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Greater Tulsa Reporter

Red Dirt Music: A Farm-Raised Oklahoma Original

Searching for the Sound by BRYAN CANTRELL

RED DIRT RANGERS: From left, guest guitarist Brad James sits in with John Cooper, Brad Piccolo, Don Morris, Ben Han and Randy Crouch. Obscured by the rest of the band but keeping the beat is drummer Rick Gomez.


New Orleans has Dixieland. Seattle has Grunge. Stillwater has Red Dirt.
Literally and musically.

It’s a genre that has gained popularity nationwide and even internationally, but Stillwater, Oklahoma, is its undisputed birthplace.

More specifically, a 160-acre farm a few miles east of Stillwater which, in the 1980s and 1990s became a creative mecca and served as a melting pot, combining country, rock and roll, bluegrass and folk into what we know today as Red Dirt music.

A six-bedroom, two-story farmhouse once stood on the property that was the home and gathering place for musicians, songwriters, poets and artists. Bands were formed. Collaborations spawned. Songs were swapped around the campfire, and young musicians like Garth Brooks picked up a few tricks from the older guys.

As we know, Brooks went on to Nashville and became a megastar. What is not as well known is that the band he went to Nashville with was called Santa Fe and featured Tom Skinner on bass.

When Santa Fe was formed in Stillwater in 1986, Skinner was already a well-respected and popular local musician, playing frequent gigs with his brothers Mike and Craig in the Skinner Brothers Band.

The Skinner Brothers, along with Steve Ripley, Bob Childers, Randy Crouch and others had created something in Stillwater throughout the 1970s and 1980s: not just a unique sound, but a community.

Being a college town, Stillwater attracts a mixture of kids from rural areas who grew up with country music and kids from larger cities who grew up listening to rock and roll. The willingness and eagerness to collaborate among people from different backgrounds led to something entirely new that changed the musical landscape.

That’s why I’m proposing that we replace members of congress with Red Dirt musicians. I’ll lay out the details of that plan in a later column.

Steve Ripley, whose band Moses recorded under the label “Red Dirt Records” for their self-published album in 1972, is credited with naming the genre, but Bob Childers is widely considered the godfather of Red Dirt music.

“Three chords and the truth,” says fellow Red Dirt Pioneer Randy Crouch when recalling his friend Bob Childers, who passed away in 2008. “Of course, if you got a song about a pretty girl, you only need one chord. And it don’t have to be the truth!”

I’m not sure if he was quoting Childers there or not, but it doesn’t really matter. As Crouch would tell you, “we’re all in the same band.”

That “same band” mentality, is a theme among Red Dirt musicians. It goes deeper than, a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll. It’s working together, playing and writing songs together that is a unique and defining characteristic of Red Dirt music. Childers called it “cross pollinating.”

It should be pointed out that Childers’ status as godfather is not unanimously agreed upon.

“I respectfully disagree,” says Ronald Boren, director of museum operations at the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in Muskogee. “If you ask me, Red Dirt music traces back to Woody Guthrie.”

Interesting and valid take. Feel free to debate that one among yourselves. But keep it civil, we’re all in the same band.

Getting back to Tom Skinner, he’s also in the same band. He was an essential part of the Red Dirt community, and that community was part of him in a way Nashville never could be.

You can take the musician out of the red dirt, but you can’t take the Red Dirt out of the musician.

After an amicable parting of ways with his soon-to-be-famous partner, Skinner left Nashville and returned to Stillwater just as the genre he helped pioneer began to flourish.

It was the late 1980s and influential Red Dirt musicians like Jimmy LaFave were gaining popularity in Stillwater, playing gigs like Willie’s Saloon and becoming regulars at the farm.

In 1988, LaFave offered a slot at a musicians’ reunion festival to one of the original tenants on the farm who had been playing open mic nights with a few friends on campus at OSU. He was a young mandolin player named John Cooper, who, along with Brad Piccolo and Ben Han, accepted the offer and took the stage under the name Red Dirt Rangers for the first time.

In the 1990s, a new crop of young talent that featured Stoney Larue, Cody Canada and Jason Boland began showing up at the farm and learning from their predecessors. As these artists’ popularity grew regionally and nationally, Red Dirt music became an official export of Stillwater.

While the genre itself and many of its ambassadors are still going strong, the farm is no longer a haven for musicians and artists. The house burned down in 2003, but the Red Dirt spirit of community and family is alive and well.

That spirit was on full display in October, as 45 musicians gathered for Tom Skinner’s Skyline Festival. Playing across two venues, The Shrine and Mercury Lounge, the event raised $5,213 for Red Dirt Relief Fund, a non-profit organization that has provided more than $60,000 to musicians in need since its inception in 2012.

Named for the Tom Skinner song, Skyline Radio, the Oct. 15 event was a celebration of the late great songwriter’s music that entertained fans and benefitted musicians. It was a win-win.

Another win-win event coming up is the Horton Records Folk n Rock n Chili Cookoff, Nov. 11 at Cain’s Ballroom. In fact, this event deserves more than two wins. It’s a win for musicians, as it raises money for Horton Records, a Tulsa-based non profit that spends thousands of dollars annually to help Oklahoma musicians with recording, promoting, distributing and touring. It’s a win for music lovers, as everyone on the lineup is worth the price of admission alone. It’s a win for lovers of chili, as a dozen local restaurants including Ike’s Chili, Burn Co. and Lambrusco’z will be putting out their best chili offerings. And, most importantly, it’s a win for people who are hungry or need a coat this winter. In the last two years, the Folk n Rock n Chili Cookoff has collected more than 200 coats and more than 1,000 pounds of food.

Now that’s a community I want to be a part of. No wonder Tom Skinner left Nashville.
To hear and learn more about Red Dirt Music, check out Red Dirt Radio Hour with John Cooper and Brad Piccolo Sundays at 9 p.m. on KOSU, 107.5 FM in Tulsa.

I hope to see you on Nov. 11 at Cain’s with a few cans of food and an outgrown coat or two. We are in the same band after all.

Until then, keep searching, keep listening.

Updated 12-05-2017

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