When you first meet Dustin Pittsley, he's not an easy one to get a handle on. Most of the time, you wouldn't realize he's a terrific songwriter and one of Tulsa's best guitarists. There's no rock star attitude or bravado that demands attention. In most cases, he's more likely to put a cigarette in your mouth and a drink in your hand and talk about music in general, the local scene, or ...well, just about anything besides himself, until you press him for information on what he's doing.
Yes, he's got his own career, but more often than not he's just excited about what's going on around him and what his peers are doing. He's more interested in supporting them than pumping himself up. Nevertheless, he's one of the few artists that have quietly been building his reputation -- and that of Tulsa's music scene -- outside of Oklahoma, yet continues to stay intricately involved in the local scene.
If you haven't paid attention, you wouldn't know that he's won the Tulsa Blues Challenge four times, turned Colorado into a regular tour circuit, opened for Dierks Bentley, or shared the stage with blues legend Buddy Guy. To him, it's all just part of the gig -- and in some cases, a nice reward for his hard work.
Nevertheless, when I cornered him recently to discuss the latest happenings with the Dustin Pittsley Band, the discussion often trailed off into what's going on locally and who he respects within local circles as he avoided talking about himself. That's almost humorous, because it's not as if he doesn't have a full plate to finish out the year. His band has another run of dates in Colorado coming up as well as a new album on the horizon.
Perhaps the biggest quandary comes in trying to find exactly where Pittsley fits in Tulsa's musical landscape. Although he started out and continues to be heralded as a great blues guitarist, his style has evolved dramatically over the last dozen years. Even he admitted, "We're not really a traditional blues band." By incorporating elements of country, folk, and rock, his music has become what he described as "more roots-based jam rock -- I really see what we're doing as being closer to the Derek Trucks, the Allman Brothers and Gov't Mule." Sure, it's still definitely based on blues, but it extends beyond that and also reaches backwards, drawing from classic Tulsa Sound artists like JJ Cale and Leon Russell, albeit subtly.
First and foremost, Pittsley has found notoriety as a phenomenal blues guitarist -- first as a young prodigy along the lines of Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang, and later as a more mature player and leader of the local blues scene. Although his playing was more based in Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker and Freddie King than Stevie Ray Vaughan, the comparisons were inevitable as he started playing at the Blue Note in Oklahoma City in 1999, at the age of 15. He slowly expanded, picking up shows at Classic Rock Café and Galileo's before making his debut in Tulsa at Bluesfest.
Upon initially breaking into the Tulsa market, Pittsley said, "The first ones to help me out and welcome me on were Jimmy Markham, Steve Pryor, and Scott Ellison. I kind of felt at the time like some of the other, older players didn't really take to me as quickly and were a little more like, 'Who's this young punk?' but they were really cool about letting me get up to jam with them and making sure I got a chance to play."
"Markham and Pryor really took me under their wing back then. I think they saw that someone had to carry it on.
Now there are people like me and Jesse Aycock carrying on what they did and carrying on the tradition of Tulsa Sound players like J.J. Cale and Leon Russell," Pittsley said.
Those opportunities undeniably opened doors for Pittsley as he earned a virtual seal of approval from some of Tulsa's most prominent and revered players. His name has also spread because he got the chance to open for artists like Larry Arnett and Chris Duarte at Curly's when he began to lay an early foundation for his own career.
Still innately tied to the local blues scene, Pittsley recently said, "The Blues Society of Tulsa has always been one of the biggest supporters of us (Pittsley and his band), far and away."
As winners of the Blues Society of Tulsa's annual Blues Challenge in 2005, 2009, and 2010, the Dustin Pittsley Band represented Tulsa in the International Blues Competition in Memphis. Although the group didn't win the overall competition, it was named "Beale Street Blues Kings" in 2010, an award issued by the Memphis Merchants Association as the local club owners vote on their favorite band of the week.
After sitting out a year in 2011 due to Blues Society rules that you can't win three years in a row, Pittsley and his band recently won this year's Blues Challenge and will be returning to Memphis once again in January to give it another go.
While all of these accolades and awards are a nice addition to a growing resume, they currently stand in the shadow of the latest high point in Pittsley's steadily climbing career. On Oct. 4, the Dustin Pittsley Band played a show at Buddy Guy's Legends, the revered blues club in Chicago. Although the band was excited to play such a prestigious club, the night went beyond expectations as Buddy Guy himself joined the band on stage for an extended version of "Champagne and Reefer."
"We'd heard a rumor that he was going to be there that night," Pittsley said of the experience, "but we didn't know if he really would or wouldn't. We didn't know what to expect. Then, in the middle of our set, Amber (Pittsley's wife) came up and told me I was supposed to start playing the song and call out for him, so we started it and I asked kind of sheepishly 'Is Buddy Guy in the house tonight?' and he came walking up from the back and joined us on stage."
"We played a 10-minute version of 'Champagne and Reefer' and he sang with us. It was just so surreal playing with Buddy Guy. People have asked what it was like and if I was nervous, but I wasn't -- in the moment you just play. Looking back on it, though, it was just surreal."
