Red Dirt Founding Father Steve Ripley Remembered
Searching for the Sound by BRYAN CANTRELL
“I love Nashville country and Texas Tex-Mex and Cajun and Motown soul, but in the heart of America, we got the beat that’s guaranteed to tap your toes…”
– Steve Ripley, Tulsa Shuffle
The song Tulsa Shuffle, from the Tractors’ 1994 platinum-selling debut album, would be the theme song for this column if such a concept existed. No other song embodies the Tulsa Sound and speaks to the spirit and soul of Red Dirt music, just as no other musician embodies and embraces our unique genre more than the late, great Steve Ripley, who passed away on Jan. 3, two days after his 69th birthday.
Ripley, who grew up on his family’s Oklahoma Land Run homestead in Pawnee County before attending Oklahoma State University, was more than a musician. He was a songwriter, inventor, producer, engineer, radio host, and as of 2016, the official curator of the Leon Russell collection at OKPOP.
It was Ripley who introduced the term Red Dirt into the musical lexicon. His band’s 1974 album, “Moses Live,” was released under Ripley’s own label, Red Dirt Records, an event which many historians and musicians agree marked the birth of the Red Dirt genre.
He was Leon Russell’s sound engineer. He played guitar on two J.J. Cale albums. He owned the legendary Church Studio for 19 years. In his final years, he worked to rescue and preserve the musical archives of his friend Leon Russell.
There is simply no one more immersed in the history of Tulsa music.
His story extends beyond our community. He played on Bob Dylan’s album Shot of love before embarking on a world tour with his musical hero, joining Dylan’s great gospel band in 1981. In a 2009 interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan was asked if he had ever played a set with the perfect guitarist. Dylan took the question as an opportunity to reminisce about a few of the countless guitarists he’s played with, and mentioned Ripley among a handful of his favorites.
Ripley left his fingerprint on 1980s pop music as well. It was his invention, the Ripley Stereo Guitar, that was used by Eddie Van Halen on the album 1984. His Burbank, California-based company, Ripley Guitars has created guitars for Steve Vai, Ry Cooder, Dweezil Zappa and Jimmy Buffet.
After purchasing the Church Studio in 1987, Ripley began recording the demos that would become the Tractors’ self-titled first album. After selling more than two million copies and reaching number two on the Country billboard charts, the Tractors went on to record six more albums and earn two Grammy nominations over the next decade and a half.
While the Tractors were catagorized under the broad umbrella of Country music, what Ripley, drummer Jamie Oldaker, guitarist Ron Getman, pianist Walt Richmond and bassist Casey Van Beek created was truly a genre of one.
In an interview for Voices of Oklahoma recorded in April 2018, Ripley shares a lyric from a song he was working on at the time that addresses the question of musical genre. “We play farm music. Where you end up is tied to where you start. We owe as much to Johnny B. Goode as we do to Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
Ripley moved back to his family’s farm in Pawnee County in 2005. He made a few updates to the property, including a recording studio, where he produced his radio show for the Oklahoma Historical Society.
In 2016, OKPOP acquired the Leon Russell archive and Ripley became official curator of the collection, tasked with restoring, cataloguing, digitizing, and archiving the vast collection of Leon Russell master tapes.
Ripley’s legacy is intact and his genius is undeniable. His contributions are glaring. You can’t learn about the history of Tulsa music without learning about Steve Ripley. He’s there at every turn. Ubiquitous. The Forrest Gump of Tulsa music.
Ripley’s family requests donations to The Red Dirt Relief Fund, reddirtrelieffund.org, in lieu of flowers. Red Dirt Relief Fund provides a safety net of critical assistance to Oklahoma music people in times of need.
We ended 2018 saying goodbye to Roy Clark, now, sadly we begin 2019 saying goodbye to another legend; an ambassador who brought Tulsa’s brand of music to the world.
Ripley had his priorities straight and kept things in the proper perspective. This is evidenced by his sign-off from every one of his radio shows, “Don’t forget, family is what’s important. Tell your mama you love her. Kiss your babies. We’re all in this together. Bye-bye, kids.”
I couldn’t agree more. However, since I live in the heart of America, where we got the beat that’s guaranteed to tap your toes, I’m gonna stick with my own sign off and remind you all to keep searching, keep listening.