Austin Allsup was relaxing in a chair on the highest floor of Church Studio when he said this: “I’m a spiritual guy, so I believe things work out the way they are intended.”
Allsup was referring specifically to a later-in-life relationship he enjoyed with his famous father.
But things are still happening for Allsup in a just-seems-right kind of way. How else do you explain the full circle-ness of him recording an album at Leon Russell’s old digs?
An interview with Allsup occurred, coincidentally, on the sixth anniversary of his father’s death. His dad? Tommy Allsup, the guitarist who survived the day the music died.
On Feb. 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson died in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. Tommy lost a coin flip with Valens for a seat on the plane and continued making music — as a performer and producer — for another 58 years.
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According to his Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame bio, Tommy was called one of the world’s finest guitar players by Paul McCartney. The former Beatle sent flowers to Tommy’s 2017 memorial service in Owasso. Vince Gill performed at the service.
A Russell connection was mentioned at the service. Steve Todoroff, who was among speakers, credited Tommy for jump-starting Russell into the California session musician scene in the early 1960s.
“Without Tommy’s assistance, influence and mentorship, I’m not sure the career path that made Leon Russell into the person we all knew and loved would be entirely the same,” Todoroff said.
The assistance included getting Russell and his Tulsa mates gigs — and shepherding Russell to Las Vegas for a fake ID so he could join the musician’s union and get session work.
That fake ID was a ticket to a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career.
Russell catapulted to stardom as bandleader of Joe Cocker’s legendary Mad Dogs & Englishmen Tour in 1970. Three years later, Russell was named by Billboard as the world’s top touring artist.
In between, Russell returned from the West Coast to his hometown of Tulsa and bought a church that became a recording studio and crash pad for music artists, including those on his short-lived Shelter Records label. Tom Petty signed his first recording contract in a restaurant across the street.
Hoping to preserve a cherished slice of Tulsa’s music history, current Church Studio owner Teresa Knox oversaw a spare-no-expense refurbishment that turned Church Studio into a destination for music lovers. Church Studio reopened in 2022 and is a functional recording studio again. When Austin Allsup recorded tracks at Church Studio for a new album last week, it felt like a homecoming. Familiar. Familial. Or both.
Getting to know Dad
Austin Allsup was drawn to music before he discovered he was a branch from the Tommy tree.
“I had already been singing and writing poetry and songs,” he said.
“I made my first cassette tape when I was like 8 years old at this big church. I had already been singing in the praise and worship and the gospel quartet when I was in the second grade. I went to this big church in Little Rock that my stepdad had attended. I was like 7 or 8. We started going to this church and I went to the private school at the church and we did like a Christmas play or something and they were looking for somebody to sing from each grade. ... I remember standing in a line with a bunch of little kids and they were kind of going down the line (for us) to sing the part. I just belted it out. Of course I am loud as hell.”
Little Austin was sure he was going to be some kind of singer or entertainer. You use what you’ve got.
“I have dealt with insecurities and things since I was a little kid,” he said. “I was insecure about my looks and my big ears or something, so I always tried to make up for it with my voice and my songs and, I think, in a way, that was kind of my escape.”
Austin was 14 when he met his father. They shared an introductory breakfast at a Shoney’s north of Nashville.
This was Austin’s first clue his dad was someone of note: “There was this kid who was in this band in high school, a Sublime cover band. He was a big-time guitar player. He was a couple of years older than me, but we had P.E. class together. I think I was a freshman. It was 2000, because that’s when dad won the Grammy. This kid was watching the Grammys. He knew my dad was a guitar player. I had told him about it. He said ‘Bro, your dad won a Grammy last night with Vince Gill and Steve Wariner.’ ... I had never even heard my dad play on a record. My mom didn’t play me any of dad’s records. He wasn’t really talked about, ever, growing up.”
Austin had parental figures — his mother, his grandparents, stepfathers. But boys will be boys. He said he got in trouble for “being an idiot” when he was a high school senior.
“They sent me up to Memphis, Tennessee, to that juvenile detention deal up there,” he said. “I thought I was only there for a few months because I was going to turn 18. Everybody else was getting out of there when they turned 18. Some old boy had been mouthing off to me the whole time I was in there. I thought, ‘well, I’m going to get his ass before I get out of here.’ I did, and I was in there another three months, so I was like, ‘dang it.’
The juvie situation prompted Austin’s mom (19 when he was born) to reach out to Tommy for help.
“He was actually there with me when the judge was sending me up there,” Austin said. “He was there for the whole get-go and she really needed somebody and that was wild because they were never married, ever, my whole life. There’s a lot of history there. Anyway, I’m a spiritual guy, so I believe things work out the way they are intended. Me and Dad got real close. He came and visited about every Sunday and played cards.”
When Austin was released, he was picked up by Tommy, who was waiting there with two songwriters. They were on their way to Nashville.
“That’s when I had ever really been in a recording studio was in this big, cool badass studio in Nashville,” Austin said. “He was cutting this album, and they did the whole process. I was there for about two weeks, staying in a hotel with my dad. ... He had just a great band there, and that was my first introduction to who my dad was and the sense of being respected in his element. I saw him as everybody else, at visitation on Sundays.”
Austin moved in with his dad. Tommy was touring with Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys.
