Kyle Dillingham is spreading his love for Oklahoma from 'Pawhuska to Paris'

As might be expected from a multi-instrumentalist who made his Grand Ole Opry debut playing the fiddle while riding a skateboard, Kyle Dillingham isn’t a fan of putting limitations on music.

“To me, the most terrifying and anxiety-inducing question is, ‘What is your favorite style of music?’ Or, ‘What (would it be) if you just had to pick one song?’ That is just impossible, because I don't see boundaries with music. I don't see styles and genres,” he said.

“I see all music as more tools to connect with more people. And I don't want to cut off an opportunity to connect with … people because I've decided to no longer work with orchestras, or I've decided to no longer play bluegrass.”

Instead, the Oklahoma City fiddler, singer, songwriter, producer and, most recently, film composer prefers to connect musically all over the world.

Named the Oklahoma Hall of Fame's Ambassador of Goodwill in 2020, Dillingham, 45, has performed in more than 40 countries, from Kuwait and Kosovo to South Korea and China, making his 15th and 16th trips to the latter this year.

Kyle Dillingham plays on March 6 at Bob Wills Day at the Capitol.
Kyle Dillingham plays on March 6 at Bob Wills Day at the Capitol.

“I’ve known Kyle since he was a student at OCU in fall of 1997. We’ve worked together on various projects and recently traveled for two weeks through China,” Oklahoma City University composer in residence Edward Knight said in an email.

“This may seem like hyperbole, but I believe that Kyle does more for world diplomacy than all the world leaders combined — because he truly cares about people. His musical gifts and genuine persona allow him to deeply affect those he meets.”

Wherever his musical journeys take him, Dillingham always comes back to his home state, which the Enid native pays tuneful tribute to on “Homa,” the title track of his long-awaited, newly released album.

“My wife, Ginny, said, ‘Of all the people traveling the world and singing about Oklahoma, you should have a song about Oklahoma,’” Dillingham told The Oklahoman in a fall interview.

“It came together so beautifully and in such a way that, honestly, when I share this in other places, there's a sentiment about the song that the setting is Oklahoma, but it's really a song for anybody who has a place they call home.”

‘Oklahoma's musical ambassador’s’ global travels began in college

Dillingham was 9 when he started playing the violin, and by the time he was in high school, he had been featured twice on Nashville’s fabled Grand Ole Opry and performed with country music legends Roy Clark and Hank Thompson.

He started building his reputation as “Oklahoma’s musical ambassador” while attending OCU, where he graduated with his bachelor’s in instrumental performance in 2002.

“Kyle and I have played together for over 28 years, and our time together as roommates and musical partners at OCU was a central part to that bond. While we were students, we had the incredible fortune to represent OCU across all parts of the globe, from North Africa and Central Europe to East Asia and points across South and Central America,” Peter Markes, a member of Dillingham’s Americana trio Horseshoe Road, said in an email.

“I’ve often referred to Kyle as a keystone species — if he is there, the ecology thrives; everything around him is lifted up, made better.”

The musical ambassador in residence at the University of Central Oklahoma from 2014 to 2019, Dillingham has performed for dignitaries ranging from the king of Malaysia to the princess of Thailand. In 2013, the frontman and Horseshoe Road — Brent Saulsbury on upright bass and vocals, Markes on guitar and vocals and Dillingham on fiddle and vocals — were selected for the American Music Abroad program and dispatched on a 35-day world tour, traveling to South Korea, Taiwan, Myanmar and Russia.

The Oklahoma band was selected again for the U.S. Department of State-sanctioned program in 2019, performing in Kuwait and the Republic of Kosovo.

Also in 2019 — the same year Dillingham made his official Grand Ole Opry debut, seizing the historic Nashville stage on a skateboard while sawing away on his fiddle — the three took their 10-day "Silk Road and The Fiddle Sister State Tour" through China.

“On our most recent trip as a band to China in September, it was special to watch Kyle in action … to see his infectious energy inspire and encourage,” Markes said. “We share a mantra, ‘Music changes lives. It has the power to inspire, encourage and heal.’”

The Oklahoma Americana band Kyle Dillingham & Horseshoe Road traveled to China in September on their two-week “Old Friends on the Silk Road Goodwill Tour."
The Oklahoma Americana band Kyle Dillingham & Horseshoe Road traveled to China in September on their two-week “Old Friends on the Silk Road Goodwill Tour."

Oklahoma fiddler makes two trips to China in one year after a long pandemic delay

After performing in China in 2016, 2017 and 2019, Dillingham found his return to the world’s most populous country delayed for years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He ended up making not one but two trips there this year.

“Ed and I collaborated on a piece in May. I had written this song celebrating the friendship between Oklahoma and our sister state, Gansu province, in China,” Dillingham said.

“2020 was supposed to be the 35th anniversary of that relationship, and there were a lot of plans for tours and for delegations to come visit. So, it was like, ‘This is where we pick up: The 38th anniversary.’”

With Knight creating the orchestrations and arrangement, Dillingham performed the world premiere of “Old Friends” in May with the Oklahoma Community Orchestra at a concert honoring the former Gov. George Nigh, who signed Oklahoma’s sister state agreement with Gansu province in 1985. A few days later, Knight and Dillingham were in China to play “Old Friends” with the Lanzhou Symphony Orchestra.

