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So long, Steve Ripley

Remembering Tulsa’s renowned musician and producer

Tulsa music legend Steve Ripley kicks back at The Church Studio.

Jim Perry

Steve Ripley, long-time pillar of American rock and country music, died peacefully last week, surrounded by his family at their Land Run homestead between Pawnee and Glencoe. News of his departure came suddenly to most, as he had disclosed his long battle with cancer only to a small group of family and friends. He was loved and admired by an array of colleagues, friends and fans—including musicians, sound innovators, recording artists, and producers from across America and beyond.

Stillwater was where Ripley earned his college degree in communication, launched his first studio, and recorded his first album. Los Angeles played host to his studio engineering endeavors at Leon Russell’s Paradise Studios, his guitar-playing adventures with Bob Dylan, and his inventions like the “stereo guitar” developed for players like Eddie Van Halen, Ry Cooder, and Vince Gill. Nashville introduced him to the virtuoso players and household names of traditional country and bluegrass music.

But it was Tulsa where Ripley launched and managed his career as a recording artist and enjoyed a life of family, friends, and like-minded musicians.

In the fall of 1986, Steve and Charlene Ripley moved to Tulsa to care for Steve’s mother and raise their children, Elvis and Angelene. They also came to make music. Within a few months, Steve got a tip that Leon Russell’s former recording studio was for sale, and he quickly enlisted his Oklahoma friend, Glen Mitchell, to partner with him in the acquisition of the building and the revival of the place into a state-of-the-art recording facility.

Ripley also teamed up with his friend Ron Getman, in the initial ownership and operation of the recording studio. Another section of the rambling building was dedicated to Ripley’s sonic research and guitar-making operations he started in Los Angeles, thus the Tulsa version of Ripley’s beloved “mad scientist lab” had officially begun.

The great stone edifice called The Church Studio was first known as “Shelter Records Church Studio.” Ripley shortened it to “The Church Studio.” But for the nearly 20 years of the Ripley/Mitchell tenure there—by far the longest run in its storied history—the place was known by music insiders as, simply, “Ripley’s Studio.”

Early in the going, a demo tape recorded there by Tulsa transplant Ronnie Dunn was ushered onto the desk of Ripley’s pal from the Stillwater days, Tim DuBois. The former OSU professor had recently been named the president of Arista Records, Nashville. DuBois had the insight to pair Dunn with another solo artist, Kix Brooks, creating what would eventually become one of the biggest country duos of all time, Brooks & Dunn.

Ripley, meanwhile, was already working on a project with Getman and three other friends from the Tulsa music juggernaut: pianist/producer Walt Richmond, drummer Jamie Oldaker and bassist Casey van Beek. With a loving nod to Ripley’s farmer heritage, they called themselves The Tractors. The four-song demo and clever marketing package made the journey to DuBois in Nashville.

“It wasn’t exactly country, but it was exactly great,” DuBois said. So he went for it. Tellingly, the record deal Ripley worked out with Arista included an iron-clad provision that the recording work would be done at his recently re-born studio.

Defying every trend in country music, the album The Tractors went platinum faster than any debut album in the history of the genre. The album featured a dream cavalcade of guest players that included Leon Russell, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, JJ Cale, and Jim Keltner. It eventually sold over 2 million copies, became the highest-selling country album of 1994 and remains the highest-selling album ever recorded in Oklahoma. The video for the hit single, “Baby Likes to Rock It,” won CMT Video of the Year, and two of the album’s singles were nominated for Grammy awards.

As Ripley continued making Tractors records, he also took on a variety of worthy projects, largely for Oklahoma-based artists. His status as a founder and patriarch of the so-called Red Dirt music scene is widely known, but his broader influence among developing musicians in the region wasn’t unique to the country genre. Power pop wunderkinds, Admiral Twin, booked the studio for Tulsa’s first non-country recording by a major label since the halcyon days of Leon and company.

“One night, pretty late really, the four of us just decided to go to Ripley’s studio and knock on the door. Amazingly, he answered the door and let us in,” said Admiral Twins drummer and vocalist Jarrod Gollihare. With a glint of astonishment still in his eyes, Gollihare recalled how that late-night meeting was the beginning of an apprenticeship and friendship that lasted a lifetime. “Steve quickly advised us to drop out of music, start having babies and raise a family,” he laughed. “Then he began telling us everything we ever wanted to know about the music business.”

Ripley also advised and encouraged Hanson from their earliest a cappella days through their emergence as pop megastars and their long and continuing careers as seasoned artists. He recorded an album for Tulsa reggae favorites, Local Hero, and another for Oklahoma City alt-rock darlings, Chainsaw Kittens.

In later years, while continuing to write and record a series of increasingly personal, genre-bending songs, Ripley also developed a radio series tracing Oklahoma’s contributions to American music. This completed a full circle journey for Ripley, connecting him back to his communications days at Oklahoma State and giving expression to his life-long interest in modern musicology. More recently, he began the massive task of preserving and categorizing the Leon Russell Archives on behalf of the Oklahoma Historical Society and OKPOP, completing another circle.

Likewise, Ripley was never far from Bob Dylan’s orbit. In a concert at the Brady in 1991, Dylan’s road manager pulled him from the audience and led Ripley to a guitar and amp set up on stage. A stunning set ensued, punctuated by the rare occurrence of a stage comment from Dylan. “Steve Ripley up here on stage with us,” he announced with a sly grin, “... almost like time standing still.”

Later when the Bob Dylan Archives arrived in Tulsa, the Kaiser Foundation asked Ripley to produce a live concert celebrating Dylan’s work. Ripley recruited a cast of A-list musicians and vocalists while curating a perfect set list from Dylan’s vast catalogue of more than 500 songs. The event also allowed him to return full circle to his beloved role of band-leader and arranger and to his finely-honed skills as a live performer.

The resulting show, “On a Night Like This,” was one for the ages. Dylan’s original melodies and inimitable lyrics could be clearly heard atop the thumping groove and intricate jingle-jangle of Ripley’s brilliant arrangements. The ephemeral event let everyone see the multi-faceted genius of Oklahoma’s faithful son on full display. The band came together in an astonishing flurry of mad scientist moves.  There was a notable glow on Ripley’s face through the entirety of what would prove to be his last live performance. He was surrounded by just about everything he held dear in music and in life itself. It was a great night.

Almost like time standing still.