Brad James Shares The Origin of Tom Skinner’s Science Project and Their First Set
This summer, the debut album from Tom Skinner’s Science Project was released as First Set. The context behind the album is significant culturally and musically but might not be very well known outside of Oklahoma. Red Dirt music pioneer Tom Skinner, who passed away in 2015, was the instigator of a major regular live show in Tulsa known as a “Wednesday Night Showcase.” He conveyed a final wish that, if possible, those events would continue after he had passed, and his longtime musical partner, Don Morris, took on the mission. He continued to gather musicians to take part, and many were those who had benefitted from the welcoming music community that Skinner had created in his long career.
Since that time, Don Morris has been 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) as well as others to perform weekly showcases that became known as “Tom Skinner’s Science Project” in their mentor’s honor. The shows were performed at The Colony in Tulsa until the pandemic made that impossible. At that time, they floated the idea of creating a recorded album of original music in live style, which has resulted in the release First Set from Horton Records. They have since returned to live shows, but with a recording to share with the world.
I spoke with guitarist and songwriter Brad James about the development of the Project, Tom Skinner’s legacy, and the recording of First Set.
Americana Highways: I understand that you’re a somewhat younger member of what has been a long tradition. What drew you in?
Brad James: I was really blessed and fortunate to fall in with these older cats where there’s not a lot of ego or competition. It’s just a musical community. I don’t think that anyone realized that’s what was going on in the late 80s and early 90s. Everyone just likes to pick. But when you look back on it now, it was pretty cool.
AH: I don’t hear about scenarios like this very often where there are groups of musicians in a community that are semi-permeable and people are influencing each other in this way. In a way, it’s fortunate that circumstances conspired for you all to do an album, because it enables others to take part in your music at a distance. Was that purely based on not being able to do the live shows?
BJ: I think that if we’d still been able to do the shows every week, we wouldn’t have done the album. The lockdown and the isolation affected people. It was so strange when it was first going on, not knowing what the parameters were. We didn’t know how long we were going to be stuck like that, and everyone had their own comfort levels, but I sure wasn’t going to go to any nightclubs and perform.
When Dylan [Layton] called up with this idea, we went over to Little Rock to record because there’s a wonderful room there where I had recorded my album before, at Fellowship Hall Sound. The room has an analog two-inch tape machine. The room is tuned really nice and the drum kit is already there for a great sound. When you play a track and walk back in to hear it play back off of that two-inch tape machine, you think, “Yep, that’s why we’re here.”
We knew what working there would be like, and a lot of Horton Records people have gone over there, but we were all masked up and drove separately, so that was a struggle. It was hard to figure out how to have fun playing music with all that hanging over you. We had to be careful because Don [Morris] is in his mid-70s, has had hip replacement, and fought off cancer. We couldn’t be risking his health, but we all went in and cut the album as live as we could. We had Don in a partial booth and all of the main tracks were cut live. I love doing that.
Previously, we’d been playing every Wednesday with no end in sight, and I’d been doing that for five and a half years when Covid hit, which was a lot. It was indefinite, which was fun, but it was also nice to take a break. It was a good plan from Dylan to co-produce this album and go over to Fellowship Hall Sound.
AH: That’s amazing that you recorded in a live way, even under those circumstances, and to analog tape. When we listen to this album, though, are there any differences compared to what we would hear if we went to one of the live shows at The Colony?
BJ: The outro jams you’ll hear are kind of longer than they necessarily need to be, and we don’t really do that live. But we could stretch them out because they could be edited really easily. Even though we were committed to tape, the songs could be taken off of that tape and put into Pro Tools to edit. We took that and then went over to the Ripley Farm Studio, though Steve Ripley is no longer with us. He’s got a great Oklahoma music history, having played with Bob Dylan. We went to his studio for two days to do the overdubs and we tried to get those cut live as possible, too. That was the theme of the project, that no one should have to play music alone in a room with headphones on. The percussion was cut at the same time as the pedal steel.
So, no, the album doesn’t sound exactly like a Science Project show, because one of the deals for a show is that if the front man knows the song, he starts strumming through the changes, and he may sing the first verse and chorus. Then we’ve all heard the whole progression and get behind it. That’s how Tom or Don would have done it before, for 22 years. A lot of the songs on the album, you’ll hear where we count off, or they have a specific beginning, whereas live on stage, Don would probably strum into those, and we’d ease in behind him. I love the album, though it’s a little slicker than the live show.
The song “Sleeping Dogs,” for instance, we played recently, and Don would just strum in and we’d come in behind him. On the album, it’s straight into it. Having an “all together” intro is not how we sound live.
