The jolly bearded man sharing the stage Friday night at the Wormy Dog Saloon won’t be Santa Claus. But for fans of Oklahoma’s red dirt music, Tom Skinner recently delivered a joy-inducing gift.
You can take Garth Brooks’ word for it.
“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,” says the country music megastar in the press kit for Skinner’s self-titled album, released last month on upstart Oklahoma-based label 598 Recordings.
An elder statesman of the red dirt music community, the Bristow native counts Brooks among his former bandmates and the aforementioned Mike McClure among his current cohorts. The Mike McClure Band, which features Skinner on bass and vocals, will play Friday night at the Wormy Dog.
Best known for fronting the seminal band The Great Divide, McClure also co-owns 598 Recordings and says Skinner “had more influence on what I do musically than anyone. He taught me how to be a musician.”
It’s appropriate, then, that McClure got to teach Skinner the fun way to make a record.
“Once I recorded a few records and it wasn’t near as much fun as I thought it would be, I just sort of said ‘OK, I’m just gonna play live,’” said Skinner, who last recorded a trio of albums a decade or so ago for Binky Records.
“I always thought, well, I need to record one more at least before I die because I wanted to have a good one,” he added with a laugh. “Mac was kind of after me to do one, and when he got this record label thing going, that just kind of cinched it for me. It just kind of made me do it. And I’m really glad he did, actually, ’cause I enjoyed working on this one. And I like it. I can listen to it without cringing up.”
The Oklahoma State University alumnus, 58, typically likens playing a live gig to the thrill of walking a high wire and working in a studio to the sterility of visiting a hospital. Working with McClure, who coproduced the album with the esteemed Joe Hardy (Steve Earle, Georgia Satellites, ZZ Top), set Skinner at ease, as did recording in his pal’s basement studio, dubbed “The Boohatch.”
“It wasn’t like any other studio I’ve been in before,” Skinner said with a laugh. “It’s kind of like a little museum/playhouse in there. Say for instance you’re working on a song and it’s not quite happening, man, take a break and play with something in there. Put a wig on. Put a hat on. You know, he’s got all kinds of crazy toys down there. You just distract yourself until you feel like you’re ready ... and step up to the mike and go for it again.”
Along with his own songs, Skinner’s eponymous album features covers of fellow Oklahoma scribes, including Hoyt Axton’s “Gypsy Moth,” Randy Pease’s “I Love This Game” and Larry Spears’ “My Favorite Cup.” The Tulsa resident said he wrote a couple of new songs, but he mostly worked from a master list of 30 tunes and no specific agenda.
“A couple of days actually we were in there and I didn’t even bring my list with me. I’d left it somewhere else and I would just ... play whatever I felt like. And that’s the way I do my live shows; that’s the way I’ve done everything.”
In addition to touring with the Mike McClure Band, Skinner has been conducting his Wednesday Science Project for about 12 years. While the Tulsa-based band has moved its weekly gig around from time to time, for the past year, he and his friends have been playing at The Colony.
Also, Cody Canada & The Departed, the Red Dirt Rangers and Stoney LaRue are among the like-minded musicians who have covered Skinner’s songs and cited him as an influence.
“I really do appreciate the way those younger guys treat me ‘cause they treat me good, with respect. But it’s sort of baffling, too, because I wasn’t inventing anything,” Skinner said. “I just wanted to be John Prine or Graham Parsons real bad, you know, that’s all I was doing was imitating those guys and playing and having a blast. It wasn’t like I was in a lab making any secret thing up.”
While Skinner may be humble about his songwriting and influence, Red Dirt Rangers singer/mandolin player John Cooper lavishly praised both.
“Hey, man, Garth Brooks wanted to be in Tom Skinner’s band just like we all did. He was just persistent enough to keep at him until Tom finally said OK,” Cooper said. “You know, we all wanted to be Tom Skinner. The first time I saw Tom ... I was just like ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I want to do that with those guys.’ And I know Garth felt the same way — we all did.”