The History and Evolution of Rocklahoma

PRYOR, OK - MAY 24: Musician Jeff Keith of Tesla performs at day 3 of Rocklahoma 2015 on May 24, 2015 in Pryor, Oklahoma. (Photo by Jason Squires/WireImage)

When people hear Oklahoma, undoubtedly, one of the first singers they think about is Garth Brooks. The country music megastar grew up in Tulsa. However, the state is also home to many other musicians, including St. Vincent, Jacob Sartorius, Chet Baker, and Charlie Baker. Additionally, one city in Oklahoma hosts one of the top music festivals in the country, Rocklahoma. Musical artists like Slayer, 3 Doors Down, Korn, and Five Finger Death Punch have all taken the stage.

Pryor, Oklahoma

Pryor, Oklahoma, is the county seat of Mayes County. According to a 2010 census, the population is less than 10,000. The same year Rocklahoma came to Pryor, Google also decided to build a data center at MidAmerica Industrial Park, located four miles south of the city. Even though it shut down briefly, it invested $600 million to expand its data center in 2018. Additionally, Canoo, an electric vehicle manufacturer, opened a plant in 2021. Even though several major companies have chosen Pryor, one of the biggest draws remains Rocklahoma. Let’s take a look at the history and evolution of this festival.

Pre Rocklahoma

On Saturday, September 6, 1980, the first Roklahoma kicked off. The three-day event featured some of the most iconic groups and singers in music history, including Van Halen, Sammy Hagar, Pat Benatar, and the Doobie Brothers. According to VHND, Van Halen “got the biggest crowd reaction,” and the Doobie Brothers played “a fine but anticlimactic set.” Even though this festival differed from the Rocklahoma we know today, it is considered the initial kick-off for what we now consider the iconic music festival. The University of Oklahoma hosted the event at Owen Field. Twenty-eight thousand guests attended.

Hosts

Even though Rocklahoma is a three-day event for some, one couple lives on the festival grounds, Sharon and Dave Giencke. According to Tulsa World, The couple first moved to Oklahoma in 2003 when Dave Giencke received a job offer to pour concrete on what is now the Rocklahoma venue. There are over 200 acres next to the grounds where they built their home. Once finished with the project, they decided they’d sell the site if someone offered them a large amount of money for Rocklahoma. This is what happened in 2007, the year the event started with the headline group, Poison. Before the event kicked off, Dave Giencke wanted to create a buzz, so he rented the Whisky A Go-Go in West Hollywood to make the announcement. The day before the event, someone tried to detour him from the project, saying, “I don’t know what you think your doing, these bands can’t fill clubs in New York.” The advice was ill-advised. After all, when he called his wife, she was already taking a large number of ticket sales. The first Rocklahoma ticket wasn’t purchased from someone nearby, but in Spain, a precursor to the international reach the festival enjoys today. In fact, only one continent didn’t garner ticket sales, Antarctica. The first Rockahoma was not only a huge hit but also helped boost Pryor, Oklahoma’s economy.

Hard times

Even though the festival drew large crowds ending country concerts, and some venues across the country tried the concept with little to no success, the event nearly ended. The Gienecke’s even moved back to Wisconsin. However, a partnership with AEG Live stepped in, breathing new life and capital into the event. Jackyl Jesse James, a friend of the Giencke’s, brokered the deal, and the couple returned to Oklahoma. The crowds became larger because AEG was able to book more significant acts. As ticket sales increased, the couple could put more money into the grounds adding 7,000 campsites which are now legendary for loud parties and raucous behavior. Sharon Gienecke acknowledges the visitors as an essential part of the show, saying, “without them we are not Rocklahoma. They are the backbone of Rocklahoma the people.”

Party on

Today, the three-day festival draws over 70,000 people. According to Travel OK, it’s “America’s loudest Memorial Day Weekend Bash.” Anyone who attends will have nearly a hundred acts from classic rock and roll to current shows. Over the years, ZZ Top, Guns N’ Roses, Twisted Sister, and Kid Rock have all made appearances. Aside from the musical acts, another draw is the campsites. Although it doesn’t quite match the debauchery of events like Bonnaroo, people are known to get inventive with their campsites and host parties that cater to those who embrace the rock and roll lifestyle. Additionally, numerous vendors sell merchandise as well as food and alcohol. So, it’s guaranteed to be a good time.

Covid cancel

This year, Rocklahoma returned after being canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic. Even though event staff had a lot of concerns, they felt the show must go on. Twenty thousand people agreed and returned to the venue for its fourteenth year. Many of the acts who played at the 2019 event returned. According to KJRH, Lance Garcia said, “these people are happy and love being here, it’s a great outlet for everybody during this time.” Additionally, places were set up for production staff to take COVID tests. Further, they encouraged masks and vaccines.

Final Words

Lester Bangs once said, “rock ‘n’ roll is an attitude, it’s not a musical form of a strict sort.” Rocklahoma embraces this full throttle. It’s a rock ‘n’ roll festival in the truest sense featuring screaming guitars and immense pyrotechnics. Moreover, it’s a group of fans coming together to embrace one of the most important genres of music. Even though some might find this festival a touch over the top, and it’s certainly not for everyone, this is the place to be if you enjoy loud music and hang out with fans who share your love of music.

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