OK Roots Music is still dedicated to bringing the community together around music (and food) as best they can while social distancing and sheltering in place. Thus, the shelter in place sessions were born. Tune into okrootsmusic.org to see live sessions from Joy Harjo, Samantha Crain, Cody Brewer, Mary Gauthier and even some local chefs.
Read the full Q&A with Mike Koster to hear more about the sessions, and OK Roots Music future plans.
What is your connection with OK Roots Music? I'm the director. We used to be called Tulsa Roots Music and were one of a handful of organizations that inaugurated Guthrie Green, back in the day. Our contribution was The Wailers on opening weekend. About 1,800 people showed up, and it was a very cool concert, a really upbeat, positive vibe, which set the tone for the next decade, really. We've been presenting music there, and at several other venues, including Duet Jazz (my favorite), ever since. At festivals and at Tulsa Roots Rocks the Green, a free live outdoor series we presented on Guthrie Green for many years, we showcased artists like Michael Franti, Los Lobos, Frightened Rabbit, Los Lonely Boys, Son Volt, Sister Carol, The Mowgli's, Kongos, English Beat,The Skatalites, Don Carlos, Indigenous, Hayes Carll, Fishbone, Bombino, Nikki Hill, Nahko & Medicine for the People, Sly & Robbie, Pokey LaFarge, the list goes on and on. When Julie Watson, my co-director at Tulsa Roots, decided to move on to other projects a couple years ago, we changed our name to OK Roots Music. Now we focus on four free live festivals a year, three of which take place at Guthrie Green, with evening programming at Duet Jazz. Obviously the 'live' part of that equation got blown out of the water this year.
Tell me about the Shelter in Place Sessions. Unlike the president, we can't do big live events right now, and I'm pretty sure we won't be able to do them responsibly for quite awhile. We've been focusing on free, pre-recorded live videos with a homey, intimate feel. The SHELTER IN PLACE sessions are shot exclusively for our audience by artists like Joy Harjo, Samantha Crain, Cody Brewer, Mary Gauthier, Paul Benjaman and many more. Sometimes it's just a few songs shot with an iPhone at home, other times it's a full concert shot in a professional studio. Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band just shot a jammin' full-length concert for us from their log cabin in Illinois that will go live any day now. Insanely fun band. Amy Helm, daughter of the great Levon Helm, is a really fine singer-songwriter who's going to shoot some cool stuff from her dad's famous studio in Woodstock. Lots of Louisiana material is starting to come in, since we have long-standing relationships with many Creole, Cajun and Zyedco artists. We're really just getting started.
For the past few years, we've expanded beyond music, so our festivals tend to be multi-genre, encompassing cuisine, performance, artist panels, visual arts. For the Shelter sessions we've been partnering with the Sierra Club and OK Earth Coalition to create videos by folks whose work has a particularly strong connection to the earth, people like 350.org founder Bill McKibben and supermodel-actor-activist Amber Valletta, who is from Oklahoma. Cherokee chef Nico Albert worked with us on a fantastic piece on traditional Native foods and sustainability, and we're filming an Ecuadorian chef with a Tulsa restaurant this week. So you'll also see more chefs with unique perspectives inviting you into their kitchens. We’ve barely gotten started & will be expanding the SHELTER IN PLACE Sessions in the coming weeks and months.
How is OK Roots Music fairing in the face of COVID-19? The main thing is that we don't want to get anybody sick, and we don't want to get sick. So the Shelter in Place sessions have been a godsend, a path for us to keep working on great programming in a safe way. We're a nonprofit and most of our programming is free to the public, so we are heavily reliant on sponsorship and grants. We still remember how devastating the Great Recession was in 2008-it really knocked us to our knees. Every decade or so, something comes along and devastates the economy as a whole, and the arts community in particular. The majority of us don't absorb these hits very well; it's just not a very forgiving system except for those few at the top. So we've tried to brace for these inevitable hits. We're a lot leaner and meaner than we used to be. The bulk of our budget goes to programming, not office space or PR or anything frivolous. Our small staff works out of home offices and we have always done so. We try to be a streamlined, super-efficient organization. All our sponsorship has dried up, of course, so things are tight. But low overhead and consistent, much-appreciated grant support keeps us strong and busy.
What can we expect from OK Roots Music in the future? Normally in October, we get together with Duet Jazz to present our annual Wine, Jazz & World FETE, which brings some of the world's greatest jazz artists to Tulsa. So we're working with top jazz artists to produce online concerts shot specially for this year's FETE. The plan was to release one every week in the month of October, but we're getting so much interest from artists that we may have to extend these concert releases into November. We’re working on sets by NEA Jazz Master Delfeayo Marsalis; guitarist Marc Ribot, a real musician's musician and kind of a cult figure; saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who worked with David Bowie on his final (amazing) record; Tulsa favorites like Chris Combs and Bishop Marsh; the flamenco troupe Reflejos Flamencos, and others. I just got off the phone with Jeff Sloan, who does the programming for Duet Jazz, about shooting a concert there (no audience) with Joy Harjo, who is not only the first Native U.S. Poet Laureate, but also a well-regarded jazz bandleader. So Joy's set will be part of the FETE as well. I highly recommend opening a good bottle of wine while you're watching the Jazz FETE vids.
Aside from online festivals, we're also working hard to expand the Shelter In Place sessions. I foresee a huge archive of tasty material, all of it free for the public to access. Even after we get back to live concerts, which I think will be the fall of 2021, we'll keep producing Shelter In Place videos--it makes for an important and killer archive. Kudos to OK Roots Music Associate Director Okcate Smith, and Steven McCommas at Summerhead Creative, for their excellent work on this series.
Anything else you'd like to add? I love musicians, but right now teachers and scientists are my real heroes. Until we meet again in a live setting, be responsible, stay safe, respect the science, maybe watch a Shelter video or two.