Numerous trips to China have given Oklahoma’s official musical ambassador insights into at least one region of the world’s most populous country.
“A lot of people in Gansu love Oklahoma and cherish our friendship,” fiddler-violinist Kyle Dillingham says of the 35-year Sister State relationship that Oklahoma has had with the large province in north-central China.
The landscape of Gansu – about 7,100 miles from Oklahoma with a population of 26 million – includes part of the Gobi Desert and remnants of the Silk Road, initially linking ancient Rome to China. The Great Wall of China and the Yellow River (the world’s sixth-longest river system) stretch across the province. Elevations reach up to 19,130 feet.
When McAlester native George Nigh became lieutenant governor in 1959, he saw the importance of traveling in order to forge international relationships to benefit Oklahoma’s economy. To his dismay, he found the state’s international reputation mired in the Old West and the Great Depression, especially with images from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. While governor in 1979, Nigh continued traveling, brought industry to Oklahoma and changed global perceptions of the state.
“There was a company in Gansu that was considering coming to Oklahoma,” Nigh says. “I heard the Sister State term, but this wasn’t part of the U.S. Sister State program. I simply used the term.”
In 1985, he and his wife, Donna, traveled to Gansu to create a relationship, marking its 35th anniversary in 2020.
“I just did it,” says Nigh, who only visited Gansu that one time and “planted a tree there” to commemorate the new Sister State bond. “We went to the Gobi Desert, where we had our picture taken on camels.”
Nigh says during his two full terms as governor, many Chinese students attended the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, including all five children from one family. After retiring from politics, Nigh served as UCO’s president from 1992 to 1997.
“I established a Sister College relationship with the University of Pueblo in Mexico,” says Nigh, who won the 2015 Global Vision Award from Oklahoma City’s chapter of Sister Cities International.
Also in 2015, to celebrate the Oklahoma-Gansu relationship’s 30th anniversary, UCO hosted a delegation from the province’s office of foreign affairs. Dillingham, who twice played the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville as a 17-year-old, provided the entertainment.
“It was formal and reserved,” says the crackerjack violinist-fiddler from Enid. “I did my traditional American fiddling to give them an impression of Oklahoma and the U.S., and then went straight to Chinese music. The whole Chinese delegation started clapping, singing, standing and smiling. Talk about an ice breaker. Everybody is awake at a new level and they start talking at a very natural level.”
At the end, Zhang Baojun, now Gansu province’s director, insisted that Dillingham go to Gansu that year to perform for the anniversary, and he secured all plans on the spot.
“It’s why we’ve become such good friends,” Dillingham says.
Known for using his music and people skills to break through geo-political barriers, Dillingham drew phenomenal responses from crowds and officials with that first performance, so in “2016 I was invited back for the first Silk Road International and Cultural Expo.”
Officials showed Dillingham the Friendship Tree, planted by Nigh in 1985. Now the center of a revered park, it’s grown into “a massive tree. I started playing and people started gathering. I told them: ‘The person whose name is on the commemorative stone is my friend. Gov. Nigh is not here today. But I can hear his voice telling me to play the “Orange Blossom Special” for the people.’ So, finger tips freezing, I played with all my heart.”
Dillingham, who has visited China 13 times, returned in 2017 to represent the United States.
“My Horseshoe Road band members, Peter Markes and Brent Saulsbury, and I were the first American artists to perform in Dunhuang, Gansu province, a city that has a 5,000-year history. In the Gobi Desert, we visited Mingsha Mountain, the oasis of the desert. It was the meeting point of the East and the West for centuries, to meet and exchange. At the mountain, we did a camel-back caravan and posed for a picture just like Gov. Nigh and Donna did in 1985.”
Dillingham exchanged gifts between Gansu Gov. Tang Renjian and then-Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin.
Last summer, Dillingham blew the roof off the Grand Ole Opry again by riding a Dolly Parton skateboard onto the stage for his official Guest Artist Debut with Horseshoe Road. Also in 2019, with Dillingham’s fourth trip to Gansu, the band performed in two cities that “had never before heard American music performers,” he says.
Dillingham has performed in 41 nations and sees music as an international language and game-changer.
After decades of work by Oklahoma leaders, the U.S. International Trade Administration’s 2018 figures show that foreign-owned companies employed 50,000 Oklahomans in 2015 with 3,091 companies exporting from Oklahoma locations. In 2016, Tulsa exported $2.4 billion and Oklahoma City $1.3 billion in goods. The U.S.-China Business Council’s figures show that Oklahoma’s exports to China are significant.
“It’s important that Oklahoma has an international presence and world image,” Nigh says. “It’s been a challenge to promote a modern image of Oklahoma. Traveling pays off.”