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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.
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."