western

Stagecoach To Somewhere – The Tractors

Steve Ripley is the lead man in the band called The Tractors.   He has long red hair and facially he looks a little like Mick Hucknall who used to be the lead singer of Simply Red and who remains an unashamed Manchester United fan.  Other than that, though, the Tractors appear to be beyond criticism.  Ripley has played for Bob Dylan, which is either a paradox or an irony because The Tractors make you think of what the world might have been if Elvis Presley had retained his appetite for supremacy or if Bob Dylan had not picked up a guitar in Greenwich Village and instead merely written Alan Ginsberg sound alike poetry.

The Tractors play unpretentious rockabilly and country music.  The backbeat on the drums is simple and

The Tractors

The Tractors

relentless.  In the You Tube videos the drummer often plays just one drum.   This is don’t give a damn élan.   The detail on their records, though, is important because, crude backbeat apart, The Tractors are musical.  The band members are in demand musicians.  Indeed, The Tractors is hardly a band.  It consists of musicians who assemble from time to time to make an album.  They have only made a handful of albums in nearly 20 years.  Similarly, the concerts have been sparse.   Membership of the group can vary although there is a core with Steve Ripley as a powerful centre and leader.  Guests have also appeared in the studio and they have been impressive.  Leon Russell, Bonnie Raitt, Scotty Moore, D J Fontana, James Burton and J J Cale have all played on Tractor records.

Apart from being a talented guitarist, Steve Ripley also has engineering skills, which he uses to make records in a singular way.  He records a basic track with the band in one take and with one mike.  Ripley argues this is necessary if he is to capture the excitement heard on the records of Elvis and Chuck Berry.  If this sounds like minimal purism, there is a modern compromise.   The stereo detail has to come from somewhere.  After the basic track and feel has been captured Ripley then works with individual musicians to include additional contributions.  This mix of approaches does not sound like a recipe for integrity but whatever he is doing it appears to work.  The records bounce and are also interesting.  Although the groove is important and the loyalty to the backbeat an article of unwavering faith, the listener can recognise usually brief references to various American musical forms such as Western Swing, Cajun, rhythm and blues and hard core country. Because life is complicated you can even hear the influence of Bob Dylan on the songs I Wouldn’t Tell No Lie and A Little Place Of Our Own.  Mainly, though, the Tractors remain true to the roots of rock and roll.

Trade Union

Their lyrics are unpretentious but have unwavering loyalty to the common man.  They are sharp but avoid being self-consciously smart.  Whether the Tractors lean to the left or the right is difficult to determine but any band that releases an album called Trade Union has to have political potential and is worth a vote.  The first album by the Tractors featured a song called Blue Collar Rock.  It avoids social comment and is more about ageing than politics but the title like their music shows which side they are on, that of ordinary people.   Perhaps this is what makes them musically conservative or at least so willing to acknowledge the past.  They associate rock and roll with a time when the ordinary had potential and power.  Ripley even remembers when Elvis was King and his line in the song, Trying To Get New Orleans, where he admits ‘I need a little Elvis’, describes accurately the symptoms for those fans addicted to the music of the great hip-swiveller.   In fact, their Presley tribute, The Elvis Thing, leads the pack of songs that have been recorded about Elvis.   Scotty Moore and D J Fontana feature on the record but Ripley makes no attempt to recreate the music of Elvis.  Somehow, he honours the legacy in a way beyond others.  The record is heartfelt and genuine, and the absence of opportunism makes it feel clean and worthwhile.   The same can be said of all of the rock and roll music made by the Tractors.  It differs from what they honour because they have their own sound but nobody doubts what they value and respect.

Identity is always important in the best of American music, which is why traditions continue despite the efforts of the powerful. The alternative identities range between genres, regions, class and race and are important because they are rooted in experience that is actually independent of the music.  America is a flag waving country in a way that many Europeans like to avoid.  But the flags are many and numerous.  Not always but often they are independent of the Stars and Stripes, the gloved fist of Black Power is an obvious example.

The first album of The Tractors begins with the song, Tulsa Shuffle.   Ripley has also spoken of his faith in the music of his region and what he thinks is a special commitment by local musicians to a foot stomping beat.  Clearly, there is a taste for full tilt music in Oklahoma.   The Tractors album, Fast Girl, was dedicated to 60s hero, Leon Russell, and there is a connection.  Russell in his prime leaned more to gospel roots than the Tractors but both, perhaps to compensate against limited vocal talent, push the beat and groove to the limit.

The second album of the Tractors includes Poor Boy Shuffle and the regional identity becomes more important because it champions a belief not only in place but the people of that place.  The concern for the ordinary over the influential is reflected in the two albums, Have A Tractors Xmas and The Kids Record.  The albums have a great beat and a good time feel that makes them essential but the latter, with songs like Old McDonald Had A Farm, does not shy away from the kind of material that got Elvis into such trouble.  Like the back beat on the single drum it is more do not give a damn élan.

Although important, loyalties will not obscure truth forever. Place and communities cannot prevent inevitable disappointment.  My Blue Heart is a bleak ballad and an honest soul baring account of a broken heart.  Social identity is meaningless when intimate kinship and love disappears.   Ready To Cry is also powerful and, despite the backbeat ensuring that it will never qualify as deep soul, the song itself would be worthy of any great soul singer.   Inevitably, the vocal of Ripley is influenced by Elvis, not because Ripley wants to sound like the King, he does not, but because the material needs vocal ambition.

The concerns of Ripley and his pride in identity are never chauvinistic.  The music for all its confident twilight-zonechirpiness contains like horror fiction, fear and longing.  It is no surprise that Stephen King is a Tractors fan.  The fear is for what may come next, as in the soulless world that is described in Computer Controlled, and the longing is for what could have been and occasionally might have been in the past, days evoked in the song Good Old Days.   But, because what we want and what is are often different, the potential for horror exists.  For the Tractors, who are committed to having fun, the horror is more good humoured than terrifying and not unlike one of the more whimsical episodes of the Twilight Zone.  Those who think this fanciful should watch the video of their hit, Baby Likes To Rock It.  Twilight mastermind, Rod Serling, would not only approve, he would risk a dance.  In fact, his apparition might be there in the crowd.  Watch carefully.

 

Watch the Tractors perform Baby Likes To Rock It:

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Stagecoach To Somewhere – Dwight Yoakam

This week I am pleased to announce that ‘No Money Honey’ is finally on sale worldwide at the right price.  If you want to read more about American music, click here to buy an advance copy here.

 

We also have a new website at Red Rattle Books – have a look at the new site to find out about forthcoming books and new Red Rattle authors.

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Dwight Yoakam

Usually, people go quiet when I mention Dwight Yoakam.  I have only had two extended conversations about his merit and oddly they both occurred within 24 hours.  In the first, I was introduced to a young Elvis Presley fan.  He combed his hair like Elvis and he appeared to be interested in glamour that conquered.   Whilst we were discussing the importance of Elvis I suggested that the legacy of Presley had been long forfeited through the influence of people like Dylan and because no serious musician really relished competing with the memory of Elvis.  The young Elvis fan disagreed and said that Yoakam not only embodied Elvis in modern music but that he represented the future of

Dwight Yoakam

Dwight Yoakam

American rock and roll.  Fifties Elvis lives, he said, or something like that.  I was puzzled by this odd example of rockabilly enthusiasm and also wary of accepting the argument but it did not prevent me the next day from recommending the music of Yoakam to a friend.  The friend was as hostile as the young Elvis fan had been enthusiastic.  Both men were rock and roll fans although neither were entrenched purists.  The young Elvis fan was too devoted to his complicated and versatile hero, and my friend also liked American folk and was a big fan of Johnny Cash.  The CDs of Yoakam are classified in Internet search-engines as rock, country and folk.  Yoakam is left wing and has expressed his pride in the tradition of political protest that exists in American country music.  I expected Yoakam to appeal more to the Johnny Cash fan than the potential Elvis imitator.  Not for the first time has a judgement of mine about others been hopelessly wayward.

Dwight Yoakam has recorded 21 albums and sold more than 25 million records.  His album, ‘This Time’, sold enough to be classified as Triple Platinum, which for those who are easily confused by extra noughts means an awful lot.  It is his blandest effort but the up tempo rock and roll may have convinced the young fan with the hair that he was listening to someone who would fill the vacuum left by Elvis.  Equally, the commercial ambitions probably persuaded the Johnny Cash fan that Dwight Yoakam is without merit.  Interestingly, Yoakam does an excellent version of ‘Understand Your Man’, and it qualifies as one of the best covers ever of a Johnny Cash record.

