As summer winds down and the festivals have just passed us by, Tulsa's live music scene seems to be taking a pause to catch its breath. In looking back on a busy summer, the brief respite gives me an opportunity to go back and touch upon a few uncovered gems that have popped up.
During the past few months, Tulsa's artists have been popping up with new CDs left and right and as much as I try to keep up, there are a few I just haven't been able to get to.
Of particular interest to me, however, is the fact that throughout the past couple of months, I've seen a brief spell of solid country releases sprout. Amongst the stronger are recent releases by Mary Cogan, newcomer Chloe Johns and South 40.
Back on the Scene
Mary Cogan might have been born in Illinois, but the transplant has become an Oklahoma native and favorite daughter on Tulsa's music scene.
It's been seven years since Cogan released her debut disc, A New Voice, but her follow-up is finally here. Originally planned for release last year, delivery of the new disc was postponed as real life intervened and Cogan gave birth to a son. Now, she's back and ready to get back to action with Bury Me in the Red Clay.
As witnessed by the July 10 release party at The Ivey and subsequent shows at Utica Square and Toby Keith's "I Love This Bar & Grill" at the Hard Rock Casino, Cogan has assembled a crack band and hasn't missed a step. She's also put together a solid collection of songs, drawing from a pool of impressive songwriters and putting her spin on a couple of classic covers.
Recorded in Austin, Texas with Lloyd Maines producing, the disc comes out sounding like a classic Nashville record with a Texas twist. Stacked with appearances by the likes of David Grissom, Lee Roy Parnell, Radney Foster, Terri Hendrix, Lloyd Maines and Randle Chowning and Larry Lee of The Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Cogan has stacked the deck in her favor.
The album will stand or fall on the strength of the songs, however, and Cogan has picked well.
"Skin on Skin" (written by David Grissom and Billy Montana) is an obvious choice for a single and could stand on its own merit against mainstream and major label artists at contemporary country radio. The same could be said for "I Wanna Live Like That," which is the weaker of the two songs but is still strongly suited for radio.
The true standout of the disc (aside from "Skin on Skin"), however, is "Little Secrets." Cogan finally lets loose on the bluesy romp that features Lee Roy Parnell's smoking slide guitar work. With the release of this disc and Cogan's return to the local stage, she's all but guaranteed to return to the music awards ballot next year in the country and female vocalist categories -- at the very least.
If you've missed Cogan, keep an eye out for her as she's started gigging regularly again and will be playing more high-profile shows as she gears back up and the CD gains a little traction.
Heir to the Throne
The big country surprise of the summer, however, came in the form of newcomer Chloe Johns and her self-titled debut. If Cogan is the queen of Tulsa country, Johns is the princess and heiress-in-waiting.
Only 25-years-old, Johns has a big voice and a debut disc that aims high, shooting for the stars.
Stacked with well-picked songs and recorded and polished to sheen for contemporary country radio, nearly any track could be serviced to radio.
Studio wizardry is nothing new, however, and after hearing the disc, I was interested to see if she could pull it off live. After witnessing her performance at a semi-private CD release party last month, I can attest to the fact that she can deliver on the live stage.
Distribution outlets are still being finalized for an official release within the next four to six weeks, but Johns is already creating a buzz on reverbnation.com, sitting at No. 1 on the Tulsa country chart, No. 178 on the national country chart and No. 201 on the global country chart, ahead of Lady Antebellum, Allison Krause and Joe Nichols.
You can count on hearing more about Johns as plans are already in place to begin servicing the record to independent radio with the singles "We Were Young" and "Wreck My Heart," a ballad and more upbeat number, respectively. This young star-in-waiting is already confirmed for an appearance at the Tulsa State Fair on Oct. 1, followed by an Octoberfest concert, after which she will launch a to-be-announced regional tour.
Handled by locally based Merf Music Group and managed by Hoffman Simpson Entertainment, the disc will be distributed via Interlantic Records using its association with Universal/Fontana.
Initially, the album will see digital distribution via CD Baby and other digital outlets, followed by iTunes (which takes a little longer to get loaded) and regional brick and mortar distribution via Hastings, Barnes and Noble and Borders, as well as local outlets such as Ida Red and Starship. Once distribution is in place, however, you can be sure Johns will be the shooting star of the local country scene, so keep an eye and ear out.
