Interview: Greg Johnson of OKC’s Blue Door — on the Evolution of the Best Listening Room in Oklahoma

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photos by David Nowels

A little over a week ago I was fortunate to spend an afternoon chatting with Greg Johnson, the owner of the Blue Door listening room in Oklahoma City about its history and evolution.

What was supposed to be a quick 30 minute interview session turned into a comfortable all-afternoon chat with a friend with no regard for the clock. We traded tales, realized common friends and interests and he gave me the grand tour of his labor of love. Across a variety of subjects, I got to know Greg much better than I had, and I came away with an immense amount of respect for the man.

Two things give Greg Johnson drive: the music and political activism. He catches some heat for one of those, but he couldn’t care less. He’s opinionated, he can be brash. He’ll tell you exactly what he thinks, and doesn’t care who he pisses off while doing it. But he’d also give you the shirt off his back if you needed it, even if you pissed him off. He does everything he does for all the right reasons. It’s because he loves the songs and the songwriters, because he believes in them, and wants them to thrive in a better world. The Blue Door is known as the “best listening room in Oklahoma,” and I’d say that’s a confirmed fact. It is one of those really special venues that everyone should visit. In fact, I think this lyric from Jimmy Webb’s song “Oklahoma Nights” sums it up the best:

Put the top down on this old Mustang
Buy us a bottle of wine
Head up north to see the old gang
I want to see some friends of mine
I want to see some friends of mine
True loving people whose hearts are kind
Find that little town that’s in the back of my mind

AH: For people not from Oklahoma City, can you give us a little information on yourself and the Blue Door?

GJ: I started as just a music fan. I grew up in OKC listening to the radio. I came up in the age of R&R, with all that really good pop music on the radio. In those days you could turn the radio on and hear Johnny Cash, The Beatles, Glen Campbell, Motown, maybe some Philly Soul, Led Zeppelin, all in the same hour. That’s how I listened to music. Even though The Blue Door is considered a “folk” club in many ways, I didn’t come up listening to music in the coffee houses. I back-tracked my way to Woody Guthrie through Bob Dylan.

Whether it’s an R&B or R&R song, I just like good songs. I worked in and managed record stores, and I started writing about music, and was a music journalist for a while.  I moved to Austin, TX in 1983 and I wrote for the Austin American-Statesman a little bit as well as the Austin Chronicle. I got involved with the songwriting community down there, and started Woody Guthrie Tribute Concerts there in 1991 (points to the original poster that is framed on the wall.) That’s the first one, from the Cactus Café in 1991.  Some people gravitate towards short stories or novels; I gravitated towards songs more than anything. I was there for 10 years, but got a bit burned out and decided it was time to come home.

I had done the tribute concerts in Austin before I moved back here, and I just kept doing them after I moved back here in 1992. My friend Mary Reynolds, who is a wonderful Oklahoma artist and songwriter, was living here. Through my sister, she heard about what I was doing down in Austin, and she said, “Well I’ve got this place, if he wants to bring some people up and do some shows, we could do that here.” So, I did. I brought Michael Fracasso up from Austin in January of 1993. I thought, well, we’ll do a few shows and see. I didn’t think it would last.  I was a late bloomer; I was nearly 40 (laughs). I started doing shows with Michael Fracasso and Jimmy LaFave, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Alejandro Escovedo. I basically went through my “friends” list from Austin, and brought them all up to play. One thing led to another, and now we’ve been here 25 years.

But I started with no idea, no big business plan, no money, no help, zero capital. Originally I thought, “Being a club owner? Eww. That’s greasy.” I’d heard too many horror stories. I didn’t want to be a promoter, because in our world most promoters couldn’t give a shit about the music. They just want to make money. This was never a business endeavor for me, this was a lifestyle choice.

One thing led to another, and I kept doing shows and more shows. I was barely making it. There were weeks where I could barely eat twice a day. Back then, there wasn’t a market for any of this. There wasn’t a singer-songwriter scene. But, I just kept bringing artists here over the next few years, again, mostly my friends. Early on, after just a few shows, we realized that this place sounded great. It was falling apart, and OCU (Oklahoma City University next door) wanted this property and were willing to do anything they could to get me kicked out of here. But in 2010 a benefactor showed up, and said, “we’re going to shore it up, and make sure this building never falls down, and this place never goes away.” First they wanted to straighten it all up, and I said, “No. You’re not going to straighten it, there’s no right angles in here, and that’s why it sounds so good.” A lot of people start these things as a commercial business, even in this type of music, to make money. That’s not me. I thought, I’m going to create something that’s going to last, a foundation for songwriters to grow, a place for young songwriters to develop, and hopefully some legendary people like Jimmy Webb can come here. And now, Jimmy has been coming here since 2005 on a pretty regular basis. It was an example of the idea that you “Do what you love and the money will follow,” but I didn’t care about the money. I still don’t. It’s definitely nice that we have a sell out here and there, those keep things going. But, if somebody said tomorrow, you can keep doing the Blue Door forever, but there’s never going to be more than 25 people here, I’d say “Okay. We’ll keep doing it.”

