Singer-songwriter and Oklahoma Music Hall of Famer Tom Skinner, a member of Garth Brooks’ early band, is hailed as a founding father of the Red Dirt music movement. Before passing away in 2015, his final wish was that his musical collaborators carry on the weekly Wednesday Night showcases he founded – a regular event known for its diverse group of musicians and unique live experience. Multi-instrumentalist and Skinner’s longtime musical partner Don Morris not only honored that wish, but gathered a distinguished cast of Oklahoma musicians to truly manifest this dream.
With a name that celebrates their late dear friend, Tom Skinner’s Science Project are releasing their debut album First Set today via Horton Records. And with gentle vocals and country steel effects falling elegantly into resonant blues guitar, The LP is a sonic panorama of the different styles of roots music. Morris is joined by guitarist Brad James (Medicine Show, Stoney LaRue, Steve Pryor, Brandon Jenkins), drummer Rick Gomez (Reba McIntyre, Roy Clark, Red Dirt Rangers, Jana Jae, Okie Soul, Tweed) and bassist Dylan Layton (Whirligig, Steve Pryor, Brandon Jenkins). First Set includes contributions from Tom Skinner himself, Gene Williams, and Brandon Jenkins, and others.
The quartet put their weekly sessions at Tulsa, OK rock club The Colony on hold due to the pandemic, so they set out to record initial sessions at Fellowship Hall Sound’s studio in Little Rock, AR. They recorded additional sessions at Steve Ripley’s Farm Studio near Pawnee, OK. Musicians John Fullbright, Andrea Kyle, Roger Ray, Kristin Ruyle, and Science Project Band alum Gene Williams were called upon to add contributions to this record as well. First Set, like every Wednesday night performance, is very much “in the spirit of Tom” as well as other departed Oklahoma peers.
Can you discuss origins of the collaborations and the Wednesday night gigs?
Dylan Layton – Don Morris is probably best to answer this question, as he and Tom founded what became the Science Project Band. Personally, I had heard Tom’s name around town and seen him play a few times well before I became part of the band. When I came to the band Don Morris and I had a weekly duo gig. Don began to ask me to fill in with the Science Project Band on either guitar or bass when a regular member had to miss a gig due to illness or conflict. After a few years of this I was asked to join the band permanently around the time of Tom’s passing in 2015.
Brad James- Tom was the very first guy to let me get up on stage and play and sing a song. It was about ’86 at Stonewall Tavern just across the street from the Oklahoma State campus in Stillwater, Oklahoma. I didn’t begin to realize it until years later, but he has done this for so many aspiring pickers.
His kindness and generosity has influenced so many people. By the early ’90s I had played on sessions for Tom’s first album, Times Have Changed, and he would sit in with our band Medicine Show. After Science Project started I played a few times as a guest, or just sitting in, but in about ’04 Gene Williams needed to take a sabbatical from the guitar slot to work on his Doctorate. After that I played in Tom’s Science Project Band for several years.
Don Morris – Tom and I met and played at the River’s Edge in Tulsa in 1996. The Science Project Band officially started in November 1999 at the Blue Rose Café with Wes Gasaway on fiddle.
I think “Sleeping Dogs” is a particularly wise choice for an opener: the melody, instrumentation, and vocals. The memory of Tom Skinner can be felt immediately. What are your thoughts on that?
DL – “Sleeping Dogs” as the opener track was Brad’s idea. And yes, the way the song tells the story of a musician who is obviously a “lifer” totally fits with the Tom Skinner vibe. Tom was performing whenever he was able right up until the time of his passing. My personal favorite track is “Love Revolution” – a perfect sentiment for these troubled times and immediately accessible. It’s also the most likely to the ladies out on the dance floor.
DM – “Sleeping Dogs” was written by Terry “Buffalo” Ware and Greg Standridge. I loved that song the first time I heard it.
Another standout track for me is “Here Comes The Rain.” Do you have favorites on the album, and if so what do they mean to you?
BJ – I just really love to play “Sleeping Dogs” and love the take we got on it. It is one of only two minor key tunes on the album. Sequencing was very important to us, to have good storytelling flow to the album, so that seemed to find its home as the opener.
I really get moved when I hear “Here Comes the Rain Again,” and really appreciate that you spotted this deeper album cut.
I spent several years living in the Netherlands as a kid, so all this imagery is very imprinted. The song “Waiting on a Train” was also written by Tom, Don, Gene, et.al. on one of the Science tours in the Netherlands.
DM – “Here Comes the Rain Again” was written while on tour in Europe and is a very special memory.
If not for the pandemic, would you have even thought about going into the studio for this project?
BJ– I agree with Dylan about the album being recorded during the pandemic. It was November of 2020. So, no vaccinations yet. We traveled to Little Rock separately. Masked and distanced during the recording. It was a tough time, but as Dylan said, we couldn’t just sit around anymore. We did our pre-production in my driveway.
What was the Horton Records experience like?
