Read Southall still sings about his gritty Oklahoma upbringing, but he knows a breakthrough when he sees one.
“I don’t think our doors have ever been opened like they are right now,” Southall tells Rolling Stone.
This was less than a week before Southall — a rebrand from the Read Southall Band in an effort to spotlight the group rather than its lead singer — released Southall, an album that infuses rock and metal into the band’s coffeeshop vibe. After starting 2023 opening for Blackberry Smoke in Europe and now headlining a world tour of their own, the group — hailing from the epicenter of the Oklahoma music scene, the college town of Stillwater — is wide-eyed with appreciation for the moment they are in.
“It’s all just like one big cloud of excitement,” says drummer Reid Barber. “Now, there’s a lot of emotions wrapped up in that, but I would boil it all down to excitement.”
Southall is far from alone in that feeling. A whole bunch of Sooner State contemporaries are champing at the bit right now, bolstered by a wave of interest in Oklahoma artists. Kaitlin Butts debuted on the Grand Ole Opry late last year and opened for Dierks Bentley at Red Rocks earlier this month. The Great Divide — 20 years since a bitter breakup and more than 12 years since reuniting — have seen two singles from their album Providence top the Texas Music charts. Wyatt Flores, without an album yet to his credit, is rising at such a pace that he went from playing a sold-out show at Nashville club the Basement East in August to booking two nights at the Ryman Auditorium in December. And Southall just celebrated their album release in front of more than 3,500 fans at Billy Bob’s Texas.
But in a uniquely Oklahoma way, it’s all interconnected — and includes a path straight to Zach Bryan.
Southall’s record was recorded at Tulsa’s Church Studio with Eddie Spear, who produced American Heartbreak, the 2022 triple album from Bryan that pushed the Oklahoma native from the verge of stardom to the hottest act in country music.
Bryan just announced his first headlining stadium tour and, in August, set the two-night attendance record at Tulsa’s BOK Center. For night one of the two-night stand, he walked out to “The Bird Hunters” by Turnpike Troubadours, who themselves sold out the same venue for two nights in March. Both Bryan and Turnpike have dictated the terms of their success: The former eschews profiles and interviews and connects directly with his fans on social media, while the Troubadours remain attached to their own independent record label. Since Woody Guthrie, Oklahoma has been a songwriting hotbed. From the days of the Tulsa Sound, Oklahoma has had regional music scenes to flaunt. Now, Bryan and Turnpike are connecting both to country music fans on an unprecedented scale.
Even with the most notable exception in all of music — Garth Brooks, who launched his career with assists from two godfathers of the state’s Red Dirt scene, the late Bob Childers and Tom Skinner — independent artists from Oklahoma have most often found a limit to success. Both the Great Divide and Cross Canadian Ragweed had Top 40 country hits and built enough of a following to host major festivals in Oklahoma and Texas, but “the next big thing” moniker was understood by artists and fans to be the ceiling.
Over the past two years, however, Bryan and Turnpike knocked a hole through that ceiling, and an entire generation of Oklahoma musicians is pouring through.
“I think that mainstream radio underestimates the demand for songwriters,” Butts tells Rolling Stone. “And I think it’s undeniable that Oklahoma has the best songwriters in the world.”
A Tulsa native, Butts landed a happenstance gig in college playing at the Bob Childers Gypsy Cafe, an annual one-night benefit concert in Stillwater. Previously unaware that Red Dirt as a scene existed, Butts walked through a looking glass that night, meeting Great Divide frontman Mike McClure, who went on to produce Butts’ 2014 debut, Same Hell, Different Devil. A decade later, on the heels of a run opening for Morgan Wade, the venues Butts is now playing have barely met demand for her self-styled “sad yeehaw vibes.”
“Those Morgan Wade shows really jump-started everything. They got me in front of crowds of around 3,000 almost every night, just me and my guitar,” says Butts, who is married to Cleto Cordero, frontman of Flatland Cavalry, a longtime flagship band of Texas music that just opened stadiums for Luke Combs. “I don’t think that very many of those people had heard of me before.”
