Steve Ripley, leader of the country rock band The Tractors, died Thursday (Jan. 3) at his home in Pawnee, Okla. at the age of 69, surrounded by his family. He had been suffering from cancer.
In addition to his work as a recording artist, Ripley was also a songwriter, producer, engineer, studio owner, radio host and inventor of the “stereo guitar” favored by such fellow musicians as Eddie Van Halen, Ry Cooder and Dweezil Zappa.
Owner of The Church Studio in Tulsa for 19 years, Ripley additionally distinguished himself by playing guitar with Bob Dylan and producing and/or engineering projects for Leon Russell, J. J, Cale, Roy Clark, Johnnie Lee Wills, and many others.
Born Paul Steven Ripley on Jan. 1, 1950, he played in bands from junior high through college and continued to work nearly full time as a musician while attending Oklahoma State University, where he earned a degree in communications. He opened his first studio, Stillwater Sound, in the early 1970s.
After a stint writing songs in Nashville, Ripley landed a job as a live sound engineer for music legend Leon Russell. He then moved back to Oklahoma in the late 1970s, to work for the Jim Halsey Company and produce critically acclaimed records for the likes of Roy Clark, Gatemouth Brown and Johnnie Lee Wills. From there, he moved to Burbank, Calif. to work as a studio engineer for Leon Russell’s Paradise Records,” aiding Russell on many projects including those by J.J. Cale and New Grass Revival. He also played on two J.J. Cale records.
During this time, Ripley had the opportunity to play for one of his biggest musical heroes, Bob Dylan. Thanks to his friend, drummer Jim Keltner, he found himself playing guitar on the Dylan album Shot Of Love and jetting off on a world tour playing in Dylan’s band as well. In a 2009 interview for Rolling Stone, Dylan recalled Ripley as one of his favorite guitar bandmates.
Another friendship that emerged from Ripley’s time in California was with fabled guitarist Eddie Van Halen, with whom he collaborated on his stereo guitar design and started the company Ripley Guitars. The two forged what became a lifelong friendship and mutual love that lasted until Ripley’s final days.
In 1987, the Ripley family moved back to Tulsa, and he acquired The Church recording studio, which Leon Russell owned in the 1970s. This would become his second home and the hub for his larger body of creative work—including seven albums for The Tractors and a solo album, Ripley. The latter was a departure from the “Oklahoma Boogie” stylings and leaned more toward roots Americana.
In 1994, The Tractors released their first self- titled album for Arista Records’ country division. For Ripley, the project was the culmination of a quest to blend his earliest influences — from the western swing of Bob Wills and traditional country stylings of Hank Williams to the emergence of Chuck Berry and what Ripley called “the Elvis thing.” Record company expectations for this unique hybrid were low, but The Tractors’ debut album eventually went double-platinum. The album also garnered two Grammy nominations and won CMT Video of the Year for the single, “Baby Likes to Rock It.”
Between 1994 and 1999, The Tractors charted eight singles on Arista, all written or co-written by Ripley.
In 2005, Ripley sold both the studio and his Tulsa home and moved back to the Pawnee County farm where he was raised, quickly expanding it beyond the small farmhouse to a compound with a guitar shop and recording studio. This became the new Ripley headquarters from which he hosted his Oklahoma Rock & Roll radio show for the Oklahoma Historical Society. He continued recording music, including a collaboration with the Red Dirt Rangers titled Ripley and the Rangers, and a full-length LP for the Red Dirt Rangers as well. Most notably and recently, he worked to preserve the musical legacy of his dear friend and mentor, Leon Russell.
In 2017, Ripley was given the opportunity to revisit two of the great passions of his life — his role as a band-leader and his love of all things Bob Dylan, when he was asked by the George Kaiser Family Foundation to create a live musical event celebrating the arrival of the Bob Dylan archives, which were acquired and relocated to Tulsa and are soon to be housed in the Bob Dylan Center.
Ripley is survived by his wife Charlene, his children, Elvis Ripley and Angelene Ripley Wright, son-in-law Jonny Wright, his grandson Mickey Wilder Ripley Wright, and brothers Scott Ripley and Bobby Ripley and their families.
The family will announce a memorial service later. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Red Dirt Relief Fund which provides a safety net of critical assistance to Red Dirt music people in times of need.