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Songwriters Cody Canada, left, and Parker MIllsap at the inaugural Gypsy Café in 2011. This was Millsap's first performance in Stillwater.
Photo courtesy Red Dirt Relief Fund
An Oklahoma band turns its own hardship into a way to help Okie musicians facing hard times.
By Ryan LaCroix
Published April 28, 2014
As dusk approached on June 26, 2004, the Red Dirt Rangers were wet, cold, losing consciousness, and breathing fumes from helicopter fuel. Mandolin player and percussionist John Cooper had two punctured lungs and a broken pelvis, ribs, and left leg. Lead guitarist Ben Han had a broken clavicle and a severe laceration on his right arm, while guitarist Brad Piccolo had five bulging discs.
The helicopter the band was riding in had clipped unmarked power lines and crashed upside down onto the bank of the Cimarron River north of Cushing, killing the pilot and front-seat passenger. The Rangers, laid out on the underbelly of the helicopter, began counting to ten over and over as they awaited help.
After spending several weeks in the hospital, the band was unable to perform at large events for six months and faced hundreds of thousands of dollars in hospital bills. They received a grant from the Grammy Foundation’s MusiCares program, which provides a safety net for musicians going through financial, medical, and personal emergencies. This, along with funds raised from benefit concerts from around the country, helped the Rangers offset the enormous expenses they had incurred and return to the stage.
“Our medical bills were out of sight,” says Cooper. “If you’re busy trying to get healthy, you shouldn’t have to be worried so much about the financial end of it.”
The need to help his fellow musicians in similar situations became a driving force for Cooper. He got his opportunity at the Gypsy Café music festival in Stillwater in April 2011. The celebration of Red Dirt music, sponsored by Red Bull, drew a crowd of more than a thousand to see thirty-two musicians at venues around town. When Cooper floated the idea of using proceeds from ticket sales to start a grassroots fund to help Oklahoma musicians in need, many immediately expressed enthusiasm.
Proceeds from the inaugural Gypsy Café music festival launched what would become the Red Dirt Relief Fund, which focuses on helping performers facing unforeseen crises. To be eligible for assistance, musicians must reside in Oklahoma and have been active in the music business for five years.
To date, the Red Dirt Relief Fund has helped several Oklahoma musicians—two of whom faced medical expenses. Another applicant, Bret Franzmann, a longtime banjo player and music teacher, lost his Stillwater home in a July 2012 wildfire.
“My whole life was here,” says Franzmann of the home he’d lived in for more than a decade. “Family heirlooms, teaching material, and instruments that can’t be replaced.”
The sudden loss of most of his possessions was an overwhelming predicament for Franzmann. Before friends, fellow musicians, and the Red Dirt Relief Fund helped get him back on his feet, he says he didn’t know what to do.
“I don’t know too many musicians who have insurance,” says Franzmann. “I really appreciate what the Red Dirt Relief Fund does. I’m proud of those guys.”
Other Oklahoma performers have leaped to support the cause. At Gypsy Café in 2012, a painted guitar depicting red-dirt legend Bob Childers and several musicians sitting around a campfire was to be auctioned off for the fund. When severe weather caused the auction to be canceled, Oklahoma red-dirt performer Stoney LaRue bought the guitar for $800.
The nonprofit continues to create new fundraising opportunities around the state and take part in ongoing annual events like Red Dirt Christmas at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa and the Bob Childers Tribute at the Blue Door in Oklahoma City.
“We rarely hear ‘no’ from people when we ask if they can help us out,” says Cooper. “That makes me very proud to be part of this music family in Oklahoma.”
Get There: Tax-deductible contributions can be made at reddirtrelieffund.org. The Red Dirt Rangers will host the Bob Childers Tribute Show at Eskimo Joe’s in Stillwater April 30, with proceeds benefitting the Red Dirt Relief Fund. 501 West Elm in Stillwater, (405) 372-8896 or eskimoejoes.com.