But if fans are unaware of who Butts is when she starts her set, they are reliably front-and-center by the time she ends it with a cover of Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine.” This was apparent in September at the Moon River Festival in Chattanooga, an event that is decidedly not a country one. It didn’t matter to Butts. Her Oklahoma twang and emo lyrics were a hit.
“It was not really a country music festival,” she says. “It had Hozier and Nickel Creek and Noah Cyrus and First Aid Kit. I felt honored to kind of blindly be considered for that, but I think the return was really great, too.”
If the return for Butts has been great, the return for Flores has been almost inconceivable. Still working on his debut album, the Stillwater native found that opening slots for Charles Wesley Godwin and 49 Winchester this year were more than enough to send his career into the stratosphere, album be damned.
“It went from just constantly staying in an apartment room in Nashville trying to get better at my craft, to the songs taking off,” Flores tells Rolling Stone. “It’s been a wild ride, but the biggest thing to me is seeing that people from all across the States are listening to it. It’s not just Oklahoma and Texas.”
Flores dropped his first single, “Travelin’ Kid,” in 2021, and has released nine in all. His 2022 single “Please Don’t Go” has racked up more than 50 million streams across all platforms and, along with the support of Godwin and 49 Winchester, placed a spotlight squarely on his music. Flores had intended to have an album ready by now, but it turns out that a meteoric rise can place some demands on an artist’s time.
“There’s going to be seven songs [in] November and then roll out a whole bunch more,” Flores says. “With the blowup and the tour, it’s just been all hectic. But I’ll have a release of a pretty good-sized body of work soon and then get ready for album two. That’s what it looks like: Touring and playing.”
Earlier this month, Flores announced his first headlining show at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, the venerable 1,700-capacity venue that will celebrate its centennial in 2024. The show sold out in a matter of days.
“It’s funny, because I just saw Wyatt playing another venue in town, and I reached out,” says Chad Rodgers, who along with his brother, Hunter, runs Cain’s. “His agent just went, ‘Well, we’re gonna go here first. We know we’re gonna sell it out. But….Cain’s is his goal.’ So this is a big, big milestone for him… I find that with a lot of artists now. When Zach played BOK, he went on a run by Cain’s, and on his Instagram story, he shared it and he goes, ‘I play the BOK tonight, but this is Cain’s and it’s the mother of them all.’”
Lance Roark, who will play Cain’s in December with American Aquarium, is seeing his own surge in popularity. Like Flores and Butts, some well-timed opening spots have exposed him to an audience that even a year ago would have been hard to imagine. He has opened for Turnpike at the Ryman and played just ahead of Kat Hasty at the Georgia Country Music Fest. In addition to the American Aquarium dates, Roark will tour with Muscadine Bloodline this fall.
Roark is a native of Tahlequah, and during the pandemic he befriended another resident of the Eastern Oklahoma town, Turnpike bassist R.C. Edwards. The two have since become writing partners and contributed the single “Chipping Mill” to the Troubadours’ new album, A Cat in the Rain. They also co-wrote two songs on Roark’s own 2023 album, Better Man, and play acoustic shows together when not on their own respective tours.
“To have R.C. is great, you know?” Roark says. “I don’t have anybody else that I hit up as much as I hit him up. To learn how to write songs from a group that I’ve always loved their songwriting and their poetry, that’s pretty incredible, especially because I’ve got my own style of writing that’s different from Turnpike’s.”
Last spring, Roark played the same benefit concert in Stillwater that helped Butts find her footing. He performed alongside Cody Canada, who fronts the Departed and who also founded and led Cross Canadian Ragweed from 1994 until 2010. Ragweed and the Great Divide are nearly unanimously cited as the major influences on the current crop of independent country musicians from Oklahoma. Southall, in particular, laid their influence bare.
“That’s what made me love music,” Read Southall says. “It was the Great Divide and Ragweed. It was Jason Boland, Stoney LaRue and No Justice. Brandon Jenkins, I could go on and on.
“They kind of made it seem attainable for you to make your own music and make it feel like your own thing. Whereas radio in general, not just country radio, seemed to be watered-down. But there were these guys doing it two hours away from me, in the same state, and actually playing shows here. It was their live performance that drew me into it. I never thought that this would be something I wanted to do or could do until [Red Dirt] presented itself to me.”