AH: Is that approach to the live show based on how the shows are planned? How much do the participants know about what is going to be played before the show starts?
BJ: The participants know very little about what is going to happen, because Don knows hundreds of songs, and he’ll play any one of them that someone requests. That was the same thing with Tom, who knew hundreds and hundreds of songs. But it’s kind of like a language. I was raised by guys who said, “Don’t play guitar licks over where the guy is singing.” There are formulas for the ways the puzzle fits together, and there’s also a lot of non-verbal communication. Tom’s sense of humor is why the project is called “Science Project.” There was no telling what songs the core band was going to play, and there’s certainly no telling what you’re going to have to do backing up the guests. Some guests kind of think that we’re omnipotent and can just read their minds. [Laughs] But it’s a fun outfit for sure.
AH: This helps explain to us outsiders, also, how the show could run for so long at such frequency. I was wondering how you would manage rehearsals and planning on a weekly basis without stopping. This approach just relies on experience and skill.
BJ: You bet. One of our friends who plays says, “We are not rehearsing a song any longer than it takes to play the song.”
AH: This album is composed of original songs, so what happens when you bring in original songs? Do you teach them to each other?
BJ: For the album, we did get together and run down and pick which songs we were going to do. We went over them in my driveway to get a basic arrangement and tempo map. A lot of times you get in the studio and you inadvertently play a song too fast or two slow and so we really wanted a “BPM,” beats per minute, map for each song.
Really, with original songs, that also happens on stage. Since it is folk music, and bluesy, and rock, it’s not terribly complicated, and he’ll say, “This one goes like this.” And he’ll kick it off. I don’t remember many specific instances of rehearsing. One of my coolest memories about Tom Skinner was that whether you were hanging out around the campfire, just picking, or about to take a festival stage in front of a large audience, his attitude was never any different. It was just pure joy and he liked to pick. It wasn’t like some musicians who get uptight when you have a big show coming up. Tom was more likely to be standing around telling funny stories whether it was a campfire, night club, or festival stage.
AH: That sounds like the opposite of needing to be in control of a situation, but rather being open to possibilities.
BJ: Exactly. That’s right.
AH: Do some of these original songs have a long live play history, or did you all write towards the album once you knew that you’d be recording it?
BJ: This selection of songs is not one that Tom would have heard or known about seven years ago. Tom has some songs in his catalog of songs that he’s written several hits that have been covered and performed a lot. We didn’t really want to redo stuff like “Blind Man,” which is a wonderful song. We stayed away from songs that are really popular in this region. Don had written several of these songs on the album and picked a few of his favorites by others.
“Sleeping Dogs” was written by Terry “Buffalo” Ware, a great Oklahoma musician, and Don really liked that song. Other songwriters have been people we have played with. A few of these songs we used to perform sometimes, before Covid and before the album. Live on stage, like with First Set, Don will start by singing a few songs, then he’ll start going around and have me sing a couple, then Rick [Gomez] sing a couple, then Dylan sing a couple, then we’ll go back to Don.
It’s kind of odd to me on the album to have one guy sing most of the songs, then three other people sing one song each in the middle, but that is how the show goes. The song that I sing on the album is one that I wrote with Don many years ago, and I don’t know that we’d ever performed that live, “River of Time.” But it was really nice to get that recording of it. We might have done it live once since. Rick’s song, “Down the Road,” was written in the 70s or the 80s, and he brought that to the table. We did have to put some work into getting those arranged right. Most all of Don’s songs on the record, like “Headed South,” are things we had been performing live, though.
AH: That sounds like a great opportunity, when it came to the album, to ask, “What songs have a place in my heart but haven’t had much attention yet?” It’s a way of giving them a new life and that probably made the recording process more intentional.
BJ: You bet. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but that’s an accurate description of what we were up to.
AH: Everything you’ve been saying only paints a bigger and bigger picture of how much music has been written in this specific community, and how much has been played, that might not have been heard by other people. Do you have any inclination, as a group, to record a “Second Set”?
BJ: It’s a lot of work. We’d like to, but it’s hard. Horton Records helped us out this time, thankfully, but we would like to. That’s why we called it First Set this time. But we’re still catching our breath on what it took to get this one out to the world.
AH: Is this album something that will be available at your upcoming shows?
BJ: Oh yes, we’ve got it on CD and we’ve got it on vinyl. It sounds great on vinyl. Because of the time limitations on vinyl, we had to take the three middle songs off. So the vinyl is basically all the Don tunes, except for one. But we went for 180 gram and splatter.
Catch our album review here: REVIEW: Tom Skinner’s Science Project “First Set”
Find the music here: https://hortonrecords.bandcamp.com/album/first-set