Tom Skinner: A Forefather of Red Dirt Music


Tom Skinner's name is synonymous with Red Dirt music, a genre deeply rooted in the rich musical heritage of Stillwater, Oklahoma. Born on January 8, 1954, Skinner's life and musical journey reflect the evolution of Red Dirt, blending elements of blues, rock, country, gospel, and folk. His influence on the genre was profound. He was among the musicians who frequented 'The Farm' on the outskirts of Stillwater, where nearly continuous jam sessions in the 1980s and 1990s gave birth to the Red Dirt music movement. In a 2012 interview with American Songwriter Magazine, Skinner explained that Red Dirt is less a specific style and more a community—a fusion of various musical genres united by a shared passion. "Red Dirt incorporates a lot of things – Gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, bluegrass … but some of us older guys have a little bit more of the folk thing in us than the younger guys do.”


Tom Skinner
Tom Skinner Tom Skinner (center) with Jeff Parker (left) and Don Morris (right) made up a band named Farmboy.


Musical Beginnings

Though born in California, Skinner was raised in Bristow, Oklahoma, after his family relocated. His early exposure to music came from singing in the church choir, which laid the foundation for his future endeavors. In high school, Skinner's passion for music was evident as he performed in a rock band called Tommy Delite and The Flames. After serving in the military, Skinner attended Oklahoma State University in Stillwater during the early 1980s. It was during his time at OSU that Skinner, along with his brothers, began playing at various venues on The Strip – Stillwater’s iconic nightlife district – helping to form a thriving musical community. 

During these years, Skinner frequently spent time at The Farm, the legendary hangout known for its around-the-clock jam sessions that sparked the Red Dirt movement. Situated on about 150 acres on the outskirts of Stillwater, The Farm attracted musicians from far and wide who would camp on the grounds or stay in the old farmhouse to collaborate, learn from each other, and enjoy the music. When the bars in Stillwater closed, the cry of "Party at the Farm!" would go up, drawing music enthusiasts to the farmhouse to listen to Bob Childers, Jimmy LaFave, The Red Dirt Rangers, Cody Canada, Skinner, and many others.


Bob Childers and Tom Skinner
Tom Skinner and Bob Childers Bob Childers and Tom Skinner performing together on stage.


Career Highlights and Collaborations

Throughout his career, Skinner collaborated with numerous musicians, helping to shape the Red Dirt sound. He made a name for himself playing both bass and guitar and formed The Skinner Brothers Band with his siblings, Mike and Craig. The Skinner Brothers often performed at Willie’s Saloon in Stillwater where a young Garth Brooks frequented the open mic nights. John Cooper, a member of the iconic Red Dirt Rangers, saw some of these early Skinner gigs at Willie’s and recalled, “I still remember seeing them for the very first time at Willies … and two things I noticed: how good it was and how good a time they were having, especially Tom. He was totally in his element. They made music like I never heard it before. The harmony singing was really what got me. Those brothers’ harmonies were so good and so tight, it was just astounding to see that happen.”


Santa Fe Band with Tom Skinner and Garth Brooks
Santa Fe Band Garth Brooks and Tom Skinner in center


The Skinner Brothers later became the nucleus for Garth Brooks’ band, Santa Fe, in which Tom played bass guitar.  Although Tom briefly moved to Nashville to play with Garth Brooks, he soon returned to Oklahoma, preferring to make music closer to home. “I really liked Nashville, but looking back I believe I made the right decision because I’ve gotten to play a lot of great music with a lot of great people.”


Santa Fe Band with Tom Skinner and Garth Brooks
Santa Fe Band Tom Skinner (front, right), Skinner brothers and Garth Brooks (center).


In 1996 Skinner began a relationship with Binky Records, a record label working with other Red Dirt artists like Bob Childers. He released his first album, “Times Have Changed,” on the label in 1996 and followed that up with “Acoustic Skinner” in 1998. His songs were covered by various Red Dirt luminaries, including Stoney LaRue, The Red Dirt Rangers, The Great Divide, Mike McClure and Cody Canada and The Departed. One of the songs on his first album, “Water Your Own Yard,” was recorded, but not released, by Lynyrd Skynyrd. His songwriting earned him the reputation of being a "songwriter's songwriter," respected by peers and fans alike.
Skinner's First Two Album Covers
Skinner's First Two Albums Covers of "Times Have Changed" and "Acoustic Skinner"


He eventually played in the Mike McClure Band for a time where he made a connection that would prove important when McClure convinced him to record a final album years later. The album was recorded at McClure’s own studio and released to critical acclaim in 2012. McClure himself said that Skinner “had more influence on what I do musically than anyone. He taught me how to be a musician.” And his former bandmate, Garth Brooks, said, “This is a very, VERY special gift from Tom to all of his fans…of which I am one.”


Tom Skinner with the Mike McClure Band at the Blue Door in 2012
Mike McClure Band Skinner (right) performing with the Mike McClure Band in 2012


Legacy and Induction into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame

Tom Skinner's contributions to Red Dirt music were recognized with his induction into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in March 2015, just a few months before his passing on July 12, 2015.


Tom Skinner
Tom Skinner


Beginning in 2016, the Red Dirt Relief Fund organization began hosting an annual SkinnerFest in Tulsa to honor Tom Skinner and his impact on the music industry in Oklahoma. By 2023 the event had grown to hosting over 500 fans gathered to hear more than 60 musicians in two venues in October and raising over $27,000 to aid Oklahoma musicians who find themselves with unavoidable emergencies. 


SkinnerFest 2023 Logo
SkinnerFest 2023 Logo



SkinnerFest Set Featuring the Red Dirt Rangers
SkinnerFest Set SkinnerFest set featuring the Red Dirt Rangers


Tom Skinner's legacy is not defined by albums or awards but by his profound love for music and his impact on the Red Dirt community. As he once said, “We weren’t really trying to start anything; we all just wanted to play music that we loved.” His influence continues to resonate through the countless musicians and fans who celebrate the rich tapestry of Red Dirt music, a genre that owes much to his vision and passion.

Skinner’s life and music contributed to the spirit of Red Dirt, the vibrant musical movement that was born here in Stillwater, Oklahoma.