Woolaroc, Oklahoma: America's Outback
In Oklahoma, a roustabout is as common as a cowboy in Montana or a lobster fisherman in Maine. It’s a trade found here in the oil patch. A physically demanding job, oftentimes dangerous, roustabouts work around drilling rigs.
Andy Park is a roustabout; that’s his day job. But when I met him he was playing bluegrass on a mandolin accompanied by the rest of his family — his wife Rosemanne, on the base fiddle, and up to five kids.
“Andy has always played music. It’s been a part of the kids’ lives,” Rosemanne told me. “But when we took them to the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival in Guthrie a few years back, they came home really charged up. And they were just little kids. The next thing you know, Andy is buying guitars, banjos and fiddles. They took lessons, worked hard, won scholarships for more lessons, and on it goes to this day.”
Their 14-year-old daughter Paige started with the fiddle at the age of 5. “That’s too young,” her mother said. “I literally had to take the lessons with her.” But Paige was winning statewide talent contests by the time she was 12.
“Paige loves music and plans way beyond today. She wants to play backup fiddle with Taylor Swift by the time she is 16.”
“Why backup?” I asked, assuming that was like playing “second-fiddle.”
“She says that she wants to play music with the best, but not be in the spotlight … wants to be able to still go into Walmart and not be recognized.”
They play mostly on weekends at bluegrass festivals. With five kids, Andy has been known to say, “we play for food, depending on what you’re havin’.”
I have been to a few bluegrass festivals. They go on for days and are like RV campouts. Usually held at small-town fairgrounds where there is plenty of parking, people come as much to make music as to listen to it — it’s a thin line between the “grinners” and “pickers.” Off-stage groups probably outnumber those on-stage by 10 to one.
Accompanied by the hum of an occasional generator, bluegrass permeates the camping area beginning at coffee time, through happy hour and well into the dark hours when campfires smother the chill. The “grinners” mill around as if in fear of missing something really good. Many carry folding chairs so when they find it, they stay.
But this was no bluegrass festival: I met the Parks at an evening charity event at a wilderness spread called Woolaroc — once the ranch-retreat of oilman Frank Phillips, as in “Phillips 66,” now ConocoPhillips. The Parks were playing for a few hundred mingling Oklahomans, most of them from nearby Bartlesville.
In the rolling Osage Hills of northeastern Oklahoma, Woolaroc takes its name from what it is — 3,600 acres of woods, lakes and rocks. In the 1920s it was a rustic haven, yet a showplace of Wild-West elegance. There Phillips entertained the famous and the influential of the last century — it was almost a second home for Will Rogers — as well as for Indians, cowboys, even outlaws.
Endowed by the Phillips, Woolaroc is today an anomaly: a Western Art Museum, a wildlife refuge, a Heritage Center and the elegant one-time home of the Phillips, all linked by miles of nature trails. The animals here — elk, deer, longhorn cattle, bison and wild mustangs — roam freely. As do we who visit.
Tastefully displayed at Woolaroc is the lifestyle of a man who ascended from small-town barber to world-prominence as an industrialist and philanthropist. Only in America. And in case you didn’t know, our country is also the home of bluegrass music. Welcome to America’s Outback.
Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected]. Next month Bill will be in Bedford, Virginia.