Musical mission: Bob Childers' Gypsy Cafe songwriters festival raises funds for nonprofit Red Dirt Relief Fund
STILLWATER — Mike Hosty didn’t tell many people in 2014 that he would be having open-heart surgery to replace an aortic valve.
But the folks at the Red Dirt Relief Fund still managed to find out. Before his operation, the organization gave him a grant and partnered with Eskimo Joe’s to plan a benefit concert in his honor.
“It just really touched me that musicians would reach out and do something like that for me,” Hosty said. “It helped take a little bit of a burden off, and it was really just such a touching gesture. It’s something that I just really enjoy being a part of now, so other musicians can feel that same feeling, that the community’s behind them.”
Central Oklahoma’s popular one-man band will return Wednesday as the host for the Eskimo Joe’s stage at the eighth Bob Childers’ Gypsy Cafe songwriters festival. The Stillwater event, which spans three venues, is the flagship fundraiser for the nonprofit Red Dirt Relief Fund, which provides a safety net of critical assistance for Oklahomans in the music business in times of need.
“For most musicians, you don’t have health insurance or it’s hard for them to pay for health coverage. It’s really a great organization that’s founded on taking care of Oklahoma musicians,” Hosty said.
“And it’s just the most incredible collection of songwriters in Oklahoma for one day.”
Named for the late Bob Childers, the Oklahoma songwriter known as the “godfather of red dirt music,” and the fanciful nickname for a shed on the grounds of The Farm, the Stillwater homestead recognized as the birthplace of red dirt music, the Bob Childers’ Gypsy Cafe is Oklahoma’s largest songwriters festival.
Also the biggest annual fundraiser for the relief fund, the 2018 event raised more than $30,000, said Red Dirt Relief Fund Executive Director Katie Dale.
More than 60 Oklahoma songwriters will play the 2019 festival, including returning favorites like Stoney LaRue, John Fullbright, Kaitlin Butts, Red Dirt Rangers, Mike McClure, Carter Sampson and Randy Crouch. The latter will receive the third Restless Spirit Award, which honors a musician who has affected the Oklahoma music community in a spirit akin to Childers’, and prior to the presentation, filmmakers working on the documentary “Randy Crouch: Survival of the Fiddlist” will share a video about the beloved fiddler and songsmith.
“Randy Crouch is my hero,” said John Cooper, a member of the Red Dirt Rangers and the Red Dirt Relief Fund’s board of directors. “It’s probably our peak number that we’ve ever had at the Gypsy Cafe, and gosh, we’re excited about it. It just seems to continue to get bigger and bigger.”
Starting at 4 p.m. Wednesday, the festival features groups of three or four songwriters performing 45-minute acoustic sets staggered across three Stillwater venues: Eskimo Joe’s, George’s Stables and the Stonewall Tavern. Along with swapping stories and songs, the performers will play at least one Childers tune.
In addition to Hosty, “Tequila” Kim Reynolds and Cooper with Monica Taylor will host this year’s stages.
“Just the pairings they come up with and the songs that come out, you’re able to see things you won’t see anywhere else,” Hosty said.
The event will culminate in the 10:20 p.m. Restless Spirit Award presentation, followed by the all-artist “Family Jam Finale” on the main stage at Eskimo Joe’s.
Along with showcasing longtime favorites, this year’s festival will feature 10 artists making their Gypsy Cafe debut, including the Jimmy LaFave Songwriting Contest winner.
“Abilities” by OKC rapper Dallas Parker, “Angels Lullaby” by New York native Ashliann Rivera, “Breathless” by Enid folk artist Chloe-Beth Campbell and “Hollyhocks and Morning Glories” by Tulsa singer-songwriter and poet Scott Aycock were selected as the finalists from more than 70 entries in the second annual contest.
The finalists will play their songs at the free Gypsy Cafe Pre-party hosted by the Red Dirt Rangers from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at Stillwater’s Iron Monk Brewing. The winner earns a spot in Wednesday’s Gypsy Cafe lineup, plus a $500 cash prize and a $500 donation made in his or her name to the Red Dirt Relief Fund.
“That’s been the beauty of red dirt since Day 1: Nobody can tell you what it is. That hip-hop song in the contest this year, that’s an original song and it should be here. I think it speaks to the genre very well that we are open,” Cooper said. “They are practicing the craft of songwriting and the art of songwriting, which to me is kind of what it’s all about.”
New to this year’s Gypsy Cafe will be an Oklahoma State University Campus Showcase from 2 to 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Student Union Amphitheater, where Butts, Jake Flint, Thomas Trapp, Mallory Eagle and Ben McKenzie, will perform two free acoustic sets for OSU students. Presented by the Student Union Activities Board, the Campus Showcase is meant to engage students with live, local music in conjunction with the festival. Students can purchase half price Gypsy Cafe passes and T-shirts at the showcase.
“Aside from being our most significant fundraiser, it’s almost become more of like a community-building, brand-awareness event for us,” Dale said of the Gypsy Cafe. “It gives us a platform to showcase Oklahoma musicians and at the same time talk about what we’re doing to serve musicians in the community … and engage with fans and donors.”
Operated by an all-volunteer board, the Red Dirt Relief Fund has granted $110,000 to more than 50 Oklahoma-based people in the music industry since its inception in 2012.
Recipients range from those who have lost their property to wildfires or tornadoes to those who have been forced to take time off work because of accidents or medical emergencies. The fund recently presented a grant to famed fiddler Byron Berline, whose Double Stop Fiddle Shop in historic downtown Guthrie was destroyed in a February fire, Cooper said.
“We’ve helped people in all genres of music, in all jobs that are related to music. You don’t have to be a musician; we’ve helped plenty of people: promoters, booking agents, club owners, sound people, you name it,” he said. “I’m so proud of what it’s become. I just am. Out of everything we’ve done in the music business … I think it’s the thing I hang my hat on the most of ‘Hey, look at what we were able to accomplish.’”
For Hosty, it’s been an interesting journey over the past five years healing from his heart surgery.
“They actually have to split your sternum in half and open you up. … That’s why they give you a second birthday after you get done,” he said. “A lot of musicians are so focused on what they’re doing, a lot of them don’t even consider their own health.”
On the Gypsy Cafe schedule to perform with McAlester singer-songwriter Levi Parham and the songwriting contest winner, Hosty said he plans to continue to play the event for the good cause and the memorable moments.
“What they did for me, I will give back to them over and over and over. It meant so much to me … and I love being a part of it. It’s just such a great thing to come together and help your fellow musicians. When you know what it’s like, it makes it all the more important,” Hosty said. “And it’s Oklahoma music history in the making. You’re watching it unfold on stage there.”
Bob Childers’ Gypsy Cafe songwriters festival
Benefiting: The Red Dirt Relief Fund.
When: 4:30 to 11:45 p.m. Wednesday.
Where: Eskimo Joe’s, Stonewall Tavern and George’s Stables in Stillwater.
Tickets: $20 in advance; $25 the day of the event.
Songwriter contest finalists showcase: 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at Iron Monk Brewing, 519 S Husband, Stillwater.
OSU Campus Showcase: 2 to 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Student Union Amphitheater.
Information and tickets: www.reddirtrelieffund.org.