Midtown Songwriter Series Repurposes a Sacred Space

There is no shortage of excellent live shows in OKC these days, but for the last year the Midtown Songwriter Series has found a very sweet spot on the music scene. From the street, the almost 100-year-old church building on NW 13th near Classen...

story by Justin Fortney

There is no shortage of excellent live shows in OKC these days, but for the last year the Midtown Songwriter Series has found a very sweet spot on the music scene. From the street, the almost 100-year-old church building on NW 13th near Classen looks like a gorgeous house of worship, and it is. City Pres church also opens its doors once a quarter for the community to experience some of the best songwriters in Oklahoma.

On October 2, the sound of Oklahoma singer/songwriters Sherree Chamberlain and Tyler Hopkins kicks off the second year of the Midtown Songwriter Series. For years, Pastor Bobby Griffith and musician Tyler Hopkins threw around the idea of a venue that nurtures both the artist and the listening experience. When the church moved into this new (old) building, they realized the sacred space could be a musical home.

The series works to fill an obvious void in the landscape of local music, with intimate house concerts at one end of the spectrum and deafening bars at the other. The church itself is an active performer. The architecture creates a reverent expectation, and the traditional placement of the church building at the heart of a neighborhood draws the audience to feel as though the music is part of a meaningful communal activity.

The shows here take house concerts’ informal vibe and proximity of artist to patron and add unique layers onto that experience. “We want to build these shows into the regular rhythm of people’s lives,” says Hopkins. “We want to be part of the fabric of the community.”

The resurgence of urban areas of Oklahoma City has brought new activity; the use of historic churches as concert halls isn’t novel. Unique to this venue is the connection to the neighborhood. Between sets during last year’s show featuring Kyle Reid, Levi Parham, and Rachel Brashear, the atmosphere out on the front steps of the church resembled more the vibe of a neighborhood front porch than a bar or club. Says Griffith: “All kinds of different people from the various neighborhoods coming to these shows. Older residents from Heritage Hills. Younger folks from the Plaza area.”

It also doesn’t hurt that the music just sounds great. Paul Drenth, a sound engineer who has worked many of these shows, explains: “It's not the easiest load-in and sound check in the world, but the hard work pays off in a way that contributes to the community. Historic spaces like this were not designed with loudspeakers and guitar amps in mind, but the acoustic challenges of this room are what give it character and life. It's great to see history serving the community in such a unique and genuine way.”

Chamberlain and Hopkins both bring a roots/county sound. Collaboration between the artists on the Midtown Songwriters Series lineups has become a staple, and since Chamberlain and Hopkins have played in bands together before, expect that tradition to continue. As more Oklahoma City residents choose to live, work, and play within the urban core, this music series is an example of how collaborations between different stakeholders can create fantastic intersections of art, architecture, and neighborhood.

Show starts at 7:30 pm, $10 cover. 829 NW 13th