutton, for instance, have performed as a part of the current Texas Playboys aggregation, led by ex-Wills vocalist Leon Rausch and native Oklahoman Tommy Allsup.
The genesis of this group, says Eicher, involved Allsup. “We were working on a recording project with Tommy, using a lot of musicians from around this area, and as we went through that process, we were having so much fun, I said to the guys, ‘Would you be interested in doing a dance every month?’ And everyone said, ‘Oh, yeah.’”
A couple of other notable Western-swing veterans have signed on with the Mingo Valley Boys, a new band led by lead guitarist Jeff Pickle, who calls himself “an old cowboy and jazz player.” Among the musicians he’s performed with is fellow Tulsan J.D. Walters, a noted steel-guitarist who spent many years with the late Hank Thompson’s Brazos Valley Boys. Another Brazos Valley Boy, Morey Sullivan, also graces the six-man group. Bassist-vocalist Sullivan was Thompson’s bandleader for a quarter of a century. Twin fiddles, a staple of the genre, are handled by Mike Smith and Doug Scott, with Woody Coyner on drums.
“The main reason we do Western swing is, first of all, we love playing it because it’s a challenge,” explains Pickle. “Second, we don’t want to see it die out. We don’t want it to go away, and the best way to say that is to just go out and do it.”
Pickle says that the band plans to do some recording soon. Meanwhile, they’ve been maintaining a monthly dance schedule at Tulsa’s American Legion Post No. 1.
With all four of its members under 25 years of age, A Bar Bunkhouse Band is the youngest of the new Tulsa Western-swing groups. But, as guitarist Merrit Armitage notes, their roots go deep.
“I grew up listening to old records and tapes,” he says. “My grandparents loved Western swing. My parents danced to it. I remember learning how to waltz to a Bob Wills record.”
The band also has a connection to the Tulsa Playboys – or at least to a couple of them. A few years ago, Tulsa Playboys Eicher and Rick Morton helped start a young Western-swing band called Oklahoma Stomp. That group is no more, but Stomp vocalist Turner Armitage, Merrit’s brother, and fiddler Jake Duncan are now in A Bar Bunkhouse Band. Bassist Landon Morgan completes the lineup.
Recently, the members appeared in an Italian music documentary, a portion of which was shot at the Cain’s Ballroom. There, they jammed with a rock group from Italy called After Hours. The filmmakers tracked down A Bar Bunkhouse Band from a YouTube video. “When the producer called, I thought it was some sort of spam call at first,” laughs Merrit. “But then I did a little research and found that the band was kind of the Metallica of Italy. We really enjoyed playing together; it was fun for all of us.”
The final act is one that’s been carrying the torch for a while. The Round Up Boys first came to prominence in the very early ‘90s, when they began playing weekly lunchtime engagements at Nelson’s Buffeteria in downtown Tulsa. Twenty years later, they’re all over the place, playing Mondays at the Senior Center building in Broken Arrow, and the first and third Thursdays at Tulsa Moose Lodge 862, among other jobs.
Unlike many of the musicians in this story, bandleader Bob Fjeldsted isn’t from Tulsa. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t know about western swing. “Where I grew up, in southern California, we heard a lot of Bob Wills,” he says. “He was very popular. In fact, he played at Harmony Park Ballroom, where we used to dance to Dick Dale and the Del-Tones.”
The Round Up Boys may not play surf music, as Dick Dale did, but don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility. “We’re such a request band that we’ve been known to do rock ‘n’ roll – and even the hokey pokey,” says Fjeldsted. “Western swing is where our heart lies and where our backbone is, but, you know, that’s what Bob did. He played what the people wanted.”