“He was, ‘Hey, come on the road with the band. Help me set up my stuff and sell merch. Be my little amigo out on the trail.’ It was like the Lone Ranger and Tonto out there, riding the highways. That’s kind of how me and my dad started.”
Austin dove into the family business and cut his first album at his father’s studio. In 2016, just before his father passed, he was a competitor on NBC’s “The Voice.”
Music, he confirmed, is in his DNA.
“I just can’t get away from it — and I have tried, even, at times when I felt like I was kind of falling short for my family, (whether it was) financially or responsibilities,” he said. “Things on the road tend to get in the way of what’s important sometimes. Many times I have tried to just do something else. I was real big into carpentry. I grew up working with my grandpa in the summers. I was singing when I was in the second grade, but I could operate a Skilsaw and a tape measure, too. I could measure and put a square on a two-by-four or whatever he needed me to do. And I loved it. I loved building things. That funded my music career for a long time, really.”
Austin said he did a lot of work on custom floors and bathroom/kitchen remodels in the Fort Worth area. He has seen, at gigs, people whose homes he tiled. He said he has signed pieces of tile for people. He once had to go immediately from a tiling job to a show. He forgot to take off the knee pads he had worn when laying tiles. His manager alerted him to the wardrobe crisis. Austin hurriedly un-Velcro-ed the knee pads.
The opportunity to record at Church Studio “came out of the blue” through tragedy.
A cousin, Richard Willis, lives in Tulsa and was close to Tommy. Austin had planned on spending some time with his cousin. Then Willis lost his wife, “and I was like, you know, ‘we need to get Richard out on the road with me and we just need to go have us a weekend.’ The first thing we did when we left the house was we came by the Church Studio, and Teresa busted out one of Dad’s guitars and some pictures of Dad — one of Clint Eastwood and my dad.”
Austin, still learning things about his dad, explained the photo is from an instance when his father was giving Eastwood a guitar lesson for the 1982 film “Honkytonk Man.”
“I picked up the guitar that Teresa had down there and just started playing it,” Austin said. “The first thing my dad ever taught me how to play was ‘Honkytonk Man,’ just as a little riff. So I just started playing that little riff, and I played a little piece of that old Jerry Reed and Elvis tune, ‘Big Boss Man.’ I think my eyes were closed. And I look up and there were people starting to gather around. I forget how loud I am.”
Austin said it led to a wonderful conversation with Knox, who said she would love to have him record at Church Studio. Austin replied that he would be honored to record there, but he needed to figure out a way to make that happen.
“Financially, these kind of things, as musicians, are more of a shot in the dark or a dream to get to record in a place like this on the kind of gear they have here and the history in the room, especially the heritage with my dad and the city and Leon — really all of it, even back to Tom Petty and stuff,” Austin said.
“When I was on ‘The Voice,’ I tried to cover more than one Petty tune, but they let me cover one, at least. I’m a huge Petty fan. And Willie (Nelson) and those guys were here. I’m just a big fan of all the guys who have been through here, so we figured out a way to make it happen, and we involved some friends.”
Austin summoned musicians who played with his father. He included Casey van Beek and Walt Richmond, who recorded at Church Studio as members of the Tractors.
“It was really nice to have them part of this, too,” Austin said. “They weren’t personal friends with my dad, but they put two and two together and they definitely respected what I (am trying to do). With this record, I am trying to keep it very rootsy.”
Austin cut 12 songs, including “Down on Deep River,” a song his father played guitar on for the 1975 Russell album “Will O’ the Wisp.” “I think we nailed a pretty good take of it,” Austin said. (Tommy and Russell teamed on other songs when they were session musicians in the 1960s, including “This Diamond Ring,” the first Gary Lewis and the Playboys hit.)
Austin wrote or co-wrote other songs he recorded at Church Studio. Co-writers included Cody Jinks and Alabama singer-songwriter Adam Hood.
“It’s all regional stuff. It’s all kind of bluesy stuff,” Austin said. “When this kind of even became a possibility, I started digging through some of my older songs that I really thought were super cool, but they just never made it on a record, which, listening now, I don’t know why. I’m thinking ‘I should have been doing this all along.’”
A co-writer on one of the songs recorded by Austin was Nolan Neal. They met when they were competitors on “The Voice.” Austin said Neal, also an alum of “America’s Got Talent,” died of a fentanyl overdose last year.
“Just a great songwriter and a beautiful human,” Austin said. “I have been sitting on this song since we wrote it after ‘The Voice’ in 2017.”
Austin said it was neat to be in Tulsa because he had never really explored the Oklahoma side of his family or his Cherokee ancestry. His father was born in Owasso (the old farm is now part of a main thoroughfare), attended high school in Claremore and hitchhiked to Cain’s Ballroom at age 16. Going inside Cain’s lit a fire in Tommy that made him want to be on the stage. He made his debut as a performer there in 1952.
Austin brought his family with him to Tulsa. They made a side trip to Tahlequah to secure tribal citizenship cards. He said his great-great grandmother walked the Trail of Tears, so he took his family to the Trail of Tears monument. He checked a lot of boxes here.
“Now, like the music and all of it is coming together and I am meeting other people while I am in town and hearing other stories about my dad,” he said.
Every day since Feb. 3, 1959: The day the music lived.