Spotlight On: Ben McKenzie
STILLWATER, Okla.- Although there are always ebbs and flows with the music scene and the musicians coming out of it, as a whole Oklahoma continues to produce and provide local musicians onto the scene. In the last few years several younger artists have been popping up, creating a whole new generation in the red dirt scene which just keeps it all flowing and growing. One of these younger artists coming into his own these days is Ben McKenzie.
Although originally from Crescent, Oklahoma, Ben moved to Stillwater to go to school and has since put down roots there. He actually chose Stillwater at a crossroads in his life when a sports injury put him out of the chance financially to keep going to a different school. McKenzie had been introduced to red dirt music through his mom as a teen, and he had done his research and learned all about the start of the scene and the people in it, and he knew that’s where he wanted to be. Although he hasn’t always known for sure that music would be what he pursued in life, he definitely got an early start in songwriting.
“My mom got me this little plastic guitar when I was four years old, and it was never once in tune, but I used to bang around on it really loud, just hit on it. I used to take a little tab off of a pop can just bang around on it and make up really stupid songs,” explained McKenzie about his first taste of music. “The first one I ever wrote was called ‘How come you're not putting on my shoes’ because I had to go to pre-school and I couldn't tie my shoes yet. I was just banging on these strings and started singing ‘how come you're not putting on my shoes?’ and so my mom kind of fell in love with that, and that's obviously what my first original was. I need to bring it back, make it a real song. That's my next project, making a children's album at the Boohatch. Mike said he's into it, we’re going to make the most psychedelic kids album ever.”
McKenzie’s got a great laugh and a great sense of humor too. He’s quick witted and a great conversationalist as well as a talented songwriter. He credits his parents for their support and influence through the years and continues to have a close relationship with them.
“I was always kind of rock and metal but when I was about 14 my mom showed me No Justice. I remember it was after a baseball game and I was real mad because we had lost or something and she would always like drive me around and let me cool down and let me drink a coke or something like that. She put on No Justice, she had the CD, Far From Everything and I remember that song ‘24 days’, because it wasn’t like anything I had ever heard,” McKenzie recalls. “I didn't like popular country music, I didn't like anything that was on the radio and when I heard it, I didn't even think country music. It was a lot more rock and roll in my mind and it had this unidentifiable thing going on with it and I heard that and started kind of researching a little bit and found out about red dirt, and just fell in love with that scene.”
A few years after that his dad took him to Stillwater for OSU’s homecoming where No Justice opened for Turnpike Troubadours, who he admits he had no idea who the Troubadours were at the time. McKenzie recalls watching a guy in the crowd next to them passionately singing every word to every song both of the bands played and thinking that it was the strangest thing, but in a good way. That’s also when he decided that this is where he wanted to be eventually and that music was what he wanted to do.
Although he never did learn how to play that first little plastic guitar as a young tyke, he did get his first real guitar, a Fender Squire, at the age of 13. Even then it was just a hobby that he played around with, only learning a few chords to begin with. Not long after that though, in the 8th grade, was when he first started songwriting in earnest. But it wasn’t until about the age of 17 that he started playing in front of people.
“It was always just a big hobby until my senior year of high school when I started doing some songwriter competition things. My first actual gig that I did was actually at a bingo tournament in Kingfisher,” McKenzie said with a laugh. “These guys came to the high school because I had a little 3-4 song deal that I had recorded and put on Itunes. I guess they had heard about that, and they had contacted the local schools to see if anyone played music because they wanted people to come in and do like 4-5 songs for their entertainment at this big pioneer phone company convention, that's what they were telling us it was. So they came to the school and they said "yeah there's going to be like 500 people there, it's going to be great, and an opportunity for exposure" and I was like oh great, I'm so excited for this and really fired up and kind of anxious about it and nervous and I get there and it's a 65 and older bingo tournament and we're the entertainment for it.”
After his baseball injury which led to him switching schools and moving to Stillwater to continue his education, McKenzie was able to delve even deeper into playing music and finding his way through it all.
“It wasn't easy at first, it was a big adjustment for me. The first person I met musically here was Sam Valliere. I went into Daddy O's and I wasn't even 21 yet, this would have been about 4 years ago,” said McKenzie. “I went into Daddy O's and I didn't know who to approach or even how to approach whoever I was going to. So I walked in and it was Sam and another guy, and I asked "hey is there anywhere around here I could play that you know of?" and he actually told me of a few places. I ended up playing a few of those places like Willie's and whatnot, I didn't tell them I wasn't 21 yet or anything.”
It didn’t take McKenzie too long before he met some other local guys in the scene that helped steer him in the right direction as well. Shortly before turning 21 he would sneak into Willie’s to watch Chad Sullins play, who took McKenzie under his wing a bit. Shortly after turning 21 he found his way to an acoustic open mic kind of thing outside of Tumbleweed’s where Chris Mullen, Eli Howard and Levi Landon were playing. They played first and then opened it up to anyone who wanted to get up and do it, so McKenzie brought his guitar and got up and played. He befriended the guys that night and they told him they would be starting an acoustic night at Willie’s on the Tuesday’s that Chad Sullins wasn’t playing there. The first time McKenzie ever played Willie’s was one of those nights when Chris and Eli were playing and they invited him and another guy up on stage to take a turn.
“I was so nervous and I get up there and I wanted to play a Cody Canada song, and at the time I was a young kid and I thought that would be cool, ya know? I wouldn't do that now. I screwed it up so bad, I forgot all the words. It was ‘Sick and Tired’ too, the most obvious one,” McKenzie said with a little chuckle and shake of his head. “I started playing it and I immediately saw everyone kind of just turn and be like ‘here we go, some kid is going to do this thing’, and I messed up all the words and had to stop and it was just this mortifying kind of deal. and I went home and was almost in tears telling my roommate, I'm done I'm never going to play again. It’s all over now.”
Thankfully that wasn’t the case, and McKenzie learned his lesson from that experience and kept plugging on, thanks to the encouragement and support of others in the scene.
“Chris and Eli would hit me up and say come jam. I really started learning a lot from those two guys. Both of those guys, I owe a lot to them both, they did do much for me starting out and they didn't have to,” said McKenzie. “I've heard from other people that that was kind of one of the big things about, dare I used the term- red dirt, but the spirit of it. I thought that was just the coolest thing and I just looked up to them not just as people but as musicians, because Eli was a really good student too and Chris was holding things down at the tumbleweed, and I was just kind of this broke college student trying to figure out something to do. I knew I wanted to play music, but I also was self aware enough to know that I wasn't ready to go put out an album or go get a band, I was very green. I just had a couple songs, and those guys let me blossom. They would let me mess up and they knew I was going to and they wouldn’t get mad at me. They would let me play in a show together, and it didn't matter if I unplugged my guitar and it popped the PA and I had to learn all that stuff the hard way.”
McKenzie credits others for helping him along the way as well, including Chad Sullins and the guys from the Last Call Coalition who he got to go out and sell merch for a time or two. He also credits Cale Lester and Jake Moffat with steering him along and helping him find his footing and his way. These days after several years under his belt he’s a seasoned musician in the circuit, although he admits he’ll always have areas of improvement and things to learn. Generally the smartest and most successful people keep that mindset along the way, which is probably what makes them so successful eventually. McKenzie keeps busy with gigs all around Oklahoma, trying to get his name out there and his music known. He has an album in the works as well.
“I’m working on an album, it’s like 80% acoustic, with McClure down at the Boohatch. We need one maybe two more sessions with him and it will be done. I’m excited about that. I’d like to have that done and out by the end of the year, and there will be 10-11 songs on it. Loosely I called it The Bust, but that may change,” explained McKenzie. “I guess the ultimate goal is to just keep writing and get better, the best that I can.”
Make sure to check out McKenzie on his various social media accounts to keep up with shows and upcoming music release dates.