Swingin’ for a Good Cause

Renowned Tulsa vocalist Cindy Cain lends her talents and voice to a cause close to her heart.

Vocalist Cindy Cain will lend her talents to this year’s Uncorking the cure, which raises money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Photo courtesy Cindy Cain.

Vocalist Cindy Cain will lend her talents to this year’s Uncorking the cure, which raises money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Photo courtesy Cindy Cain.

In her years as a leading light on the Tulsa music scene, vocalist and songwriter Cindy Cain has never called attention to the fact that she suffers from multiple sclerosis. It’s not that she’s gone out of her way to cover it up. It’s just that she hasn’t made it a part of her public persona.

For that reason, most of the people who’ve seen her shows and bought her CDs have likely been unaware that MS has been a major factor in the choices she makes in her life and career. That fact goes a long way toward explaining why you haven’t seen her doing any club appearances for the past couple of years – especially since her favorite place to perform in Tulsa went out of business.

“Fatigue is probably the biggest and most invisible issue I deal with,” she says. “And due to that, I made a decision after Ciao closed [on Oct. 15, 2012] to just do special shows, like Janet [Rutland] and I did this year at SummerStage. I’ll do shows at the Jazz Hall of Fame again, too, but I’m now at a point where it’s just too difficult to haul my P.A. all over town. Most musicians know that you get tired of hauling your crap around; for me, it’s become so difficult that I don’t want to do it anymore.”

As she indicates, this does not mean that the days of catching Cindy Cain in concert are over. It just means that she’s going to be picking her appearances more judiciously, and they’re going to be a bigger deal. That brings us to her sole booking this month, as the headlining act for this year’s Uncorking the Cure event, set for Tulsa’s Cain’s Ballroom on Oct. 15. Begun in 2002 by Oklahoma members of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Uncorking the Cure raises funds that help improve the quality of life for Oklahomans afflicted with MS as well as assisting with research into the disease.

Named this year’s MS Ambassador, Cain is also serving on the steering committee for the event.

“This wasn’t really something I set out to do,” explains Cain. “Donna Leming, who’s a huge music fan as well as a good friend of mine, started having a group of our friends do the MS walks in Tulsa. Maybe you could say I was the inspiration, but she was the motivating force. She’s been doing the MS Walk for about seven years, and every year, she’s the one who’s continued to rally the troops. Because of getting involved with the walking team, I became more aware of the things the National MS Society was doing within Tulsa. Then, last year, I finally bought a ticket and went to Uncorking the Cure, the big fundraising event. The lady who sold me my house has MS, and she’s involved with the Society, and along with a number of other folks she said, ‘Oh, you should sing for us sometime.’ So it really just coalesced into this.”

When you listen to my original music, you can hear that it doesn’t come out of any one place,” she explains. “But it’s certainly Oklahoma-influenced, and partially country-influenced.

Because the venue is Cain’s Ballroom (named after former owner Madison “Daddy” Cain, to whom Cindy Cain is not related), the longtime home of western-swing king Bob Wills and his brother Johnnie Lee Wills, the board members suggested to Cain that she put together a band and program that fit the venue. It wasn’t much of a stretch for her to put a western-swing angle on the evening. Although she’s best known in town as a jazz and blues singer, Cain is the kind of artist who doesn’t consider any musical genre off-limits.

“The very first gig I ever had was when I was in the Peace Corps, in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, and I sang at a restaurant across from the U.S. Embassy, owned by a French-Canadian woman,” she recalls. “I sang with a house band that included a couple of members of the national orchestra. We did ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight,’ ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart,’ ‘Walkin’ after Midnight’ and Roberta Flack’s ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.’ It was just a little bit of everything.

“Later on, when I moved to D.C., I knew I wanted to sing, so I went to an open-mic night at Whitey’s on Washington Boulevard, watched all the bands, picked out the best one – which was a country band – and went up and said, ‘You need a female singer.’ We did songs like ‘Mama Tried,’ with me backing up the male vocalist, and probably some Highway 101 stuff, because they were very big at the time. We rehearsed for a year, did one wedding, and then the band fell apart.”

Despite that, she says, her months of rehearsing with that group helped add another influence to her singing and songwriting, which she kept after returning to northeast Oklahoma in the early part of this decade. She’d actually been exposed to country much earlier, as a young girl growing up in Pryor.

“When you listen to my original music, you can hear that it doesn’t come out of any one place,” she explains. “But it’s certainly Oklahoma-influenced, and partially country-influenced.”

Western-swing music contains those same influences, along with others familiar to Cain: classic pop, big band, blues and jazz. And all but one of the members of the band she’s assembled especially for this event, the Red Hot Pokers, can boast of having impressive credentials in the genre. (The only one who doesn’t, Scott McQuade, is an internationally known jazz pianist whose skill and versatility make him a perfect fit.) The group includes fiddler Shelby Eicher, trumpeter Mike Bennett and trombonist Steve Ham, all current members of the high-profile Tulsa Playboys; bassist Dean DeMerritt, who toured and recorded with the veteran western-swing group Asleep at the Wheel; and drummer Wade Robertson, whose extensive credits include work with western-swing king Hank Thompson.

It wouldn’t be a Cindy Cain show, though, if she didn’t bend a few genres.

“We’ll probably do [the Bob Wills classic] ‘Take Me Back to Tulsa,’” she says. “But we’ll also do some Patsy Cline, Wanda Jackson and Hank Williams. We might even do a Hank Williams III song. There’ll be swing and waltzes and, you know, other things. To me, it’s like jazz, swing, western swing – how do you parse those away from one another?”

Before Cain and the Red Hot Pokers take the stage, Cain’s friend and fellow vocalist Janet Rutland will open with what Cain calls “a cocktail set,” backed by McQuade, DeMerritt and Robertson.

Lambrusco’z to Go caters the event, with wine from Calistoga Cellars as well as a silent and live auction. Cain plans to give all attendees two of her CDs, 2006’s In My Impala and 2009’s Live at Ciao: Rhythm and Romance.

The primary reason she’s throwing in the bonus discs, she says, “is that my window of opportunity for selling CDs has further diminished by the scaling back of my gig schedule. I don’t realistically envision being able to sell that many down the road, so what better community to give them to than those who support raising funds for an MS cure and for MS patients and their caregivers?”

Individual tickets are available for $125, with table reservations available as well. Those attending must be at least 21 years of age. For more information on this year’s Uncorking the Cure, visit www.nationalmssociety.org.