Interview: Chad Whitehead of OKC’s Tower Theatre Confirms Growing Americana Music Scene

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Americana Highways has been wanting to talk to someone at Oklahoma City’s Tower Theatre ever since its recently renewed effort to increase support of the growing local (and national) Americana music scene.  Chad Whitehead has been the Operating Partner and Talent Buyer for a little over 18 months since he, Stephen Tyler and Jabee Williams took over operation of the theatre in April 2017.   Tyler tweeted over this past weekend:  “We ran some numbers. In one year of operation [The Tower Theatre] held 325 concerts, movies, and events and sold 61,000 tickets. If I missed your phone call, text, or email I apologize.”   Our writer Dave Nowels sat down with Chad Whitehead a few days ago and the conversation that unfolded will really warm your Americana music loving heart.

AH : Tell me about the Tower Theatre and its history

CW : The Tower Theater opened in 1937 and had several heydays in the movie business — peaking in the fifties. It fell into harder times as the theater business got trickier. It had an brief adult film era.  It wasn’t that long, but that’s definitely the first thing people joke about. It had a brief stint as a concert venue about twenty years ago, but that fizzled out in spectacular flair with the Slipknot show, that happened, but never happened. They had oversold the room and then kicked out 10% of the fans, and the band didn’t appreciate that and refused to take the stage. The remainder of the crowd freaked out, and that was the last concert at that time. The roof leaked, and it sat dormant for 17 years with several custodial ownership groups until Pivot (Project) came in and patched the roof and kept it intact. They put all the money into renovating the building, the office space, the retail, bar space and theater itself, then they signed a 15 year lease with a promoter in town, and got the lights turned on to the marquee. But that promoter never finished the room or booked concerts. And nothing happened for a year and a half.

That’s when Stephen (Tyler) and I fell into this once in a lifetime opportunity. Stephen had his office upstairs in the Tower, renting it from Pivot. He operated and produced podcasts and various studio/audio projects that came his way. He had a little bit of insight into the drama within the building, had a connection with the owners, and came from a lifelong background of a love of concerts and production, and had a hand in anything technical at ACM (Academy of Contemporary Music at the University of Central Oklahoma) that they needed. And he really wanted to take over the Tower someday.

I was in the neighborhood, because I live nearby, and our paths just kept crossing. We are both positive people who really just love the community and love the neighborhood, and that’s how I got to know Stephen. He kept asking me questions about music. I had booked just enough in a former life to be dangerous. Enough to know the rigamarole of protocol: agents do this, managers do that, and this is how you market a show. As the news sort of crept out that there might be an opportunity here, we put together a business plan and pitched it to Pivot Projects and they called us later that day and said “lets do it.” They formed a business with Stephen and I, to take over the operations of Tower Theatre. That was last March, which is crazy! (laughs) A lot has happened in a year.

AH: How do you define Americana music?
CW:   There are epicenters of Americana music, like the MidWest, or maybe Nashville or Austin where that label is central and understood, but recently I was in Salt Lake City and somebody asked me this question.  My answer is that Americana is a little bit of a lot of things. But it is a very amalgamous combination of a lot of things, and like Jack Fowler says on his radio show, “it’s whatever the hell he says it is.”  And I agree. If Steve Earle says he’s the godfather of Americana, who am I to say he’s not Americana? But at the same time, I can think of a lot of Americana acts that wouldn’t fit as openers for Steve Earle because their expression of Americana is completely different, they might be a little more bluegrass, for example.

It’s a big tent for me, and that’s probably why I like it. Because an indie kid like me from Salt Lake City can move to OKC at the midpoint of his life and find a whole new expression of concert goers and music that’s nothing I grew up with, but I can find game trails through the forest that I can understand and enjoy. In Americana, you can still have a hippie jam band expression of Americana and nobody at that show is going to say that’s not Americana. And then you have the entirety of US bands that can tour in Europe, and do better over there than they do here, because that brand holds a lot of weight in Europe.

AH:  What’s the best thing to love about Americana?

CW:  What I like about the brand, Americana is that we could argue about it all day and it would still be a fun conversation and a fruitful conversation!   Whereas, a question like “What’s pop country?” almost instantly leads to strong divisive conversation. Americana has found a fun, nice way to carve out the distinction of what it means. The fans drawn to Americana themselves are fun, open hearted, open minded people that are looking for positive expressions of life. We like booking Americana, because we know the kind of crowd we’re going to get. Good people, no problems, they’re usually quiet and respectful.

AH: Do you see a growth of the Americana scene in OKC?

