The 20 Greatest Okie Musicians
It’s nearly impossible to pick only 20 of the best singers, songwriters and musicians in Oklahoma’s history. But we gave it our best shot. Let the debates begin.
If you ever listen to a conversation between music lovers, you’ll almost always hear them discuss what a deep talent pool we have in Tulsa. In truth, an amazing breadth of talent is spread across our state. What most people don’t realize, however, is just how rich Oklahoma’s musical heritage is.
Most people know that Oklahoma has produced a number of popular country stars and can name a handful of them off the top of their head. Many even recognize that Stillwater launched its own hybrid style of music, known as Red Dirt: a blend of country, rock, blues, and folk elements that has been co-opted by the Texas country market.
But Oklahoma has produced more than just variations on country music.
Over the years, Oklahoma artists have helped shape nearly every genre of music, from jazz and rock to pop, swing and country. If you think Oklahomans are merely followers, think again. Oklahoma artists have consistently shaped the music industry with their talent and ability to push boundaries to move each genre forward, while gaining the respect of others.
We’ve compiled a list of 20 Oklahomans who have been the most influential on the music industry. From singers and songwriters to instrumentalists and even a producer, each has pushed their respective genre to a new level or left a lasting impact on those who follow while garnering critical and/ or popular acclaim. We’ve even provided a jumping-off point to get reacquainted with essential songs and album suggestions for each artist. And lest you think our influence is waning, we’ve included three up-and-coming artists who promise to keep pushing boundaries and influencing the next generation of musicians.
Fans of Vince Gill, Toby Keith, Joe Diffie, Carrie Underwood,, The Great Divide, Brandon Jenkins, Jason Boland, Color Me Badd, The Gap Band, and others may have problems with this list. And their arguments can probably be justified based on personal preferences.
Some who made the list are nationally famous. Others are known only to a small circle of fans. Some are virtuoso players. Others take the stage with a style, vibe and body of work that we can’t ignore no matter how much they lack in musical chops.
Born in Ada, Shelton still owns a home and businesses in Tishomingo while maintaining an active career in country music. His career started hot, as his debut single, “Austin,” tied the record set by Billy Ray Cyrus, holding the top spot on the country charts for five weeks, setting the standard for artist debuts. Since then, he’s set a record for most consecutive No. 1 singles (at 17) and become one of only three artists to win the CMA award for Male Vocalist of the Year five times, sharing the honor with George Strait and Vince Gill. Following in the path of other country superstars, Shelton has also become a multimedia star, delving into television and movie acting, and has become something of a pop icon as well as a judge and coach on the popular TV reality series, The Voice.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: Red River Blue (2011)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “Austin,” “The Baby,” “Some Beach,” “Honey Bee,” “Drink on It,” “Sure Be Cool If You Did”
Although known by many as the Godfather of Red Dirt, most people don’t realize that Childers (who grew up in Ponca City) studied music in Berkeley, California, before returning to Stillwater. Childers’ career led him to move to Nashville in the mid-‘80s, then relocate to Austin, before returning to Oklahoma in 1991. Over the course of his career, Childers’ songwriting and spirit made him an over-arching influence on nearly all Red Dirt artists coming out the Stillwater music scene. Childers died in 2008, but his songs remain alive and frequently reappear within the Red Dirt community.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: Nothing More Natural (1997)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “Restless Spirits,” “Memphis After Midnight,” “Woody’s Road,” “Pancho Villa’s Gold,” “Dust on the Bible”
Although Wills was born in Texas and eventually returned to Texas, we still count him as an adopted Okie. Wills’ band, the Texas Playboys, were essential in establishing Texas and country swing music and bringing Cain’s Ballroom to prominence as “the house that Bob built” as Wills and his band broadcast daily shows on KVOO from the Cain’s Ballroom between 1934-42. To this day, Wills is known as the King of Texas Swing, blending elements of country, Dixieland jazz, and pop. The Country Music Hall of Fame inducted Wills in 1968 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honored him as well in 1999.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: The Essential Bob Wills: 1935-1947 (1992)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” “New San Antonio Rose,” “Ida Red,” “Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima,” “Steel Guitar Rag”
Many people don’t realize that lead singer Michael Been and drummer Scott Musick both hailed from Oklahoma, as the band itself initially launched out of California. The Call was ground breaking as a key artist that helped the previously known “college rock” genre find a more mainstream audience and develop into what is now known as alternative rock. The group was also one of the early mainstream artists to incorporate religious imagery and reference points into the music without catering to the Christian music market. Musick remains in Tulsa as a music instructor and can still be caught performing with his own trio around town on occasion.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: Reconciled (1986)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “I Still Believe,” “Let the Day Begin,” “Oklahoma,” “I Don’t Wanna,” “The Walls Came Down”
Raised in Oklahoma City, Christian first gained national exposure playing with Benny Goodman’s Sextet and Orchestra from 1939-42. Christian’s career was cut short as he died at the age of 25 from complications due to contracting tuberculosis in the 1930s. Nevertheless, his guitar playing influenced jazz artists as diverse as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and even Miles Davis. His electric guitar playing is also credited for paving the way for later players like Eddie Cochran, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Carlos Santana, and Jimi Hendrix. On the jazz side, Christian’s technique and style led him to be credited as being an important contributor to the development of bebop and an early influence on cool jazz.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: The Charlie Christian Collection 1939-41 (2013)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “Stardust,” “Swing to Bop,” “Breakfast Feud,” “Wholly Cats,” “Gone with What Draft”
Born and raised in Yale, Oklahoma, Baker shot to fame in the early ‘50s as a jazz trumpeter, flugelhornist, and vocalist. Early in his career he played with Vido Musso and Stan Getz, and gained initial acclaim when playing a series of West Coast shows with Charlie Parker in 1952. Attention grew as he joined the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. After that group splintered Baker formed his own quartet and found even more fame with his vocals, becoming an icon and staple of the cool jazz movement. Baker’s career derailed in the mid-‘60s due to his drug habit, but he returned to music in the ‘70s and was prolific as a recording artist in Europe in the latter years of his career, only returning stateside sporadically. Regardless, his impact on cool jazz remains an imprint on the genre to this day.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: Chet Baker Sings (2015)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “My Funny Valentine,” “Early Morning Mood,” “Stella by Starlight,” “Moonlight in Vermont,” “I Fall in Love Too Easily”
Cross Canadian Ragweed
Initially formed in Yukon while the founding members were still in high school, the band moved to Stillwater after graduating to plug itself into the Red Dirt music scene, becoming one of its most popular acts. Ragweed moved Red Dirt in a new direction with a sound that was more rooted in southern rock and blues than folk or country, while still embracing and expanding on the vivid storytelling and songwriting that Bob Childers and Tom Skinner exemplified. Ragweed went on to tour nationally, expanding Red Dirt’s reach and bringing even more notoriety to Stillwater’s blossoming music scene. Although the band split up in 2010, bandleader Cody Canada and bassist Jeremy Plato have moved on with their band The Departed and continue to carry on the Red Dirt heritage.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: Cross Canadian Ragweed (2002)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “Constantly,” “17,” “Alabama,” “Look at Me,” “Anywhere but Here,” “Boys from Oklahoma,” “Carney Man” “42 Miles”
The Flaming Lips
Although Wayne Coyne and his cohorts haven’t scored staggering sales numbers, The Flaming Lips have had a huge impact on Oklahoma’s indie rock community. Endlessly experimental, the band has consistently pushed the rock genre beyond conceived boundaries with releases like its Zaireeka project (meant to be listened to on four separate stereos, simultaneously) and concept album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. The band has gained critical acclaim for its recordings, but is best known for its live shows, which mixes psychedelia, performance art, and rock concert elements. Above all else, though, The Flaming Lips’ “anything goes” attitude consistently encourages young rockers and independent acts to let their freak flags fly.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “Do You Realize??,” “The W.A.N.D.,” “She Don’t Use Jelly,” “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton,” “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Part 1”
