CUSHING — John Cooper is bringing original homegrown music to one small Oklahoma town.
As the song goes, he's doing it with a little help from his friends.
For the past 15 months, the singer/songwriter/mandolin player for the venerable Payne County band the Red Dirt Rangers has been hosting the Third Thursday Concert Series at Cushing Country Club.
“People concentrate the entertainment in the bigger towns, of course, in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, but even Stillwater and Norman. But folks in the countryside, in the smaller towns, want entertainment and they don't want to always have to drive to go see it,” said Cooper, who lives in the rural northeast Payne County community of Lone Chimney.
A leader in the red dirt music community, which originated in nearby Stillwater, Cooper said he was invited last fall to start the series at the Cushing Country Club, which was established in 1921 in the Payne County town of about 8,000 people.
“They said, ‘We'd like for you to host it and bring in friends and play with them,'” he said. “It's really relaxed because ... all the people I've had I've played with numerous times over the years and we know each other's songs.”
He and his fellow Red Dirt Rangers — guitarist/singer Brad Piccolo and lead guitarist/singer Ben Han — kicked off the monthly series in October 2011. Since, Cooper has adopted a two-person song-swap format, partnering with many well-known red dirt songwriter/musicians, including Mike McClure, Monica Taylor, Randy Crouch, Chuck Dunlap, Bo Phillips and Parker Millsap.
“It really highlights the song and the songwriter ... and when you strip it down to a guy or a gal with a guitar, you're getting to the nut. You're getting to the creation point. And I think people are interested in that,” Cooper said.
“The people are really into it, I think because they want good entertainment. And they don't always get that in smaller towns. So this is just a wonderful little concert series. Man, I had no expectations for it all, and it just has taken off.”
The series continues from 7 to 9 p.m. this Thursday with a sold-out show featuring Cooper and Bearden singer-songwriter John Fullbright, 24, who two weeks ago received a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album for his acclaimed studio debut, “From the Ground Up.”
Fullbright was just 17 when he brought a banjo to one of the Red Dirt Rangers' Okemah shows. The band invited him to sit in, and they became fast friends.
“John's played with us a lot. We've had him sit in on piano, on the different instruments that he plays, which is I think all of them. You know, we didn't really know what we were getting into there,” Cooper said with a laugh.
“He's just a delightful young man ... and we just couldn't be happier for his success. It's so deserving. Artists like him do not come along every day.”
Typically, the songwriter showcases are free to club members or $5 for nonmembers and take place in the scenic bar area, which can accommodate about 65 music fans. The Cooper-Fullbright show will be in the main dining hall, which seats about 150, and tickets were priced at $15.
“We see the same faces every month ... and the artists have caught wind of it. My friends, I've been getting calls from them,” Cooper said. “Artists want to do it, the fans want to see ‘em, it's just exciting to see. I'm really enjoying it.”
Millsap, 19, said Cooper is a fun musician to partner with and the song swap has an appealing spontaneity.
“Any situation where you're on your toes is going to make you better,” he said. “It's real up close and personal. It's a pretty intimate setting. You're 10 feet away from everybody, there's no stage or anything ... and it's almost like playing a house party.”
The Purcell resident said many small towns like his don't have a venue available and willing to showcase homegrown music.
“For a small community like that to be supporting live, original music, I think that's important. I wish more communities around here would do that,” Millsap said.