FAST GIRLS AND COUNTRY MUSIC
The Steve Ripley/Tractors Interview
by Ken Burke
The 1992 hit "Baby Likes To Rock It" made Steve Ripley and his band The Tractors stars virtually overnight. Recording for Arista, they were multi-platinum symbols of Country radio's willingness to embrace elements of Southern rock and boogie.
That was then.
These days, Arista has melded with BMG, country radio has eschewed music with a beat, and some of the Tractors' core members have departed. However, the momentum of singer-songwriter, guitarist, engineer and producer Steve Ripley remains unimpeded. Signing with the hottest independent label in Nashville, he and the Tractors have just released Fast Girls, a catchy fusion of Country rock, boogie, Stax-Volt Soul, and hillbilly swing featuring guest appearances by the likes of Leon Russell, James Burton, and D.J. Fontana. Lyrically irreverent and overflowing with in-the-pocket groove, it's the perfect soundtrack to an upwardly mobile redneck beer bash.
Ripley spoke with us via phone from his Oklahoma studio and discussed his early careers as a sideman for Leon Russell, Bob Dylan, builder of the Kramer-Ripley guitar, his creative vision, and of course his hot run with the Tractors. We started at the beginning.
When and where were you born?
I'm 51 and I was born in Boise, Idaho. My dad was a farmer and a traveling door-to-door salesman, and that pretty well sums me up. My dad was a door-to-door cookware salesman, and that became sort of a big empire but my dad opted out. We moved about twenty times in one year when I was a kid – very shortly through Kansas, then back to the farm in Oklahoma. We were back there by the time I was four.
Where is your hometown situated?
It's in between a town called Stillwater where Oklahoma State University is and Pawnee – the home of the Pawnee Indian tribe in this section of the world. My great, great grandfather they tell me was an honorary chief of the Pawnee Indians. I love that. I have more Cherokee blood in me actually, but the family grew up in the midst of the Pawnee Indians, and I spent some of my youth around Oklahoma City and Tulsa but basically grew up on the farm in a town called Glen Cove, Oklahoma. There were five hundred people in the town, my graduating class had eleven people, I think.
Tell us about the musical influences of your youth.
The first thing in my life is music. I don't know whether this sounds like, as my dad would say, "Bragging, confessing, or complaining," I distinctly remember singing Hank Williams Senior's "Jambalaya" on the front porch on my Uncle Elmer's farm. I talk about my Uncle Elmer and Aunt Mabe in a song called "Higher Ground" on this new record. That's where I heard music a lot, this would've been '53 and '54 – it's handy for me to have been born at midnight on January 1st, 1950, that way I always know the answer to questions like that. Here's what is odd to me. My Uncle Elmer's farm had a real small house - really, it was the original Schatzenbach, my dad's mother, homestead. It had a giant wrap around porch and right around that time, they closed in the porch and made extra bedrooms as more and more kids were added to the family. I've seen an old picture of me standing in front of the closed in porch, so it's after my memory. I'm just this little baby standing in the yard, but my memory is distinct and clear on how much I loved that music and how I was just singing away, and I know that was previous to that picture I saw. The other side of the coin is that I remember now trying to talk about music back then, and how everybody thought I was just so cute. Which was nice, I got attention, but I was frustrated even back then that no one would give me any serious attention. But, now that I've seen this picture, I don't blame ‘em at all anymore, because I was just a little baby. I don't understand how it entered my brain or my being, but it did. [My influences] were Hank Williams on 78 records, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, shortly thereafter, which would've been just the next year, Elvis came out in '54. My cousin, who was Uncle Elmer and Aunt Mabe's daughter, was a teenager and she, like all the other girls in America, flipped over Elvis. The whole family did really. But that whole Hank thing, that's what I listen to still whenever I'm out in my pick-up. We moved from Hank Williams and Bob Wills and began including Elvis and a lot of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and the other Sun guys. I remember all the TV shows. Everybody'd gather around the TV set -- we only had two channels if we were lucky. (Chuckles.) Truthfully, it was great time for a severe acceptance of art, somehow. It was more exaggerated in a way, it was more pointed, because we were on this farm which was at the end of several dirt roads – most of the time muddy roads, and it's hard to get in or out. So, it was like any entertainment that made it that far, that gets through all of that, was a miracle type of thing – a change your life deal. My dad was a big Chuck Berry fan.
Really? That's pretty unusual for back then, wasn't it?
Well, he as a lot younger than I am now – he was half our age. He was a young man of about twenty-five and Chuck had all those car driving songs, and cars and America go together of course. Every Ripley had the brand new fast car every year, whether it was a new Chevy with a big engine – we went through a series of Packards in '56, '57, and '58. It was what you'd think of as, not exactly "American Graffiti," because we're on the farms, but we were living Americana, we weren't playing it. This was the real deal. Everybody just cramming into this little house at Christmas or just on weekends, you're sleeping on the couch or the floor – it can never be that way again. The adults are watching the Saturday Night Fights and I'm sleeping on the couch. It's a great memory. Musically though, I mixed Hank Williams and Elvis with Chuck Berry, and that's what I'm doing now. I went through other things in my life and there are a lot of other ingredients – I love the Beatles and I love Bob Dylan. I played with Bob for a while and I've been lucky enough to have met a couple of Beatles, Creedence Clearwater I love but other than some 70s music – meaning Styx, Journey, and all that sort of crap, all the rest of the stuff is kind of mixed up. But when I got to saying, "Just take a breath, forget everything you've learned, and do what you do," well, what I do is Hank Williams meets Chuck Berry with a lot of Elvis. Coincidentally, I was talking with a disc jockey from when I was a teenager and playing in bands –sort've the "Louie Louie" period of my life, we played teen hops. People in bands think that's just a movie thing, but that really went on, and every Friday and Saturday we were at (disc jockey voice) "Ronnie Kay at the Teen Center!" Sock-hops, so to speak. They'd push it all week on the radio, and you'd show up and get your one hundred and twenty one-dollar bills from the door or whatever. Up through that period of time, music on Oklahoma radio was very mixed together. You could hear Buck Owens, then the next record would be Ray Charles, then whatever were be the pop hits of course, whether that was "Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley" or "I Can't Stop Loving You." Right in there was "Tiger By The Tail," and truthfully, I didn't know it wasn't supposed to be that way, and I guess that's my excuse now.
