Russ Ringsak

Tulsa Tonic

November 18, 2008

A couple of highlights worth mention from the Mudcats Montana tour this last summer: We played in Butte where my brother Mick lives, at the Silver Dollar Saloon — he lives in the city but not at the saloon — on a Monday night. I took the gig for low money because I like the bar and was having having no success at finding weeknight venues, even though it was the week of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Things just aren't like they used to be, which is another reality that circumstance is steadily pounding at me and I'm still not getting.

Anyway there weren't that many people in the bar, and we knew about half of them. My brother and his wife and her family and my nephew Justin were sitting at the biggest table and mostly drinking soft drinks. Nothing like the raucous crowd we had the years-ago Saturday we first played the place. But I've always liked Butte with its rowdy history of mining and elegance and the fact that throughout the the entire foolishness of Prohibition a person could get a drink there 24 hours a day. Not that a guy would need to or even want to, but what a free feeling. It is appropriately the home town of motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, who at one time was on a bill before the state legislature to be named the State Bird of Montana.

On our first break I sat at the bar with my brother and he said to his son: "Justin, why don't you get some of your no-good friends to come down here and listen to the band?" Justin smiled and we talked about other things and when the second set ended they and the whole table of relatives were gone, all having early business the next morning. Two or three airline pilots had replaced them, raaising the rowdiness level a smidge.

I got a beer and struck up talk with a pair of young guys leaning against the bar, musicians, who were liking what they heard. After a while I asked if they lived there in town and one said, "Yeh. We're Justin's no-good friends."

And an amazing thing happened at the end of the night: from a crowd barely the size of college class, the tip jar yielded up 157 dollars. And the owner of the place, instead of the 20 percent we had agreed on, showed me the till total of $400 and gave us half. Butte's alright with me; always has been.

We played the next night in Sheridan and then Livingston on Friday, and on Saturday finally drew the packed crowd we had been hoping for, at the Magic City Music Fest in Billings. The organizers fence off a couple of city blocks and charge a fee for the day, four acts each day. (My man Delbert McClinton was the headliner on Friday, with Kenny Wayne Shepherd on Saturday.)

So we finish our set in the 6:00 slot and load out quick and I go to the green room, outside the fence and down the alley, and I'm coming back through the fence to enjoy the rest of the music and here's the big young Indian security guy standing there. I nod and then remember the beer I'm holding and say: "Is this okay?"

He looks at me without smiling and says, "Well, ya." And now, since I live in Minnesota, I feel I should explain why I would ask such a dumb question, and I say: "I live in Minnesota. We can't do anything there. We can't buy liquor on Sunday, can't buy a car on Sunday, can't buy fireworks any time, and we sure as hell can't walk around the street with a bottle of beer."

And he looks at me with only the faintest touch of sympathy, and after a pause he says, quietly: "Try to adjust."

* * * *

On a short list of cities I find agreeable enough to actually live in, most are in Montana, Wyoming and Tennessee. Now I'm thinking Tulsa should be on there as well. The town is full of music venues; seems like every corner joint has a stage and a loudspeaker. I took a cab out to the Blues City Bar where Steve Pryor and his band were playing and found it to be just like biker bars are supposed to be. Rowdy loud, neon decor, no cover, cheap beer, good-humored crowd. A biker wore a jacket patch reading: "Hung like Einstein. Smart as a horse." A dozen or so of Harleys parked outside with the pickups and cars. No suits, no oxfords. No hip hop, no flip flops. No disco, no shorts. Yippee. And Pryor is a terrific guitarist. Plays through a rare and beatup '64 Vibroverb, made famous by Stevie Ray Vaughan. To a lot of us the reissued '64 Vibroverb is about as good as a new amp can get.

The city has a pedigree — in the 30s and 40s Bob Wills' Texas Playboys did a national radio show twice a week from Cain's Ballroom. The music that could only have been stewed in America became its national sensation: a hotfoot mix of old time fiddle tunes and honky tonk, cowboy, Dixieland, big band swing and plain old blues. Wills called it Wesern Swing and put a drummer into country and Muddy Waters did the same with the blues and it all went from them straight into Rock n Roll.

They had been a jazz center since the early 1900s, drawing musicians from Texas, New Orleans, Harlem and Chicago, and when the oil boom hit in the 20s Tulsa became even more a magnet for musicians. Cain's Ballroom faded when rock took over in the late 50's and at one time the old dance hall was holding pig races or boxing, or whatever would draw a few hundred where 3000 used to dance.

In 1977 a new owner booked local star Elvin Bishop, giving the place immediate credibility as a rock venue. The crazy Sex Pistols came in a few months later and it's been a happening place since, bringing rock, country and blues, both old and new. Cain's has that feel to it like the old Ryman in Nashville, or like Beartooth Pass or the Golden Gate, that sense you get that there's other places sort of like it but this one here is the real deal. One hesitates to use Mecca as even vaguely synonymous these days, but you get the drift there.

It was somewhere back in the mid nineties that we first took the show to Tulsa. I arrived early and left the truck in the yard of our rental outfit and flew home. In the taxi to the airport the driver asked where I was from. I told him and he said, "North Dakota? Man, I never knew what cold really was until I got in the Air Force and ended up stationed in Minot. I couldn't believe it could get that cold. Forty below. Sometimes even more."

I said, "It was like that now and then."

"Tell me about it. We all had those engine heaters, y'know, and that plug stickin' out of the grille and you'd hook it up so she'd start again. You forget your extension cord the night before, and you are goin' nowhere the next morning."

"Yeh, we all had those headbolt heaters."

"When I mustered out I had no family anywhere, no ties, and as soon as I got my papers I piled in my old Pontiac with all my stuff and I drove straight south as fast and as far as I could. I had made up my mind I'd keep going until somebody asked me what that plug was for. So I got down here to Tulsa and it was back when they'd put the gas in for ya, and they'd check the oil and stuff, and the kid comes out and he says, 'What's that cord stickin' out of yer grille there for, Mister?' . . . I been here twenty-six years now. And I like it here."

One more item on the saloon music theme and then I'll give the whole thing a rest. Hearing that band at the Blues City pretty much staying with the blues all night, and then listening to Elvin Bishop's new CD on the same subject, set me wondering how that one song form can have such a universal grip. So here's a theory: The big connection is that the 12-bar frame is like life itself, in that the first four measures of it set the table, the premise, like youth, in the tonic of the key; what they call the one. The middle bars move up in pitch to the four, the sub-dominant to a music teacher. It drives up the energy, a middle-age prime declaration with more assurance, and goes again to the root for more push. And the third group of four measures is the turnaround, the senior years, where the conclusion is drawn dramatically down through the dominant five and the four and back to resolution. To the tonic.

That same little story can repeat four to eight times in a tune, or more, each verse revealing some new aspect. And there might be a bridge, offering a side version. Sometimes the words end up meaningless or as a joke, or just utterly unregistered upon the listener. But the familiarity of the form and the drive, especially when it comes with good guitar work, makes people just sit and grin. Slow song or fast, doesn't matter. Makes mature folks even get up and dance. Works for me, anyway.

We old school types like things that resolve.


© R.Ringsak 2008

P.S. (It was difficult to resist mention that British musicians will take gin with their tonic, but I managed it.)

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