A few years back, the musical spirits of Hank Williams and Chuck Berry, Elvis and Buck Owens, Bob Wills and James Brown converged in Steve Ripley's fertile mind at a legendary studio called The Church Studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The tornado he conjured up was called The Tractors and, with a Grammy-nominated multiplatinum album that was the fastest-selling country group debut in history, stormed across America. One of country music's most unlikely success stories, The Tractors weren't young and they weren't pretty but by mining Ripley's roots they helped fuel a musical revolution called Americana.
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Since then, country has once again gone fallow, with fields of schmaltzy pop and masquerades in cowboy hats. Fortunately, The Tractors are back to reclaim the land, ready to harvest what they first sowed, with Fast Girl (Audium Records), released April, 2001, their fourth album and first since 1998.
"The musical stew out there is overcooked," says singer-songwriter-guitarist-producer Ripley. "We're mixing a fresh stew from ingredients taken from a time when country wasn't there yet and rock 'n' roll was just becoming something out of a mix of gospel, R&B, blues, hillbilly and New Orleans boogie woogie. It's a time when everything was new. That's as good as it ever got, at least for me. That good-time sound is what rings my bell."
That pure and primal sound is driven home by The Tractors on Fast Girl, which features guitar icon James Burton and the renowned Leon Russell, from the pop culture flashback "Babalou" and the Western swing of "Can't Get Nowhere" to the passionate country of "It's A Beautiful Thing" and the roadhouse rock of the title track, the emotional touchstone of "Higher Ground" to the outrageous picaresque tale of "A Little Place Of Our Own." A continuation of The Tractors not a repeat, notes Ripley, Fast Girl does not utilize the previous set lineup but rather a revolving roster of musicians who collectively comprise what from the beginning has been Ripley's unique vision: "The Tractors are a state of mind, a place I enter into to make the records. My goal is for the records to take the listener to that same place. It's a serious place and, at the same time, there's definitely a party going on."
Oklahoma native Ripley grew up on a family farm, where he drove his first tractor, before picking up a guitar and heading out on the local honky-tonk circuit. Eventually, he took on engineering chores for Leon Russell and later produced Freddy Fender, Western swing king Johnny Lee Wills and an album for Roy Clark and Gatemouth Brown. He not-so-by-the-way also played guitar on tour and on record for Bob Dylan (including his 1981 classic Shot Of Love), J.J. Cale and Russell. In addition, he designed his own line of guitars for the likes of Eddie Van Halen, Ry Cooder, Jimmy Buffett and John Hiatt. "I've had only three regular jobs and I was fired from each of them almost immediately," he says with a laugh. "I've driven a tractor and I've played guitar. That's what I know how to do."
Then, in 1987, he gave up his peripatetic ways and came back home to Tulsa, where R&B and country, New Orleans and Texas, swing and rock 'n' roll have historically met and prospered. He took over Russell's studio and a couple years later began to bring to fruition his vision. "The Beatles listened to the same music I did growing up. I've been to George Harrison's house and all he could talk about is James Burton. There was a time when country was a rockin' thing, when you could hear on one radio station Hank and Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee and Merle, Buck and Johnny Cash and Ray Charles. That's the kind of music I wanted to make again. But it wasn't easy to get at what that would actually be."
Ensconced at The Church Studio, it took Ripley five years to create The Tractors' self-titled debut album. Released in 1994, there were few commercial expectations. "We were not expected to be a hit," says the down-to-earth Ripley. "But we were new and fresh for radio, at the right place at the right time. We proved there was still hope for anyone making a great record."
Powered by the single "Baby Likes To Rock It," The Tractors hit Top 10 country, plowed past double platinum and became the #1 selling debut country album of the year. Earning acclaim far beyond the confines of country, the album won a front-page rave in USA Today and an "A" from Entertainment Weekly. The band was nominated for two Grammy Awards (Best Country Performance By A Group for "Baby Likes To Rock It" and "Tryin' To Get To New Orleans"), a TNN/Music City News Award as a Star Of Tomorrow (Vocal Duo Or Group) and three Academy Of Country Music Awards (Top Vocal Group, Top New Vocal Group and Album Of The Year), and won the Country Music Association's Video Of The Year Award for "Baby Likes To Rock It." Outselling established major acts such as Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn, The Tractors were Arista Nashville's top artist.
A band of veteran musicians playing neo-traditionalist retro-whatever country-something, they had succeeded without flash or gimmicks. "There's a difference between being the thing and trying to be the thing. Hank Williams sang like Hank Williams; he wasn't pretending to be someone else. We are who we are." They weren't from Nashville either. "We had nothing against Nashville. We took comfort in being accepted by the town. One reason we weren't there was because we couldn't afford to move there."
In 1995, The Tractors toured and released for the holidays Have Yourself A Tractors Christmas, which featured "Santa Claus Boogie." Over the next couple years, they also contributed to the acclaimed tribute albums Not Fade Away (Remembering Buddy Holly) and Stone Country: Country Artists Perform The Songs Of The Rolling Stones. But by the time their true follow-up was issued, Farmers In A Changing World (1998), country music had changed course and headed to the shores of pop. The album cover proclaimed "Same 'Great' Sound," and it was, but the music industry had closed its ears to The Tulsa Shuffle. In the case of Arista Nashville, it was in the process of shutting its doors as well.
"I had no intention of making some other kind of music as The Tractors," says Ripley. "We sound like we do every time we play. I wanted a label that had faith in and enthusiasm for that sound--and Audium did." Given his Tractorspeak credo that "the harder you try to do something the less likely you are to do it," its surprising Fast Girl took only eight months to record. "Maybe I'm finally getting the hang of this," he adds with a smile. "As it turns out, Fast Girl is closer to my original vision than any of the previous albums."
Filled with the unexpected magic of first takes and the truth of false starts, Fast Girl employs modern technology and Ripley's dogged persistence to recreate the "one mike, one room, no time" atmosphere of the '40s, '50s and early '60s--just like on his favorite records. "The studio is my life. I've been coming here just about every day for 13 years. To a lot of artists, recording is the enemy and they live to tour. We record most of the time but go play sometimes."
What he has tried to do with The Tractors is make records that will last just as long as his favorites. "I'm all for having hits and I think of radio when I write songs but today's hits are disposable, only for these times. I want to approach a timeless quality. I want people to pull out a Tractors album years from now and for it to still sound great. I want The Tractors to be left standing when the dust settles." Whatever Americana means, Ripley surely knows what it sounds like because he's experienced the life it reflects. "I'm not a cowboy. I'm a farmer. I just keep the wheel in the furrow and keep moving on. You get on the tractor and go round in circles and at some point the field gets plowed."
In Steve Ripley's case, that field bears some mighty powerful roots, which thankfully have yielded yet another new musical crop from The Tractors.
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