I had a similar experience growing up near Detroit in the 60s. One minute you'd hear the Statler Brothers, then James Brown, then Dean Martin, The Beatles, Motown, etc. I like music that way; it's a pinball effect in your mind.
That's the way it is to me. I do tend to focus the Tractors' thing a little more than I would if I let loose completely, because it is supposed to be a thing. I see an album as a set like you'd play at the American Legion or for twenty thousand people. It's basically the same length of time, an hour fifteen or whatever, and you're going to play some music for the folks. You start with a song, you end with a song, and there's a bunch of songs in between - it needs to be the right thing for that band. So, the Tractors are intentionally a Tulsa music deal that incorporates all that stuff we're talking about, and that mix is what it is. Never be afraid to let Dean Martin out if he wants to be out. You say Dean Martin, and there were just some amazing records in the 60s, and the 50s too when Dean Martin and Perry Como were really making hits. That was before the second round of records where Dean Martin had the TV show and was singing "Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime" and "Houston" – that group of records.
When did you decide to pick up a guitar and play?
Well that's all I ever wanted to do. I knew that when I was three or four years old. I got my first guitar when I was probably six or seven, when dad was emphasizing the cookware sales side of life. I got my first guitar for Christmas one year, I believe it was about '56. At that point, I was going to be Elvis. I was chunkin' around, singing songs and dancing around like an idiot – and I've been doing it every since. Never stopped.
I've read that you played in honkytonks as a teenager, which I find amazing. What were the names of some of your first bands?
Back then, you did play all the time, everybody was in a band. I went through the Cobras – I can't remember all of them. I was in a band for a long time called The Innkeepers. I think we called ourselves the Innkeepers because my best friend had a band called The Coachmen and that was a great name so we copied them. But that was my WKY disc jockey dance band, and we were on TV a lot. That was certainly Beatles time, but that was the period when you played "Gloria," "Louie Louie," "Midnight Hour," and all those songs. I really played those songs! I'm going to build a four car garage in the back of the studio first, because I can use a garage anyway, but before it turns into a garage, I'll record The Tractors Garage Band Album – and do "Gloria," "Louie, Louie," "Walkin' The Dog," "In The Midnight Hour," and "Money." Everybody played the same songs. That's why I think the Beatles hit home in that era because in Liverpool they were playing exactly the same songs. When they talked about going to Hamburg, Germany and playing eight hours a day, hey were playing those same songs. Worldwide, that set list was pretty much the same for everybody. But that was the Innkeepers. As the 60s progresses, before the 70s hit, the hair of the Innkeepers got progressively longer.
There was a period of time, one of my favorites, when the band was called Moses and had this great graphic image of this Moses-looking guy drawn on the side of this '69 six-cylinder Chevy van. It took me just a few years longer than it should have, but I got with the 60s. I've always been a bit of a religious fanatic – I've been this prude, tea-totaler my whole life, but I did play in every conceivable type of joint from those teenage dances to the Red Dog Saloon in Oklahoma City. It was really one of the best gigs we ever had as a little band. There were at least fifteen topless Go-Go dancers in this building – and my mom came to watch us play! It was just a very Fellini-esque thing, and I'm a Baptist guy. But just like "Baby likes To Rock It" or "Fast Girls," I like to retain a certain naïve quality for my own sensibility. Even at that time, I remember that band, which was as good as my bands got before that whole thing dissolved and I retreated to the recording studio. This is what's funny to most people. This was before country radio. There was always the old, old country radio, but in terms of mainstay radio that you could even get in your car, there was no country car. When I heard Buck Owens, it was on the same channel with James Brown and Ray Charles and the Beatles – or 1910 Fruitgum Company! So, our band was always a mixture of that because that's the music that was popular. That's the music that was happening in Oklahoma. So, there's the Fellini-esque part of this. Here's this Baptist farm boy, with his mom in the audience at the best gig we had, which was the Red Dog Saloon – generally we didn't get gigs that good, playing Jerry Lee Lewis songs, Merle Haggard songs, Chuck Berry songs, Hank Williams songs, and probably 1910 Fruitgum Company. There was a song called "1-2-3 Red Light," but it's still a cute little pop record.
(Laughs.) Did you play any Tommy Roe?
I did play a Tommy Roe song – "Dizzy." We went for everything you know. We played a song by Crazy Elephant that went, "Gimme, gimme some lovin' every night…" They just had a great groove. But I'm just pointing out that it was all just a very odd mixture of stuff that was rooted in country for me – though I didn't know it at the time. We played Creedence Clearwater song and of course that was country music, but we didn't think of it that way. The end of that band period came when Crosby, Stills, and Nash hit – and that was the biggest thing in the world. I actually bought the first album and listened to it a lot, but if I could sing at all, we weren't singing like that. Then also there was Chicago and Blood Sweat and Tears hit, and we loved them, but we had no horns in the band – brass especially. So, we couldn't really do that, so we kept going further out of town to play, because the fraternity gigs were all gotten by those kinds of bands. Either somebody who could sing that type of three-part harmony, and it was sort've Folk music is what Crosby, Stills, and Nash really were, and indoor horn band stuff which we couldn't do. So we just kept going further out of town to play in clubs and stuff.
What was your role with these bands? Lead singer and lead guitarist?
Yeah, I was. Then it all sort've fell apart when that Journey, Foreigner, and Styx thing started, and when Kiss became the next trend, I just quit. Truthfully, I'm not knocking it; I'm just telling you I hate it. You might be the biggest lover of Journey in the world - and I met some of those guys when I was in the guitar business. I met Neil Schon and they're just great, wonderful, multi-talented people, but in terms of just playing rock ballads, I hated the fact that they called it rock'n'roll. So, I just went into the studio and started writing songs and I actually quit playing because of that kind of music. There was some great music in that period. I loved Elton John and Stevie Wonder is from that period, Leon Russell's from that period – he was selling out stadiums. He wasn't the little act he is now, he was a huge megastar, so there was great music, but the predominant pop music of the time and also country music was pretty much horrible. It was poppy, slick stuff too. So, that was my time to start learning how to be a studio guy. I started my first studio in '73 and that went out of business in '74.