So anyway, one show led to another show, and then I got involved with the Folk Alliance, joined the Board of Directors, and that kind of brought the Blue Door a little bit of prestige.

It’s all basically been me bringing my love of music, my love of songs and songwriters to this room. I always wanted to know who wrote the song. “Whose name is here in parenthesis? Who is that person?”  Back in the day, you didn’t really know who the songwriters were unless you were a student of the songs. Songwriters really didn’t start getting famous until Burt Bacharach and Jimmy Webb got famous. I wanted to know about Doc Pomus, Lebier and Stoller, Isaac Hayes. I wanted to know about all of them. We could have a quiet folkie one night and then have Alejandro Escovedo rocking his ass off the next night. I just wanted it “song” oriented. That’s all I cared about. I would rather hear a fairly novice performer with great songs than a “better performer” with lesser material.

And that’s how it happened, and now, after 25 years the songwriting community knows about us, and that’s because I’m so stubborn. I do it my way. I wanted to do something no one had done before. Nobody was doing this until I did. There wasn’t a market for this here. There barely is now! (laughs)

AH: Is The Blue Door inspired by any other venues? I moved here from Houston, and I have always thought it shared a similar vibe with Anderson Fair.

GJ: Yeah, I love Tim (Leatherwood, owner of Anderson Fair). Rusty and Theresa too (The Mucky Duck). Also The Cactus Café. I looked to those places. I wanted to do what they did. They have a bigger market than I do. (laughs) But were really all the same circuit now. I don’t have much family, I don’t have kids. This is kind of my child. I said, I’m just going to do this. I’ll figure it out, and I think I did. My overhead is zero. I don’t need to make money on shows, I can’t lose money on shows, but I don’t necessarily need to make money. I could break even for 50 shows in a row and the Blue Door would still be doing this.

AH: How many shows do you present in a year?

GJ: About 100 to 120 I guess. It just depends on who wants to play here. I don’t really solicit who plays here. Occasionally I’ll call on my local buddies like Andy Adams, Kyle Reid or John Calvin Abney and say, “Hey, why don’t you guys put a song swap together?” Or I’ll call Fracasso and ask if there’s anybody he wants to come up with for a special show, just to do something different. 95% of the time, I never solicit artists. I don’t call booking agents and ask, does so and so want to play here? I never have. Not even Jimmy Webb! They call me! (laughs). Makes my job easier!

AH: You’ve mentioned young artists several times. How important is that to you, that young artists play here?

GJ: Oh, that’s very important. I remember sitting with Fracasso, Kevin Welch and LaFave, at SXSW and somebody showed up that didn’t know about me and asked about the Blue Door. I told them the history, and said what we really need is some young people coming here, wanting to play music here. That was about 15 years ago. The average age of the artists coming to play here is 40-50 years old. And some of the people that listen to those guys, are getting older too, and some of them decide, “nah, I’m not going out tonight.” So we started having Travis Linville and other young songwriters start playing more. I guess it’s worked. We’ve found some great young songwriters. I hope this is a place where young artists can get it going, build their following and listeners can come here and sit and actually listen instead of being here to just hang out.

AH: Still on the subject of young songwriters, you manage John Fullbright. How did that come about?

GJ:  In February 2008 Bob Childers died, and we had a wake here for Bob that Jimmy LaFave and I put on. I’d heard about John Fullbright in passing conversations. People told me ‘you need to hear this kid, he’s so good.” I said, “I’ll hear him when I’m supposed to hear him.” (laughs) I dismiss that shit. I’m not a songwriter chaser you know? (laughs). Anyway, John showed up for the Bob Childers’ wake with Mike McClure, and they were pretty lit up. John looked around and said, “What the fuck is this place? What a dump.” I confronted him, told him to shut his f-cking mouth or I’d throw him off the f-cking porch. “You’ve got to pay your dues kid, and this’ll be the best damn place you’ll ever play.” Then I walked off.

He turned to Greg Jacob and Tom Skinner and said, “Wow. So that’s Greg Johnson you were telling me about.” Then it was time for him to play, and he had a shitty guitar with horrible sound. So my first experience with Fullbright was entirely negative. He started trying to blame me for his bad sound, when it was his shitty guitar. I didn’t want anything to do with the guy, I didn’t care how good he was. That was the first time I met him! (laughs) So, then Tom Skinner and Joel Melton were going to do a show together in October of 2008, and decided to add Fullbright to the show too.

So, he came in and we both acted like that first encounter didn’t happen. When he played it was great. My God, he’s good. A few weeks later I called him and invited him back down to OKC for lunch. I told him I’d never dabbled in artist management, but that I thought I could really help him if he was interested. He said: “Sure.” So in January 2009, Kevin Welch was playing my anniversary show and John opened. Kevin hadn’t heard him before, and said, “Who the fuck is that? I haven’t anything that good in so long.” I told him “he plays a mean accordion too. You should get him up on “Jersey Devil.” He did, and John tore it up. Kevin was really impressed. Kevin told him he should make a record here. We thought about it, and decided that we should. In February of 2009 I called Travis Linville and asked him if he wanted to record John Fullbright. We made a live record, John Fullbright – Live at the Blue Door. And we took that record to Folk Alliance. I mean, we were literally burning copies in the car on the way just to hand out to music business people. I called Will Sexton, and told him I had a kid for him to hear. Will heard him and was blown away. He kept calling him the “Okemah Kid.” (Okemah, OK where John’s from, is also the birthplace of Woody Guthrie.) Louis Myers was still running Folk Alliance back then. I miss Louis. I miss Louis every day. I told Louis about John and got him a few shows there, but couldn’t get a showcase. But then somebody dropped out, and Louis asked if John cold do it.  John played his gig to all the movers and shakers of Folk Alliance. Board of Director guys, Dave Marsh, Val Denn, all these people that could be really helpful to John were there, and they all turned to me and said, “Wow. Unbelievable.”

And that’s how that started. Right now I don’t manage anyone else, But, I might. I’ve got my eye on someone else. The best young songwriter in Oklahoma that nobody knows about.

AH: What is the term “Americana” to you?

GJ: I’ll tell you, it’s a marketing thing — totally a marketing thing. Back in 1993 or 94, we were all sitting around at Folk Alliance: Dave Marsh, Jimmy LaFave, Kevin Welch, Butch Hancock and myself. Having a bull session. And the question came up, “what is all this, this music called?” And, I said, “Who gives a fuck?” (Laughs). When we were growing up in record stores it was all under A-Z under pop music unless you were a real folkie like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez and then you were in the folk section. Back then it didn’t need a fucking name. What’s Jimmy Webb? What’s Carole King? What’s Randy Newman? What are they? American Songwriters. Dave, being the journalist, wanted to know. At that time in Nashville they were calling it “western beat.” Americana started in Kevin’s basement. The Americana Music Association started in Kevin’s basement. That’s where it started. I think Americana is a catch-all. Okay, it was supposed to start as an alternative to bad country radio. That was it. Now in my estimation, they’ve missed their mission statement by a mile, because they don’t like country music in Americana. Unless you’re famous like Loretta Lynn, young artists who aren’t Lucinda (Williams), Patty Griffin or Rosanne (Cash), (artists that are more straight country) are really ignored by Americana, in favor of people like the Lumineers and others. I think Americana has kind of missed it. They don’t honor people like Bill Kirchen or Courtney Patton. People that really play good music on a consistent basis. Old school country. Country songwriters. They really don’t honor that in Americana. They honor a more hipster, bearded listener. So, I have a problem with that. I’m not a favorite person for many in that group. I think the level of songwriting has gone down in recent years other than a small handful of songwriters. They turned Fullbright down three years in a row when his “…Live at the Blue Door” record came out. Then we made the studio record from the ground up, and it gets nominated for an Americana Grammy, and suddenly they’re on me like a long lost friend. So there’s something there that bugs me to death. It bugs me. It’s like a clique there that I have a problem with, even though there are some people in there that I really like. I think by trying to be all things to all people, they’ve failed at what they tried to do in the first place. Get real country music back on the radio. It still isn’t on the radio! (laughs).

Having said all that, I’m glad it exists. I think anything that can somehow help get good music out there is okay with me. I still think Folk Alliance is a better organization than the Americana Association if you’re a young songwriter. I’d send them there before SXSW or Americana. I like roots music. Americana falls under the roots music umbrella, basically. People ask, “Your venue is an Americana venue right?” Some nights it might be. Other nights it might be a Celtic venue. Is that Americana? It might be. Is Alejandro Escovedo Americana? Jimmy Webb? I could put a jazz band in here playing Gershwin and Cole Porter and that fits in too. My place is for songwriters I guess. That’s what we’re trying to do. I hope I turn as many people on to Harry Nilsson as I do Townes Van Zandt. It’s all about songs.

AH: Earlier you mentioned people coming here to actually listen to the songs. There seems to be a growing concern about “show-talkers” and such. Every show I’ve seen here it seems that people are actually here for the songs though.

