While Muskogee is widely known for its role in Merle Haggard’s song, “Okie From Muskogee” and the site of the recording of the CMA and ACM album of the year by the same name, you can’t find much media discussion of the vast talent that actually emerged from Muskogee. The list of talent is too broad to really cover in this column, but musically, some of the early talent to come from Muskogee included jazz musicians Claude Williams, Jay McShann, and Barney Kessell.
Personally, I’ve always been intrigued with the musical talent that came from the Muskogee Central High School Class of 1959. Three of the more successful musical artists to come out of Muskogee were part of this class. Chick Rains, Mike Settle, and 2019 Governor’s Award Recipient Barbara McAlister. Chick made his way in the country music world as a successful songwriter for artists such as The Oak Ridge Boys, Reba McIntire, and Wade Hayes. Mike Settle was a pop singer for The New Christy Minstrels and Kenny Rogers and The First Edition, writing and singing “But You Know That I Love You,” which also became a hit for Dolly Parton. In a recent discussion with Barbara, there were others from that class that ventured into the music industry including Lillian Marshall, Evelyn Wallace, and Jan Jordan.
But few musical artists from Muskogee, if any, have traveled the globe with their craft as much as Barbara McAlister. The Oklahoma Arts Council will be recognizing Barbara on April 16 with one of two Governor’s Awards that recognizes longtime leadership and contribution to the arts. The short bio included on the OAC website can’t even begin to scratch the surface of Barbara’s storied career.
Barbara was initially interested in singing country music, but the opera was calling and she moved to Hollywood after graduating from Central High School and attending Tulsa University and Oklahoma City University.
Her early operatic career included engagements from New England to San Diego. In Los Angeles, she won the prestigious Loren Zachary competition, which led to multiple engagements in Germany, France and Italy for the following decade. Imagine touring Europe, taking residency in some of the most prominent opera houses for over a decade in locations such as Monte Carlo, Paris, Hong Kong, Cannes, and Passau!
Barbara eventually took residence in New York City for the following 20 years, performing in some of the most prestigious opera houses with many prominent orchestras, including Carnegie Hall and The Kennedy Center. Arguably the most traveled musical artist to ever come out of Muskogee eventually moved back to Muskogee.
While based out of Muskogee, Barbara has also enjoyed success as a visual artist with paintings displayed across the United States and Europe. She has been awarded many honors over the years, including the Cherokee Medal of Honor for her dedication to promoting the Cherokee language.
In 2013, Barbara was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, alongside one of her former OCU classmates, Mason Williams. Barbara astonished the Mabee Center crowd that night with accompaniment by her long-time pianist/arranger, Timothy Long, and the Cherokee National Youth Choir. Timothy also is native to Oklahoma (Holdenville) and most likely a future OMHOF inductee.
Barbara’s upcoming Governor’s Award is honoring her for her dedication in investing her time in teaching vocal performance to youth and adults in Northeast Oklahoma. Barbara teaches for the Cherokee Nation and has helped numerous students in the region in raising funds for recitals and master classes. She unselfishly assists students in auditions and obtaining vocal performance scholarships. In speaking with Barbara many times about her career, she never fails to point out the talents of other successful Muskogee area classical artists such as Jon Gillock or Linda Twine, both world renowned performers.
There are many examples of very successful Muskogee artists for our youth to look to for inspiration. Rarely does a community get such a successful artist to come back and assist others, as Barbara has. On April 16, Muskogee should look to attend the Governor’s Arts Award ceremony beginning at 4 p.m. in the fourth floor rotunda of the Oklahoma State Capitol, followed by a reception in the first floor rotunda. Admission is free and open to the public.