What was your last band before the Tractors?
Well the last band was Moses, I guess. I'm a bit confused about that. Then a friend of mine named Joey Click, one of my all-time best friends, he plays bass for Trace Adkins right now – his family is in the car business, he doesn't need to go play, but he just loves music. I met him during that period of time when I quit my band, and we started a band. We had any number of names from an old picture I saw called The Original Oklahoma Cowboy Band. We were that for a little bit, and we were the Original Silver String Submarine Band, which is from a Little Rascals short. I always called it the Click Band because of Joey, but we never really called it that. He used to try and talk me back into playing for a year – that was really the last time I played in '76. Then Charlene and I were married and we moved to Nashville for a while, then I went to work for Leon as an engineer and worked as an engineer, moved to California and played with Bob Dylan. The next gig I played was with Bob, and that would've been '81. Before that, the last gig I played was some little prom out here in North Central Oklahoma, playing for two hundred people in some building out in the middle of a pasture. The next time I actually played in a band was with Bob Dylan in Chicago for twenty thousand people. So, that was kind of a trip. But I really did dissolve into the studio, and now that's what I do in my brain – I record. Not that I don't love to play live but when you're from Tulsa and the Leon Russell/J.J. Cale School Of Recording, you always have a studio. Whether it's in your house or you have one, and that's what you do every day, and the gigs are in addition to that, as opposed to the other way around. If you're a normal country artist, what you do is play all the time and every once in a while you stop and record for two weeks. That's in the other direction for the Tractors and me. The funniest deal is, the last time I sang and played in a band was '76, except for one time Bob surprised me and made me sing one song on a gig. You throw that out, and you go from 1976 in terms of being the bandleader and singing, to 1994 at the CMA Awards on national TV. We had never played as a band; we had just recorded for four years making our first record. So, we did that CMA show, we did two songs at an AIDS benefit on Christmas of that year. Then the first time we really played was the David Letterman Show, New Year's Eve '94. We'd already sold a million-four at that point. So our joke was "Platinum Before Playing." It kind of flew in the face of that "you have to get out and play three hundred dates a year to sell any records" thing. That's just a myth of some kind. Doesn't mean you can not go play and sell records, it just means that whenever you sell records you just somehow get cosmically lucky. There's no formula to get there.
Before you started the Tractors you built guitars, didn't you?
When I worked for Leon as his engineer, I would be miking a Steinway piano - everybody knows that I'm a Steinway fanatic, even though I'm a guitar player. Old Steinways are my passion and it comes from even before Leon. They're an American work of art; the great ones are made in American, not Germany. So, I was till just a kid really, I was twenty-seven, and here I was Leon's engineer and I'm a big Leon Russell fan, he's one of the genius keyboard players of all-time. So, I'm sticking my head under this piano, setting up these mikes on a Steinway piano. I would always stick my head under the lid of the Steinway while Leon was playing, this great stereo sound surrounding me by the greatest piano player, I thought, at the time. It was like the best seat in the house. Then I'd go in the other room and I'd place the mikes so I could get that sound as close as get to a big stereo spread that wasn't tricky or gimmicky. I was so frustrated as a guitar player then. I was signed to his label called Paradise; he went out of business before my record came out. I was so frustrated that my Fender Telecaster guitar couldn't ever be in stereo. Everybody made stereo guitar records, and we still do, by doubling your guitar part and running them left and right, or running them through a stereo chorus or delays – which are great things but I'm not a fan of it. So what I did, was I hired this famous old steel guitar player named Red Rhodes, who worked in Hollywood and also made guitar pick-ups. He made me a six-channel pick-up; there are actually six pick-ups, one for one string. I went through all this rigmarole electronicwise to play each string through an amplifier, and then just set them up in the room left to right, so that I could strum a chord and have that stereo left to right, low to high thing. I just did it for me and I experimented with it, then I tried to get people to come over just to hear it. Leon loved it and I had six of his amps set up in the big room there in California and everybody loved it.
Well then, Jim Keltner, who's the world's greatest session drummer, a Tulsa guy, and a friend of mine, he was playing with Bob Dylan at the time. I told him that I was just the world's biggest Bob Dylan fan and anytime I could meet him, I would sure love to, which was a sincere statement. He called me one day, Leon's thing had kind've disappeared and Leon had moved away, though we still had the studio there. But he called me there one day and said, " Bob just called me and he wants to rehearse the new songs and told me to bring a guitar player. Do you want to go?" So, I'm freaked out, because I don't have much confidence in my guitar playing ability – I like what I play. I can play you all the chords, but as they go by I may not know what they were. So, you either choke or you swing in a situation like that, so I said, " Sure." He knew I loved Bob and he took me for just that one day. Well, after I'd said yes, I realized that my only guitar, which is my Paisley Tele, which I still play, I had chopped up and made into this six-channel guitar. I didn't think taking six amps to a one-day Bob Dylan rehearsal was a very good idea, but I couldn't play it as a normal guitar. So, I stopped on the way and rented this first affordable live mixer that was any good. I rented a Tapco mixer and ran each string into a channel, and it had a pan pot just like mixing a record. So, I had a six by two mixer and I played through two of Bob's amps in stereo, and that was like this blinding light, because no longer did I have to have six amps. Wherever I wanted a string, I just panned it left or right; just like you'd make a stereo record. It had the same stereo effect I was going after; as a matter of fact it was better. Before, if I wanted to move a string, I had to pull a plug or patch it to do something to get it over to that other amp. Now, I could just pan it. So I made a guitar with a little pans on the guitar, so it had stereo out. Anyway, Bob like me, so instead of that one day I stayed that whole year, and we toured Europe and the States, and made "Shot Of Love" and some other recordings. When we got through for the holidays that year, I went back to work making my little guitar. Well, J.J. Cale, who's a friend, he bought one, Fred Tackett, who played with me in the Bob Dylan band and is in Little Feat now, loved it and bought one. Then Steve Lukather of Toto bought one, and all just all of a sudden, I was selling guitars and I sort've got sidetracked. So, I missed the next six years with Bob Dylan and when I looked up, I was selling guitars to guys like Van Halen. Eddie Van Halen became like my buddy and sort of the guy who propped me up, both spirit-wise and economically. He'd loan me some money when I was really broke, and that started a long relationship.