DL – I do not think this record would have been made if not for the pandemic break. Each member of the Science Project Band also plays with other groups and getting everyone together without a full stop on all gigs might have been impossible. I remember the night I called Brad and suggested we make a record. I just felt like I couldn’t sit around and do nothing anymore and I happened to have some gig money saved up. It didn’t take any convincing to get all the band members on board.
As the Treasurer of Horton Records (a non profit record company with no paid positions that helps Oklahoma artists) it was interesting and educational to be involved in a project from the producer perspective. Brian Horton does so much for the Oklahoma music community and you really see it when you’re involved to this degree.
BJ – Horton Records is a non-profit that Brian puts an amazing amount of time and effort into to help out Oklahoma musicians. I had released an album, Brad James Band At Fellowship Hall, in 2019 on Horton Records (with Maggie at MixTape Media as publicist) and was very pleased to have the opportunity to work with them both again.
It is so beautiful to me the concerted effort to fulfill his last wishes and carry on in the way that you are, in his name. With that said, how are you feeling about the final product? Musically, emotionally…
DL – Right from the start it seemed like it was meant to be. Once we got the ball rolling, the Universe just said “yes” at every turn. From booking studio time, to getting the guest musicians together, the artwork – yes to everything. The final product is every bit as good as we hoped it would be. I know Tom is proud. Right from the start it seemed like it was meant to be. Once we got the ball rolling, the Universe just said “yes” at every turn.
From booking studio time, to getting the guest musicians together, the artwork – yes to everything. The final product is every bit as good as we hoped it would be. I know Tom is proud.
BJ – Regarding the effort to carry on in the spirit of Tom Skinner, thank you for your kindness and sensitivity in understanding what this album and this band, as an entity and a legacy, means to us and so many others.
Musically and emotionally, it is a document that I am most pleased to have been a player, band member, co-producer on. I can’t wait for the world to hear the whole thing.
DM – I love the way the record turned out. Tom would be proud.
Have the weekly gigs resumed?
DL – Science Project Band is currently playing the first and third Wednesdays of each month at The Colony in Tulsa. The band will also play the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival on July 15th. The musicians involved are all experienced “play for the song” type of players.
Can you talk more about the musicians involved?
No member of the band is trying to show off or be a star. It’s all about the group dynamic and how to serve the song. Don Morris is a great songwriter, vocalist, rhythm guitarist, and is also a fantastic bass player. Rick Gomez has decades of drum experience and I’m pretty sure there isn’t a beat he doesn’t know. Brad James is just the type of super tasty for the song player the band needs. And I have a knack for learning songs quickly and remembering them (a skill you have to develop if you were on stage with Tom Skinner for any length of time).
BJ- One of my favorite things about the music on the album is that the core four-piece cut all the tracks live in the same room before any of the minimal overdubbing began.
Jason Weinheimer’s Fellowship Hall Sound is a great sounding, vibey room with great mics where you track through one of Tom Dowd’s consoles into a 2″ tape machine. Jason was totally willing to record Don’s vocal and acoustic guitar live while the band was playing so there was no “scratch vocal” or “scratch acoustic.” We were like, “Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan – they all cut live in the room with the band on lots of our favorite recordings.” That made any sweetening of the tracks when we got to Ripley Farm really smooth and easy.
The whole recording just went really well. Then we had Kevin Lively do the mastering and he knew just what we were looking for.
DM – Each band member brings their special talent to the table. It is a pleasure to be part of Science. The group of musicians we work with (core groups and guests) are much like a brother/sisterhood.
Lastly, how did Tom Skinner give shape and definition to Red Dirt Music?
DL – Tom Skinner is considered one of the Godfathers of Red Dirt Music. And although Tom was a great writer, singer, rhythm guitarist, and bass player, the mentoring, positive reinforcement, advice, and encouragement he gave to musicians cannot be discounted in his legacy. There’s a reason folks have Tom Skinner tattoos, and I think it’s just as much about the man as it is the music. I personally never heard him say a negative word about another musician (even when it might have been warranted), and his last words to me were compliments on my musicianship.
BJ- Tom was a big influence before the music that he played ever became known as Red Dirt. I noticed that he just loved to play and sing great songs. If we were standing around the fire at The Farm – maybe for days and nights on end, or playing a nightclub, or about to take the stage at a large festival, man, he just came to pick. His attitude was always of joy.
He was the funniest guy you’ve ever met, telling a mundane story. While he wrote an amazing list of profound songs, one of the most memorable things is that he seemed to make every song his own. If he had found some deep album cut of something that Gram Parsons had done, we might play it live forever before realizing it was not a Tom tune, because he just owned them. Or if he decided to do a solo acoustic version of Elton John’s “Levon,” well, we knew where it came from but how does a fella render a version so heavy with just a guitar and his voice?
His performance, his delivery, his humor were all things that we miss, but I think his true legacy is how much he selflessly influenced so many people without even trying to do anything but enjoy standing around picking guitar and singing songs (thousands of them).
DM – Tom was part of the beginning of Red Dirt Music in Stillwater, OK along with Bob Childers, Greg Jacobs, Chuck Dunlap, Jimmy LaFave, and others.