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Diamond in the rough

In Oklahoma City, the unassuming music club Blue Door often has an Austin gleam to it

Denise Gamino
'You look around at all the people who've played here and the bar is set pretty high,' says Ray Wylie Hubbard, right, who performed at the Blue Door in January. Hubbard is one of many Central Texans who play at the Oklahoma City club.

That ribbon of highway from here to Austin stretches 400 miles, but the distance melts away inside the lopsided walls of a quirky little music club alive with a Texas vibe.

So many Austin-area musicians make a regular pilgrimage to the Blue Door, a 100-seat ramshackle roadhouse, that it could be considered an Austin annex.

The Blue Door is to Oklahoma City what the Cactus Café is to Austin: an intimate listening room with a passionate fan base.

But a lot of musicians say the music sounds better at the Blue Door, an old shotgun-style building that leans so far to the north there are no right angles any more, creating acoustic alchemy.

To its big blue doors have come Robert Earl Keen, Joe Ely, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Charlie Sexton, Alejandro Escovedo, Jimmy LaFave, Michael Fracasso, Eliza Gilkyson, Kevin Welch, David Halley, Butch Hancock, Terri Hendrix, Sara Hickman, Jon Dee Graham, Carrie Rodriguez, Lloyd Maines, Betty Soo, the late Stephen Bruton and the beat goes on. You get the musical drift — folk, country, blues, roots, bluegrass, rock 'n' roll and more.

The Blue Door is a shabby hole-in-the-wall but a singer/songwriter destination. Fracasso and Sexton even recorded a 2001 album there, "Back to Oklahoma: Live at the Blue Door."

Oklahoma native and multiple Grammy-winner Jimmy Webb, who can fill Carnegie Hall, plays every year. Music legends David Lindley, Dave Alvin, Ramblin' Jack Elliot and Guy Clark have performed here.

A night at the tumble-down Blue Door is an informal affair. Audience members tote in ice chests of beer and prop their feet on the wooden stage. Loudmouths are asked to leave. No smoking is allowed, and no alcohol is sold. A dog or two might share the stage with musicians. Ceiling fans, a Route 66 sign and two shelves of dusty instruments substitute for décor. Large blue doors frame the back of the stage, giving musicians a cobalt backdrop.

The folding chairs in the front row are just 17 inches from the stage. Overflow seating here means sitting on a 10-foot chartreuse couch that looks old enough to have been in Ken Kesey's psychedelic bus. There's a little bit of standing room — lean against the plywood walls and the music pulsates through you.

Almost every available inch of wall space in the entry room is covered with show fliers. Austin is disproportionately represented in this paper universe.

"You look around at all the people who've played here and the bar is set pretty high," says Ray Wylie Hubbard just before stepping on stage for a recent show.

"To play here, you have to be pretty good. You can't fake it up there. You'd better have some pretty good songs."

The crowd is Oklahoma laid-back but filled with experienced listeners who don't miss a nuance or a note.

"There's no cover bands here. There's no mainstream homogenized music," Hubbard says. "It definitely has a grit and a groove to it. I'd say it's worth an eight-hour drive on (Interstate) 35 to get here. And I wouldn't do that for a lot of places."

Inspired by Austin

Hubbard, an Oklahoma native, is a 40-year expert on honky-tonks and taverns. He was a country music outlaw in the '70s who penned "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother" and now wins audiences with darker, more primal songs that riff off his well-read imagination. (He still wears bandanas, though.)

He first met Greg Johnson, the owner and promoter of the Blue Door, in the early '70s while playing a gig at the now-defunct High Horse Tavern in Norman. Johnson was too cheap to pay the 50-cent cover charge, so he told the doorman he was on the guest list. It was a moment of audacity inspired by a passion for the music, and it minted a lasting friendship.

"I don't use the word friend a lot, but he's a good friend," Hubbard said. "He really is. Not just to me but to good, young songwriters. You've got to be pretty good. He has good taste in music. I think that's important.''

The Blue Door was inspired by the 10 years Johnson spent in Austin in the 1980s and early 1990s.

"The Blue Door could not have happened if I hadn't lived in Austin," says the outspoken Johnson, a gregarious man with a full-throated laugh.

Johnson, 58, grew up in Oklahoma City listening to Bob Dylan and the Beatles. Then he learned that Jimmy Webb - who wrote "Galveston," "Wichita Lineman," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Up, Up and Away" and "The Highwaymen," among other hits — was from Oklahoma. Johnson met Webb's brother in college, became friends with the Webb family, and turned into a serious student of singer/songwriters who have a gift for wordsmithing.

After graduating from the University of Oklahoma, Johnson moved to Austin in 1982 to work for programs that help dysfunctional children. He carved out a side career as music promoter, band manager and freelance music journalist for various publications, including the American-Statesman.

He became close friends with LaFave, Fracasso, Lucinda Williams and other musicians. In 1991, Johnson organized an annual Woody Guthrie birthday tribute.

But the next year he got restless and returned to Oklahoma City, where his mother was ill. He assumed he would move on eventually, maybe head to Nashville. But a friend of Johnson's, singer/songwriter Mary Reynolds, was hosting some house concerts in the mazelike building she lived in not far from downtown. She called it the Hotel Bohemia.

"Maybe you can start bringing some of your (Austin) friends up," she said. "It's kind of a funky old place."

The Red River pilgrimage began, led by Fracasso in early 1993. LaFave soon followed, and then Hubbard made the journey. Fracasso cherishes that drive to Oklahoma City because "it was actually the first time I'd ever toured, if you will."

By that spring, Reynolds had moved out of the building and Johnson had moved into the back quarters. He renamed it the Blue Door and invited Kevin Welch, who grew up near Oklahoma City and had known Johnson since the 1970s, to travel from Nashville to play the grand opening. The show sold out and earned a story on the local television news.