The top guitar company at the time was Kramer guitars, and he was with Kramer, so we had the Kramer – Ripley guitar. At the time there were a lot of high-tech, real fast players, like Satriani, and Al Holdsworth, which I couldn't even begin to do – playing with two hands on the neck and all that stuff. Eddie is just a great genius of guitar, these other guys were really brilliant but it was more like it was technique they learned. Eddie was just born to play that way. I don't really combine them, but that was what was going on then. Dweezil Zappa could play like that and he's a really good friend of mine. On pop records there was no guitar, just synthesizer sort of stuff. So, I thought I would never play guitar again, that of the reasons I found myself making guitars, because I was big fan of all these guys. I could see they were geniuses, then at some point, around '86 my mom was diagnosed with cancer, and I decided I'd like to take care of her. Even when I was doing stuff with Bob in '81 and '82, I was thinking, "l, you know, I'd just like to go back to Oklahoma. Just move my kids back to overall family." Like the Ripleys who moved out of Oklahoma during the dust bowl days, I could see us as just another ranch of the Ripley family ever went home to Oklahoma. So, we made that decision move back both spiritually and psychologically. Then I decided, "Well, maybe it is valid to play Chuck Berry and Hank Williams song and forget about all that [imitates super fast guitar playing] stuff." Sure enough everybody else did too. Dweezil told me a couple months ago; "Guys like us can't make a nickel now." He was sort've making fun of himself, was bemoaning it a bit. The biggest thing in the world during the 80s and it's really nowhere now. It's a very eclectic thing, sort've like jazz is. I do wish that on them, but it's funny how fads come and go. Really, that's what happened to country music. It was the biggest thing in the world in '94, but the reason it was so big is that it was a fad, and relatively speaking it's gone away, it's over. It's not completely over; it's still a bigger business than it was fifteen years ago. But when we moved back then and decided to do the Tractors, several things fell together. I was just back here visiting, hadn't decided yet to move, and the next week I was hanging out on tour with Van Halen. But, I had met a guy who told me, "Y'know, the Church Studio is for sale." That's Leon Russell's old studio. But I said, "I'm not interested in the studio, I'm living in California." But, tying this all together, my old piano was up there. When we got married and left for California, the one thing we couldn't take with us is my seven foot 1914 Steinway piano. I only paid $1800 for it and I sold it to a friend, but he wasn't supposed to be able to sell it with out asking me. Somebody came and offered six grand or something and he called me the next day instead of the day before. I was always kind of upset about all of that – it was my favorite piano that I ever had. That guy said that about the studio, I knew the piano was up here, so I came that next day – they sold it the week before to a college, so it's gone forever. But then I saw the studio. I saw that it was in the weeds businesswise and decided to move. Great, wonderful friend that he is, Eddie funded the move because we were really broke, and we ended up in this building had worked as a flunky for Leon Russell's company in '75 and '76.
About the name, why the Tractors? Why not The Steve Ripley Band?
A guy named Sherman Halsey who makes videos suggested the name, and right now he manages the Clark Family experience. He's the son of Jim Halsey, and I was hired by Jim to build a studio for him Roy Clark. Jim's empire was here in Tulsa, and that was right before we moved to California for the last time. We eventually decided not to build a studio, but during that time I produced a record on Johnny Lee Wills – Bob Wills brother, we had virtually all the great living Texas Playboy guys from Bob and Johnny lee's bands. That's one of my favorite things I ever did, and I also produced a record on Roy Clark and Gatemouth Brown called Makin' Music. Again, that's another of my favorite things. That's when I met Jim Keltner, just because he was a hero of mine. That was a great one-year period of time when I did both of those records that are two of the best things I've ever done. If you put on that Makin' Music LP you'll hear that it sounds just like The Tractors. All the false starts are on there and girls giggling. That' just the way I love to hear records, so whatever the form of music if I can do that stuff all the better. So, really, that was my first Tractors record. Roy is just like Bob Dylan, it's sort've an old school deal, but he gives the performance of his life every time, whether you're rehearsing, or just sitting and running through a song, or whether there's a microphone on or not. It makes no difference; they both sing their hearts out every single time. I love that about those guys. That's the period of time when I met Jim Halsey and moved back for a while, did more stuff with Leon and Bob Dylan and all that stuff. All through that period of time I'm still recording of course, I never stopped writing and making demos. Sherman was only 17 when I worked for Jim and I gave Sherman a tape and to my surprise, one day in my guitar shop in the hills of Burbank, and he said, "I don't know. I like it. Sounds like the Tractors to me." He's that kind of guy and he just came up with that name as an image. Of course he was right, because the only other gig I ever had besides playing guitar was driving a tractor around in circles. It just had a huge impact on me. Then, when I first sent the tapes to Tim DuBois at Arista I included a letter that said, "As much as I've made fun of Barry Manilow in my life, I'm sure that automatically disqualifies me from any Arista consideration." Which it should of, Arista was based on Barry Manilow and I've done nothing but ridicule him since he came out. He's the epitome of pop slick. Tim thought that was really funny and from that point on he was sort of just evangelizing about the Tractors. He loved the name and had quite a few discussions about whether it should be "Ripley" or "Steve Ripley and The Tractors" and he said, "I don't want to screw it up. It should be just the Tractors." He's the one that decided that, because I don't know, nor did I care.
Do you like a certain amount of anonymity, is that why you were more prone to go with a group name?
Well, you know I wanted to sell some records! (Laughs.) There were no selfish, arty reasons; I just wanted somebody to like me. You spend your whole life in the music business, and when I finally quit trying to figure out what some A&R person wanted – we made that first set of recordings just for kicks. If anything we thought we could get a little record deal, sell ten thousand records each year, make a lot of record because we could make ‘em cheap, go out and play. We sent that tape to only one record company, which was Tim DuBois at Arista, he loved, and they exploded, and all of a sudden I was signed to a major label. I liked the idea of it being a thing, because as Steve Ripley – well, it's the hardest thing in the world to figure out who you really are. People come in here saying they want to be a star and I say, "Well, you play a lot of different kinds of music, but what do you want to do?" They say, "I love all kinds of music, whatever." Then I say, "What do you really love? If you could only do one thing for the next ten years, what would that be?" That's really a hard question. So, I liked the idea of the Tractors as a thing that we could help evolve and shape and figure out who that is. I figured that would be easier than figuring out who I am, because I keep shifting on that. So, there's a focus that I as Steve Ripley, as confused as I am, can apply to this thing called the Tractors that is the major part of my life and has been now for fifteen years. I think Tractors and everything I do is filtered through that when I'm doing my work. So, at once you can really be severe with it and pointed, and at the same time you get to shift it around, hide behind it. (Laughs.)