Officially the best-selling artist of the past 20 years (since the opening of the Soundscan/RIAA tracking era), Brooks has sold over 70 million albums, and as of September 2016 is the only artist to have seven Diamond Award albums (10 million units sold). He’s also one of the most awarded country artists of all time with 22 ACM awards (and 47 nominations), two Grammys from 13 nominations), and even more Billboard, AMA, and CMA awards. Brooks undeniably bridged the gap between classic and modern pop-country and has been at the forefront of country music crossing over into pop and some rock markets. At this point, you can’t think of modern country music without thinking of Brooks, and he’s always proudly worn his Oklahoma roots on his sleeve. Recently emerged from retirement, he’s still one of the most popular touring artists on the road and shows no sign of slowing down again.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: No Fences (1990)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “Friends in Low Places,” “The Dance,” “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” “The River,” “Unanswered Prayers” “The under Rolls,” “We Shall Be Free,” “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up),” “When You Come Back to Me Again”
Yes, the band was launched like a rocket with the chart-topping single, “MMMBop” off 1997’s Middle of Nowhere, but they’ve grown into much more than a simple novelty act. The fact is, all three brothers (Isaac, Taylor and Zac) are incredibly talented and have become amazingly strong songwriters. Their following remains incredibly loyal and the group remains tied to Tulsa, with its headquarters still tucked away in the Tulsa Arts District. Add in the fact that they’ve expanded in recent years to launch their own microbrew and have brought The Hop Jam, a microbrew and music festival to downtown Tulsa, and they’ve grown from pop wonder kids to renaissance men.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: Middle of Nowhere (1997)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “MMMBop,” “Where’s the Love,” “This Time Around,” “Penny & Me,” “Runaway Run,” “Thinking ‘Bout Somethin’,” “Strong Enough to Break,” “Give a Little,” “Juliet,” “I Was Born”
Known as one of the originators of the Tulsa Sound, Cale saw his own share of success as a solo artist, but is most well-known as a songwriter. Although he generally avoided the limelight, his influence as an important artist in rock history has been widely acknowledged by artists like Neil Young and Eric Clapton. Cale’s songs have been recorded by numerous artists including Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Freddie King, Waylon Jennings, Beck, Lucinda Williams, Dr. John, John Mayer and others. Although he maintained a low profile, his album with Clapton, The Road to Escondido, won a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2008, and his influence is still felt in the rock and blues communities. In 2013, Young remarked that of all the musicians he had ever heard, Cale and Jimi Hendrix were the two best electric guitar players.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: Troubadour (1976)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “After Midnight,”, “Cocaine,” “Travelin’ Light,” “If You’re Ever in Oklahoma,” “Call Me the Breeze”
Often credited as the third leader of Red Dirt (along with Tom Skinner and Bob Childers), LaFave is another adopted Okie who was born in Texas. LaFave and his family moved to Stillwater in his teens, where he eventually met Childers and produced his first album. Until his death in May 2017, LaFave remained active as a musician, as well as a devotee of Woody Guthrie, acting as an advisory board member and regular performer for the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: Texoma (2001)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “Walk Away Renee,” “On a Bus to St. Cloud,” “Shining on Through,” “Hideaway Girl,” “Rock and Roll Music to the World”
You can’t have a serious conversation about Tulsa music, or Oklahoma music in general, without Russell in the mix. One of the biggest rock stars of the ‘70s, he saw international acclaim and toured consistently (always with Tulsa musicians) right up until his passing in 2016. He also founded Shelter Records and The Church recording studio (which is currently undergoing a restoration project). Those two ventures alone helped put Tulsa on the music industry radar, drawing artists like Jimmy Cliff, Eric Clapton, and George Harrison to our city to work on various projects. He also produced and played on sessions with Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Ike and Tina Turner, The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, The Ventures, Bobby Darin, Wayne Newton, Sam Cooke, Johnny Mathis and many records with Herb Albert and Tijuana Brass.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: Carney (1972)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “A Song for You,” “Tight Rope,” “Stranger in a Strange Land,” “This Masquerade,” “Hummingbird,” “Lady Blue,” “AHard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”