"It's one of my favorite places on the planet to play," says Welch, who now lives near Hubbard in Wimberley.

"It`s just a great feeling place. There's this kind of Okie ethic, this kind of friendliness and comradeship and looseness and good humor. Almost every time I've played there I've ended the night feeling like I've had a real special experience."

Stories onstage and off

After 17 years, there is no shortage of Blue Door lore.

California songwriter Steve Poltz, who co-wrote pop singer Jewel's hit "You Were Meant For Me," recorded his show one night and then burned CD copies on his laptop to give to each audience member. Another night, Terri Hendrix, a San Marcos singer/songwriter, had to repair one of the notoriously skanky toilets with her Leatherman tool, a 20-minute job she performed for free before going on stage.

New England-based folkie Ellis Paul feared for his life because a tornado was gathering steam near Oklahoma City. "Shouldn't we be doing something?" he asked the unrattled Okies, who just watched the coming storm on televised radar in the back room. The real storm came the night Alejandro Escovedo played an electric show with his band. The 25-foot ceiling above the stage began leaking so badly the musicians were forced to unplug their instruments and take seats in a tight circle on the floor with the audience huddled around them for an impromptu acoustic set.

"The show always goes on," says longtime doorman Tom Hall.

And it's hard to keep track of the times the Blue Door has been hit with code complaints or raided by alcohol enforcement agents with false tips about alcohol sales without a license. Johnson fights each one, determined to save the music. One of the raids occurred during a LaFave show.

"They were trying to say Greg was running some kind of speakeasy or something until they figured out quickly that we weren't selling alcohol," says LaFave, whose show was interrupted for about an hour.

'What are you in for?'

Johnson has had minor brushes with the law and chronic problems trying to keep safety code enforcers at bay. But he remains bitter about the night he ended up in jail in 2003.

The agents burst in and discovered the small, personal liquor cabinet for Johnson and his wife, Teena, who both lived at the Blue Door then. Agents also found a small amount of marijuana in Johnson's possession. When Johnson got belligerent, he was cuffed and arrested while the show — a blues gig with Joe Price of Iowa and Kelly Hunt of Kansas — was delayed.

All charges were dropped, but the arrest still angers Johnson. He says he had approached Oklahoma City officials early on to find out what kind of license, if any, he needed to put on house concerts in his unusual residence.

"They came in there like they were busting the biggest bootleg operation in Oklahoma," Johnson said. "I spent all night in jail."

Johnson had to explain himself to some of Oklahoma City's lowlife that night.

"What are you in for?" Johnson asked one of his cellmates.

"Well, I tried to stab my wife," the inmate said.

"What are you in for?" Johnson asked another.

"Well, violating my parole. They found me with a gun."

Then the two prisoners steered the conversation to Johnson.

"What are you in here for?" they asked.

"Folk music!" Johnson said.

A generous donation

A few years ago, Johnson turned the Blue Door into a nonprofit operation. The Blue Door Music Foundation allowed Johnson to accept donations to help turn the dive into a stable and safe venue.

Recently, an Oklahoma City arts patron, who wants to remain anonymous, pledged at least $100,000 from a trust to bring the Blue Door up to code and make structural repairs. It is getting a new roof, new restrooms, wall reinforcement, a new porch, insulation, new electrical wiring and other renovations. The red-stone facade was removed one stone at a time so the front could be repaired. Each stone was reset.

"I like it that some Okies stepped up to the plate," says LaFave, who grew up in Oklahoma before moving to Austin. "Maybe some people around Austin can take that as a Texas-OU rivalry and save the Cactus. They don't want the Sooners saving their music club when the Longhorns can't save their little music venue."

The timing of the Blue Door's face-lift appears as irony to Austin musicians trying to save the Cactus, a beloved listening room in the Texas Union at the University of Texas. UT plans to close the Cactus later this year as part of a larger budget-cutting proposal, although university officials say they are open to fundraising efforts.

"It's been kind of a battle, but I'm really happy for Greg that some people came out of the woodwork to say, `No, this is a special place. This is a place that needs to be preserved and honored,'" LaFave says. "It's not about moving it to some other location. It's the Blue Door and here's where the history happened and this is where it's going to stay.'"

Couches will remain

Johnson, who now lives in a house eight blocks from the Blue Door with his wife, promises the no-frills, tattered ambience of the Blue Door will never change. He says the slant-wall acoustics won't be altered and that the horrid couches, including two in the green room that have served as beds for many itinerant musicians, will remain.

Another Blue Door offering that will stay the same is the way musicians mingle with fans in the small entryway after shows to sign autographs, take photos and sell CDs. No one who wants to meet and chat with a musicmaker leaves disappointed.

In the face of obstacles, the Blue Door only seems to get better.

"I think that stands as a testament to the Blue Door," says LaFave. "It's about the spirit of Woody Guthrie and freedom of speech and the power of music. I'm so glad it's there, and I hope we can find some way to save the Cactus in Austin."

Whatever happens to the Cactus, the Blue Door and its magic vibe are poised to flourish.

Oklahoma or Bust.

Upcoming Blue Door shows

  • Sara Hickman, April 1, 8 p.m.
  • Adam Carroll with Michael O'Connor, April 2, 9 p.m.
  • Joel Melton, April 3, 9 p.m.
  • Fred Eaglesmith with the Ginn Sisters, April 13, 8 p.m.
  • John Hammond, June 5, 9 p.m.
  • Joe Ely, June 11, 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.
  • Slaid Cleaves, June 19, 9 p.m.
  • Dan Dyer and Suzanna Choffel, June 25, 9 p.m.

Address: 2805 N. McKinley Ave., Oklahoma City or call (405) 524-0738