What most people don't realize is that, aside from an annual January residency, Guy no longer makes a practice of appearing on the stage of his own club and sitting in with visiting artists. This was a rare appearance and quite the honor for Pittsley and his band mates.
Part of what made the evening so special wasn't just Guy's status as one of the elder statesmen of blues, however, but the fact that Guy has always been an influence on Pittsley's own playing. "I love BB King and John Lee Hooker, but I've always been a bigger fan of John Lee and Buddy Guy and maybe Freddie King," he shared.
Looking back on the experience and what it means professionally, Pittsley said that "Winning the Kings of Beale Street and playing with Buddy Guy elevates us; it opens for us and allows us to play venues we wouldn't otherwise get into."
Beyond the Blues
Although Pittsley's playing has always been blues-based, his sound has steadily evolved as he has become a more well rounded and multi-dimensional artists. That should come as no surprise as he started expanding his reach beyond that early in his career.
Pittsley was consciously trying to expand his musical vocabulary as early as his sophomore CD, Picasso's Cloud, which was released in 2004. Looking back, Pittsley said, "I had gotten all this attention as a guitarist, but not for my songwriting, so I made sure there were no solos and it was all about the songwriting. It was little more of an artsy record for me, I guess."
"I recorded that album over the course of about three years and did it all myself," he said. "I played bass, drums and guitar. Steve Littleton did play a couple of organ parts and I had a girl, I can't remember her name, who played fiddle on a song or two, but I did everything else myself. I wanted full control of that album, so I took it over. It's a little different, but one I'm still proud of."
Now, Pittsley admits that the album was something of a backlash to being labeled strictly a blues artist, but "I finally got over that, though," he said. "If that's what works, then that's fine."
What's perhaps the most interesting, however, is how that album paralleled another blues guitarist that had struggled with an identity crisis just a few years prior. To many, Picasso's Cloud was very similar in approach to what Ian Moore had done in establishing himself as something beyond just a Texas blues guitarist. Although Pittsley admits to being a fan of Moore, the parallels weren't intentional, but merely an offshoot of his frustration with being put in a corner. Nevertheless, Picasso's Cloud proved that Pittsley was more than he'd initially been labeled and allowed him enough space to find his comfort zone as he continued to evolve.
Shortly after his sophomore album came out, a phone call from keyboardist Steve Littleton led Pittsley to fill in and audition for the guitarist spot in Stoney LaRue's band. Although a short-lived run of dates didn't prove a good fit, Pittsley benefitted from the experience, finding his new band in the process. Shortly after Pittsley's departure, bassist Donnie Wood and drummer Doug Wehmeyer followed him to create the Dustin Pittsley Band and the trio went on to play together for roughly five years before Wehmeyer departed, releasing Staring Into the Sun on 2008 and Palm Trees & Trailer Parks in 2010.
While those albums returned to a heavy blues base, they also allowed Pittsley to expand his reach, touching on roots music, Southern rock and more jam-oriented playing that has become Pittsley's signature.
Perhaps the partnership that has shaped Pittsley's evolving career and songwriting the most, however, is his partnership with Jesse Aycock in Higher Education, which met weekly for almost two years in the upstairs bar at McNellie's. Loosely based around the concept of Tom Skinner's Science Project, Aycock and Pittsley were the constants in a revolving cast of players that left a door open for both new and established musicians to sit in and join.
Those weekly jam sessions not only opened doors creatively for Pittsley and Aycock, but also built a sense of community between musicians that spread across generations. On any given week you might see Rocky Frisco and Randy Crouch or even an occasional appearance by Tom Skinner alongside a newer generation of players like Wink Burcham and Paul Benjaman. It also formed and strengthened a bond between Pittsley and Aycock that continues to this day as the pair is often seen sitting in together, and Aycock shared songwriting credits on five of the ten tracks on Palm Trees & Trailer Parks.
In Pittsley's mind, that sense of community is most apparent in the collection of musicians that are currently associated together under the umbrella of the "New Tulsa Sound." And while he understands that some people have gotten bent out of shape over their use of the moniker, he's also adamant that the group isn't trying to hijack the title or claim that theirs is the only sound in Tulsa. "We're not trying to start something new; we're just paying homage to the guys who came before us. We're not saying we're better than them or anyone else," he said.
If anything, Pittsley agreed with my assessment that the core of players within the New Tulsa Sound are simply expanding on and evolving what was known as the Tulsa Sound in the '70s and presenting what those players might be doing in 2010.
"We're all just doing our thing and the vibe just carried over," he said. "We're just trying to make it relevant again and pay homage to those guys. We're just writing songs like they might do."
In Pittsley's mind, however, it's more about the sense of community between musicians, and the core of players within the New Tulsa Sound have a similar sense of camaraderie to what the players in the '70s experienced.
With a nucleus of players that includes Pittsley, Jesse Aycock, Wink Burcham, Pilgrim, Paul Benjaman, and Cody Clinton with Desirae Roses, there truly is a sense of kinship and unity amongst the musicians that extends beyond their musical chemistry. "It's cool because we're all so different, but when you get us in the same room, our styles all intermingle so well without stepping on anyone's toes," Pittsley said.
