If the Tractors’ eponymous hit debut doesn’t sound like any other country disc to come out of Nashville, there’s a reason: It didn’t. In fact, everything about the album-which sold over 500,000 copies after three months and broke into the top 30 of Billboard‘s pop chart, thanks to a top 15 country single, ”Baby Likes to Rock It” — flies in the face of the Music City way of doing business.
For starters, the Tractors play a variation of the Tulsa Sound, a rough-edged mix of black and white gospel, Delta blues, ’50s country, Western swing, and roots rock that hasn’t enjoyed a commercial heyday since Leon Russell’s run on the rock charts in the early ’70s. Furthermore, the album was recorded in Oklahoma (where the band formed in 1989) at the Church Studio, a former house of worship that Russell wired for sound two decades ago. ”It came out a little broken-sounding, but we see that as a plus,” explains Steve Ripley, the band’s lead singer, chief songwriter, and coproducer, who also once served as Russell’s engineer.
Last but not least, the band’s decidedly grizzled and middle-aged members (average age is 46) challenge country’s current love affair with slick, hat-wearing glamour boys. ”People are responding to the non-slick approach. They’re looking for music that changes their lives, the way the Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry records did for old farts our age,” believes Ripley, 44, who named his son Elvis Aaron.
Predictably, Nashville record labels are now scrambling to sign Tractor soundalikes. While one of Ripley’s goals is to produce some of Tulsa’s overlooked talent, his bigger hope is that 12- and 14-year-olds will call the Tractors’ 800 number (800 SHUFFLE) and discover the band’s influences. ”If we can be a conduit to people who’ve never heard Hank (Williams) Sr.,” he says, ”then we’ll have done something valid.”