What other Tractor's projects do you have on the slate?
I'm making a kid's record right now. I've been wanting to do that for a long time. The vision I had for the Tractors was the regular records of which there's now been three, then these extra records. Which were going to be, the Christmas Album, The Tractors Gospel Record, The Tractors Kids Record, The Tractors Garage Band Record, the Tractors Instrumental Record, then it could go on then, because I certainly want to do Tractors Do Chuck Berry, Tractors Do Hank Williams and tribute records like that. So there's about seven or eight, but specifically those four or five records that I always pitched Arista. They always said it was a great idea, and they let me do the Christmas album, and it sold great. So, I never understood why they wouldn't let me try the kid's album, which was the next one, or the Gospel album, which was the next one. So when Arista went out of business, and no matter what anybody tells you, there's a new presence, but one day at two o'clock they closed the doors and had to be out of there – they went out of business. When I signed this deal with Nick Hunter at Audium, which I did because I love his enthusiasm, and it's a little label like Arista was when it started. At the first meeting with Nick and Simon Renshaw who's now the Dixie Chicks manager, 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. So, I'm in the middle of that. I'm actually going to make another Tractors Christmas record because the demand is quite astounding and Arista, RCA, and BMG have let that thing fall off the face of the earth. So the last two Christmas', nobody could find it.
Will this all be fresh material?
It's all a mixture. Actually, on the kid's record I thought I would basically be singing old songs. I did sing "This Old Man He Plays One," and my version really hits a Tractors groove. Then I did "Old Macdonald," you haven't lived until you've heard me go "E-I-E-I-O" and the chicks go cluck and all that. (Laughs.) I get a little confused about what animal makes what noise sometimes. There's a couple covers but I started writing and I've written seven of the songs. Right now I'm just well into the middle of the first process, which is writing the songs and getting my vocals and guitars and stuff done. Then I start building it up. Somebody once said, "All the Tractors albums really are kid's records, we're just calling this one a kid's record." (Laughs.) We did "Shortnin' Bread" and "Baby Likes to Rock It," the reason we sold two million records on it was because kids loved it – something about choo-choo trains. It had a groove.
Is that intentional?
Oh yeah, it's essential to me. That doesn't mean big time drums, though all our records are pretty drum-oriented, but like I said, I listened to Hank Williams most of the time. There are virtually no drums, but the groove is just like a big Grand Canyon cut through the earth, it's so deep you just can't get out of it.
There's that tic-tac sound of his guitar that I think you replicate by having the crisp snares upfront.
That's very brilliant of you. They evolved that and it became sort of a rockabilly deal, but most of that is Hank Williams. On the hits, most of that is Chet Atkins as a kid, but there's a lot of that muted guitar thing, which became a signature sound for the Johnny Cash records – still not using a drummer. Then as the drums came along there was sort of a brush train snare drum while the stand-up bass player was doing some clacking stuff. It's all very much the same thing. Tell us a little something about the other boys in the band.
All of those guys you're thinking of quit about a year and a half ago. I don't even know what happened, (laughs) but they decided they didn't want to go on the road or whatever.
No personal altercations, they just said, "We're done?"
Well we had plenty of personal altercations throughout out career, but none at the end. We played the summer before, we don't play that much, we had gone out and played some fairs and festivals and everything was swell. We played a New Year's Eve gig that year. They knew I was working on this new record deal, and I think it's so painful to be in the music business that they just decided they didn't want to continue. Jamie, the drummer, who plays on this new record, is intensely involved with a start-up record company in Nashville. Walt, 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 and he just doesn't like to leave the house. Again, it's sort of the Leon Russell / J.J. Cale school of recording. J.J, Cale, the most famous records he did on his porch even before all this technology, "Crazy Mama," "Call Me The Breeze," and those types of things. Those guys, Walt, Jamie, Casey, and Ron, those guys are some of my oldest friends and when I moved back to Tulsa I just looked to see who was around and that's who became the defacto Tractors. There's a guy named Fats Kaplin who plays fiddle and steel since our first gig and still plays with us.
Then there's Bud Deal and Mike Panna the saxophone player, they're from California, and they've been with me for six years too. So, they're all, in my mind, permanent Tractors. Then when you look at, but when you start with the first record and count ‘em all up, there's about twenty people playing serious stuff, but all in all, I think we had fifty people on that first record - Tulsa people and friends. Leon Russell is playing on all the records, James Burton – Elvis' guitar player has played on all the records, and Jimmy Karstein has played in and around all the records and played live on some big festival we did. He played with Cale forever and Joe Cocker. David Teagarden plays with me some and he's in the new video and he's a Bob Seger drummer. All these people are just Tulsa guys and world class folks. Then you have Willie Weeks playing on the new record, this r&b bass player I first saw on a George Harrison tour in '73. He's everybody's favorite bass-player and he played a lot on this new record. Truthfully, I miss those guys everyday, and if any one of them walks in, they're welcome. Casey came over last week and Walt played a bit on the kid's record, so there no animosity here. When you get to the mindset, the original vision of the thing, the weird thing is that those guys played for so long. I've always looked at it like the Count Basie Band or something, just a big group of people who'd get together and make some noises.
It's more so like that now. If there's anything different about this record there's two things: It's closer to what I originally told you was the idea of a small record company and making the record semi-fast, but there's not quite the restraints of having a huge record deal. It might've been me who placed those restraints, I don't know. In any case, there was always this sort of dampening factor that is not there now because Audium is just a brand new company and Nick Hunter just says, "Go for it man, I love your band." That's his only technical input. There's more joy for that reason and a little more country r&b gets back into things. I probably had more fun making this record than any other. So hopefully that comes across. James Burton played on all the records, but boy he played a lot on this record. If you are ever lucky enough to sit next to James Burton playing guitar, well it's just a dazzling thing. DJ Fontana plays the crucial drum intro and drum part of "Can't Get Nowhere," which is our first single. When you get to hang around people like that, it hardly gets any better.