GJ: That’s it. You’re right. They don’t want me getting pissed at them! (laughs)

AH: How do you create or foster that environment other than through ‘fear of Greg’? (laughs)

GJ: I’d like to say the people, but I think the music itself fosters it. I’ve been to the Tower Theatre twice. Once for Steve Earle because Steve’s sister’s my friend and the Mastersons wanted me to come. Steve asked me afterwards “Well, what did you think?” I told him it was great, but there were people talking all around me. He said, “Yeah, I guess there’s nothing we can do about that.”

But a big difference between here and there is, I don’t sell liquor. So there’s not people going back and forth to a bar. You can bring your little cooler of whatever, but you’re not getting up and moving around. And we’re not going to get the “tire-kickers” as I say.

We get people that understand what this is all about. They’re here for that reason, and the few people that don’t know what it’s about, get educated real quick, or they don’t come back. I remember Mike McClure was playing here, and a couple of guys kept turning their chairs (demonstrates turning chairs loudly) on the floor so they could talk to each other. McClure stops and announces “Whoa! You’re not at the Wormy Dog or In Cahoots guys.” So they got educated quickly and they later apologized. This isn’t a bar or a club, we’re a small concert hall. We act accordingly here. I don’t want it to be stiff, a “folk church” as you will, there’s no cappuccino machine (laughs). Just be respectful. You can talk a bit, just don’t talk when Jon Dee Graham is telling a story! (laughs)

A lot of the stories are just as important as the songs, and songwriters want people to listen. They want their songs and stories heard. Ramblin’ Jack Elliot might only play 7 songs, if we’re lucky, but it’s the stories that make up the difference. So I hope that has created an environment where we treat our songwriters as well as Texas treats theirs. Texas loves their songwriters. Oklahoma is really starting to really honor their songwriters and that’s good. As long as Tulsa doesn’t take too much credit for it! (laughs).

On the other side, dealing with artists is sometimes having to deal with narcissism. It can get tiring. Every now and then some young new artist whose show doesn’t sell well will complain that I didn’t use the right promo picture or not like how I promoted their show. I promote your show just like I promote every other show. This is all the people that wanted to be here! It doesn’t matter what photo or how it was promoted. This is all the people interested in coming tonight. The responsibility of the draw falls on the artist. It’s up to me to provide the place. I told one manager “Why is it that John Fullbright shows sell out in an hour when I do more promotion for your artist than I ever do Fullbright?” (laughs). That can drain you over twenty years. Some manager will try to tell me how to schedule or something like that. I alone set the schedules, the times and the cover charges for the shows. That’s how it’s done here. Do you want to play here or not? Because guess what? I really don’t care who plays here. It’s wonderful that people want to play here, but I really don’t care. That frees me up to concentrate on what’s important. That the average listener out there is getting to hear great songs in a great environment.

AH: Over these past 25 years, do you have a favorite songwriter that’s graced that stage?

GJ: That’s an impossible question, but I guess I’d have to say Jimmy Webb. When I was sixteen years old and I heard “Wichita Lineman” or maybe it was “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” I thought: wow. That’s beautiful. Jimmy was the hottest songwriter in America back then. Everyone was talking about him, especially here in Oklahoma where he’s from. So I latched on to him. Then I found this Johnny Rivers record “Rewind” with the song, “Baby I need Your Lovin’” and Jimmy was the guy in the parenthesis. He worked on it; he’d been working for Motown a year earlier. I became a Jimmy Webb fan. There’s not one Jimmy Webb song that sounds like another Jimmy Webb song. You can’t say that about Jackson Browne or even Bob Dylan. He’s the only one. How can he put those chord progressions together and write “Up, Up and Away” one minute, “McArthur Park” the next and then come along and give us “Highway Man” later. What? (laughs). People say I’m obsessed with Jimmy Webb and that it’s weird, and maybe it is (laughs). I didn’t know it at the time but my obsession with Jimmy Webb would be what led me to this. The first concerts I ever promoted was Jimmy Webb at Oklahoma Baptist University in 1971 and 1973. I’ve become good friends with Jimmy now, and I’ve told him, “If it wasn’t for you Jimmy, there wouldn’t be a Blue Door.” And that’s true.

Of course, I’d also say it’s been Jimmy LaFave, Alejandro, Fracasso. Will and Charlie Sexton. I hate to say it’s just one person, but yeah, that first time Jimmy played here, that was probably it. He’s played here now about 10 times over the years and we always look forward to it.

AH: Do you even have a wish list of people you’d like to play here?

GJ: Nope. I don’t care who plays here! (laughs) Whoever wants to play here can play here. People have told people in passing that they should play here. People have told Rodney Crowell and some others. That would be cool. They can play here. But if they don’t want to, that’s cool too. I have talked to Steve Earle about playing here. If it happens great if it doesn’t, that’s cool too!

Read more and check tour dates at the Blue Door website: http://www.bluedoorokc.com/

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