Steve Ripley, Bob Dylan Sideman and Tractors Leader, Dies
Steve Ripley, who fronted the country-rock band the Tractors and had a lengthy career as a guitarist, studio professional and radio host, died on Jan. 3 at his home in Pawnee, Okla.
He had turned 69 just two days earlier and had been suffering from cancer.
According to Tulsa World, a news release announcing his death included the message Ripley used at the end 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.”
Ripley was born in Idaho, but his family moved to Pawnee when he was a child. He was first into the western swing music of Bob Willis, and later gravitating toward rock 'n' roll, with Elvis Presley and the Beatles serving as his signposts. After graduating from Oklahoma State University with a degree in communications, he began recording at Gene Sullivan’s Hi Fi Studio in Oklahoma City, where J.J. Cale, Leon Russell and David Gates cut their teeth.
By the early '70s, Ripley had built his own studio, Stillwater Sound, and worked as a songwriter in Nashville as well as a studio engineer for Russell in California. In 1981, through another Oklahoman, drummer Jim Keltner, he wound up playing guitar on Bob Dylan's Shot of Love and its accompanying tour. Ripley later said he believed Dylan appreciated the spirit he brought, even when the notes weren't always there.
"I believe part of what he loved on the gig is that you either choke or you swing when you get up to bat, and I have choked at times," he recalled. "But I intellectually or consciously was not going to just cower or not do it. So when he pointed to me, I played. I’d turn up loud and play. I’m not a great musician, and I think part of what he loved was I was apt to make a mistake at any time.”
While in California, Ripley became friends with Eddie Van Halen, and created a "stereo guitar" for Kramer, which allowed the player to control the location of each string in the mix. Van Halen was often photographed with one.
“For more than 35 years I’ve been fortunate to call Steve Ripley one of my true friends,” Van Halen said. “Steve is many things. Part genius, part musician, part inventor and many other great things, but my favorite thing about Steve is the wonderful, kind, humble human being he is and always will be. I love Steve with all my heart and am proud to know him.”
Ripley returned to Tulsa in 1987, purchasing Russell's old Church Studio. While there, he formed the Tractors, which featured another veteran sideman, drummer Jamie Oldaker. They struck double platinum with their 1994 self-titled debut on the strength of the Top 10 Country hit "Baby Likes to Rock It," and earned two Grammy nominations. The group recorded seven records, including a 1995 Christmas disc, with 2009's Trade Union being the last.
The guitarist sold the studio in 2005 and returned to Pawnee, where he was raised, building a guitar shop and studio on its premises. From there, he hosted a radio show for the Oklahoma Historical Society that explored the state's musical history.
Ripley is survived by Charlene, his wife of 42 years, their two children, a grandson and two brothers.