The (Mostly) True Story of the Tulsa Shuffle: Part I & II
Part I: The Rhythm
“All across the south...
They've got the boogie bands that sound so fine
On both coasts they've got the record company machines
Turnin' out hits on an assembly line
But in the heart of America...we've got the beat
That's guaranteed to tap your toes
Oklahoma's got the Tulsa shuffle...
And this is the way it goes....”
“The Tulsa Shuffle” by The Tractors
The musical legacy and influence of Oklahoma is far reaching. Often, when discussed, the focus might be on an acclaimed folk singing depression era hero. Or a rock and roll guitar picker from West Tulsa. Or a prodigiously talented and respected piano player. But there is something being overlooked in the narrative, something sitting in the background keeping the songs that are sung moving forward, right on time. Something just as masterful as a lick or a lyric.
My work in the music business as a road manager has taken me around the world and often when I mention Tulsa as my home, I receive a glossy look of vague recognition.
“I have a cousin from there.”
“Went through Tulsa once on my way to somewhere else.”
“Isn't that where ‘The Outsiders’ isset?”
Every now and then though, usually when talking to a musician it’s:
“Oh, all the best drummers are from Tulsa.”
This cannot be quoted to one certain individual as it is a statement I've heard over and over again in my travels. It sounds like hyperbole but if you look at the facts, it's hard to argue the validity.
The style of playing that would in time be known as the “Tulsa Shuffle” was birthed in smoke filled bars and basements and would go on to impact countless lives through songs that are now considered timeless, iconic, classic.
I got an idea that I couldn’t shake; a question that I needed an answer to.
Why is there such an undeniable and unidentifiable connection to Tulsa and drummers?
The origin story of the Tulsa Shuffle is one layered in years of dust and myth. Even the name is a mystery. I was told the term was coined by Oklahoma author and historian John Wooley.
“As much as I’d like to take credit for coining the term ‘Tulsa Shuffle,’ I can’t. Of course, I’ve used it over the years, but I’m sure it was in the local lexicon well before I came on the scene,” Wooley corrected me when asked.
“I’ve often wondered about the profusion of Tulsa drummers myself. Of course, Keltner didn't really get started until he and his family had moved to the West Coast, and Leon did more than his share to get his Tulsa musician friends, including drummers, work in L.A., but that still doesn’t explain why there are so many good drummers from that area.”
If Wooley was stumped, I knew I was onto something worth investigating.
What I found is a tradition that has been applauded and emulated over and over again. One that continues to this day. Here is that story, as best I can tell it.
Part II The Young Buck
“Oh shit, are you ok? Well do you need me to stay on the phone?”
I'm interviewing Paddy Ryan at The Colony, a legendary Tulsa bar rumored to have once been owned by Leon Russell himself. It is worth mentioning that at least one source reported this rumor to be “total bullshit.’
The modest makeshift stage has been graced throughout the years by rock and roll royalty. If you want to know who, exactly, go and have a beer sometime and ask the bartender on duty. They’ll tell you.
Paddy is a drummer for hire, becoming known and respected in recent years for playing with artists like the Secret Sisters, John Moreland, Parker Millsap, John Fullbright and others. He is a grounded and sincere person who still makes time to sit in on jams when he is home.
Fresh off a date with Parker Millsap, opening for Elton John, Paddy scheduled our interview in the bar he not only loves, but also works at. He is feeling good in his prospects of not having to actually bartend, for the first time in his career, on this break between tours.
That changed quickly when he got a call from the scheduled bartender asking him to open, as he'd just been in a wreck so substantial it totaled his car.
“Yeah man, I got this. Don't even worry about it.”
Ryan started playing at eight years old after his father came home with a drum kit found in the trash.
“It was a total turd set.”
When asked what he found most appealing about the drums, the answer is simple.
“It's the easiest instrument by far. It's just tapping on things with sticks. Often I’ll go into autopilot; head to hand, unconscious, the zone. Just listening to the song.”
“The thing about the Tulsa Shuffle is there isn't a definition, it's a vibe, not a straight beat. It’s a laid back syncopated groove that you can’t really pin down.”
Tulsa players don’t play the part, they play the song. “You don’t notice the drummer because it's part of the song.”
It's very much a less-is-more mentality. Play softer until it's time to kick it up. Don't come in full force. Don't showboat. Hang in the back and keep it tasteful.
“Sometimes I don't even use any cymbals. People love it. I get gigs.”
A large aspect of the Tulsa music scene in general is that there is a trust in one another throughout the whole band. The drummer trusts the bass player. The guitar player trusts the rhythm section. They all trust the songwriter.
When asked what it is about Tulsa drummers that is so appealing to songwriters from places as far away as the United Kingdom, Paddy is unable to offer a solid insight.
“You don’t dissect the bird to get the song.”
When Ryan was coming up and forging his style, he admits he was unaware of the Tulsa drummer connection.
“I was into stupid stuff, just horrible music, but Levon Helm of The Band was a huge influence.”
Paddy would grow to learn that Levon Helm had been an influential and important stepping stone for the way drummers in Tulsa played for decades. He'd been influenced without knowing it.
Being from Arkansas, Helm found himself playing Tulsa often; before The Band, before Bob Dylan. He blew into town, showed people how it was done, burnt down a club after the owner refused to pay for a gig played and left like a whirlwind.
“When we played with Elton John I mentioned that I bartend at Leon Russell's old bar and they were shocked.” Not by where he worked but that he still bartends.
“He goes, ‘Oh, we're gonna change that.’”
As to the origins of the Shuffle, Ryan suggests a few names to further my investigation.
As a young man looking down the road of a career that has no signs of slowing anytime soon, the bartending shifts may soon be only a memory, but not on this day.
I thank Paddy for his time and leave him to finish his opening duties with a head full of ideas and a list of names to continue digging…
Stay Tuned for Part III: David Teegarden and the Tale of The Two Bob’s next week.