During his spring trip, the violinist also made connections at the fledgling Tianjin Juilliard School, a branch of New York City’s famed arts conservatory. When Dillingham and his Horseshoe Road bandmates arrived in China for their two-week visit in September, they made a detour to the new school.

“We were there on their very first full day of their first full year of operation. … Their CEO says, ‘Could I ask you to come to the lobby and play an impromptu concert?’” Dillingham recalled. “There were all these parents, the other faculty and staff and some of the students. We just took off doing our thing (with) ‘I'll Fly Away’ … and you could just feel everybody relax and just the joy.”

Along with that historic moment, Horseshoe Road’s “Old Friends on the Silk Road Goodwill Tour” included collaborating with the Tianjin Symphony Orchestra, putting on a pop-up show at the Tianjin Museum, playing at the Silk Road International Cultural Expo in Dunhuang, performing at the Great Wall in Jiayuguan and playing a concert hosted by the Fortune 500 company Jinchuan Group. The trek concluded in Edmond’s sister city of Qingyang.

“We were in three different cities where we were the very first musicians from a Western country … to ever bring music and perform,” Dillingham said.

“So, there’s still a new frontier for what we have to bring and to share. … Yes, our governments are at odds, but there's a long relationship between these countries. We’re tied so intimately, and the people still need to relate with one another … as human beings. Going and sharing music can create those bridges.”

With new album, fiddler perseveres to pay homage to ‘Homa’

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t just delay Dillingham’s return to China; it also postponed the release of his new album “Homa,” for which he originally had a much different vision.

“The title track was a song I'd written at the end of 2019. I played it for (Oklahoma music impresario) Jim Halsey,” he said. “He said, ‘This is it. This is the song we’ve been waiting for … the last three or four years of developing these relationships in Nashville. We need to record a demo, so we can start pitching this.’”

In early 2020, the musician played Halsey the final mix of “Homa.”

“He said, ‘This is it. This is perfect. I’ve got some things I'm wrapping up with the Oak Ridge Boys this week … and then Monday morning, I'm going to start firing this off to all the record and publishing executives,’” Dillingham recalled.

“We hung up the phone, and that night was the COVID case at the Thunder game.”

The pandemic brought the entire music industry to a standstill, so Dillingham held on to his “Homa.” When he got the call that he had been named the 2020 Ambassador of Goodwill, he decided to play it at the Oklahoma Hall of Fame’s annual induction ceremony.

“I was thinking, ‘Here it is. This is where I should debut this song, my personal anthem for the state … and my love song to this place we call home,’” Dillingham said. “Then, at the very last minute, that induction ceremony became a virtual event, which meant virtually nobody saw it or heard it.”

Oklahoma City fiddler Kyle Dillingham and his wife, Ginnette Dillingham, traveled to China in September, along with Dillingham's band, Horseshoe Road, for a two-week goodwill tour.
Oklahoma City fiddler Kyle Dillingham and his wife, Ginnette Dillingham, traveled to China in September, along with Dillingham's band, Horseshoe Road, for a two-week goodwill tour.

Violinist 'carries the spirit of Oklahoma' with him on his worldwide travels

But one of his fans, OCU trustee Cathy Leichter, did hear “Homa” and offered to support Dillingham in making a new album to showcase the song. In 2021, he gathered his bandmates and other local musicians and headed into the studio at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany to record “Homa.”

“I kept waiting and I kept thinking, ‘I want this to be something for my state, this place that I have committed my whole life and career. … Keeping my career based here, all my contributions affect and impact the development of the arts and entertainment industry of our state; I’m not funneling all of my energies into Nashville or all my energies into New York or wherever it may be. I want this for here — and home,’” he said.

Since the pandemic, Dillingham has embraced an array of musical opportunities in his home state, including emulating a 1920s jazz violinist for a street dance scene in Martin Scorsese’s cinematic epic “Killers of the Flower Moon,” composing his first film score for OKC writer-director Al Mertens' Oklahoma-made independent movie "Thank You, Amelia Earhart” and playing an heirloom violin gifted to him by his late friend Kurt Leichter, an Austrian native who fled the Holocaust with his family as a boy, at the recent local event “A Night to Stand With Israel.”

During the holiday season, Dillingham has been touring Texas, Colorado and Oklahoma with Grammy nominee “Michael Martin Murphey’s Cowboy Christmas,” and the fiddler and Horseshoe Road will play a Feb. 2 home-state show at Duncan’s Simmons Center for the Chisholm Trail Arts Council.

“Kyle has a unique hallmark in that he is synonymous with who we are as Oklahomans, yet he travels extensively and represents Oklahoma as an artistic ambassador on the world stage. When home, he is engaging students in classrooms and awing audiences on stages in all regions of our state,” Oklahoma Arts Council Executive Director Amber Sharples said in an email.

“When he travels, wherever he goes — from Pawhuska to Paris — he infectiously carries the spirit of Oklahoma with him.”

Kyle Dillingham & Horseshoe Road

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Kyle Dillingham's global travels have made him a musical ambassador