No one produces songwriters like the state of Oklahoma. Their musical heritage is as rich as their vibrant red dirt and runs as deep as the various Mississippi River tributaries that carve up the land.
While others have looked to Nashville or Texas, the Oklahoma songwriter has often searched internally for their guiding light. Central figures such as Woody Guthrie, Bob Wills and Leon Russell still remain as relevant forces as they did in their heydays. As a result, the modern Oklahoma songwriter remains grounded in these traditions of honest and straightforward storytelling.
With rural communities serving as the backdrop, Oklahoma’s songwriters are often deeply rooted in authentic takes on where the South, the Heartland and West meet. Songs and stories feel earned, heartfelt and disciplined. Raised on the mythical folklore of Tom Joad and tales of the Dust Bowl, the Oklahoma songwriter has become synonymous with harsh, yet honest storytelling.
Even while the legacies of Guthrie, Wills, and Russell’s casting sprawling shadows, the Red Dirt pioneers from a generation back have helped mold today’s modern Oklahoma songwriter. The likes of Cody Canada, Mike McClure, The Red Dirt Rangers, Jason Boland and a host of others all have gone from being young up-and-comers to seasoned veterans over the years. Yet, they have endured an ever-changing climate and remained consistently relatable to a growing fanbase.
The modern Oklahoma songwriter doesn’t just come from a specific camp of individuals. They’re a tight-knit community of artists, poets and songwriters who have borrowed from and merged the distinct sounds of Oklahoma into a spirited sound that’s part Guthrie’s folk, Wills’ Western Swing, Russell’s lively Tulsa Sound and Red Dirt’s humble beginnings.
Here are 15 torchbearers of Oklahoma’s rich and prosperous modern era.
The Turnpike Troubadours are perhaps the most innovative storytellers to ever call Oklahoma home. Songwriters Evan Felker and R.C. Edwards have the uncanny ability to simultaneously tell stories on a macro and micro level with their keen vignettes of Eastern Oklahoma. Their storytelling often relies on common idioms and expressions that feel familiar, yet are used in ways that feel refreshing and stimulating. While they do have the ability to create a barn-burning atmosphere with anthemic singalongs, Turnpike really shines brightest when they form intimate confessionals that feel like three-minute Tennessee Williams plays or William Faulkner short stories.
Essential Listening: “Good Lord Lorrie,” “7&7,” “The Housefire“
John Fullbright established himself nationally with the release of the 2012’s Grammy-nominated From The Ground Up, but tales of his exploits had rumbled throughout Oklahoma for years. A former Troubadour himself, Fullbright’s storytelling hinges on a plainspoken delivery with the uncanny ability to pull on your heartstrings with just a turn of phrase or change in tone. Southern gothic and Pentecostal motifs are a driving force while Tulsa Sound pioneers like Leon Russell and JJ Cale often inspire the lush arrangements that can vary from roadhouse honky-tonkers to intimate living room confessionals.
Essential Listening: “Satan and St. Paul,” “All the Time in the World,” “High Road”
There’s a warmth to John Moreland‘s songwriting that feels as comforting as it does lonesome and stark. Like Jason Isbell or BJ Barham, Moreland has the ability to transport you to private memories that feel like the secrets we all keep close to the vest. With each song, it feels as though Moreland’s singing to only to you in your living room. While sad and somber are often his calling cards, you still walk away filling reassured of your own humanity.
Essential Listening: “Salisaw Blue,” “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars,” “Cherokee”
Like Fullbright, Parker Millsap‘s storytelling echoes that of a Pentecostal church background. He dives into complicated characters with a fervor that captures them at their most intimate, and often, most painful moments. With a deep sense of empathy, Millsap’s portrayal of life in the South and Heartland is deeply rooted in realism. He paints his Southern Gothic tales with fierce blues-tinted strokes that evoke your own sense of mortality.
Essential Listening: “Pining,” “Heaven Sent,” “Truck Stop Gospel”
The Damn Quails
After a brief hiatus last year, Norman’s Damn Quails have taken flight once again. Songwriters Gabe Marshall and Bryon White make up a dynamic one-two punch. Though their songs range from Appalachian folk, roots-rock and gritty foot-stompers, Damn Quails never stray too far from their Red Dirt foundation. True disciples, they’re deeply rooted in the traditional storytelling ways of Mike McClure, Tom Skinner and Bob Childers.
Essential Songs: “Fool’s Gold,” “Tough Luck/Cryin’ Shame,” “Me and the Whiskey”
Though many consider Travis Linville “the godfather of modern Oklahoma folk,” you’ll be hard-pressed to find to find the humble Linville boasting such accolades. In several many ways, Linville helped usher in a new age for Oklahoma as a guiding contemporary to the likes of Fullbright, Millsap and Moreland. His latest release, Up Ahead, is highlighted by gentle sweeping melodies, sly wit and sincere easy going tales.
