Steve Ripley – The Tractors Are a Powerful Engine Part 4

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Steve Ripley: The Tractors Are a Powerful Engine

Ripley always kept a large Rolodex full of numerous friends and contacts. According to Charlene, “Steve was great at remembering people and keeping them around and often involved. This was before social media and cell phones. He stayed in touch with everyone. And if he wanted to meet someone, somehow, he would, and they became friends and collaborators.”

According to Ripley, “We hadn’t played at all [live] when we made the first record. We were old friends that had gathered around the studio.” Charlene clarified that “they recorded for years together but didn’t play live until after their first album came out.” The success of their debut album, The Tractors, was phenomenal. But it was down to Ripley’s meticulous marketing plan, his propensity for tweaking things until they were just right, and the engineering and mixing that took place at The Church Studio.

When the record started selling well, he added musicians to the touring band. “I was playing Americana-country music before the term ‘Americana’ was used,” says Fats Kaplin, a multi-instrumentalist from Nashville. Ripley called and invited him to join the tour. Although he had just been married two weeks earlier, Fats piled his instruments into his car and drove to Tulsa. “It took a while to figure out what was going on. I was trying to get it down. I spent a week just listening to the music and rehearsing at The Church. I was also learning how to organize things, and how to set up the stage, which was the polar opposite of what most people would consider a clean set up. We had old amplifiers, cables all over the stage, an old piano, and Jamie had extra drums, including one with a television mounted inside of it. I discovered it was very Ripley-like, strategic, and not inadvertently messy. Steve was always very strategic, no matter what. He had a vision and even though he wasn’t pushy, he guided everything he did with his vision.” 

 

Steve Ripley and Fats Kaplin at The Church Studio

 

Bud Deal, Casey Van Beek’s old California friend and saxophone player, joined the band, as did Mike Panno, another California sax player. Steve adored these additions and insisted on including them on all future Tractor recordings.

 

Steve Ripley, Fats Kaplin, Bud Deal and Mike Panno at The Church Studio

Charlene explained that the band’s first live performance was an AIDS benefit at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Charlene’s sister, Patty Grant, had passed away from AIDS in 1992. “She was only sick eight weeks from when we finally figured out what was wrong with her until she died. So being at the benefit was special because Steve told the whole story about Patty. In honor of my sister, the next year (1993) I made a quilt that is part of the 50,000 panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt displayed around the country.” Ripley said “We did two songs at an AIDS benefit, really the very first time we’d ever played. We played the Tulsa Shuffle and Baby Likes to Rock It with various artists. And that was great and my first time to play live in, I don’t know, fourteen years. So, it was great fun for me.”

 

Steve Ripley at AIDS Benefit, Grand Ole Opry, Nashville

 

A lot of touring and appearances began to take place. Ripley elaborated:

[At the time,] I did probably an average of three or four interviews, be it press or radio or whatever, every day, at least four or five days a week. I remember Tim DuBois left a message, there were no cell phones yet. I think I called him from a pay phone. He knew I was reluctant to play live. They’d had this invitation to do the David Letterman Show.

You have to remember; we’d never played a [full] gig. And I’m reluctant to do that, maybe more so in his mind but I remember him saying, ‘Come on, Steve, get some balls and do that show.’ Something like that, you know. Be a man, you got to do this one, this is too big not to. 

FUN FACT: The Tractors eventually played for over 500,000 people during their first tour

As Ripley explained to Earling, “truthfully, the first real show biz thing that we ever did as a band was a David Letterman Show. We were the fastest country group to go platinum. Meaning a million sales. Dave says that on the introduction. Dave’s publicist and whoever did that, [took] the hook and the opportunity to get us on the Letterman Show, which was great.”  

 

On the set of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno

 

The Ripley family has fond memories of being backstage and on tour. “My brother and I went everywhere on tour – even in Europe,” Angelene told me. “We were in our teens during The Tractors era. Before the first record was released, Dad worked on The Tractors for a very long time. Mom was a fantastic support, always working to help cover the expenses, so when it eventually occurred so quickly, it was unbelievable. It was a big deal and quite exciting when we traveled to LA to film the Baby Likes to Rock It music video. I would be gone on tour, to David Letterman, doing some really cool things. Then I’d come back home and just talk to a couple of friends about my experiences.” It had to have felt a little surreal for the Tulsa teenager.

 

Life on the road promoting The Tractors had its ups and downs. The tours could be rambunctious, just like some of their recording sessions. Bass player Van Beek told me “Jamie was the wild wire on our bus. He was hilarious. We were sitting on the bunks all the time and drove all over the country – Phoenix, LA, East Coast, New York, Theater in the Round in Buffalo. We were on TV shows – Letterman, Good Morning America. Then we went to Canada and overseas to Germany, Switzerland, England, and to Holland, where I was born, which was fun cause I had relatives come out to see us.”

