The show spotlights live music and history at Cain’s Ballroom
From 1920s honky-tonk to one of the nation’s coolest indie music venues, Tulsa’s historic Cain’s Ballroom has always had a kind of magic. Now two Oklahoma journalists want to bring that magic to the nation in a very 21st century way.
Executive producers Julie Watson and Kelly Burley are on their way to turning their new musical variety show “Live From Cain’s” into a nationwide public radio phenomenon. With loads of talented performers on tap and “Prairie Home Companion” aspirations, the producers are shooting to put Tulsa and its rich musical history in the national spotlight. The program features interviews and live performances from nationally touring musicians in a range of genres broadcast from the historic dance hall.
“We wanted to create a live music show out of that venue that kind of built on that history but also reached a diverse audience,” Watson said. “Tulsa has an amazing music scene”
COVID has slowed down plans but hasn’t stopped the producers and their team of creatives. While waiting to move forward with their pilot season, they’re broadcasting a series of livestreams, “Live From Cain’s: Sessions,” from the ballroom.
Cain’s Ballroom: From Dance Hall to Rock Club
Watson and Burley are Oklahoma-raised journalists with a shared passion for Tulsa’s vibrant music scene. Burley is an award-winning reporter and former director of Oklahoma City’s KOSU National Public Radio affiliate station. Watson is a former lawyer, freelance journalist and former host of the “Tune In Tulsa” public radio program. She and Burley wanted to create a show that celebrates Tulsa as a crossroads of American music. They also wanted to spotlight the one-of-a-kind venue while booking acts with national appeal.
Built in 1924, Cain’s Ballroom went from a dime-a-dance dance hall to the “Carnegie Hall of Western Swing.” From 1935 to 1942, the ballroom was home base for the legendary Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys. The Texas Playboys hosted regular dances and broadcast a daily radio show that made Western Swing a national phenomenon.
The ballroom had its ups and downs over the decades. It was a new wave hotspot in the 70s and 80s and hosted the Sex Pistols in the late 70s. Jim and Alice Rodgers bought and restored the venue in 2002. The new owners kept its barrel ceiling and wooden dance floor. They also transformed it into a hip downtown music venue, attracting acts from Snoop Dogg to Kings of Leon. Their sons Chad and Hunter Rodgers continue to run the ballroom as a music venue, with live performances slated to resume next month.
“There are decades of history there and performers that are now filling stadiums…It’s representative of diversity through music,” Watson said. “It’s an amazing venue.”
‘An Emotional Experience’
By early 2019, “Live From Cain’s” was on a roll. Watson and Burley snagged Chicago-based singer/songwriter Robbie Fulks to host the show and put together a house band led by noted Tulsa musician Paul Benjamin. Watson and Burley wanted to honor the famous “Tulsa Sound,” the city’s signature mix of country, rock and blues born in the 1950s and made famous by influential Oklahoma singer/songwriters like Leon Russell and J.J. Cale. Benjamin’s musical style builds on that legacy, Watson said.
The producers recorded a pilot episode in front of a packed house in May of 2019 with Grammy-winning Texas-based singer/songwriter Bonnie Bishop as featured guest performer. That show streamed in November on Oklahoma public radio stations, and producers planned to make some tweaks and move forward with the pilot season. In October, “Live From Cain’s” got a huge boost with a $200,000 development grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Everything was coming together, and then COVID hit.
The Show Goes On
Plans for the rest of the pilot season were put on hold, but Watson didn’t want to lose momentum. The producers put together a series of livestreams with sponsorship from White Claw Hard Seltzer and support from Tulsa-based Woody Guthrie Center/Bob Dylan Center and Cain’s Ballroom owners. Working with a small budget and a talented technical crew, producers moved livestreams from the ballroom’s green room to the dance floor with full lighting and professional sound. Featured musicians responded with powerful performances.
“They performed like there were a million people in that room. Live music’s important,” Watson said. “It just struck home.”
The “Sessions” livestreams launched in May with Oklahoma-based singer/songwriter John Fullbright. His album “From the Ground Up” was nominated for Best Americana Album at the 2013 Grammy Awards. The livestreams went on to feature an eclectic range of guests from Texas-based blues and soul singer and guitarist Jackie Venson to the Missouri-based punk rock trio Radkey.
“It’s been a particularly challenging time for independent venues like the Cain’s. We’ve missed bringing live music to Tulsa, and we’ve missed the fans. These ‘Live From Cain’s’ sessions have given us a chance to safely connect with our music community as we navigate this pandemic,” said Cain’s Ballroom co-owner Chad Rodgers in a press release last month.
For Watson, it was an unexpected boost for artists and producers in a challenging period.
“We love how the project evolved. We had no expectations,” she said. “This is what this venue is. This is why it’s important and why music is important. It was really moving. It was a very emotional experience for all of us.”
A New Platform
Now Watson and Burley are focused on getting radio broadcasts from Cain’s Ballroom back on track as COVID restrictions loosen. Their mission is to record seven more live shows to create a healthy pilot season to shop around to public radio stations around the country. The next step would be a 26-episode season for national distribution. The producers currently have live shows slated for September and December this year. But with short-term prospects for live music uncertain, they’re trying to stay flexible, Watson said.
“We’ll record some of this pilot series in an empty room if we have to just to keep it going,” she said.
And while Watson has always envisioned an eclectic mix for “Live From Cain’s,” she says America’s new social justice movement will influence future programming. Cain’s Ballroom has a long history of diverse performers and audiences, and the new broadcast will embrace diversity.
“The things that have happened in the last few months make you want to be more thoughtful and more focused on what you’re doing,” Watson said. “If we have a platform, we want to use it wisely. We want to have national appeal, and we want to be representative, which was always our goal. But we really want to make sure we’re doing it now.”