John Cooper of the Red Dirt Rangers summed up current events for people in his profession: “Everyone who makes their living from the performing arts lost their jobs, all at once, like someone just turned off the tap.”
He said no one has a gig in the foreseeable future. That makes it tough to play the bills.
And what it all means is the Red Dirt Relief Fund is more essential than ever.
A comment from Cooper was the seed that launched the Red Dirt Relief Fund, a nonprofit organization that provides a safety net of critical financial assistance for Oklahoma musicians.
The Red Dirt Relief Fund is in need of donations. You may be in need of entertainment while sheltering at home. Two birds, one stone: Music artists will perform remotely during an adapted-for-the-times version of the Bob Childers Gypsy Café, Oklahoma’s largest homegrown songwriter festival.
Bob Childers Gypsy Cafe, which benefits Oklahoma artists in need through the Red Dirt Relief Fund, has taken place in Stillwater for the past eight years. The 2020 event will premiere on digital streaming platforms through O’Colly TV at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 29. To stream the show through Roku, Amazon or Apple TV, search “O’Colly” to add the channel. For a tablet or mobile device, go to the app store and search “O’Colly TV” for a free download.
In addition to the Red Dirt Rangers, other performers will be Cody Canada, Jason Boland, Kaitlin Butts, Mike McClure, John Fullbright & Jacob Tovar, The Damn Quails, Ragland, Mike Hosty, Kierston White, Bo Phillips, Monica Taylor & Travis Fite, Tequila Kim Reynolds & Thomas Trapp, Maggie McClure & Shane Henry, Rick Reiley and Carter Sampson with Jason Scott & Kyle Reid.
“We usually all get together in Stillwater and have three stages and three different venues,” said Red Dirt Relief Fund Executive Director Katie Dale. “But clearly that could not happen this year, so we are trying to create a show that will still honor the tradition and the songwriting legacy of Bob Childers, which is why it’s called Bob Childers Gypsy Cafe, and we had to pare down our lineup to accommodate a shorter time frame and only one channel, one stage. So we tried to pick artists who have strong ties to the Red Dirt scene and Stillwater.”
Fans who purchased festival tickets had the option of a refund or converting tickets to a donation. Red Dirt Relief Fund will be accepting donations throughout the event at reddirtrelieffund.org/donate, PayPal.me/RDRF or by texting “relief” to 202-858-1233.
The histories of the Gypsy Cafe and the Red Dirt Relief Fund are intertwined.
The inaugural festival was underwritten by Red Bull energy drink. At the time, Dale was working for Red Bull and working with musicians. She said the idea was to put a festival together to make a mini-documentary about the story of Red Dirt music and its Stillwater roots. Red Bull budgeted for the festival and suggested donating ticket proceeds to a nonprofit organization.
Cooper spoke up and said, “Hey, we should start our own nonprofit.”
Proceeds from the first Gypsy Cafe were used to found the Red Dirt Relief Fund. It was modeled after MusiCares, the Grammy Foundation’s musician assistance fund.
“Our requirements are the same,” Dale said. “Our criteria for grant-making is the same as theirs. They are just specific to Oklahoma, whereas MusiCares is the whole nation.”
The Red Dirt Relief Fund has provided more than $300,000 to 458 music people across the state since its inception in 2012.
“I could never have dreamed that what came from meeting Katie that day at The Farm in Stillwater and where we are right now with the Red Dirt Relief Fund could even have been possible,” Cooper said.
“Being in the band with my musical brothers for 32 years and helping to start the Red Dirt Relief Fund are the two things that I’m most honored to be a part of.”
There was a need for musician assistance before the pandemic arrived. On March 16, Red Dirt Relief Fund announced an emergency grant program to aid working Oklahoma music people impacted by COVID-19-related cancellations and postponements. RDRF provided 400 one-time $250 grants — $100,000 — to applicants statewide in the first week of the program. A news release said the original grant pledge of $50,000 was bolstered when overwhelming donations from the community and the George Kaiser Family Foundation made doubling the original amount possible
Dale said emergency financial aid was provided to people working in every genre “from symphony and singer-songwriter to hip-hop and church bands ... and everything in between.”
The grants exhausted the funding pool, but replenishment efforts are ongoing to help more than 180 Oklahoma music artists who are on a waiting list for financial relief.
“Times are definitely interesting and, financially, people may not have a lot to give,” Dale said. “But $5 or $10 from a whole bunch of people can go a long way for helping our musician community.”
To be eligible for a grant, a person must have sustained a financial loss of at least $1,000 due to canceled/postponed gigs related to COVID-19, have worked in the music business for the past five years and be a current Oklahoma resident. People who meet these criteria should apply at bit.ly/3cTiV9z.
Dale said $250 is not a lot of money, especially when you consider how long it could take for live music to get back on track. “But at the moment when all the cancellations first started happening, it was available immediately so they could pay their bills — pay their cellphone bill and make sure they have gas and make sure they have groceries and then kind of start to think about what the new normal looks like.”
Other RDRF grant possibilities exist, depending on the situation. Grant limits are $3,000 per person per year and $10,000 lifetime.
Dale and Cooper will co-host the “reimagined” edition of Bob Childers Gypsy Cafe. The show is expected to be about two hours long. Thanks to sponsor support (the presenting sponsor is the Oklahoma Film & Music Office), the festival will be able to pay performers, according to Dale.
The broadcast will include the winning song from the Jimmy LaFave Songwriting Contest and the Restless Spirit Award presentation. The award will be presented virtually to Charlene Ripley on behalf of her late husband, Steve Ripley.
“Also, we are doing some filming out at The Farm in Stillwater at the Gypsy Cafe itself, which is a little building where musicians used to get together and have jams and campouts around the fire and picking circles,” Dale said.
“There will be kind of some storytelling and hopefully some musical discovery, which is kind of a hallmark of this festival with some artists who have not played this festival before, but then also artists who everyone will know and recognize. And then lots of them will be doing songs Bob wrote, so it really will be a celebration of the influence that he has had over the Red Dirt music scene.”
Dale, asked how she feels about everything that has happened because of the Red Dirt Relief Fund, said, “As much good as people think we are doing, it feels just as good to know that we are able to help people and we are part of this community. One of the things I love is a majority of our board members are musicians, so this is a community that comes together to support one another. That’s the best feeling there is.”