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Road to the CMAs: Oklahoma honky tonks live on at Willie's Saloon

Road to the CMAs: Oklahoma honky tonks live on at Willie's Saloon

Road to the CMAs is brought to you locally by Hard Rock Hotel.

STILLWATER, Okla. (KTUL) -- The list of musicians from Oklahoma spans across genres and styles. People like Leon Russell, Sandi Patty, Chet Baker and Blake Shelton. But they all started somewhere. And it’s getting tougher for great artists to get noticed.

It’s a dark, smoky, dingy bar. But the beer is cold and the music is loud.

“Nothing but good things happen whenever live music happens,” said Isaac McClung.

“People come to this town just to see it,” said Chad Sullins, just about to take the stage. “And that’s what I love about it.”

There’s a reason people come to Willie’s Saloon in Stillwater.

“It was like the mecca for me,” Sullins siad. “Because I’d heard about it for years and never got to play here.”

The stage is small, but so is the joint.

“To stand on the same stage as him,” McClung said. “You can’t help but be humbled just a little bit, you know.”

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“There’s probably DNA from 147 different musicians on that stage,” Sullins said. “When you kneel down to do something don’t put your knee on it because when you get up, it’s on your jeans.”

Arguably the most famous DNA, though, belongs a man who grew up with big league baseball dreams.

“Everyone around Stillwater knows that this is the first place Garth Brooks played,” McClung said.

“People didn’t really pay much attention to him, you know,” said Joe Cervantes, Willie's current owner. “Some people would leave.”

“When I got my first show here it was nerve-wracking,” Sullins said. “Because this is Willie’s Saloon. It’s the home of Garth Brooks and Bob Childers and the Skinner Brothers.”

For Sullins, that chance came in the mid-2000s.

“I’d play on a Tuesday night and come in Wednesday morning and pack up all my stuff,” Sullins said. “And I’d sit there and talk to Bill about when Garth used to play here and find out what he paid Garth back then and it’s like ‘Well, (shoot), he’s getting paid the same in 1988 as I’m getting paid in 2007’.”

Brooks is getting paid a bit more now.

“He comes to town all the time. There’s random Garth sightings in Stillwater all the time,” Sullins said. “And I always say, just once he can come in here when I’m playing and I’ll give him my guitar and he plays one song and then he leaves.”

But do artists have a tougher time getting noticed today? Cervantes says yes.

“You see more bars don’t do music because it is expensive,” he said. “You want to support the artist, but if it don’t help the business you can’t have it.”

“There’s literally a handful of bars in five states that’ll let you get up and play for two hours and play your own stuff,” Sullins said. “And Willie’s started that, in my opinion, 40 years ago.”

Bars like Willie’s may be a dying breed. But, for now, the music lives on.

“Standing on the shoulders of great men is always a cool feel,” McClung said. “Every musician is just a culmination of everybody that they’ve listened to and the people that have impacted them. So to me, Garth Brooks is one of my personal heroes.”

“He’s an icon and this place is a landmark,” Sullins said. “But it’s not like one made the other. This place was a bar before anybody knew who Garth Brooks was and it’s still a bar even though he talks about it in his Vegas shows and stuff like that.”

It’s definitely not Vegas. But that doesn’t matter.

“The amount of talent that has come through this bar in the last four decades is just incomparable,” Sullins said.

So here’s to 40 more years of cold beer, loud music and a legacy that spans generations.

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