A native of McAlester, McEntire launched her debut single in January 1976 (“I Don’t Wanna Be a One Night Stand”), and released her debut album (Reba McEntire) in 1977. Since then, she has become the undisputed queen of modern country, one of the few artists to chart No. 1 singles across four decades, was the first artist to win the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year Award four years in a row (now joined by only Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood), and holds the record for most CMA award nominations by a female artist, with 50. Beyond that, her career led her to become a multimedia sensation, appearing in movies (Tremors, Maverick), on Broadway (Annie Get Your Gun), and even starring in her own sitcom, Reba, for six seasons. She has continued to remain active and relevant in the industry, while charting 40 No. 1 singles, 16 No. 1 albums, and having 28 albums certified gold, platinum, or multi-platinum.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: Reba (1988)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “Can’t Even Get the Blues No More,” “Does He Love You,” “The Last One to Know,” “I Know How He Feels,” “Is There Life Out There”
An icon in country music, Clark has won seven CMA awards (including both Entertainer of the Year and Instrumentalist of the Year) and a Grammy as one of the best guitarist and overall performers in his genre, especially during the ‘70s. Perhaps more importantly, he was a host of the nationally syndicated television show Hee Haw, and frequently guest hosted The Tonight Show in Johnny Carson’s absence, making him one of the pioneers crossing country music into a multi-media machine. In addition, Clark was the first country musician to build and own a theater in Branson, Missouri, opening a trend that led Branson to become known as a live performance destination.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: I Never Picked Cotton (1970)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “The Tips of My Fingers,” “I Never Picked Cotton,” “Thank God and Greyhound,” “If I Had It to Do All Over Again,” “Come Live with Me” “Yesterday,” “When I Was Young”
Ripley grew up in Oklahoma and graduated from Oklahoma State University and is reported to be one of the first to use the term Red Dirt, when Ripley’s band, Moses, chose the label name Red Dirt Records to self-release its live album on 1972. Ripley formed The Tractors in 1994 and has released seven albums with the group. He is best known as a studio musician and producer, having worked with Bob Dylan, J.J. Cale, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and Roy Clark, amongst others. Musicians also know him for founding Ripley Guitars, designing a stereo-output guitar and creating guitars for Steve Lukather, Jimmy Buffett, and Eddie Van Halen, amongst others. Ripley also purchased The Church Studio from Leon Russell in 1987 and used it until he sold the studio in 2006.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: The Tractors (1994)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “Baby Likes to Rock It,” “The Tulsa Shuffle,” “Fast Girl,” “Tryin’ to Get to New Orleans,” “Shot of Love”
Skinner is also credited as one of the founding artists of Stillwater’s Red Dirt movement, as a friend and contemporary to Bob Childers. Skinner was bassist for Garth Brooks’ early band, Santa Fe, and initially moved to Nashville with him before returning to Oklahoma to be closer to family. Known primarily for his folk influenced playing and story telling writing style, Skinner’s influence reaches beyond his compositions to his open spirit and willingness to embrace other, younger artists. “Red Dirt is really more of a brotherhood and a community than it is, necessarily, a style,” he was quoted as saying. Two years after passing in 2015, his weekly “Wednesday Night Science Project,” an open, songwriter’s jam session, remains a tradition at The Colony in Tulsa, continuing to carry on his welcoming spirit.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: Acoustic Skinner (1999)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “Blind Man,” “I Love This Game,” “Favorite Cup,” “Nobody Knows,” “Light of This World”
Although most people don’t know the name, Allsup was one of the most influential and important guitarists to quietly come out of Oklahoma in the ‘50s. Known primarily for playing with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and Buddy Holly. Allsup was touring with Holly and lost a coin toss to Richie Valens for a seat on the plane that crashed in 1959, killing Valens, Holly, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. He was also an ace studio musician who played with artists ranging from The Ventures to Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Roy Orbison. Allsup, who was born near Owasso, Oklahoma, was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 2005. Paul McCartney called him one of the finest guitar players in the world.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: The Buddy Holly Songbook (1965)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “Rose Coloured Glasses,” “Detroit City”
