Folk and Red Dirt music fans from around the country will make their annual trek to Okemah this week for the 25th annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. The festival begins tonight and ends on Sunday afternoon.
One band set to take the stage will bring a mainstay spirit of Red Dirt music that is at the core of the festival’s 25-year run.
An all-star group of Oklahoma musicians, dubbed Tom Skinner’s Science Project, is carrying on the legacy of Oklahoma Music Hall of Famer Tom Skinner, the Red Dirt music pioneer who was a prominent performer on WoodyFest stages until his death in 2015.
The band, led by Skinner’s longtime musical partner Don Morris, will release its first album on Friday. Titled First Set, the album is a compilation of new music and Skinner songs that blend the sounds of Americana, rock and roll, blues and country into what has become known as Red Dirt music.
Tom Skinner’s Science Project is set to debut some of the album’s songs at 4 p.m. Friday on the arbor stage beneath the parachute awning in the Rocky Road Tavern’s backyard in downtown Okemah — the most unique of the festival’s four stages where more than 60 individual musicians and bands will perform during the four-day event.
“The festival has been great for Red Dirt people. Tom was part of it early on,” said Morris, who has performed at 24 of the 25 WoodyFests, many of those times playing guitar and bass with Skinner.
This year’s WoodyFest silver jubilee will also feature Woody Guthrie’s own musical family: grandchildren Annie Guthrie, Cathy Guthrie and Sarah Lee Guthrie, along with Cole Rotante, who will perform with his band Cole Quest and the City Pickers, and his great-grandchildren Krishna and Serena Guthrie.
Among the other performers will be nationally known folk musicians who have been regulars of the festival: David Amram, Joel Rafael, Tom Paxton and Ellis Paul. Country singer Brennen Leigh, who made her WoodyFest debut last year, returns, as well as Terlingua, Texas’ own Butch Hancock. Local favorites Mike McClure, Mallory Eagle, Monica Taylor & Her Red Dirt Ramblers will also perform.
The “Science Project” began two decades ago in a Stillwater campus-area bar when Skinner would let anyone with a guitar join him on stage, not knowing whether the experiment would prove to be good or not.
“Maybe he wanted some help, since he had a weekly gig, and he loved to hear other people play,” said Brad James, the band’s lead guitarist. “The science part came about when he said, ‘Let’s experiment with letting somebody different come on every week.’ He had the core band and then someone new would join in. The name ‘Science Project’ came about from Tom’s sense of humor.”
James said Skinner was the first guy to let him onstage at Stillwater’s Stonewall Tavern.
Having guest performers join them became a Wednesday night tradition for Skinner’s band. In later years, the shows moved to Tulsa, where Skinner hosted friends and new singer-songwriters to perform.
Band members Morris, James, Rick Gomez (drums) and Dylan Layton (bass) now carry on that Skinner legacy at Tulsa’s The Colony club on south Harvard Avenue the first and third Wednesdays of the month.
The band’s new album happened after their Wednesday night gig was shut down by the pandemic.
“We had been playing every Wednesday night for five and half years after Tom passed,” James said. “But then COVID came and we all learned how to adapt to sitting on our couch and not getting out. But in early fall of 2020, Dylan Layton said, ‘Since we’re sitting around and can’t gig, why don’t we record an album?’”
The album playlist consists of 11 new songs, including tunes written by Morris, James and Gomez, and three of Skinner’s songs: Here Comes the Rain Again, Waiting on a Train and Headed South.
Special guests John Fullbright, Roger Ray and Gene Williams also provided musical accompaniment. Pre-orders of the album are available online.
‘It is definitely a family’
WoodyFest has opened the door to musical genres beyond folk. For example, the electric funk and rhythm and blues of Tulsa’s Branjae has become a fan favorite.
But the festival has a special meaning for Red Dirt players, whose music has been facilitated by the annual Okemah event and by music venues catering to the style, such as Greg Johnson’s Blue Door listening room in Oklahoma City.
There is a kindred link between the stories told in Red Dirt songs and the real-life stories told by Woody Guthrie’s music.
Red Dirt music incorporates the genres of rock and roll, gospel, bluegrass, blues and country into a mix that grew from the Oklahoma and Texas region.
But Skinner once told an interviewer that Red Dirt is more about brotherhood and community than any style of music. That is a message Tom Skinner’s Science Project carries on.
“It is definitely a family. People treat it like family. And on Wednesday night, it is like our prayer meeting,” Morris said.
That is no more evident than at WoodyFest, where performers can be seen off stage reminiscing with past band members about long-ago touring experiences and getting caught up on their current family lives.
Coincidentally, WoodyFest also begins on a Wednesday night, starting with a 7 p.m. show at Okemah’s Crystal Theatre honoring the songs of two other giants in the Red Dirt world, Bob Childers and Jimmy LaFave. Childers died in 2008. LaFave passed in 2017.
The opening show features Norman’s singer songwriter Jared Deck and 18 other musicians, including the Red Dirt Rangers, Greg Jacobs and Nellie Clay.
Morris said if Skinner were alive today, he would be proud that his musical legacy is being carried on.
“Of course, he might not say much. He would just grab a guitar and come up and start playing,” Morris said.