 

Photo by Walt Richmond – Clowning around at the Blue Felt Lounge table (tour bus)

 

The Tractors made two other music videos in support of that first Tractors album. Check out the video for Tryin’ to Get to New Orleans with its beautiful black and white footage as the band travels across the Midwest to New Orleans. It was shot entirely on 35mm, 16mm, and super 8mm film with 35mm rear projection. Steve later said:

It is arguably the best thing we did as The Tractors – with much credit going to Michael Oblowitz, the video’s creator/director. Should it have been a hit? I think so. Should this video have won awards? I think so – without a doubt. The song was nominated for a Grammy – so that’s something. The video seems even better now 20 years later. These days, in this techno-world, stuff is flying at us like crazy, but Oblowitz was ahead of his time (so to speak) with the incredible amount of information contained in this less than 5 minute piece of art – including a “jam” (hate that word) with Elvis Presley’s guys: James Burton, Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana at Sun Studios, and another with The Preservation Hall Jazz Band at Preservation Hall in New Orleans. Just fooling around as we shot footage for the video, but I got to sing That’s All Right Mama with Scotty and DJ – and Iko Iko with The Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Incredible, really…Fairytales can come true…”

Badly Bent, another fun video from the first album, was shot at Willie Nelson’s ranch near Austin.  Set in what appears to be the 1930s depression era, Ripley sings about himself and the country, saying, “We’re not broken, but we’re badly bent.” 

After a whirlwind year of promotions and travel around the world, including the Brooks & Dunn tour, The Tractors were back at The Church Studio by the end of 1995. Ripley was in a holiday mood and set about recording a sophomore record. Have Yourself a Tractors Christmas is the second studio album and first Christmas album by The Tractors. In normal Ripley fashion, he got one of his heroes, Buck Owens to sing on the Owens classic, Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy. It was released by Arista Nashville on October 10, 1995. The album peaked at number 12 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart.

The Santa Claus Boogie is a hoppin’ track. The video has Ron Getman on the slide guitar, Jamie Oldaker and Casey Van Beek both grinning ear to ear, Walt Richmond banging out boogie on the piano, and, of course, Steve Ripley’s tall tales and nonsensical singing. A side-show barker encourages you to pull your chair up to the radio and turn it up good and loud. There are more dancing Santas than Elvis impersonators in Memphis. Charlene said the “call was for a costume party as it was filmed on Halloween, so people came dressed in all kinds of costumes,” If you like The Tractors, you should have this fun song on your Christmas playlist. 

Over the years, The Tractors were asked to record songs for two tribute albums. They were featured on MCA Not Fade Away (Remembering Buddy Holly) in 1996. The Mavericks, Los Lobos, Nancy Griffith, Joe Ely, and The Band were also on the album. Think It Over, by the Tractors, was uncannily similar to the Crickets, with the artists combining all of their vocal talents in close harmony. Ripley’s raspy, earthy soul and scat mingled with Holly’s throaty come-on and a hint of Elvis. The album debuted at number 19 on the Billboard Top Albums chart and number 119 on the Billboard 200 all-genre chart.

The Tractors’ cover of The Last Time appeared on the 1997 compilation Stone Country: Country Artists Perform the Songs of the Rolling Stones. Their rendition appears to have been influenced by both Leon Russell and the Beatles. The band’s incredible harmonies are on display, as is Ripley’s best rock star vocal performance. The album was released by Beyond Music and featured Deana Carter, Nancy Griffith, Ronnie Milsap, George Jones, and Travis Tritt. It was re-released in 2006 for a new generation of fans and is now hard to come by.

Country music had been changing and expanding its audiences. Country’s storied Class of 1989 was led by the meteoric rise of Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, and Travis Tritt and brought country to the world. Their distinct voices and nuanced music, which was both undeniably modern and deeply rooted in the genre’s history, demonstrated to the world that there was more to come from country music. The Tractors proved that with their first success in 1995. 

Almost four years passed between their first and third CDs, Farmers in a Changing World (except the three weeks it took to record their Christmas album).  Stephen Thomas Erlewine explains:

During that time, contemporary country became even more infatuated with the pop-country crossover, as the success of Shania Twain and Faith Hill proved. The title of the album hints at that situation, but the Tractors ignore such trends, choosing to synthesize a plethora of American roots music into a distinctive sound — they’re farmers in a changing world. Sure, they remain rooted in country, but they try a bunch of other things, including soul, New Orleans R&B, and rockabilly with The Elvis Thing. What ties it all together is Steve Ripley’s fine songwriting and the band’s excellent taste in covers; the material is so good that the eclecticism doesn’t seem jumbled — it makes sense. It may have taken a while for the album to have been recorded, but the wait was worth it.

Farmers in a Changing World came out in 1998. The Elvis Thing/Mystery Train pays homage to both Ripley’s Elvis Presley adoration and that musical era. He unquestionably demonstrated this point by securing Elvis band members, Scotty Moore, DJ Fontana, and James Burton’s performances on it. “The Elvis Thing, I suppose is close to the story of my life,” Ripley explained, “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.” 

The sharp lyrics capture the intensity of the time and Ripley’s self-proclaimed insanity around it – just listen to him sing these words:

In nineteen fifty-six… The United States of America
Dropped a hi-fi needle on rock and roll

And coast to coast, we started shakin’ all over
One nation, under God, out of control

 

Ripley exudes epic badassery as he reveals his story, which is really our shared American story. This musical piece of rock history should be taught to American children everywhere.

Online Music Reviewer, Roy Kasten, wrote on Amazon.com:

The mix all but hurls itself from the speakers and the playing sounds like craftsmen with their professional guard down. There are playful false starts and endings, greasy guitar licks–even some slide from Bonnie Raitt–ebullient piano, and warm, moaning horns. The band slaps its musical wizardry across boogie-based tunes–dance and old rock & roll are the lyrical themes–and the whole feels like a rockin’ roadhouse blues album, a renegade homage to country rockers Jerry Lee Lewis and Delbert McClinton, and a joyful, spontaneous slice of American music.

Farmers in a Changing World is so catchy that no one could possibly resist getting up and dancing. It’s a happy piece of Americana. And it was obviously fun to make. According to USA Today, “Their music’s still the same hybrid of roadhouse shuffles, honking Western swing and gruff, multi-tracked vocals.” James Burton, Scotty Moore, and D.J. Fontana are guests on one of the best tracks, The Elvis Thing/Mystery Train. Bud Deal, Mike Panno, and Fats Kaplin sat in on the album. Glen Mitchell, financier of The Church Studio, stopped in to play a Hammond B3 organ on I Wouldn’t Tell You No Lie and The Elvis Thing/Mystery Train. Steve and Walt traveled to a Bonnie Raitt gig in Dallas to record her impressive slide guitar solo backstage at the venue for Poor Boy Shuffle. There was even a hidden bonus track titled Hale- Bopp Boogie. 

The Tractors’ video take on the children’s nursery song, Shortenin’ Bread, is set in a magical, fun farmhouse kitchen where vintage appliances fly around while the band ducks and keeps playing. Gary Busey makes a guest appearance as a very bad cook and Gailard Sartain appears having breakfast. 

With the release of the album, the band performed at fairs, festivals, honkytonks, and casinos. However, with the exception of Ripley, the band’s other original core members soon left for other projects.  However, he wasn’t ready to stop the magic by any means.

And as fun as it was, Farmers in a Changing World (1998) would be the final album with the Arista label as well as with all five of the band’s initial core members. Ripley maintained close relationships with them, and they all made cameo appearances on subsequent albums. Throughout the band’s existence, Ripley, the only official member, had stated that The Tractors was more of a “state of mind.”

Post-Tractors Ron Getman joined forces with Van Beek and Tulsa singer/songwriter Wiley Hunt to form the Rusty Cage Band, which entertained the Tulsa area for many years. His other passion was caring for people with special needs. Getman died on January 12, 2021.

Walt Richmond has frequently collaborated with artists like Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton on global hit albums such as Clapton, Old Sock, the 2013 Crossroads Guitar Festival, The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale, and I Still Do. Van Beek and Richmond also formed Casey Van Beek and the Tulsa Groove. They continue to perform and record together, frequently with other Tulsa Sound artists such as Jim Byfield and Charles Tuberville and released the Heaven Forever CD through the Little Village Foundation in 2020. 

Legendary Jamie Oldaker’s Mad Dogs and Okies CD was released in 2005 by Concord Records. It is a one-of-a-kind, country, rock, and blues recording project that brings together artists that are either from Oklahoma or who have been major contributors to–or have been profoundly influenced by–Oklahoma music. It included musicians Oldaker worked with over the years: Eric Clapton, Vince Gill, Taj Mahal, Willis Alan Ramsey, Tony Joe White, Bonnie Bramlett, Peter Frampton, Ray Benson, JJ Cale, Willie Nelson, and others. Oldaker battled lung cancer in the 2010s and was cancer-free. However, the cancer returned, and he died on July 16, 2020, in Tulsa at the age of 68. 

 

Deborah McLaren

Deborah McLaren

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