McClure fronted the Great Divide, originally a four-piece based in Stillwater, during the 1990s. At the time, Brooks was the hottest act in music but was less than a decade removed from his own breakthrough that Childers and Skinner had assisted. (In fact, for my 2020 book, Red Dirt, Brooks told me, “Without Bob Childers, there’s no Garth Brooks.”)
Brooks returned the favor by hosting the Divide in Nashville, where they landed a deal with Atlantic Records. They had a single — “Pour Me a Vacation” — that cracked the Billboard Top 40 country charts, but a difference in vision and McClure’s admitted addiction to alcohol and a handful of drugs brought about a messy and public breakup in 2003. The rest of the band carried on a few more years with a different frontman, Micah Aills, but by 2006 had hung it up for good. Or so they thought.
McClure formed the Mike McClure Band — with the aforementioned Skinner on bass — after the breakup, but in 2011 he reached out to his former Divide bandmates. They patched up enough differences to play a reunion show at Stillwater’s Tumbleweed Dancehall and performed semi-regularly in the years that followed. But it was McClure’s 2019 decision to swear off alcohol for good that truly reunited the band and paved the way for Providence, the Great Divide’s first album since 2003.
“There’s been a lot of healing involved in my personal life, and my life in the Great Divide,” McClure says. “Now, hearing all these younger bands come along and mention that we were influential to them, that’s super cool, you know?”
But influence is only part of the Divide’s story. They are touring regularly now — as a five-piece that includes their original four members — and making waves in Oklahoma and Texas venues that they have not made since their heyday. This summer, they sold out Texas’ famed Gruene Hall and came just shy of a sellout at the 1,200-capacity Criterion in downtown Oklahoma City, a venue that rarely showcases country artists.
“Every musician wants to play in front of a packed house. I’m no different,” says McClure, who is also working on a side project with his wife, Chrislyn Lawrence, called Crow and Gazelle — the two recorded an album in February at the studio owned by the late Steve Ripley, an Oklahoma native whose independent Red Dirt Records label is often credited with naming the entire scene. “It’s a blast, and to see the music jump from generation to generation is the coolest part of me. That tells me that these songs have merit.”
On the current crop of Oklahoma artists, McClure says the state’s own checkered past is inseparable from the music the state’s songwriters turn out, and it is resonating more broadly than ever.
“There’s this hard-scramble mentality to people from Oklahoma,” he says. “Because the people who stayed in Oklahoma after the Dust Bowl were some tough, crafty survivors. And that spirit is what’s in all of these bands. There’s every genre here from swing to heavy metal, but it doesn’t matter what it sounds like, it’s the spirit that it’s done in. Maybe we don’t fit into the mainstream, so we’re just going to go make our own.”
That attitude is what drove Southall to rebrand as its own band, rather than as a frontman with players behind him. All four members contributed lyrics, if not complete songs, to Southall. The experience, Southall says, is what he envisioned when the band was founded in 2015.
“It’s a lot better to do it when you’ve got some help,” Southall says. “I think you stay more true to what your target is when you’ve got some people helping you fit it all in. It’s not saying ‘Finish the job.’ It’s asking how we finish the job, and how we do it as a group.”
At 22, Flores is the youngest of the Oklahoma artists sharing this moment. He grew up near Stillwater and was heavily influenced by Southall, Ragweed, and the Great Divide. He’s well aware that the success of both Bryan and Turnpike are focusing the eyes and ears of fans and industry alike on his home state, but he believes the spirit behind the music has made Oklahoma more than ready to be heard.
“It’s the storytelling that really gets me going,” he says. “The other thing is character. I’ve talked to a lot of people, and I’ve always known this. But I’ve asked around, and people tell me that Oklahomans are some of the nicest people you will ever meet. I firmly believe that, and I never want to lose that in myself.”
Josh Crutchmer is a journalist and author of the 2020 book Red Dirt: Roots Music Born in Oklahoma, Raised in Texas, at Home Anywhere and the 2023 book The Motel Cowboy Show: On the Trail of Mountain Music from Idaho to Texas, and the Side Roads in Between.
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