CW: My overall role as talent buyer at Tower is to keep trying to get bigger names, as big an act as will fit in my room; that’s who I want to go get. And then I want them to come back. I don’t want to just have Steve Earle the one time. I want Steve Earle to say, “I want to play Tower Theater every year, because OKC is a great town, and the fans go crazy, I had I ton of fun and the Tower took care of me.” So looking at it from a talent buyer’s perspective, I just want to keep pushing into that and keep asking, what’s the top of the Americana world, and then go get them. I’ve only lived here for four years, but there is no reason we should have to drive to Dallas, or Tulsa, or Austin unless we want to. We’re the capital city of Oklahoma and we finally have some venues that are getting their act together real quick, Jones Assembly has also been killing it, and booking Americana acts too, which is awesome. We’re getting up to speed quickly; we didn’t have these options a few years ago. The Blue Door has held it down for a generation, but that’s a much smaller room. So, my job as the 1000 capacity room in OKC is to go get the top American artists that will sell 1000 tickets. So let’s figure that out, and bring them to town. Because yes, the fans are definitely here.

AH: Is it any different booking Americana compared to other genres? And what do you look for in an artist to book?

CW: It’s easier with Americana to have conversations with the agents, because they know this is a part of the country where their fan base exists. I think Americana is one of those weird genres where in Montana Americana might be much more different than in Oklahoma. The majority of the agents I talk to are based out of Nashville, so I’m not having to sell them on OKC. They already know that this is a market they want to be in. So it’s a little bit of an easier sell. But the flipside of that is that it costs us more, because it should be a decent market for Americana acts. So, in that sense, I’m a little bit, um, not stuck, but I do have to take on more risks. It’s going to cost me a lot more than if they were trying to drop that show in Nevada, or Boise which might be a much smaller market for Americana. So I do have to pay a little more.

AH: What are your favorite artists that you’ve booked so far at the Tower?

CW: I don’t know that I’ll ever book anyone that means more to me than Steve Earle. He’s the Godfather. He’s the guy. For my money, he’s a living rock star, a rock star. But yet, when we had him here last time he was just casually walking up and down the halls. That’s the pinnacle.

But, you’ve got the full new generation of Americana, slash country crossover artists, Tyler Childers, Colter Walls that are quietly taking over the Americana world at such a speed, that I’m just grateful we’ve gotten to book them once. The trajectory of some of those guys is so quick; it’s a lot of fun to book those guys, even though I’m not going to get to work with them for very long, because they’re going to shoot right up out of my room and be on to the next bigger and better thing.

But Steve Earle is still the one I make sure to mention every time somebody asks me: “Well, I booked Steve Earle that one time, and it’ll be announced in a week or so that he’s coming back in December for the 30th Anniversary show of Copperhead Road.”  When an artist wants to come back that tells me we’re doing a good job. Especially a guy like him, who’s seen it all, and played it all. He switched agencies this year, and made sure to tell his new agent to call me because he wanted to come back. There’s no higher praise in my opinion. He’ll put on a great show anywhere in the world because he’s a pro, but he might not want to come back to everywhere he’s played. So him wanting to come back is awesome.

AH: Who’s on your wishlist?

CW: I’d really like to get Lucas Nelson next year. I think Sturgill Simpson is too big for my room, but that would be really cool. I’d really love to get more female Americana artists onto the room. Amanda Shires. Margo Price would be great. We missed her last year. We tried, but it didn’t work out. I think just the value of the Tower Theatre, we want to be a place that validates all walks of life, and find artists that are just crushing it. We want to find those artists that sell it out. So finding those artists is the biggest thing. The question mark. Finding those artists and bringing them in. So Lucas Nelson is definitely on the list down the road.

We’re hope to get Colter Wall back soon. Tyler Childers in December on a Saturday night! That tells me we’re doing good work, when they’re starting to say, they want to play OKC on a weekend. That is an indicator to me that the industry values OKC as an Americana market. I want to get Ray Wylie Hubbard back every year for the rest of my life (laughs). We had so much fun with him. I want Carter Sampson to be a household name. She’s dubbed the queen of Oklahoma, and it’s absolutely true. Nobody communicates the diversity and uniqueness, the talent and hard work of Oklahoma like Carter Sampson. Maybe she doesn’t sell a 1000 tickets, but she’s one of our favorites.

AH: On that note, you guys seem to have more than a business relationship with many of our local artists. John Calvin Abney, Jabee all walk around like they own the place, and are obviously comfortable with the staff and everyone here. They seem at home. Is that something that’s important? To create a relationship like that with local artists?

CW: One of our values as a business is that we are kind and hospitable. We want everyone to feel like this is their spot. If I go around the corner to the Pump Bar with my wife to have dinner later tonight, it’s not because I want to go get hammered, it’s because I know I can go there and feel at home. If a venue can do that with their patrons, and their artists, they’re doing a good job. A guy like John Calvin Abney, has this interesting life where he’s going to travel the world for the next however many years and hopefully he’ll have good things to share about the Tower Theatre. So it’s a value of ours because we’re Oklahomans, but also because it’s just good business in an era where a lot of that is forgotten. It does hearken back to a day and age where you knew your neighbors, you were kind to people in your life, and if Oklahomans can’t do that in OKC I don’t really want to be in this industry. This industry can be pretty brutal and rough. What gets me excited about it is putting my neighborhood on the map, putting OKC in people’s minds for something other than the politics that make the national news or the tornadoes or something like that. This is just my way to get to do that, but if it’s not going to be led with hospitality and kindness, I’d probably do something else. (laughs). What the Pivot project liked the most what made them excited to work with us was that we wanted to lead with hospitality and kindness. Whether it’s our box office, or how our security treats people, how our bar interacts with people or how we treat the bands. Hospitality and kindness have to be in the forefront. And ultimately that’s what makes Oklahoma special. It’s not our climate (laughs) or our wilderness. It’s the people. That’s what means the most to me.

AH: Do you ever get nervous pre-show? Obviously you have the advantage of knowing advance ticket sales, but often when I’m attending a show here or elsewhere, I look around early on and wonder if there’s enough people attending.

CW: I have two answers for that. I was in Salt Lake City last week for Broken Social Scene, one of my all time favorite bands. They’re like going to church for me. I had that exact same feeling you described when the opener was playing. I was looking around, going, I don’t think there’s enough people here. This doesn’t feel right. I had no investment in the show except as a fan, so I totally get that.

AH: When people don’t show up, you kind of feel embarrassed for your city.

CW: Yeah, exactly. You’re worried about the city, worried about the crowd, the band, how they’re going to feel. But like Broken Social Scene, it worked out well, at least until the lightening storm (laughs).  The crowd filled in nicely. But as a promoter of concerts, there are very few that you can feel relieved about ahead of time. The Tyler Childers show that sells out in one day doesn’t come along that often. So you live with the risk the job far longer than the reward. I just booked Todd Rundgren, and it went on sale last week. That was a pretty last minute thing that kind of dropped in our lap. One of my concerns was: this is Todd Rundgren. He doesn’t play for free. You’ve got to pay him at a level he expects, I mean he wrote nearly every song of the seventies (laughs). He’s a songwriting machine. So you have to book him at the level he expects, but I don’t have 90 days to market the show really well. It’s a risk. But, it’s sold like gangbusters which is great, but that doesn’t happen that often.

As a start up venue, you have to take a lot of shows that maybe five years into your business you wouldn’t take, but I’m just looking to fill my calendar, get people to come to the Tower Theatre and get comfortable with us, and excited about who’s coming next. You don’t get to take just the cream of the genre. You have to take a show that maybe you won’t much money on this time around, but hopefully in two years when their new album is out they’re going to want to come back based on how we treated them, and that’s where it pays off. Developing goodwill with an artist is for me, the best. Like Charley Crockett is the first one getting off the bus, and just wants to hang out with us, that’s crazy cool. He’s as cool as they get. You probably don’t get to do that once he starts winning Grammys you know. At that point, it reverses. Instead of being the first one off the bus, he’s the last one off.

AH: Last question…it’s the big debate on many fan pages….sit or stand? Which do you prefer?

CW: I turned 40 this year (laughs) so I like venues that give fans both options. I went to a soccer game last Saturday and somebody stood in front of me the whole game, and it ruined my fun at the game. So, clearly delineated standing and sitting areas where people can sit without ruining it for those standing, and those standing don’t ruin it for those sitting is more fun. That’s what I like. But, that’s not where I get stuck. My hang up is, why do we pay so much to go to concerts, which are truly, concerts and sports are truly reality, we spend all that money and all that effort to be at these things, and then you get one beer in you, and you just want to talk to your friend and waste the entire moment. I’m more guilty of it than anyone, and I’m not condemning anyone. But what is it about that? It seems like our market has a real problem with it. People just want to show up for the show and be as loud as they can be. That’s my hang-up. I don’t really care I guess if they stand or sit. I just wish they’d be quiet. Some of these songs, artists have killed themselves to cultivate these songs and put them into this world, which takes tremendous guts and courage. Incredible pain and heartache to bring out these songs, and we pay all this money to see it, and we just talk right through the whole thing. Figure out why we do that, and then let me know how I can do as a venue to curtail that, because if an artist tells people in the moment, and I’ve seen that happen, it changes the energy of the show. You can put signs up like the Kessler in Dallas does. They’ve done a nice job of educating their audiences to be respectful, but I have not figured out how to do that here. I’ve been to the other venues in OKC, that’s part of my job is to go to shows and pay attention to what’s happening. Two weeks ago I was in Denver, same thing. It seems culturally we just can’t be still. Our Penny and Sparrow last year, two vocals and a guitar, they really encourage the crowd to be quiet. You could hear a pin drop. And our bar sales became zero once they hit the stage. They wanted chairs for that show. It was awesome. Mandolin Orange was the same way, and that was a standing crowd. I think a lot of it has to do with stage volume, and a lot has to do with alcohol consumption. The genre plays a part. Sitting crowds are generally more quiet and respectful. But if you figure it out, let me know!

Thank you Chad Whitehead.  And the rest of you can plan your next trip to Oklahoma City around the Tower Theatre’s calendar, right here.   https://www.towertheatreokc.com/calendar/

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