The Sooner State is blessed with an abundance of natural resources, making it a leading producer of cattle, wheat, pecans and natural gas. Although it might not show up in your grade school textbook, there’s another important product that belongs on that list – musicians. From the folk ballads of Woody Guthrie to the elctro-funk of the Gap Band, the psychedelic alt. rock of the Flaming Lips and the baroque pop of St. Vincent, this state has never had a shortage of exceptional and diverse musical talent. Recently, three more Okie musicians, JD McPherson, John Fullbright and Samantha Crain, have stepped clearly onto the national stage, offering the rest of the country yet another taste of Oklahoma’s quality homegrown.
Twenty-six year-old Samantha Crain of Shawnee has a uniquely beautiful voice and a lyrical gift. Her rootsy-indie sound has garnered praise from such hallowed institutions as Rolling Stone, Spin, The New York Times and NPR. Kidface, Crain’s new album, will be out February 19. Unlike previous releases where Crain capitalized on her considerable talent as a fiction writer to craft her songs, this collection is drawn from her own life experience. “This is my first album to write that is more autobiographical in nature,” Crain told me in a recent interview. “I think I’ve just gotten older and more comfortable with that sort of writing.”
Crain frequently sites Neil Young as a musical influence. However, it is a less well known, but mightily gifted songwriter, Jason Molina of the bands Magnolia Electric Co. and Songs: Ohia, who has directly inspired her writing. “I’m influenced by him (Jason) in a different way, which is that I kind of reply to his lyrics by way of my own songs.” The lovely and haunting “For the Miner” from Crain’s Kidface is a response to Molina’s compositions “Pyramid Electric Co.” and “Don’t It Look Like Rain”. “I’ve never met him in real life,” Crain explained, “but I have this imaginary friendship with him where we’re confidants or something. Whenever I listen to his songs, I feel the need to respond to him and I have for a few years now. This is the first time where it hasn’t been very ambiguous…I’m pretty open about it. In years past, I’ve just let it go by quietly, waiting to see if anybody noticed.”
Crain feels growing up in Oklahoma has inevitably influenced her music. “It’s the natural inclination when you’re surrounded by the people and you live in a state that looks like Oklahoma to play something that’s more country or folk in nature. It would be really hard for me to be inspired to write differently living here…It’s the natural feel of the state…it matches the scenery.” In Tulsa, you can catch Samantha Crain on Feb. 15 at Fassler Hall and in OKC the next night at The Blue Door. She’ll be in Little Rock on the 22nd.
Although many music loving Oklahomans have been aware of the exceptionally talented John Fullbright for years, his 2012 release From the Ground Up rocketed him to national acclaim. On Feb. 10, just a few months shy of his twenty-fifth birthday, Fullbright will be attending the 55th Grammy Award Ceremony at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where he’ll be in the company of top-selling musicians like Jack White, Adele and Katy Perry. Fullbright’s latest is up for “Best Americana Album”, competing with The Avett Brothers, The Lumineers, Mumford & Sons and Bonnie Raitt.
Apparently harboring an old man’s soul in his young man’s body, Fullbright writes songs with a depth and skill that belie his youth. Greg Johnson of Oklahoma City, Fullbright’s manager and owner of the legendary Blue Door music venue, recognized something special in Fullbright when he first heard him perform with Tom Skinner and Joel Melton years ago. “I’d heard about John Fullbright and seen him around the campgrounds in Okemah when he was in high school, but I didn’t pay much attention.” As a music promoter, Johnson is constantly inundated with people touting “the next best thing.” Although people were recommending Fullbright to Johnson, he hadn’t yet taken the time to seek out his music.
The more Johnson listened to Fullbright, “the more I just thought this is the best young writer and performer I’ve ever heard in my life. He embodies everything the Blue Door represents. He’s a combination of everything from Jimmy Webb to Townes Van Zandt.”
Johnson set about introducing Fullbright to some of the best songwriters in the business, providing opportunities for the young musician to share the stage with some amazing veteran talents. According to Johnson, the support and friendship of this accomplished and experienced group of songwriters helped Fullbright “hone his craft from the start.”
Although Johnson would not have predicted a Grammy nomination this quickly for Fullbright, he is not at all surprised, having always believed the potential was there in this promising musician. “He is a once in a generation kind of artist,” Johnson said with certainty. Fullbright will be in Europe at the beginning of this month, then touring the West and Midwest in March. You can catch him back this way on May 16 when he’ll perform on the Mayfest Main Stage.
For Broken Arrow resident JD McPherson, 2012 was a wild ride that included performances on Conan, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Night Show with David Letterman. The year started off with a bang when the venerable Rounder Record Label released Signs & Signifiers in April, actually a rerelease of the rockabilly and r&b influenced album McPherson originally recorded entirely in analog in Chicago’s Hi-Style Studio. McPherson’s beautifully self-directed video of “North Side Gal”, a rocking tune off the album, was a huge YouTube hit.
“Well, it’s been pretty crazy, pretty crazy,” McPherson told me in a recent interview. “2012 was a very eventful year, for sure…It’s wonderful and very exciting.” Although McPherson has been a hard working part-time musician for years, his jump to national artist with a full time musical career seems, in many ways, like the proverbial overnight success story. “I understand that it’s not in the usual way things work. It was just a very fortuitous series of events including an introduction to the people on a team that have helped a lot,” McPherson noted, referring to his management, booking and public relation agencies. “They’ve sort of managed to hit it on all cylinders within a short amount of time. I’m very grateful,” he commented.
The biggest change in McPherson’s life has been his time away from home. “Trying to deal with being away from home, that’s really the only down side, the only difficult part.” And how has life in his home state influenced McPherson? “I don’t see how anybody can not be influenced by their geographical, topographical and cultural surroundings. It’s a big deal,” he commented. “I would say that I first became aware of Oklahoma’s music history when I was in late high school. I think that’s a huge thing, and I don’t really have any intention of leaving Oklahoma.”
McPherson plans to start work on a new album early this month to be recorded in the same Chicago studio as the previous release. “It’s really good to stay with our team there in Chicago. I know for a fact we have good chemistry up there. We’re going to do it in pretty much the same way. We’ve got a few tricks up our sleeve this time around. The studio is a little beefier than it was. We’re really looking forward to it.”
These songs will feature many of the same players, including the ridiculously talented Scott Ligon of NRBQ fame. “He plays every instrument under the sun. He played piano on our first record. Music just kind of falls out of him,” McPherson laughed. McPherson’s been listening to a lot of Chicano Rock & Roll from the 50s, which he suspects will influence the new record, musicians like Ritchie Valens and Chan Romero.
With a show scheduled at the Cain’s on Feb. 23, the Tulsa audience may be in for a sneak preview of the new songs. “Right before the Cain’s show, we should have some new material to guinea pig out on Tulsa,” he said. “Actually, Tulsans will be some of the first people to hear the new material.” McPherson is looking forward to this homecoming at the Cain’s. “Finally!” he exclaimed. “I never thought I would be able to play Cain’s Ballroom under my own steam. This time it’s like we’re coming through town. It’s like a total dream come true. Awesome!”