It's an age-old cliché: A rocker leaves the stifling Midwest in the dust and rides westward into the sunset, eager to make it in the big city. In some sense, Beau Jennings is really living that dream. Except in Jennings' dream, that west is east, the sunset is a sunrise, and nobody would ever accuse him of forsaking his Oklahoma heritage.
A transplanted Brooklynite by way of Broken Arrow, Jennings skipped town for New York a few years ago, and took his band, Cheyenne, with him. Once settled, Jennings found some time to devote to solo work. Less than a year after Cheyenne released its second full-length, "The Whale," Jennings released "Holy Tulsa Thunder," a 10-song ode to Oklahoma, featuring tracks devoted to the downfall of the Tulsa sound, the downfall of that city's Bell's Amusement Park and a "Girl from Oklahoma."
"Beau Jennings' songs are written and arranged mostly by myself, while Cheyenne songs are written and arranged by a set group of musicians," Jennings said. "This is, of course, only the latest version of Cheyenne, which used to function basically as a solo project with various musicians coming and going."
In short: Jennings is just Jennings, while Cheyenne is Jennings plus some, but it used to be just Jennings, too. If it's still not apparent, the two acts' records draw a much clearer division. Where Cheyenne's songs are often atmospheric, are largely serious, deal with themes of nature and, frankly, are a bit more likely to use a few minor chords, "Holy Tulsa Thunder" is full of rollicking, good old rock 'n' roll, with a humorous bent, making Jennings as a multifaceted artist with a distinct individual personality outside of his band.
He will perform 9 p.m. Friday at Norman's Opolis with former Cheyenne member Ryan Lindsey, following a stint at Austin's South by Southwest Music Festival. Cheyenne performed at the festival last year, but Jennings was just Jennings this time around, promoting his solo album by playing the official Oklahoma Film and Music showcase and a pair of free shows, including one at Austin's Progress Coffee, coincidentally owned by another Okie expat.
"Last year was my first time to play, and while it was good for us to do, it was mostly a learning experience," Jennings said. "It's hard to say what exactly is 'beneficial' about playing the festival. It's much easier to say what is fun about it, which is being in the thick of the music world, as it is all concentrated in one place."
He has often credited Norman's fruitful music scene " the Opolis, in particular " with influencing his formative years. He makes it a point to play the venue regularly, despite his new Brooklyn address, which he said has a less-congealed music community.
"I have found a number of scenes and niches in Brooklyn, but have yet to become a part of one," he said. "For example, there is a big anti-folk scene that I dabbled in for a little bit, but after a while, it seemed like a strange support group for songwriters who needed a reason to explain why maybe their music wasn't very good: 'Well, this is anti-folk, so it's actually really good; others just don't get it.' So that was easy to part with."
His closest relationships with other working musicians stem from long before his relocation, like poet Derrick Brown, whom he met several years ago while touring in a previous band. Cheyenne toured recently with folk artist Rosie Thomas, who happens to be married to Jeff Shoop of Ester Drang, which also hails from Oklahoma.
"I've recently been playing a lot of shows with Derrick Brown when he performs in New York, and I enjoy the mixture of the spoken-word stuff that he does and the music that I do as a solo performer. It feels good and natural," Jennings said. "My scene is the friends I've made who live in other parts of the country now. Some in New York, yes, but also a good deal of them are in Seattle or L.A. and, of course, Oklahoma."
Upon returning home, Jennings hopes to begin his next major undertaking, which, expectedly, pays homage to another Oklahoma icon.
"I'm working on a series of songs about or inspired by Will Rogers," he said. "It was a simple idea that came to me a few years ago that has since blossomed into this big project. I'm still defining the exact scope of the thing. It may still be a ways down the road, but yeah, it's the first time I've done 'research' for an album."
Between Cheyenne and all of his solo work, Jennings has managed to find time to use his degree. By day, he is an architect and said his co-workers are encouraging of his double life.
"I think they think I'm famous sometimes," he said. "Joke's on them. But they come to shows and are very supportive, which is great." "Becky Carman