You can get your first taste as she opens for Stephen Speaks at Bob's, Wednesday, Aug. 11.
Solid as a Rock
The country disc that has really excited me, however, is the new release by South 40, Second Lane. As much as I loved Turnpike Troubadours' latest Diamonds and Gasoline, that band still has an edgy, Americana overtone that allows it to slide between country, Red Dirt and general Americana and indie credibility.
South 40 front man Jay Faulkner can deliver some raucous and sizzling guitar lines that push the band into southern rock territory at times, but with its sophomore release, Second Lane, the group is focused on its country roots and delivers in spades.
Classic outlaw country influences such as Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard are readily evident, especially on "Boots," as South 40 raises the stakes and one-ups its already impressive debut disc.
The band locks into a more raucous honky-tonk groove on tracks such as "Take It as It Comes" and title track "Second Lane," but it never really steps out of country mode this time out.
Lead track "Staying in Love" is pure, classic Nashville country, while "Runaway Child" is but one of the tracks that argue South 40 should be growing to the level of Texas/Red Dirt Peers such as No Justice and eventually Cross Canadian Ragweed status. The true standout track of the disc, however, is the bittersweet ballad "Susanna."
My only irritation with South 40 is merely exacerbated when I put a disc like this in: The band almost never plays Tulsa -- even though its home base is here -- likely due to a lack of appropriate venues. I'm convinced, however, that between the songs and the band's focused live show, it should only take a few regular appearances for the band's reputation to spread and move it up from Mercury Lounge to Woody's and on to local opener status at the Cain's Ballroom.
Now that the band has its sophomore release completed and out, I can only hope it will refocus on breaking in Tulsa. This might be a country band, but it's one that can be embraced by rock fans without sacrificing any integrity on either side.
There have been a few other country acts pop up and catch my attention, such as ABoT Music Award nominee 2 Steps Back, but Cogan, Johns and South 40 are the cream of the crop. Keep an eye out for each of them to start a stir this fall as they each begin playing more consistently and winning over Tulsa and Green Country.
As I said earlier, things are cooling down a little as Tulsa takes a breath from the overload of music with FreeTulsa! and Oklahoma Black/Gold last weekend, but if you still need your fix, you've got options.
On Thursday, Aug. 5, we'll all be camped out at Cain's Ballroom for Urban Tulsa's ABoT Music Awards and we hope you'll be there, too. If you haven't got your tickets yet, you can go online at protix.com, call the Cain's Box Office or just show up and buy your ticket at the door.
If an awards ceremony honoring local bands and featuring all five Artist of the Year nominees doesn't meet your daily music fix requirements, which it should, you might want to check out Chuck Ragan with John Lefler (of Dashboard Confessional) at The Marquee with John Moreland and Motive for Movement opening the show.
Friday evening is fairly quiet, but you can't go wrong with Wink Burcham at Arnie's, Brandon Clark Band at Woody's or Philip Zoellner Band at The Colony on Aug. 6.
On Saturday, Aug. 7, my money is on Gooding's return to Tulsa for a show at Flytrap Music Hall for best show of the weekend. He's a good songwriter, an amazing guitarist and puts on an even better live show. It's been too long -- I need my Gooding fix!
Elsewhere around town, country fans can get their fix at Cain's Ballroom with Thomas Martinez, while hard rock fans will want to check out Hector Backwoods at Shenanigans and blues-rock fans settle in with the master, Steve Pryor, at The Colony.
Sunday night, Aug. 8, the American Idols Live! tour stops at BOK Center. I won't lie: I have no idea what to say about this, as I can't hardly believe anyone still watches the show. Someone does, however, so I'm just throwing it out there for you in case you've got a guilty pleasure.
Monday night sees 500 Miles to Memphis stop in for a live show at Downtown Lounge for a little early week reveling.
Looking out to the middle of next week, if you're in South Tulsa, you ought to stop in at Roosters on Wednesday night, where Brandon Clark and Travis Kidd swap songs and stories on alternating weeks. If you're downtown, however, Stephen Speaks plays Bob's with Ben Kilgore and Chloe Johns opening the show. Finally, Jackson Browne returns to The Brady on Aug. 11 with old friend and songwriting partner David Lindley in tow for an evening that will highlight the best of each of their careers, including their collaborations form Browne's early albums.
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