You're the first person I've ever seen give him a writer's credit. How did that come about?
That drum part is from an Elvis record called "My Baby Left Me," and everybody who knows me knows that's my favorite record intro of all time – maybe with the simple "Two, Three, Four!" of "I Saw Her Standing There." (Imitates opening of "My Baby Left Me.") When Scotty and DJ were here to play on our last record, something called "The Elvis Thing," which is a tribute to their deal. They were just taking requests, so I had DJ playing what was really the intro to "My Baby Left Me," and it was so important to my life that I just felt he deserved writer's credit. So, it's a big part of "Can't Get Nowhere," it's the signature lick of the song. It's not only a way for me to say thanks and give a tip of the hat but it's also now my favorite part of that record.
I don't think that DJ has a writer's credit with anyone else.
I doubt it and that's part of bringing some balance to the universe. I would tell you straight out that part of it is selfishly getting to see my name next to his, "Steve Ripley, DJ Fontana." I gave him credit on "The Elvis Thing" too; it says "Steve Ripley, Scotty Moore, DJ Fontana, and James Burton." One of my quests as a guitar playing fanatic and fan is to get Scotty and James Burton in the same room together. They don't normally, because Scotty played on the first half of Elvis' career and James did the second. They get along fine but they never play together. Scotty didn't play on this record because he went to Europe right at the wrong time.
Is it intimidating working with your former boss Leon Russell?
Well yeah, it is. What I learned is that everybody's insecure. I dedicated the record to him; he really is Uncle Leon. This is twenty-five years of working indoor, knowing, and being best friends with Leon. So the biggest thing we had to get through was, bless his heart, he doesn't play acoustic piano at all anymore. He's so far into modern technology and keyboards, but bless my heart, I don't use ‘em at all. There's no synthesizer's on my records and I have six Steinways - partially because of Leon anyway. Anyway, there's Leon talking and we're all talking, and it gets on the record. At the end of "Ready To Cry," without jiving you, he takes a phone call from his wife while we're still recording. You don't get that with a synthesizer. Back to the intimidation thing, you know I'm always a little freaked out. With Scotty and DJ here that day, I love it, I'm a kid in a candy store. It's a little bit of a blur the next day when I look back on it. But Leon's deal with Steve: "Never have a band." So, he loved the fact that my band had quit. (Laughs.) He always plays on the records but for this record I told him, "Leon when you come to town this time it isn't just a token appearance, you've got to actually play some piano." He came and it was just like I imagined what Leon's Hollywood sessions in the 60s were like. He was real serious about it, and like I do everybody, it was all first takes. But he listened to the song one time, which I don't generally let people do, wrote himself a little Leon Russell Hollywood chart, sat down, I hit record, and that's what's on those records. He played on three songs, "Ready To Cry," which is astounding. You have to listen for how much the piano is part of that record and designated what Willie was going to play on the bass. Also "Fast Girl," I'm not into hot licks anyway, but he plays the body of that song, makes it boogie and rock, then he also plays some country gospel piano on my little autobiographical song "Higher Ground." He also plays some Fender Rhodes on that. You know, I don't really stick anything out front so you really have to listen for it, but then he played B-3 on "Ready To Cry." I don't suppose he played B-3 in 15 – 20 years, and I know he hasn't played Steinway for anybody but me in 15 –20 years.
"Ready To Cry" is my favorite song on the album. Any chance of that being a single?
They talk about it because everybody I know says that. (Laughs.) Everybody's a sucker for a ballad. I don't care for ballads and I don't care to hear me sing one, but this does have a groove and it's kind of haunting.
There's a little bit of that Memphis Stax-Volt sound burbling in and out of just about everything.
That's exactly right. There's a lot more saxes and horn parts that are that greasy Stax deal, and that was a big part of that music we loved when the Tractors were kids. Here's the odd mixture of what I listen to - I listen to Webb Pierce. Knocks me out - always have always will. The fiddle and steel are nothing I can even come close to. The same goes for Hank Williams Sr. The double Chuck Berry record with the yellow cover that they don't make anymore. Big Joe Turner with "Shake, Rattle, and Roll," "Flip, Flop, And Fly," and a song he sings called "Boogie Woogie Country Girl" which is as big a root for "Baby Likes To Rock It" as anything else is, and a song I will cut someday. That mixture of r&b and country and what we used to think of as rock'n'roll, but its all very country. Then you throw in some Louis Prima, which I really love, and Buck Owens, and all of those things that skirt the edges. And that's why I'm so confused. (Laughs.)
Tell us about how Moon Mullican inspired you.
Well, when I was working for Leon, there was another guy named Michael Johnstone, who's a fine steel guitar player, we were both just basically engineer guys for Leon out in California. He knew what I loved and he had found this Moon Mullican Greatest Hits. I knew Moon Mullican from when I was a kid and the song "Cherokee Boogie," which he wrote and had the original hit on, and also a song called "Tokyo Boogie." Both of those songs I remember because I loved funny songs when I was a little kid. But when he made me a cassette of Moon Mullican's Greatest Hits and that's when I was thinking about going back to Oklahoma to be the Tractors. And, in terms of inspiration to move, it was that tape, and I ripped it off so much I thought I'd better do one of his tunes. So that song "Don't Ever Take My Picture Down," is one of my favorites on that cassette and I don't want to give away too many because who's ever reading this might record ‘em before I do. (Laughs.) I was going to do "Cherokee Boogie," but BR-549 on the same label cut it before I did. Unfortunately they copied Johnny Horton's version. I loved Johnny Horton, but his version is not nearly as good as Moon's. So they scooped me on that at the same label, I just could've killed ‘em. You have to realize, the first thing we ever did as the Tractors is our song called, "The Santa Clause Boogie." In there is the same blues changes thing, but when I go to the five chord to sing "Take some time to believe in Santa Claus" well there's one point where I go "Whoa-ho, na witch en nai hey!" Which is Cherokee for something, I don't know what, but it's from the "Cherokee Boogie" by Moon Mullican. So, I had already sung that on record as a nod to Moon. So, when Arista put out BR-549's version of "Cherokee Boogie" out from underneath me, it was the beginning of the end for my relationship with that label. Bless their hearts, it isn't BR-549's fault; I just couldn't understand how they scooped me on about three songs. One's called "The Honky Tonk Song" which is a Webb Pierce record that Mel Tillis wrote. It's just an amazing song and I had copied the lyrics off, had it on my laptop, getting ready to record it for my second record when BR-549's record came out on that. So I was like, "OK, I'm going to make a list of all the songs I want to cut and if they cut ‘em, I'm going to kill somebody." (Laughs.) Anyway, I love Moon he was an amazing piano player and I thought he was a great singer, and a great writer. Everything I loved about country music and rock'n'roll from that period, he summed it up.
