The Tractors plow ahead

Jeffrey B. Remz, November 1998

The first time around, The Tractors sent intermittent postcards to their record company, announcing they were on the right track to finishing their debut.

The Tractors were not exactly speed demons when it came to the recording process. Then again, maybe there's something to be said for that, given their ultra-catchy song that stayed on the airwaves and videos stations for a long long time, "Baby Likes to Rock It," sales of a few million and award nominations.

Slow forward to 1998. Arista honchos weren't holding their breaths for a second regular album being done soon.

No postcards this time from the Tulsa-based Tractors.

"Just getting done is a reason for celebrating," says lead singer and lead Tractor Steve Ripley, who takes the bull by the horns in raising the question himself about the gap in between the debut and "Farmers in a Changing World," out Nov. 3.

"That's the first goal - just getting it done whereas most people's goal may be ultimate perfection. So, we pat ourselves on getting it done."

While some have thought this is the group's second album, "Have Yourself a Tractors Christmas" came out in 1995, the product of only three weeks in the studio.

"We got off the road in October of 1995, and I actually started then," Ripley says of the third album. "Some of that though was deciding whether, if any, new equipment (was needed)."

The studio is where The Tractors - keyboardist Walt Richmond, bassist Casey Van Beek, guitarist Ron Getman, drummer Jamie Oldaker and Ripley - do their thing.

Oldaker, at one time Eric Clapton's drummer, was managing Ronnie Dunn, pre-Brooks & Dunn. Dunn's band members included the other Tractors, all with long experience. Richmond played with Bonnie Raitt, Van Beek with Linda Ronstadt and Getman with Leonard Cohen. The Tractors are not youngsters with Oldaker the youngest at 47 and Van Beek the oldest at 56 in December.

The band was put together in 1988. "We hadn't played at all when we made the first record. We were old friends that had gathered around the studio," Ripley says.

Ripley, who grew up on a wheat farm, met Getman in college. Ripley later worked with Leon Russell and made guitars for seven years, spending time on the West Coast. Ripley and family returned in 1987, the same time Getman moved back from New York.

"That was the real impetus for the whole deal," Ripley says.

A deal was hatched with Arista by 1990.

Four long years later, The Tractors were all over radio and TV with "Baby Likes To Rock It" despite the song never even cracking the Top 10.

Follow-up singles did not chart highly.

The group completed "Farmers..." in mid-July and released it in early November.

"It's a stretched-out process in that everything is done in the studio," says Ripley, who did guitar duty with Bob Dylan about 15 years ago. "Saying the songwriting is done is one thing everybody would understand. I think Leon Russell style or J.J. Cale style is done in the studio. Especially when you think the Tulsa style where the studio is in your house. You write in the studio. I'm here long hours. I sometimes even sleep on the couch. It's long hours. We kind of have to invent the process as we go along."

The 11-song disc is stylistically similar to the debut. There's some country, rockabilly, blues and a Chuck Berry feel to the proceedings. Even Elvis in more ways than one.

The hyperactive chugging sound of "Baby Likes To Rock It' is present on several songs.

"We 're doing the same thing," Ripley says. "That's our goal with this album - to make it as familiar and friendly as the first album. If you've heard Chuck Berry as we did and loved him, then you'd recognize a lot of guitar lines or Hank Williams or Buck Owens or Johnny Cash. If you never heard of any of those guys, then we get to be the fortunate guys who get to give them a little bit of it for the first time."

The sense of humor hasn't been lost over the years. To wit, the first single, "Shortenin' Bread." Yup, the children's song,

Ripley calls the song the "ultimate roots music for us. It kind of pervades country and R&B. Chuck Berry grooves."

The band had thought about doing the song for awhile. While in the studio, Ripley said the band should try it.

"Then the next day, I called Casey and Walt and said, 'let's just do 'Shortenin' Bread.'' You put your tongue firmly in your cheek and see what happens. 'Shortenin' Bread' is (played) with a Little Richard piano with one eighth notes. It's what works for us."

The closing song is a hidden track, "Hale Bopp Boogie," which takes off.

"First of all the name we loved because it sounds like both Bill Haley and bop music," Ripley says. "Everybody was focused on it (when the comet was out. We wanted to) get the song done real fast. In pure Tractors fashion, when the song was done, the comet was long gone."

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton also was focused on it because her saying "Hale Bopp" is sampled in the song.

"I love them, and they can be on (our) record," Ripley says. "I sent a copy to the White House and got a letter from Bill Clinton 'thanks for sharing your music,' but I don't think he ever really listened to it."

While the new disc is not as political as the debut, the lively "Poor Boy Shuffle" adapts a lower class perspective. "Everybody likes to use dance as a metaphor for life," Ripley says. "We're all doing it, but we all might as well be happy."

As for the Elvis connection, that runs several layers deep. First, is the song, "The Elvis Thing." The song points to the King as one of the key players of the 20th century.

"'The Elvis Thing' I suppose as close to the story of my life," Ripley says. "It's a bit autobiographical, at least the second verse. It takes the point that the pivotal point in this century was the Elvis thing and a big part of that was Elvis...I see it as a pivotal point of my life."

"1956 was a big year for music because that's when the Elvis deal started," he says.

The song is followed by a snippet of Elvis' "Mystery Train." Playing on both are DJ Fontana, James Burton and Scotty Moore, former sidemen for Elvis.

"Scotty started the song as only he could play," Ripley says. "Half-way through, James plays his version of his lick. It was a great thing. They came and played their hearts out, and it was great. Kind of overwhelming."

"I told them it wasn't really an Elvis groove. Really about the deal, and they were part of the deal."

"I keep joking we should make Guinness for the most Elvis guitarists in one record."

The Tractors put a lot of thought about what goes where in a song. They are creatures of the studio. They may take snippets and put them where they seem to fit in a song, maybe even years later.

The late Eldon Shamblin, for example, played on the disc. But due to being ill, the former Texas Playboy was unable to record. So Ripley decided to take recordings Shamblin made for "Doreen" on the first disc and used them here on "Way Too Late."

"It's not weird to us that we take a guy who's dead and put him on our record," Ripley says. "It's archival work. It's a bunch of noises and we put it on a record."

The group's intent is get as many first takes as possible in the studio. "One of the greatest ironies is it takes a long time to get an album's (worth of songs)," Ripley says.

"The first thoughts are always the best," he says. "You can't recreate something. That's why I cringe when someone plays me a demo, but not quite good enough to be a record because it's recorded on a poor machine...You can't make a record and do it again because you can't do it again. It ain't going to work. You can't play today and say okay I'll do it again tomorrow. We try real hard. I roll tape all the time. That's the Leon Russell school of recording. I try to record when the guys walk in the room."

"We hopefully get that first idea. Whatever the guy plays the first time, however we can get from a mistake free (recording), that's going to be the best. You're going to have a mass of tape because you're recording all this stuff, and then you have the time consuming thing of editing later."

The next record from The Tractors may not take so long. Ripley says the band intends to hit the road next year for a tour of honky tonks and put out a live disc before heading back into the studio.

The road has been unchartered territory in recent years. Since 1995, The Tractors have played exactly two live dates.

"We are in the recording business is the business we are in," Ripley says. "It's a little bit different than it's viewed. That's what we are doing is making records. If you're touring, the end of that road is Las Vegas. It has nothing to do with the recording business...If you don't somewhere along the line get good at writing songs, you don't (belong) in the music business."

"All that stuff is done in the studio," Ripley says. "In Tulsa, that's what you do is record. It's not like you set a month aside to record. When you're home, you're recording. Generally, everybody has a studio at their house."

Ripley acknowledges the uncertainty of how "Farmers..." will be received. "Yeah, it's the great unknown. There is still a chasm between here and selling any records. It's all geared whether anybody wants to take you home. Everything is focused around. If you don't sell any records you can't make another one."

"You work all your life, and you get the first record deal. You have the Grand Canyon in front of you in making the first record. You make it, our surprise we sold 2 million of them. We're faced with a different kind of black hole. It still keeps moving up ahead of you."

"You have no idea how anybody's going to hear this," says Ripley.

But he thinks the long gaps may benefit The Tractors. "That's the greatest thing I learn form Dylan. You can't come back if you don't go away."

"You can put out too much product. You appear to put out product for product's sake. You might as well put the spin that works best for you. We're not in your face all the time."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •