- Lola Serrano / provided
- Cheyenne, circa 2007
Editor’s note: Oklahoma Gazette is featuring Norman Music Festival performers each week leading up to its 2018 event April 26-28 in Norman.
Beau Jennings is certainly no stranger to Norman Music Festival. He has played the free local music gathering several times, be it on the wide-open main stage or the tight shoulder-to-shoulder confines of Blackwatch Studios, which used to function as an NMF venue.
“Those were always really fun shows,” Jennings said. “It would get too crowded and there was always just something crazy happening — lighting rigs tipping over, things like that.”
But this year’s NMF appearance will be extra special because it marks a rare reunion of his landmark 2000s indie-rock band Cheyenne, which was formed in Norman but later relocated to Brooklyn, New York. The reunion celebrates the vinyl reissue of the band’s 2005 full-length debut I Am Haunted, I Am Alive, available Friday through Clerestory AV.
Haunted was released on CD during its initial debut but has never before been available on wax.
“Vinyl just wasn’t a thing people were really into at that point,” Jennings said.
Cheyenne performs 6:30 p.m. April 28 on NMF’s Winston Gray Street Stage. The band, primarily Jennings’ pet project, was known for its rotating cast of affiliated musicians. The version of the band that will play NMF includes original drummer Heath Fisher, guitarist Brady Smith, bassist Brine Webb and keyboardist Dustin Ragland, who plays with Jennings in his current band The Tigers.
Jennings, also an accomplished filmmaker who produced the 2015 Will Rogers documentary The Verdigris, has not played a public Cheyenne show in Oklahoma since at least 2012 — which is around the time the group informally disbanded as members moved, got married and had children. It did release one last studio album, King’s County, in 2013, but never got much of a chance to play the material live. In addition to reminiscing over Haunted and jams from the other releases, Jennings is excited to give King’s County a live consummation at NMF.
“This is a nice thing to do to kind of revisit that in a more official capacity,” he said.
Cheyenne began as just a handful of songs Jennings had written in his bedroom, which he recorded in 2003 with the band Ester Drang, whose members he had grown up with around Broken Arrow.
Out of that experience came the four-song You Talk Like You’ve Seen a Ghost EP. Jennings had a fun time recording that project and was looking to record again as soon as was able. Around that time, he formed a working relationship with Chad Copelin and brand-new Blackwatch Studios, which was where Jennings decided to record Haunted after Kansas City record label The Record Machine offered to put out his full-length debut.
“Just a bunch of things came together at once,” he said. “There was a good thing happening around Norman and Oklahoma City. It felt like a lot of original bands were starting to play.”
Cheyenne took off toward the tail end of Jennings’ college years at the University of Oklahoma. The songwriter remembers the local bands of the time were more frequently cover groups, especially compared to the wellspring of original tunes found around the metropolitan area today. Cheyenne, with Jennings’ frequently melancholy prose, was one of several bands that led a departure from that mindset.
“It felt like there was this nice burst of creativity with original music,” he said. “Everything just kind of fed into each other, and that’s how the band got started.”
Arguably the best part of ordering a Haunted reissue record is getting the download code for Cheyenne Songs, an ambitious 27-song cover compilation featuring a who’s who list of local talent offering unique takes on their favorite Cheyenne catalogue gems. Tributes from John Moreland, Broncho (whose frontman Ryan Lindsey was once a Cheyenne band member), Labrys, Student Film, Husbands, Chase Kerby, Travis Linville and many more can be spotted on the extensive tracklist.
Jennings said the idea for Cheyenne Songs grew out of wanting to package something special with the record release. His original idea was to put together a collection of the band’s B-sides, but reflecting on the band’s history led him to something greater.
“I got to thinking about how many friends I made and just how much community developed out of being in that band and playing with other bands at the time,” he said. “At some point — and I can’t remember whose idea it was — it was just like, ‘Let’s have people cover the songs.’”
Jennings began his recruitment process by approaching his friends and Cheyenne’s contemporaries, letting them select their favorite tunes to cover. He then branched out to some other artists and bands that Cheyenne did not necessarily play with but whom he has personally befriended through the years. From there, the project snowballed into a major undertaking.
“Once word got out, people would inquire about it and say they wanted to get involved,” he said. “And I’d be like, ‘Well, I have this song left.’”
Hearing talented artists like Moreland, who covers “Big Weather” from Cheyenne’s 2007 sophomore effort The Whale, put their own spin on Jennings’ words has been a surreal experience for the songwriter.
“It was really fun to have all those songs come in, and it’s nice to listen to all the way through,” he said. “I’m looking forward to people hearing the whole thing.”
For the community’s musicians and music enthusiasts, NMF can feel similar to a family reunion.
“It’s kind of like a holiday and a chance for everyone to get together in one place and show off what they have been doing,” Jennings said.
Those expecting Cheyenne to start cranking out new tunes after its reunion show might be disappointed to hear that Jennings has no plans for the group following its gig “unless something amazing happens.” His full attention right now is on finishing a debut full-length album from Beau Jennings & The Tigers. The band released its single “Back in Town” in October 2016, which KOSU The Spy’s The Oklahoma Rock Show later listed as that year’s best Oklahoma song.
Jennings said the biggest difference between the state’s music scene during Cheyenne’s early years and now is that there are way more bands and musicians in it, which has led to an influx of new perspectives.
“It seems to me that there’s a little bit more of a diverse sound,” he said. “It was pretty indie-rock heavy when I was playing Cheyenne stuff. I guess you could say things are kind of Americana-heavy now — and I’m guilty of that as well — but it seems like there’s lots of hip-hop and really experimental stuff.”
It would be fair to give Cheyenne at least a smidge of credit for inspiring future state songwriters, and some of those talents are on display in the Cheyenne Songs collection. But Jennings believes NMF deserves a great deal of thanks for the visibility it affords local musicians and creatives.
“I think it’s a great thing for the town and the community,” he said. “I think there are all kinds of intangible ways Norman and Oklahoma City — and maybe even the state — have benefited from it.”