To popular music fans, Oklahoma is the place where stars like Carrie Underwood and Blake Shelton are from. But to those in the know, Oklahoma is the home of dozens of artists who are part of the “Red Dirt” genre, a type of music that is played mostly throughout Oklahoma and Texas but that is slowly, after three decades, becoming better known.
A handful of Oklahoma musicians are regarded as the “fathers” of Red Dirt, among them, Jimmy LaFave, the late Bob Childers, and Tom Skinner. Skinner’s new eponymously-titled album is a rare occasion for his fans to hear a legendary figure who doesn’t spend much time in the studio but lives for the stage.
Skinner’s possible shot at a big-time career came 25 years ago when he was the bass player in a band backing a young singer named Garth Brooks. Skinner was part of the crew that accompanied Brooks to Nashville, where Brooks eventually figured out how to open doors that made him one of the most successful musical artists in history. By the time Brooks was hitting the charts, though, Skinner had packed it in and gone back to Oklahoma.
“I was the only one in the band with a kid, and it’s already enough of a struggle when you first go to Nashville,” Skinner says. “I wasn’t really playing much music there and all I was doing was working a lot, so eventually we went home. I really liked Nashville, but looking back I believe I made the right decision because I’ve gotten to play a lot of great music with a lot of great people.”
Brooks, however, hasn’t forgotten his former bandmate. In the press kit for Tom Skinner, Skinner’s new release on 598 Recordings, Brooks himself offers the following quote:
“I know Tom Skinner well enough to say that making a record of his original recordings was not something he was easily talked into doing and hats off to McClure for getting it done. Tom is very private with his music because the stuff that he writes is extremely personal. This is a very, VERY special gift from Tom to all of his fans…of which I am one.”
The “McClure” Brooks speaks of is producer Mike McClure, himself a well-known Red Dirt musician and the leader of a band Skinner plays bass for, among his other endeavors. Skinner says he and Brooks haven’t talked a lot over the years, but he’s humbled by Brooks’ endorsement.
“The power of Garth Brooks’ name definitely isn’t lost on me,” Skinner says. “I’m so appreciative of the nice things he said, and I’m flattered that he’s still a fan of mine.”
Skinner, an inductee into the Oklahoma Music Awards Red Dirt Hall of Fame, has made several albums, but Tom Skinner is his first new release in eight years. While Brooks alludes to Skinner’s original music, he isn’t the sole writer on the album, as Skinner also covers the likes of Hoyt Axton and Reverend Gary Davis, and noted Red Dirt writers like McClure, Randy Pease and Larry Spears.
“I think maybe I get more credit as a writer than I deserve,” Skinner says. “I know so many great songwriters, and I want to do the best material I can get my hands on, and a lot of the time those are friends of mine’s songs.” Skinner is indeed respected in his homeland as a writer though, with songs having been cut by legendary Red Dirt acts like the Great Divide and Stoney LaRue. And Cody Canada and the Departed, featuring the former Cross Canadian Ragweed frontman, included three of Skinner’s songs on their debut album This Is Indian Land.
Red Dirt music is as much of a movement or an attitude as anything, Skinner explains. “Red Dirt is really more of a brotherhood and a community thing than it is necessarily a style,” he says. “For instance, Jason Boland doesn’t sound anything like Cody Canada, but the first time I saw them both they were playing together. Red Dirt incorporates a lot of things – Gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, bluegrass … but some of us older guys have a little bit more of the folk thing in us than the younger guys do.” That “folk thing” comes from the influence of folk icon Woody Guthrie, whose life and music are celebrated each year at WoodyFest in Guthrie’s home town of Okemah, Oklahoma.
Besides playing bass for McClure, Skinner also plays solo, sometimes in a duo, and plays weekly shows in Tulsa with an amalgamation called the Wednesday Night Science Project that pretty much involves whatever Red Dirt artists are in Tulsa that night. “I stay plenty busy with everything I’m doing,” he says. “I play a lot in Oklahoma, Texas, there are a lot of places to play around here. But I even get up into Wisconsin, Minneapolis… I’m headed to Minneapolis next week in fact.”
Even though Skinner doesn’t record much, enough people believe in him that he says he needs to start working on another album. “McClure kinda built the fire underneath me and told me I have to do this,” he says. “I have plenty of songs and hope to do another album soon.”
In the end, Skinner doesn’t really consider himself to be a guy who played a major role in creating a musical movement. “Guys like me and Bob Childers, we just wanted to play music,” he says. “We wanted to be Gram Parsons or Bob Dylan or John Prine. We weren’t really trying to start anything, we all just wanted to play music that we loved.”