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Off the beaten path, away from the showrooms of the coasts and corporate arenas in major metropolitan areas, there is a quaint little place in middle America that’s worth mention. Tucked away in Tulsa, Oklahoma is the city’s homegrown, crowning-jewel for live music -- The Cain’s Ballroom. Practically sitting under the looming shadow of the hulking Bank of Oklahoma Center (BOC), Tulsa’s behemoth entertainment arena, the little Cain’s Ballroom easily eclipses the former in character, local charm and reputation.
Originally constructed as a garage in the roaring ‘20s, the building underwent several incarnations until it received wide recognition as the home base for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Flash-forward to the present and the roster of performers to have played Cain’s Ballroom reads like a checklist of the who’s who of music legends: Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, The Ramones, Willie Nelson, Muddy Waters, The Talking Heads, and that’s just off the top of my head. It also has the distinguished honor of being one of The Sex Pistols’ seven stops during their infamous 1978 North American tour. In addition, all 3 generations of Hank Williams’ have played there.
Allegedly, it was one of the first if not the only spring-loaded dance floors in the nation. However, I’ve since learned that this was nothing more than a Tulsa tall-tale, the floors never had springs at all, but rather a “sprung floor” -- a construction method in which the floor absorbs shock. That being said, this does not stop many locals from disputing this claim, assuring all that there are indeed springs beneath the floorboards.
With that information in mind, the ballroom floor, having recently been replaced, has a character of its own. During a real rambunctious show the floor seems to dance along with the audience, adding a unique dimension to any live show experience. For those who are unfamiliar with The Cain’s, the floor is standing only, no seats. There is some limited seating against the walls, but is that really the way you want to see a show at Cain’s? From the sidelines?
Last year, Pollstar (the concert tour industry publication), ranked Cain’s Ballroom in the top 20 selling venues. It placed amongst and above higher capacity venues in larger cities. Not bad for a little Ballroom with an under 2,000 capacity.
Even against local competing venues, The Cain’s continues to book premier entertainers from all around the world. If you go to their site now (Cainsballroom.com), you’ll see the upcoming smorgasbord of musicians coming through from an array of genres: country, rap, rock etc.. Everyone from established stars to up-and comers and all else in between. Some musicians who have long since made a name for themselves come back to play the Cain’s just for the hell of it. Such is the case with Brooks & Dunn, who recorded one of their live shows there in 2005 years after becoming one of country music's top acts.
If the history doesn’t draw you in, then by all means go for the experience. Isn’t that the best reason to do anything? The experience. Every time I’ve gone, there have always been a handful of characters that I’ve bonded with in some way outside the shared interest of the show itself, be it a friendly conversation or some wild antics-- god only knows what you’ll see. During my first time at the Cain’s, I witnessed a man in a wheelchair escorted to the front of the show, right up to the stage. He was then hoisted into the air, wheelchair and all, by friends and strangers alike so he could take in the show from an entirely different perspective. He remained up there for at least a song if not longer. In all my life, I’d never seen anything like that before and it immediately solidified my opinion about the place. It truly lived up to the hype.
In this era of mega venues, the tiny Cain’s still holds its own and continues to push ahead as a leading venue in not only Tulsa, but the nation. Times change and tastes evolve, but the ballroom has always been able to adapt. Recently, there’s been talk about some new, trendy apartment buildings being constructed down the way from the Cain’s. Some are up in arms about the incoming presence, fearing it may be the first step to losing the area’s character and charm. With threats like noise complaints, fire hazards, and gentrification at large, the death of music clubs are too common an occurrence throughout the country and the world over. A great many of the UK’s clubs have closed down just in the past decade and in cities like New York and LA the tidal wave of closings are nothing short of an epidemic. In fact, over 20% of NYC’s small music venues have closed in the last 15 years.
Yet I do think it’s a little too early to sound the alarm, as Cain’s is arguably the most sacred spot the city has to offer. As long as people keep attending shows and supporting the historic site, the survival of the Cain’s is assured.
Perhaps the best thing about the Cain's Ballroom being a local icon is that it ensures everyone who has ever been there is included in its history. There's something personal about it. I have a story. Many people, not just from Tulsa, but from everywhere have a story. This is not a unique phenomenon. Every city has their own version of the Cain's and every person who ever crossed its threshold has a story. We at Power Chord TV want to know, what's your favorite local venue? Is it now closed like so many great music venues? Or is it still going strong? And if you’ve ever been to the Cain’s Ballroom, let us hear your story!
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