Beyond the chemistry that those musicians share when they are together, though, that camaraderie is shared in their excitement to see others succeed. "The thing that's great about Tulsa is its sense of community," he said. "What's good for one person is good for you as well. I've been to big cities like Chicago and New York and the people are so competitive. Here, people are happy for you and are happy to help you out."
"When Jesse does well or Paul Benjaman or Wink, we're all happy for each other because we know what's good for them is good for Tulsa and good for the community," he added.
That sense of community is something that Pittsley has continued to spread, whether he does it consciously or not. Three years ago, Pittsley founded Stone River Music Festival with his family, located on his parents' land in Chandler. Spread out over three days, the festival started out as a gathering of friends, but now extends across generations, including more established artists like Tom Skinner, Red Dirt Rangers, Steve Pryor, Brad James, and Randy Crouch, as well as newer, rising acts like The Big O Show and Klondike 5 String Band.
As one of the most relaxed and enjoyable festivals in the region, Stone River has become a weekend that most local music fans look forward to, not just because of the collection of great musicians, but a sense of community that extends beyond the stage and into the audience for the weekend. It's a family-friendly weekend that welcomes everyone in and bears the indelible signature of Pittsley and his family from the time you enter the gate through all the performances, right up to the moment you depart.
As much as Pittsley has added to the sense of community within the local scene, he's also continued to extend his own career. Stepping out beyond his own blues roots, Pittsley was tabbed as an opener for Dierks Bentley for two separate strings of dates in 2011. Although the first leg was cut short as a few shows in Texas were canceled, the second leg took Pittsley throughout the Midwest, playing theaters (including the legendary Fillmore in Detroit) to a surprisingly open audience.
Pittsley got the gig as part of a tour sponsored by Jaegermeister, but the process wasn't as easy as simply being picked by the company's local rep. Pittsley's name was submitted along with forty other bands, yet picked by Bentley as one of three acts that would open on separate legs of the tour.
Pittsley said that he was initially concerned about the pairing. He told the representatives involved, "You do know we're not at all a country band, right? So you can't get pissed if people don't like us." Even so, the tour (which saw Pittsley include his songwriting partner Jesse Aycock in the band on guitar and lap and pedal steel) went incredibly well and earned the band overwhelmingly positive receptions in nearly every market. At one stop, Bentley himself was even listening from side stage and asked Pittsley for copies of his CDs afterwards.
"I really didn't know much about Dierks going in and was a little worried about it, but it was a great opportunity," Pittsley said. "As it turns out, he's a really good songwriter and not quite what I expected. Sure he's got to play the game a little because he's signed to a big label, but he's not really what Nashville country is about -- and he turned out to be a really nice guy."
Since that tour, the Dustin Pittsley Band has continued to evolve. Drummer Doug Wehmeyer departed the band and was replaced by Demetrius Williams and Malachi Burgess on drums and percussion for a period that also saw Pittsley record his fifth studio album.
In addition, bassist Donnie Wood has been recording all of the band's shows this year and, as a result, the group chose to release one of its better performances, recorded in Bartlesville earlier this year. Pittsley said that part of the reason they chose to release Live at Frank & Lola's in late July was to have something else to bide time and to give fans something that they'd been looking for with a handful of cover tunes by the band that they won't find elsewhere. For Pittsley's fans, it's also a great snapshot of the band and his playing at that moment in time as he continues to develop.
That band lineup didn't last long, however, as the chemistry with Williams and Burgess ultimately didn't prove to be a good fit. More recently, old friend Dave Teegarden Jr. finally stepped in, filling the void almost perfectly.
Having been friends for roughly ten years, Teegarden's presence has provided stability in the band and the chemistry is undeniable as he and bassist Donnie Wood have played together in at least ten bands over the past twenty years. Finding that perfect balance has opened up Pittsley's playing even more, however, as he also added keyboardist Chris Kyle to the band, adding even more depth and texture to the group.
When asked about the new album, Pittsley still plays coy. What he will reveal is the album currently has 10 tracks and includes two covers: One is a more rocked up version of "Old Friend," the final track on the Allman Brothers' Hittin' the Note; the other is a straight reading of "Love Me or Leave Me" by Rufus "Rip" Wimberly, a guitarist whom Pittsley had played with at a handful of festivals, who recently passed away.
Although the album is done and currently sent off to mastering, Pittsley is still reluctant to promise a release date or even a title for the album. Although Almost There is a distinct possibility as that track has currently drawn the most positive attention, the details have not been set in stone or a firm release date set. Most likely, fans can expect the album to be released before the end of the year, however.
In hindsight, it seems fitting for Pittsley. As an artist that has developed from heralded young hot-shot guitarist to one of Tulsa's most understated artists, he's earned the right to do things his way. So far, taking it a step at a time and going with his gut has proven to be wise as his career has grown slowly and steadily. By all means, Tulsa should only expect his star to continue to rise as he follows his instincts and lets his music do the talking. After all, he's grown beyond the blues and continues to create something more for himself, his fans and his music community.
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