Your vocal on the Huey Piano Smith inspired tune "Nine Eleven" sounds a bit like Dr. John, was that intentional?
Oh yeah, I loved Dr. John, not only for his (imitates Dr. John) shall I call it singing quality, which I inadvertently share (laughs). It isn't that I modeled myself after him but at some point you just start to sound like this, I guess. I also love Huey Piano Smith, he's around the edges of those other influences I mentioned, and of the four or five CDs I always have with me is a New Orleans compilation which has stuff like (sings) "Don't You Just Know It, uh-uh-uh-uh." Of course "Rockin' Pneumonia," and of course "Sea Cruise" is the best record ever made. So, I just intentionally wrote "Rockin' Pneumonia" or that form again. I thought it might be a way to meet Huey, because he doesn't play anymore, he's real involved in his church and evidently doesn't play and I never really hear much about him. I have his address and I wrote the letter, but I don't really have the nerve to send it. I'm such a fan, that I don't know what to say to him. So, I just hammered it out with Warner/Chappell who owns the song. They listened to it and we had long discussions about how much it shared with it and how much it didn't. They finally said, "Well, you know there's millions of songs like this. Just pretend you never asked us." I went to them. I said, "No, you don't get it. I want to see Steve Ripley, Huey Piano Smith, and Willie Weeks together on the same line." It's the closest I'll ever get to immortality. Some point, fifty years from now, if they look up Huey Piano Smith's list of songs, they'll be one that says "Nine Eleven, Steve Ripley, Huey Piano Smith, Willie Weeks." (Laughs.)
That first line in "It's A Beautiful Thing," where you put away your Faron Young CD long enough to get a Hootie & The Blowfish disc, and then sailed it out the window expressed my sentiments exactly.
(Laughs.) Well, there is a little corner here we lovingly refer to as "Hootie Corner," because it's a true story. I'm really not one to sit around and knock much, but I was so immersed in my roots that I seldom listen to outside stuff, and when I do but it's for research purposes. So, here's this group that sold sixty eleventy-billion records, and I went out to Best Buy one day, which is sort of by where I live about twenty minutes from the studio, and I bought myself that first album. I was only listening to Faron Young at that time. I was in the last Ford pickup I had and I didn't have a changer, so I pulled out the Faron Young and put it in it's package as I'm driving down the street. 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. Truthfully, I went through a little period of affluence perhaps, but never been rich and certainly I'm not now, so fifteen bucks is not lightly dismissed. I thought, "There's a used CD store just about five minutes up the road, after all it's brand new." Then I thought, "No, I don't think the world should ever hear this." So I sailed it out the window like a Frisbee and it flew on the wings of a dove. It looked real pretty; it was one of those great throws. It just sailed and landed on that corner that we now refer to as "Hootie Corner." Then, I threw the album jacket in the back of the pick-up. After that, I didn't throw ‘em out the window anymore. If they didn't make the cut, they just went into the bed of the pick-up to live with elements for a while. (Laughs.) But I'm not really knocking them. I'm just telling you that I didn't get it. It might not be anything to do with Hootie and the Blowfish. Obviously fifteen million people did get it. So, it's not so much about the music as it is about me. I am stuck in a thing and that's what I think sounds the best. I just try to marry the old with the new and hopefully sell a few records so hopefully I can make another one – if nothing else. I was pleased to see the reviewer in Billboard say that our new album is both "loose and tight at the same time." Well, that's the goal. Up at the top of my goals as the producer/hat guy in this band is not to sing every note in tune, which I can't do, or to have Bob Dylan quality poetry, which I can't do. I shoot for a performance at the moment, but at the top of my list of goals is ten years from now you can put on the record and say, "Hey I remember that record. That's a really good record." Where as most of the records that are selling a lot, if you put them on in ten or twenty years, it'll be like bell-bottoms, "What a joke. I can't believe we're listening to that." I would hate that about making some product for the world that the world doesn't really need on a long-term basis. Y'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.
Speaking of Faron Young, have you ever seen the movie “Country Music Holiday" with Faron Young, Ferlin Husky and June Carter?
Yes, I have. June sings "Wing Dang Doodle" or something like that. There's this scene where they go in the club, and Zsa Zsa Gabor enters. They want her to come in and listen to this new singer, who was Ferlin Husky's character. When he meets her he says, "Well, pleased to meet yuh, ma'am. We're all big fans of your back home, and she says, "I hear you sing peasant music." He says, "Country music, ma'am." Then he gets up to sing and she asks to the guys at the table, "Can he really sing?" they say, "Can he sing? Listen to this!" Does that ring a bell?
That's it exactly.
That's from that movie and that's how I got my record deal. I saw that movie and loved it so much, and taped it on my VCR. I took that whole scene and edited it until it sounded like they were talking about me. Zsa Zsa enters the room and she says to me the character, "I hear you sing peasant music." And I say, "Country music, ma'am." Then you hear the applause and Zsa Zsa asks, "Can he really sing?" And they say, "Can he sing? Listen to this!" Then it goes; "All across the South, they've got the boogie bands that sound so fine..." DuBois flipped over that so much that he played it for everybody in Nashville for about six months. That was three years before the record came out. So you have hit close to home there, buddy.
So, your love of Faron Young led to big things?
Yes, that year we outsold Alan Jackson, Brooks and Dunn, and we were the Number four BMG act in the world. It was Ace of Base, Kenny G, one other act and then the Tractors. The catch phrase they were using to describe us back then was "Young Country." All of us, we laughed, because we were at least in our forties. I tried to get DuBois, and I don't understand why he didn't see this, but I tried to get him to let me make a tribute record, doing those songs, and calling it "Young Country" because that's what was rockin', those guys in '57. All of those guys including Faron, Webb Pierce, and Carl Smith, they were rockin'. It was rockin' country and it was young country and they don't get enough credit for that.
