“…with Bob (Dylan) it was never A, B, C, D, and you get to E and F. Because it’s just like a total thing at once. It was the gestalt of the whole thing and you’re just in it. It’s hard to step back and even watch it happen and learn something because you’re just part of the experience. That’s a great thing.”
Tulsa’s own Steve Ripley, creator of “The Tractors,” collaborator with Bob Dylan, and owner of Leon Russell’s “Church Studio” was interviewed for “Voices of Oklahoma” on April 17th, 2018. “Voices of Oklahoma” is an oral history project put together by the renowned radio personality John Erling, in which “voices and stories of famous Oklahomans and ordinary citizens are captured forever in their own words.”
Ripley is a joy to listen to, his gravelly baritone refusing to pass up on any appeal to humility, repeatedly referring to himself as an “Okie farm boy,” all while telling stories about drinking tea with George Harrison and playing on Letterman.
In the interview, Ripley focuses on the idea of verisimilitude, a term he had never heard before his best friend began studying literature at OSU. In a songwriting context, Ripley understands it to mean a sort of authenticity in word choice that creates an image much stronger than more generic counterparts. “Instead of, ‘We went down the highway,’” he says, “make it real somehow. ‘I went down Highway 51.’” Of course the same methodology also works with “Highway 61.”
After much of his own songwriting, “doing this verisimilitude to death” throughout his successful career with “The Tractors,” he began playing with Bob Dylan in 1981, during his Shot of Love tour and album cycle, in a sweet spot of sorts: the gospel band was still being employed in full, but Dylan was no longer refusing to mine his older catalogue, meaning that a given set theoretically could contain both “Covenant Woman” and “Just Like a Woman,” “I Want You” and “I Believe in You.”
Ripley describes Dylan himself as “just a regular guy.” Albeit a regular guy who Ripley admits to his special classification of personal genius alongside Leon Russell and few others: “I call it the crack in the cosmos.” He recalls Dylan simultaneously writing a new song while listening and evaluating one just laid down on tape: “…the genius just comes out of nowhere. He’s sitting and playing at the piano and singing and he changes the words.”
Ripley talks at some length about Dylan’s surprising conversion to Christianity and links it, in part, to the growing influence of Keith Green, the impassioned revivalist song-writer who tragically died in a plane accident in 1982. Comparing songs from both, the parallel is difficult to refute: the impending doom in “Slow Train Coming” is also reflected in songs like “The Sheep and the Goats,” whereas the humor and energy employed in “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” also appears in Green’s “So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt.”
Describing himself as a “really religious fanatic kind of guy,” Ripley doesn’t think of Dylan’s conversion as a temporary phase, and he seems to contrast his experience with that of the megachurch crowd, who, amusingly, “believe[s] Jesus was a white guy from America.”
“I think he loved me,” Ripley said of Dylan. “I believe that he did. And I believe part of what he loved on the gig is that, you know, you either choke or you swing when you get up to bat, and I have choked at times. 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.”
Ripley also take a moment in the hour-long interview to reflect on Dylan’s latest albums, a series that covers songs made famous by crooners like Frank Sinatra, Rudy Vallee, and Tony Bennett. The guitarist who once jammed to heavy rock beats alongside Dylan is struck by how much fidelity the Nobel winner is bringing to the old standards. After attending a show in Tulsa, Ripley received an invitation to meet with Dylan one-on-one. They mostly talked about “that regular kind of folk stuff” with the exception of one memorable and telling quip from Dylan: “Well, we’re just out here serving these songs.” They say you gotta serve somebody.
Listen to the interview in full at “Voices of Oklahoma” online, by following the link below: