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The Tractors stay on track

By Ken Burke, May 2001

Steve Ripley, the man behind The Tractors, fondly recalls how the 1958 B-movie "Country Music Holiday" helped his group get their big break.

Taping an audio exchange between Ferlin Husky and Zsa Zsa Gabor, studio whiz Ripley re-edited it until it sounded like they were talking about him. "Zsa Zsa en-ters the room and she says to me, 'I hear you sing peasant music.' And I say, 'Country music, ma'am.' Then, you hear the applause of the club they're in, and Zsa Zsa asks some people at her table, 'Can he really sing?' And they say, 'Can he sing? Listen to this!'"

The scene segued to The Tractors' demo with Ripley singing, "All across the South, they've got the boogie bands that sound so fine..."

According to Ripley, Tim DuBois, label head at Arista at the time, played the tape for everybody in Nashville before signing the band and releasing their self-titled 1994 smash debut, featuring the hit "Baby Likes to Rock It.".

These days, Arista is part of BMG, and a few of the band's core members have departed. "Jamie (Oldaker), the drummer, plays on this new record, but is intensely involved with a start-up record company in Nashville," says Ripley from his Church Studio office in Tulsa, Okla. "Walt (Richmond), who's one of my best friends and I think one of the best piano players in the world, he has his own studio at his house. Casey (Van Beek) came over last week."

Citing no animosity surrounding his bandmate's departure, Ripley admits, "Truthfully, I miss those guys everyday, and if any one of them walks in, they're welcome."

Ripley, 51, also points out that other group members such as fiddle and steel player Fats Kaplin, saxophonists Bud Deal and Mike Panna are still with the band. Also, legends James Burton and Leon Russell have guested on virtually every disc. Added to the mix are former J.J. Cale and Joe Cocker percussionist Jimmy Karstein, and R&B bassist Willie Weeks.

However, set musical line-ups aren't exactly what The Tractors are all about. Their albums are roots-music equivalents of a sonic tribal ritual attended by guest stars, family and friends, rife with false starts and studio chatter.

Singer-songwriter, guitarist, engineer and producer Ripley brings it all together.

During his early career, the Idaho-born Oklahoma-bred Ripley played in several rock and country aggregations.

Ripley toiled as an engineer and self-described "flunky" for Leon Russell. In 1981, session ace and friend Jim Keltner introduced him to Bob Dylan, whom Ripley impressed with a stereo guitar set-up he had just perfected. After accompanying Dylan on the worldwide Shot Of Love tour, Ripley built guitars full time for the likes of Eddie Van Halen, J.J. Cale, Little Feat's Fred Tackett and Steve Lukather of Toto.

Eventually, the Kramer Guitar Co. began issuing a line of Kramer-Ripley guitars that allowed the player to pan each individual string into a different speaker with just the twist of a knob.

Eddie Van Halen funded Ripley's move from California back to Oklahoma where he decided to purchase Leon Russell's former haunt, the Church Studio. Drawing from a pool of local friends and musicians, Ripley created the framework for The Tractors, and their mid-to-late '90's multi-platinum success on Arista.

Several follow-up albums with long gaps in between did not fare as well as the debut.

Initially, Ripley wanted to put out The Tractors' new disc "Fast Girl" on his own, but was impressed by the Audium label's desire and creativity, likening it to the early days at Arista. Still, he had stipulations.

"At the first meeting with Nick Hunter and Simon Renshaw (then heads of the label), I started with, 'I love the fact you want to sign my band, but let me tell you up front, I'm going to make a gospel record, and I want to make a kids record. If that gets in the way, forget it.' So, they kinda let me write my own contract, and it was pointedly speaking for this one album that just came out, and I have their blessing to make a kids record."

The first single (and soon-to-be video) is "Can't Get Nowhere," a funny jump tune with Elvis' former drummer DJ Fontana listed as co-writer.

Says Ripley, "I had DJ playing what was really the intro to (Presley's 1956 recording) 'My Baby Left Me.' It was so important to my life that I just felt he deserved writer's credit."

Ripley added, "Part of it is selfishly getting to see my name next to his - Steve Ripley, DJ Fontana."

One of the set's country highlights is the humorous "It's A Beautiful Thing," a true story.

"I was so immersed in my roots that I seldom listen to outside stuff, and when I do it's for research purposes. So, here's this group (Hootie & the Blowfish) that sold 60 eleventy-billion records, and I went out to Best Buy one day, and I bought myself that first album. I was only listening to Faron Young at that time. So I pulled out the Faron Young and put it in its package. Then I opened up my Hootie, put it in and waded through parts of six or seven songs, and I not only didn't get it, I thought sonically that it hurt my ears."

Ripley's goal as producer/artist is to make music that endures. "Whereas most of the records that are selling a lot, if you put them on in 10 or 20 years, it'll be like bell bottoms, 'What a joke. I can't believe we listened to that.' I would hate making some product that the world doesn't really need on a long-term basis, ya know? Because I think the world is filled with crap. So, if you're going to make something, don't make something world doesn't need because there's too much crap already."