Essential Listening: “Sun or Moon,” “Wishes,” “Bar Room”
Singer-Songwriter Levi Parham hit his stride as a storyteller with the release of 2016’s These American Blues. With Red Dirt legend Jimmy LaFave at the producing helm, Parham’s bluesy grit shines. Parham’s warm vocals provide a hearth for songs to surround very much in the same vein as Ray LaMontagne and Amos Lee. Like Fullbright, Millsap and Linville before him, Parham too has combined the rustic soul of Oklahoma with the rolling rhythms of the heartland.
Essential Songs: “These American Blues,” “Two Cookies,” “Steal Me”
The Oklahoma City-based Carter Sampson delivers delicate, yet demanding folk ballads stained with earthy organic arrangements. 2016’s Wilder Side, which was produced by Linville, finds her at her most mature and thoughtful. While Sampson’s velvety vocals bring you close, it’s her diary entry songs that keep you returning.
Essential Listening: “Queen of Oklahoma,” “Wilder Side,” “Be My Wildwood Flower”
Jacob Tovar and The Saddle Tramps
While other Oklahomans listed have primarily been influenced by the rustic realism of Woody Guthrie, Tulsa’s Jacob Tovar evokes Western Swing King Bob Wills and the old-time classic country honky-tonkers who helped establish Cain’s Ballroom as Oklahoma’s greatest music venue. With The Saddle Tramps, Tovar’s country croon is right at home on old jukeboxes and honky-tonk stages alike.
Essential Listening: “Tips and Beer,” “Three Good Reasons,” “Driving Nails”
Country roots songwriter Kaitlin Butts began turning heads with her charming debut album Same Hell, Different Devil back in 2015. Even with a playful innocence persona, Butts’ songwriting is brimming with effective wit and tact. With the charisma of Kacey Musgraves or an early Lee Ann Womack, Butts has that rare combination of style and substance.
Essential Listening: “Wild Rose,” “Same Hell, Different Devil,” “A Life Where We Workout”
Inspired by the influx of Delta Blues in Chicago and Detroit of the ’40s, Broken Arrow’s JD McPherson has his pulse on what moves people both on the dancefloor and internally. Like Rockabilly Queen Wanda Jackson, Tulsa’s soulful Charlie Wilson or Leon Russell, McPherson’s bright vocals pierce through any song with ease in a vast array of vibrant colors. As a lyricist, McPherson’s latches onto the raw textured emotions of the human condition as well as anyone.
Essential Listening: “North Side Girl,” “A Gentle Awakening,” “Lucky Penny”
A long-time staple in the Tulsa scene, Wink Burcham’s approach to country blues is an uncomplicated approach. Burcham is a songwriter’s songwriter. He crafts his songs out of the small-town stories and romanticism of rural Oklahoma. An old soul tried and true, his last album, Cleveland Summer Nights, transitions from smooth back porch picking and accounts of lonesome bars.
Essential Listening: “Town in Oklahoma,” “For the Ones We Leave Behind,” “Cleveland Summer Nights”
Jared Deck‘s rambunctious vocals evoke the bar room bravado of an early Bruce Springsteen or John Mellencamp. Armed with a working man’s mentality, Deck’s sweaty dive bar ballad blues provide an earthy texture to his earnest American Dream. While definitely anthemic at times, Deck still knows how to pull back and deliver subtle punches to the gut.
Essential Listening: “17 Miles,” “Wrong Side of the Night,” “Sweet Breath”
The Washitas is the songwriting trio of Bryon White (of The Damn Quails), Buffalo Rogers and Dylan Stewart. While the group is still relatively new, the trio has been playing around Oklahoma for years. With rumblings of a potential album coming soon, The Washitas recall the folk roots of early Oklahoma storytellers with their personal honest stories, earnest harmonies, and occasional appearances of the mandolin and accordion.
Essential Listening: “Oklahoma Blue,” “Pay the Fiddler,” “Possum Up a Tree”
John Calvin Abney
Despite his youth, John Calvin Abney‘s catalog of songs has long been road tested by long ventures out on the highway. A longtime collaborator of John Moreland’s, Abney has found a unique lane that’s combined freak folk quirks with indie rock sensibilities. At times, Abney’s songs go into dark, stark territory that feel like night rides through the country with Elliott Smith. At others, he reminds you of the straightforward alternative country prowess of Ryan Adams‘ Heartbreaker or the jangling ramble of a young Bob Dylan.
Essential Listening: “I Can’t Choose,” “Daisy and Clover,” “Way Out”