The door to room 1451 at St. John Medical Center in Tulsa was practically revolving. Tom Skinner’s hospital room was a veritable who’s who of Red Dirt musicians. Larry Spears, George and Linda Barton, Desi Roses-Clinton and Cody Clinton, Steve Ripley, Scott Evans, Wink Burcham, John Fullbright, and many others had gathered to pay their last respects to their mentor and guidepost, folk musician Tom Skinner. As exhausted visitors trickled out to catch a few hours of sleep at home, others filed in to replace them, armed with guitars and mandolins and stories. They laughed and reminisced and passed instruments across the bed of the man who had once introduced them on stages and performed alongside them. Skinner weakly joined Jacob Tovar in singing one of his favorite duets, Kitty Wells’ “Makin’ Believe.” “Can’t hold you close, when you’re not with me / You’re somebody’s love, you’ll never be mine…”
Jeremy Skinner, non-musician and sole blood son of Tom, mainly sat around quietly during his father’s final days. The doctor advised Jeremy that the music was keeping his father’s brain active though his body was ready to let go. When the music stopped, Skinner passed on.
Bristow native Tom Skinner died July 12, 2015, of congestive heart failure. He was a recent inductee into the Oklahoma Red Dirt Music Hall of Fame and was considered by many to be the founding father of Red Dirt music (a genre that can include rock, country, and folk with origins in Stillwater). As a full-time musician, he played with the Science Project, a band that frequently featured emerging musicians as guests, for close to 15 years. Jesse Aycock, lap steel player for Hard Working Americans, first played alongside Skinner 12 years ago. Singer-songwriter Erin O’Dowd credits him with constant encouragement, and Wink Burcham was Skinner’s neighbor. Burcham recalled late mornings on the front porch, picking guitars and talking about nothing and everything. Besides being a source of inspiration for Tulsa’s young performers, Tom Skinner was deeply admired by the likes of Cody Canada, the Red Dirt Rangers, and Garth Brooks, who was quoted in Trigger Magazine calling Skinner’s recordings “a very, very special gift from Tom to all of his fans… of which I am one.”
“He (Skinner) really loved music more than anything in the world, you know?” said his son, Jeremy. “He would hear a song and find his own personal truth in it, and that would be what came out when he played it.”
Skinner worked odd jobs, such as reading water meters in Bristow, before pursuing music as a full-time occupation. When asked how difficult it was for his father to support a child as a musician (his parents divorced when he was 15), Jeremy grinned. “Dad had this joke he loved to tell: ‘What’s the difference between a musician and a large pizza? A large pizza can feed a family of four.’ Money was very tight, but he made sure that I never went without.”
With mixed emotions, Jeremy remembers a life spent sharing his father with so many who saw him as their own sort of father.
“I struggled with that a lot in the build-up to him dying,” he nodded. “It was crazy—crazy in that hospital room. There were so many people in there all the time just paying respects and playing songs, and I remember thinking, ‘He’s my dad.’ But he’s not really just my dad. Because the type of relationship that he had with Wink (Burcham) or Jesse (Aycock) is a completely… like, I’ll never know that Tom Skinner. Because I’ll never be just a nervous kid with a guitar that has a song and my dad’s like, ‘Well, come on up here! Just do it! Just go!’ I imagine that’s what it’s like for the kid of any public performer. They’re yours in a very private, intimate way. He was living in people’s car stereos and phones and CD players, and they carry him with them all the time. He’s a lot bigger than both of us together, a lot bigger than our relationship. There’s a part of him that’s mine and there’s a part of him that belongs to everybody else, and there’s not a whole lot of difference between the two. He was who he was through and through.”
Earlier in room 1451, Medicine Show member Scott Evans looked at the quiet young Skinner sitting in the corner. “Thanks for sharing him with us.”
“He wasn’t mine to give away,” Jeremy smiled back.
Originally published in This Land: Fall 2015.