Cain’s Ballroom Is The South's Best Music Venue In Oklahoma

Cain's Ballroom Oklahoma

Phil Clarkin

As the western swing trio Hot Club of Cowtown breaks into “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” the dance floor begins to thrum with vibrations of people stomping their feet in time with the upright bass. The crowd reveals a mix of ages; cowboy hats are interspersed with brightly dyed hair. A woman wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of the song shows it off to her neighbor. The tune is always a favorite at Cain’s Ballroom, the historic Tulsa music venue and dance hall that has been an Oklahoma icon for over 90 years.

Cain’s was built in 1924 as a garage to house the automobile collection of one of the city’s richest men. It later became a dance hall where Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys introduced western swing to the rest of the nation through radio broadcasts from their dances. “People from all over the country thought of Cain’s as a magical place,” says John Wooley, a writer and historian.

Today, the honky-tonk still bears signs of its western swing roots and the magic that first put it on the map. Thick burgundy drapes hang on either side of the stage with a sign reading “Cain’s: Home of Bob Wills” embroidered in gold. Portraits of performers from the past line the walls, and a disco ball marks the center of the dance floor, where generations of music lovers have held communion over the power of song.

If you’re visiting for the first time, this place is hard to miss. A large neon sign marks the spot, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Though its capacity is officially 1,700, when the music swells and the crowd breaks into frenzied dance, it can feel like a lot more. There’s a rumor that the floor was built on truck springs. Don’t be caught standing still, or you may get shot into the air like a kid double bounced on a trampoline. Ownership of Cain’s has changed hands a few times over its long life, but music has remained its focus. The ballroom has proven to be as important to artists as it is to their fans. Bands like The Police, U2, and Van Halen performed at Cain’s as unknown groups long before they played to sold-out arenas. In 1978, Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious famously punched a hole in the wall of the greenroom; that section was removed and is now framed for display.

The former garage was built during Tulsa’s oil boom. As people and businesses moved farther from the city center and the downtown area began its decline, this venue remained a place where you could see famed musicians as well as discover new and local talent. Now downtown Tulsa has gotten its groove back, and Cain’s anchors the thriving Tulsa Arts District. This area is home to landmarks like the Woody Guthrie Center, Bob Dylan Center, and the forthcoming OKPOP Museum, which will showcase Oklahoma’s influence on popular culture.

Cain’s history and its significance stand out even more now that it’s surrounded by new and renovated buildings. It’s still a destination where music is celebrated, no matter the genre; where all are welcome, no matter their circumstances; and where you can always grab a beer and dance your troubles away., 918-584-2306, 423 N Main St., Tulsa, OK 74103

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