Did you feel that you may have missed out on a string of hit records because Country radio has changed their demographic skew towards female fans?
Well, it isn't just a matter of imagining it. Now, oddly enough the skew is more toward older folks. I don't know how they'll be able to sell anything on radio then. Most of the regular stations are now oldies or greatest hits, or the Best Of the Best, George Strait, The Dixie Chicks and stuff. Then a bunch of old George Strait and Alabama or something. I have a degree in radio and TV. In and among the rambling seven minute records we make with fades that don't really fade, and false starts and stuff, are little three minute songs where I'm trying to write a hit. But the deal is - I don't currently agree with what are hits now, so I'm outside of the thing and nobody ever expected to play any Tractors records. What happened with "Baby Likes To Rock It" was they played it their token three times of something and the phones just rang right off the wall. Even in college when I was going after my degree in TV and radio, they always talked about phones ringing off the wall, but it virtually never happens. But for "Baby Likes To Rock It," the phones rang off the wall, people wanted to hear it again and again and again. So, they just bit their tongues and went ahead and played it. Because Arista or nobody else can afford to, even if the wanted, pay off a bunch of promotion guys. Any of that stuff that stuff goes on, it never went on for us. So, it's virtually impossible to get a record played. Actually, I'm content with what airplay we get, but it's really hard for a lot of people.
Which stations are playing your records these days?
Audium works a lot of the non-reporters and there are a lot of those people on-board for our first single. There are two thousand country stations; there's only a hundred and fifty that make up the charts. But of the hundred fifty, we have ten really key stations that are playing the record, which is better than "Baby Likes To Rock It" did at first. I'm not discouraged and there's hundreds of the non-reporters playing it, and they always did. That thing that was the Americana Charts, that went away, but that's those stations. We went right to number one on the Gavin chart when we came out last time. So, that's what we've had was this sort of grass roots deal. It's been so long since we've had a single that we don't bang ‘em over the head. Sometimes that's a blessing and sometimes that's a curse, because you go out of sight and out of mind, and I know that. While I myself was out of sight out of mind, the whole industry went away. (Laughs.) I didn't count on that part. We were in Nashville last week to do this sort of thing and edit the new video and it's disturbingly sad down there. Music Row, the majority of the buildings have "For Rent" or "For Sale" signs on them. There's nobody there. The new Country Music Hall Of Fame was built with empire boom money, but at the same time inadvertently, the old building which is at the head of Music Row there at 16th Avenue South, is vacant. Weeds are growing up and there's just a tiny bit of the sign left. It doesn't speak to the Country Music Hall Of Fame, which is moving to an amazingly glorious building, but inadvertently, it seemed so symbolic of the whole thing. It's just a sad state. Anyway, I knew about out of sight, out of mind when we made the second record. We took too long to get the second record out. It took four years to get that out, and I knew the risk of going out of the public eye, but what I didn't know was that the industry itself would change so much. I said that back in '98, and boy, if I thought it had gone away in '98, it's really disappeared now. It is just gone, relatively speaking. I'll stick with this statement that I make a lot. The dust will settle and I can see the dusty horizons looking west in Enid, Oklahoma as I've done many times going to play a club. As the sun sets and it's a beautiful thing on the plains, but as the dust settles, I just want to be standing. Maybe I won't be standing: maybe I'll be sitting on my old John Deere B.
Since you're from Oklahoma, what can you tell us about the "Red Dirt" sound?
There's a lot of red clay here, and that's where that term comes from. When we as Moses made our only record, it was Live In Enid At The Filling Station (laughs), it's a horrible record. I guess I was twenty-two. We were putting out our own record, which wasn't done back then very often, but we dragged the Ampex down there and recorded at our favorite club and it's got everything from a Van Morrison song, to one original, to "Oakie From Muskogee." It was just our little band! We were trying to think of what label this should come out on, because this is our own record. So, we came up with Red Dirt Records and there's a guy named Carl Brune who did a logo for us that has work boot stuck in red mud. That's the birth as far as I know of Red Dirt music. Right now, there's a guy just beneath me in age, is a guy in Stillwater, Oklahoma named Jimmy LaFave, and Moses was his hero in a way. We were actually playing real gigs and he was a younger kid. Now, to my amazement, twenty-five to thirty years later, there's this Red Dirt thing going on. There are the Red Dirt Rangers, who are friends of mine, and they always give a nod to the Red Dirt records thing. They're all kind of playing the same music as I did back then, which is the same thing as Tractors, except that there's a lot more Bob Dylan involved. Jimmy La Fave's sets remind me a lot of the old Moses sets except that he plays a lot of Bob Dylan, and he's the king. He lives and records in Austin and has made brilliant records that are mostly live. He's really the guy who has done the most, and some of them like the Red Dirt Rangers, have moved to Glenco, all of this is coincidental. But they're living within two or three miles of where I lived as a kid, out in the country, doing their Red Dirt music. Bob Childers is the pure form Bob Dylan character in this area, the one seen as the daddy of all these groups. I'm watching with the amusement of a granddaddy or something, and I'm pleased to have had any part of it. There's a movement going on.
Will you be touring behind this new album?
I will play in the late summer and fall. Like I said, Fats and Bud are the key to the band, and a guy named Jay Spell played on most of this record, he's a blind piano player from Myrtle Beach. He went to Blind School with Ronnie Milsap. That's who played last year including the two drummers Jimmy Karstein and David Teagarden. I may take Jim Bates and the original guy pegged to be the Tractors bass player, he's an amazing upright player who played on the two Western Swing songs on the record and he's in our new video. James Burton wants to go play; he's in the new video. It's just that conglomerate of guys. At some point it doesn't make any difference. You have those key guys who play the key parts, I point to somebody and they play a solo. All the songs are in the form that they are on the records, but within in that framework that nobody knows, including me, will be whoever I swirl around at and point to. That's what made Bob Wills great and I think that's what made Bob Dylan great. That spontaneity which is what bandleaders are supposed to do. When you<