Although Jackson’s career led her into country and gospel music as well, she’s best known as the “Queen of Rockabilly.” Jackson started her career and began touring after she graduated high school, with her father accompanying her as manager and chaperone. During that time, she often shared the stage with Elvis Presley, and even dated him for a short period. Presley encouraged her to sing more rockabilly. She had her first Top 40 hit in 1960 with “Let’s Have a Party,” and toured as a headliner with her band The Party Timers (which included as yet unknown guitarist Roy Clark). Jackson’s country career started taking off at the same time, and she transitioned to the country market in the mid-‘50s as rockabilly’s popularity was waning. She returned to her rockabilly roots in her later years and has most recently released The Party Ain’t Over (recorded with Jack White of the White Stripes) in 2011 and Unfinished Business in 2012.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: Rockin’ with Wanda (2012)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “I Gotta Know,” “Let’s Have a Party,” “Fujiyama Mama,” “In the Middle of a Heartache,” “Right or Wrong”
No list of Oklahoma musicians would be complete without Guthrie. His influence extends beyond later folk contemporaries like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez to pop and rock artists like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and even Tom Morello and Rage Against the Machine. Guthrie was one of the first artists to not only use his music and art in service of his country, but also as a vehicle for political and social change. Many of his songs are about his experiences in the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression when Guthrie traveled with migrant workers from Oklahoma to California and learned their traditional folk and blues songs, earning him the nickname the “Dust Bowl Troubadour.” If you’re looking for the quintessential Oklahoma artist, look no further than Okemah native, Woody Guthrie.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: Woody at 100: Wood Guthrie Centennial Collection (2012)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “This Land is Your Land,” “So Long (It’s Been Good to Know Yuh),” “Mule Skinner Blues,” “Hard Travelin’,” “Bound for Glory,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “Pretty Boy Floyd”
THREE TO WATCH
As a native of Okemah, Fullbright shares roots with Woody Guthrie, whom he counts as an influence. By writing intensely vivid and personal songs, however, Fullbright grabs your attention like a figurative slap to the face. His studio debut, From the Ground Up, earned rave reviews and a Grammy nomination for best Americana album. Fullbright’s follow up, Songs, shifted from primarily third-person narratives to first-person conversations and garnered strong reviews from the Wall Street Journal, American Songwriter, and NPR, drawing comparisons to Neil Young and Townes Van Zandt. Expect his next move to find an even larger, crossover audience, as he fills the role that Bob Childers and Tom Skinner have vacated with their passing.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: From the Ground Up (2012)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “Gawd Above,” “Jericho,” “When You’re Here,” “Until You Were Gone”
Over the past couple of years, Moreland worked his way into the subconscious of a national audience that should start unfolding over the next year or two. Heavy touring, both on his own and opening for the likes of Jason Isbell and Iron & Wine, has started paying off with strong reviews, and the Wall Street Journal even previewed his latest CD, Big Bad Luv, leading up to its release. Think a mix of Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp with a distinctly Oklahoma-based perspective, and you’ll have an idea of where Moreland’s career could go.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: High on Tulsa Heat (2015)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: "Break My Heart Sweetly,” “Sallisaw Blue,” “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars,” “It Don’t Suit Me (Like Before),” “Endless Oklahoma Sky”
It’s not hard to argue that Mathis is one of the most diversely talented musicians to come out of Oklahoma in the past decade or more. As a founding member of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, he was perhaps the heartbeat of that outfit until he chose to depart in 2008. Since then, he has crossed between jazz, rock, and jam projects, playing with Steve Kimock, Marco Benevento, Bill Kreutzmann (of The Grateful Dead), and was a member of Tea Leaf Green until choosing to pursue his own project. His current group, Reed Mathis and Electric Beethoven, crosses genres with an improvisational take on Beethoven’s melodies. A talented and in-demand multi-instrumentalist, expect Mathis to become a leader in both modern jazz and improvisational rock formats.
ESSENTIAL ALBUM: Lil Tae Rides Again (2008)
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: “Shepherd’s Song,” “Easy to Be Your Lover,” “Autumnal,” “Son of Jah,” “Sue from Bogalusa”
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