A version of this feature appears in Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. To read what some of the musicians who have played the Blue Door over the years have to say about the venue, click here.
Blue Door celebrates its 20th birthday
John Fullbright, Jimmy Webb, Kevin Welch, Michael Fracasso and the Red Dirt Rangers are among the house favorites who will play the fabled listening room in May, its anniversary month.
John Fullbright is coming back to the Blue Door, or as he calls it, “My Point A.”
“It’s kind of a launching pad more than a home base, just because I don’t have a home base right now,” the Bearden-based singer-songwriter said by phone from the road in Wyoming. “But when I play the Blue Door, it’s a hometown crowd … and careerwise, that was Point A. And now we’re at Point Something-Else. But it definitely was instrumental in launching me into this craziness.
“I would be a very different artist if I didn’t kind of start out there.”
The Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist is playing a sold-out three-night stand this weekend in honor of the fabled listening room’s 20th birthday. Others playing during the Blue Door’s anniversary month include house favorites Jimmy Webb, Kevin Welch Michael Fracasso and the Red Dirt Rangers.
“I’m trying to become an institution before they put me in one,” joked Blue Door proprietor Greg Johnson, who also manages Fullbright. “There’s just something really special about a live show that’s really intimate, and when you’re at the Blue Door, the worst seat is 60 feet away.”
Johnson calls opening the Blue Door a “happy accident.” In 1993, he had just moved back home to Oklahoma City from Austin, Texas, was doing a little freelance journalism and even had a job interview at the Nashville newspaper The Tennessean.
“The way Nashville was in 1993, well, it’s probably worse now, but it was getting pretty bad by then. It was getting pretty squirrelly, for the sounds I like anyway,” he said last week over lunch at his favorite restaurant, Lido’s. “I speak my mind and I certainly speak truth to power, especially in the music business, because there’s so much dishonesty.”
Instead of moving east, the Oklahoma City native learned through his sister, Fran Derrick, that their musician pal Mary Reynolds was getting ready to relocate to Austin herself. Reynolds, who called Texas home for six years before crossing back to Oklahoma, was living and hosting a few shows in a humble rent house she had dubbed “Hotel Bohemia.”
“Mary kind bequeathed me the Blue Door,” said Johnson, who eventually bought the building. “I was kind of missing all my songwriter buddies from Austin, so she said, ‘I’ve got this place over on McKinley; maybe you can bring some of your friends up.’”
Using Reynolds’ mailing list, He brought in Fracasso for a January show at the venue, which wasn’t yet called the Blue Door, and 50 people turned out.
“I said, ‘Wow, this is easy,’” he said with a laugh. “Little did I know that I would love many, many nights to have 50 people at the Blue Door. … It’s funny every time Mary plays there, I say, ‘Well, it’s your fault.’ She said, ‘I hope you don’t cuss me too often.’ I don’t.”
Jimmy LaFave, Ray Wylie Hubbard and the Red Dirt Rangers played some of the first shows at the listening room, he said. Reynolds was still getting moved out when Welch performed the first official Blue Door concert in May; she recalls the fellow singer-songwriter helping her haul her belongings out of the large, main room of the house.
“If you had asked me would that building still be standing in 2013, I would’ve said ‘I doubt it.’ But they were able to save it … because of the renovations that have been done,” said Reynolds, whose duo Miss Brown to You will open Fracasso’s May 25 show.
“I’m very much happy to have been a part of it. It is a remarkable place, and there aren’t very many places like it in the world. It’s a great thing for this town. It has sparked interest in that kind of music around here that would not have been there otherwise.”
While he gets constant calls from singer-songwriters all over the country wanting to play his place, Johnson said there aren’t many listening rooms like his left. Over the years, he has hosted legendary singer-songwriters like Arlo Guthrie, Ellis Paul and Lucinda Williams.
“There were times that I thought ‘There’s just no way we’re going to be able to continue to do this. It’s just impossible.’ And then people stepped up with contributions to get the building fixed,” he said. “It’s still the greatest house concert in America. It really is.”
The Blue Door isn’t a club. Johnson, 61, lives there. He doesn’t sell alcohol, although concertgoers are invited to bring in wine, 3.2 beer and nonalcoholic drinks. He’s selective about who invites to play in his house and gets frustrated when he hosts great musicians and they draw meager crowds.
“The best part is being able to introduce people to all these great songwriters who they, for whatever reason, haven’t had a chance to check out, (either) didn’t know how to find them or didn’t know that many were out there,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of people my age who’ll say, ‘Well, where are all the guys like John Prine around now?’ And I’ll say they’re everywhere; just start with Greg Jacobs in Checotah and then go to Tom Skinner and then Bob Childers, of course.”
Johnson and Fullbright first met when the latter played with the Mike McClure Band at a 2008 Childers memorial at the Blue Door. Although they initially clashed, they eventually developed a mutual respect and rapport.
Johnson became Fullbright’s manager, and the singer-songwriter recorded his first album, “Live at the Blue Door,” at the venue in 2009. His 2012 studio debut, “From the Ground Up,” earned a Grammy nomination for best Americana album.
“It’s almost like the whole spirit of the Blue Door and the whole reason I stuck with it all these years when it was like a month-to-month situation to where I didn’t think I could keep it open was ‘cause I just believe songs matter. They matter in our culture. And John is like the culmination of that,” Johnson said.
“When John came along, it’s like he represents a new, younger generation of what I’ve been trying to do … and I’m sure John’s profile has certainly helped the Blue Door.”
Fullbright, 25, recalls Skinner telling him about the venue before he ever darkened those blue doors, which appropriately enough, open onto the small stage.
“He said, ‘The Blue Door is probably the only place that I still get really nervous before I play because people are listening and they’re really intuned to what you’re doing.’ You’re up there all by yourself and there’s no place to hide,” Fullbright said.
“There’s no place like the Blue Door, but the little listening rooms, I always kind of think of them as places that you don’t really realize that you need it until you get there. And you experience a really good show and it really touches you in a certain way, and then you realize this is kind of a form of therapy. The artist is bringing you into his world, and you’re going — and you’re going all the way. … And you walk out of there with something that you didn’t have when you walked in.”
Blue Door 20th anniversary celebration
The Blue Door, 2805 N McKinley, will celebrate its 20th anniversary month in May with a special lineup of shows. Information: 524-0738 or www.bluedoorokc.com.
John Fullbright: 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Doors open at 7 p.m. Sold out.
Jimmy Webb: 8 p.m. May 17-18. Doors open at 7 p.m. Limited tickets available.
Kevin Welch: 8 p.m. May 24. Doors open at 7 p.m.
Michael Fracasso with Miss Brown to You: 8 p.m. May 25. Doors open at 7 p.m.
Shawna Laree, Rick Toops & Best of OKC: 8 p.m. May 30. Doors open at 7 p.m.
Red Dirt Rangers “Lone Chimney” album release show: 8 p.m. May 31. Doors open at 7 p.m.