When I got the call from John Cooper (of Red Dirt Rangers) last year telling me about an event in Stillwater that was not only sponsored, but initiated by Red Bull, I couldn't help but be excited. With a national reach and marketing campaign, Red Bull's involvement not only meant sponsorship dollars to help finance the weekend, but also added exposure for the Red Dirt music scene and artists involved.
While a handful of associates at Red Bull discussed a project that revolved around roots oriented music from each of their respective regions, Katie Dale found herself drawn to Stillwater's Red Dirt movement and distinguishing it from the title that has been co-opted by the Texas music scene.
A call to Jim Holland at Eskimo Joe's referred Dale to Cooper and the wheels were set into motion. With Cooper's assistance, a stout lineup was formed for the one night music festival that encompassed four venues with just over 30 artists paired up for a night of song-swapping that shed light on what makes Red Dirt so special.
It's in the soil. The Red Dirt Rangers and more than 30 other artists converge on Stillwater April 13 for the Red Dirt Gypsy Cafe Festival.
Even the name, Gypsy Café, is a nod to the site "The Farm", where countless jam sessions sprung up and fed the scene in its early days. Although The Farm has since been purchased by another family, Red Bull contacted the owners and even got permission to use the site for its Thursday night event, which served as a VIP party and mixer of sorts and was recorded along with Friday night's concerts for a video production that was posted on the Red Bull website.
Fortunately, the event went over extremely well and Red Bull wanted to throw the party again this year. And, of course, when the call came, Cooper was more than happy to assist in its planning once again.
Although it's common occurrence to see Red Dirt artists share the stage and sit in with each other, it usually happens within the context of one artist making a guest appearance with another act. What sets the Gypsy Café event apart from other shows is the fact that instead of scheduling full sets by specific artists, each set combines a pair of songwriters for the hour to swap songs and banter back and forth.
When asking Cooper about the festival and his favorite part of being involved, he readily admitted "It's really fun doing the pairings. The one thing we wanted to do differently this year was we didn't want to match up the same people again, so we've mixed things up a bit. Some of the artists are paired up with people they already know and some aren't. That's part of the fun, though, and the event at The Farm on Thursday night allows the pairs to meet and talk and kind of decide what they want to do."
Cooper also laughed that the main perk in being involved and helping organize the event is being able to pick who he wants to play with. This year Cooper is matched up with old friend Tom Skinner, to which Cooper laughed "Any time I get a chance to play with Tom, it's a treat for me. I could just sit back and play and listen to him sing all night."
When asked how the artists prepare for a show like this, Cooper shared that it's different with each pairing. While the songwriters who don't already know each other meet up on Thursday evening to get acquainted and sketch out a rough plan for the evening, Cooper says "The guys who know each other generally call each other and get together to jam a little beforehand to get an idea what they'll be doing."
"It's just an hour's set so each person has time to play five or six of their own songs and most of them are talented guitar players as well, so it's pretty easy for them to just fall in and follow along if they don't already know each other's material," he explained.
But what sets April's Gypsy Café event apart from other Red Dirt shows? For starters, it's the opportunity to get to see pairings of people who don't normally get the opportunity to play together. There's also a sense of being in the know when you get to see some of the younger artists come up the ladder and play with the more established artists, shedding light on who will likely be the next stars within the Red Dirt scene.
According to Cooper, though, part of it is the fact that "This is the only songwriter festival in Oklahoma that I can think of, off the top of my head. Stillwater really is a songwriter town more than anything else, for some reason," he shared, "and I think it all goes back to Tom Childers. He's the wheel that we all chew on and learn from."
Last year's event actually revolved around Childers as each artist was asked to include a Childers tune in their set, in homage to his passing. Although that isn't the emphasis this year, you can rest assured that you'll still hear a healthy sampling of Childers over the course of the night as he has influenced and impacted nearly everyone within the scene.
This year marks the second annual Gypsy Café and the event is coming up next weekend, on Friday, April 13 in Stillwater, so you'll want to plan ahead for the short road trip to the northwest. Once again, the night will incorporate four venues, using Eskimo Joe's, Stonewall Tavern, College Bar and (this year) Willie's Saloon. Hourly sets begin on the hour at each club from 7pm to 11pm, and the grand finale will wrap up the evening at Eskimo Joe's at midnight.
The real fun of the night is seeing which artists get paired up and how they interact. Sets that are of particular interest this year include rising star John Parker Milsap with Travis Kidd, John Fullbright (who has really come into his own recently) with Bill Erickson, Greg Jacobs with Susan Herndon, Sam Naifeh with Randy Crouch and Brandon Jenkins paired up with Red Dirt Rangers' Ben Han. The biggest challenge of the evening will be choosing which sets to see and which ones to miss, since you can't be three places at one.
Of course, the evening will wrap up with the obligatory group jam session with all the artists at Eskimo Joe's. Anyone who loves Red Dirt and great songwriting in general will love this lineup, making it worth the drive to Stillwater. Plan now and get your tickets in advance at protix.com for $25 or at the door for $30. For more info, a full roster of artists and pairings can be found on the Red Bull website or on the Gyspy Café Facebook event page.
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