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Oklahoma Musician, Inventor Steve Ripley Dead At 69

Phil Clarkin
Steve Ripley

Steve Ripley, guitarist, inventor and leader of the country rock group The Tractors, died Thursday evening at his Pawnee County home after a year-long battle with cancer. He was 69.

Ripley played in several bands during high school and continued to do so as a student at Oklahoma State University. He opened his own recording studio, Stillwater Sound, in the early 1970s.

In 1974, Ripley's band Moses released the album, Moses Live, under the label name Red Dirt Records. The album's back cover describes the band's combination of country and rock and roll as Red Dirt, further expounding on it as "a hue of funk, a shade of sound, a basic spirit." Many musicians and historians point to it as the first album in the genre of Red Dirt.

He would go on to be a live engineer and studio engineer, contributing to records by J.J. Cale and Leon Russell & New Grass Revival. He would also produce several records, including Johnnie Lee Wills' Reunion (1978) and Roy Clark and Gatemouth Brown's Makin' Music (1979).

Ripley played guitar on Bob Dylan's 1981 rock and gospel album Shot of Love and joined Dylan on his subsequent world tour.

He was also an inventor, designing the Ripley Stereo guitar. The guitar, which allowed stereo panning of each individual string, was most famously used by Eddie Van Halen. You can hear the guitar on Van Halen's song "Top Jimmy."

Ripley's guitars have also been played by Steve Vai, Ry Cooder, Dweezil Zappa and Jimmy Buffett.

He owned the legendary Church Studio in Tulsa for nearly two decades. Converted into a full functioning studio by Leon Russell in the 1970s, Church Studio saw the likes of Tom Petty, Michael Bolton, The GAP Band, Kansas, Freddie King and more record inside its walls. Under Ripley's ownership, he recorded seven albums with his band The Tractors and one solo album. He also collaborated on recordings with Red Dirt Rangers, Hanson, Chainsaw Kittens, Carlton Pearson and more.

With Ripley as their bandleader, The Tractors released seven albums over 15 years and were nominated for two Grammys. The band made their mark with their self-titled album in 1994, which would become the fastest-selling country debut of that year.

In more recent years, Ripley served as a music archivist for the Oklahoma Historical Society, preserving and digitizing the audio archives of Leon Russell and Bob Wills. He also hosted the radio series Oklahoma Rock & Roll, which aired on KOSU and other public radio stations in 2009.

View this post on Instagram So heartbroken saying goodbye to dear friend #SteveRipley fellow okie musician, leader of #TheTractors, red dirt pioneer, mentor, mad scientist, great Dad and trusted friend. This pic captures a treasured moment where @hanson shared the stage with Steve (center) and fellow legend and friend #LeonRussell back in 2005. So, proud to know this good man, can only imagine the joyful sound in Heaven tonight. We love you Steve and miss you greatly. May the final concert last forever. A post shared by @ taylorhanson on Jan 4, 2019 at 3:47pm PST

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Ryan LaCroix is the Director of Content and Audience Development for KOSU.
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