Yoakam does not need apologists.  Not only has he sold a lot of records, he has managed to be a key figure in American country music and has managed it without having to exclude rock and roll and hard core bluegrass from his repertoire.   Nor has he been reduced to grinning inanely at the CWMA awards.  He has also had a decent career as an actor, which is how he started in college as a young performer.  He has even produced and directed a Western.  Admittedly, his film is terrible which is why sensitive souls are being spared the title here but Yoakam is excellent as the loser sheriff in the movie, ‘The Three Burials Of  Melquiades Estrada’.   And if that is not enough to make you afford him respect, he appeared in the film, ‘Bandidas’, with Penelope Cruz.  Salma Hayek also appeared, and I suppose she deserves a mention.

As the Sheriff on set

As the Sheriff on set

In his music, Yoakam has become increasingly discrete about his left wing politics.  Perhaps his opinions have mellowed but his movie roles indicate otherwise.  Maybe the tradition of protest in Country music was never as strong as he thought and he became disillusioned.  And this might lead us to an explanation of why the left wing Johnny Cash fan found Yoakam easy to resist.   It is not that the musician abandoned his left wing politics.  Left wing European rock and roll fans do not expect American musicians to share their views but they do have a fondness for those stars that suggest subversion and discontent.  Elvis may have talked American apple pie but he was also a rebel, and the sneer was confirmed by the complicated self-destructive existence that followed.

Like Elvis, Yoakam has cleverly created a successful career and honoured the working class roots of American music.  But somewhere along the way, he forgot the essential ingredient, subversive distaste.  And yet this is a harsh judgement because Yoakam has displayed far more integrity than extrovert malcontents with no concerns other than themselves.  Well, who said the world was fair.  If his music at his weakest sounds contrived that thoughtfulness has also helped him create his best CDs.   These are ‘Dwight’s Used Records’,  ‘Dwight Sings Buck’ and ‘Hillbilly Deluxe’.  The first in that group not only features the great Johnny Cash cover but a version of the ZZ Top hit, ‘I’m Bad Nationwide’.   Normally, the music of Yoakam is full of immediate hooks that eventually pall but ‘I’m Bad Nationwide’ survives being played repeatedly.   Of the three, ‘Dwight Sings Buck’ is the best and it may simply be that his sincere affection for Buck Owens means something is at stake.  ‘Hillbilly Deluxe’ is not as obsessive as ‘Dwight Sings Buck’ but it serves as a credible monument to honky tonk music.  Those three albums exist as homage to earlier greats and others, so this may be the nature of his protest and stance.  Yoakam is at his best remembering others, the working class talents that created American music.   But his nature may be too full of affection and respect.  Whilst it applies to the unfashionable and those that modern American materialism wants us to forget, respect undiluted can limit a talented musician.   At his worst, Yoakam can appear a mannered poser sharing his record collection, a more commercial Ry Cooder.  Again, this is unfair because despite his affection for homage, there are many great records in the Yoakam catalogue that are his own creation.  ‘Buenas Noches In A Lonely Room’ suggests wonderfully the romance of the South Western border but, of course, regional celebration is also a form of homage.   There is romance in the music of Yoakham but it is romance that precludes despair, and that is not romance at all.

Dwight and Buck Owens

Dwight and Buck Owens

Although there are exceptions, his songs about broken relationships rarely show the bitterness that most of us feel in that situation.  Instead, we are obliged to note his admiration for the potential of the lost woman and his own exalted state of rejection.   The comparison with Elvis is not only valid because Yoakam often includes an Elvis impersonation on his albums but because Elvis in his music, unlike Yoakam,  managed to achieve intimacy while remaining a mystery.  Both Yoakam and his music are emotionally distant.  Critics have acclaimed his recent album, ‘3 Pears’, and it does contain new directions.  ‘Trying’ is a fine ballad and ‘Waterfall’ is a good song with better than normal lyrics but the developments are suspiciously reminiscent of Loving Spoonful, and whilst that is okay it brings us dangerously close to the Beatles style calculation that undermined albums like ‘If There Was A Way’.

I am, though, not like the Johnny Cash admirer who expressed contempt.  I have all the albums and have never regretted any of the purchases.  So why do I imply dissatisfaction about not having something I had no right to expect?  I suppose because I still hoped.   Yoakam was a left wing Elvis fan that believed in the American working class.   He did okay, as anybody who has thrilled to the hooks that he plants in his songs will agree.  But right now in these dark days some of us are obliged to hope for more than that.

If you want to read about Elvis and the Frankenstein creature click here.

If you want to read about Frankenstein and Mary Shelley click here.

If you want to know what happened to the author in Brazil click here.

You can watch and listen to Dwight Yoakam and his hero Buck Owens here: