Steve Ripley, leader of Grammy-nominated country-rock band the Tractors, died Thursday at his home in Pawnee, Oklahoma, following a battle with cancer. He was 69.
With Ripley as frontman, the Tractors scored their biggest hit with their rollicking debut single, “Baby Likes to Rock It,” in 1994, attracting critical attention and rapidly earning a platinum disc for their self-titled debut. While other releases for the group didn’t fare as well, Ripley would continue as a recording artist, songwriter, producer, engineer, radio host (of the popular Oklahoma Rock & Roll series) and the inventor of the “stereo guitar,” utilized by fellow musicians including Eddie Van Halen, Ry Cooder and Dweezil Zappa. Ripley also owned Tulsa’s Church Studio for 19 years, and played guitar with Bob Dylan, as well as producing and/or engineering projects for Leon Russell, J.J. Cale, Roy Clark and Johnnie Lee Wills.
Ripley played in bands from junior high through college, working nearly full-time as a musician while attending Oklahoma State University, where he earned a degree in communications. In the Sixties, he recorded in Gene Sullivan’s Hi Fi Studio in Oklahoma City, the same venue where Tulsans J.J. Cale, Leon Russell and David Gates made some of their first recordings. He opened his first studio, Stillwater Sound, in the early Seventies. Ripley was an early purveyor of the region’s musical subgenre known as Red Dirt and an inductee into the Oklahoma Red Dirt Hall of Fame.
The Tractors’ 1994 self-titled debut, a deft blend of country, western swing and early rock & roll, would eventually sell more than two million copies, earning two Grammy nominations and CMA Music Video of the Year honors for “Baby Likes to Rock It.”
“Knowing and working with Steve was a pleasure,” said Isaac Hanson of Tulsa-based pop trio Hanson in a statement. “Whether we were recording, mixing or simply sharing our love for great music, Steve was a wealth of knowledge and a source of encouragement. Steve will always be to me, to all of us, a beloved friend, and an immense musical talent gone too soon.”
In 2017, Ripley served as band leader for “On a Night Like This,” a live musical event celebrating the relocation of the Bob Dylan archives to Tulsa, which are soon to be housed in the Bob Dylan Center there. Featuring dozens of Oklahoma musicians, as well as Nashville’s McCrary Sisters — whose Regina McCrary was once a tourmate of Ripley’s — the concert proved to be Ripley’s final live performance.