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Tears to toe-tappin': Country cranks up
SENTINEL POP MUSIC WRITER
Posted May 3, 2001, 2:00 PM EDT
* * * * * The Tractors, Fast Girl (Audium): There's nothing too complex about this fourth album from the loosely organized band of country neo-traditionalists assembled occasionally -- though not often enough -- by Oklahoma native Steve Ripley.
Yet three chords still go a long way in the right hands -- and there are lots of talented fingerprints on these 10 rollicking saloon songs. Leon Russell handles piano and Hammond B-3 organ in a band that includes bluegrass ace Sam Bush on mandolin and portions of Elvis Presley's well-regarded rhythm section (guitarist James Burton and drummer D.J. Fontana).
There are moments when Fast Girl makes you pine for the days when Merle Haggard and Buck Owens had a place on country radio. More often, though, the album is a toe-tapping reminder of the natural link between old-time country and the blues-based boogie that Sam Phillips' Sun Records would transform into rock 'n' roll in the late 1950s.
From Ripley's initial "Heeyyy, Baaaybeeee!" exclamation (a nod to the Big Bopper?), there's an informal atmosphere that results in a one-take, leave-the-tape-running feel.
The opening "Babalou" chugs along behind a solid snare-drum backbeat, a punchy horn section, Burton's dobro and well-placed background voices. The lyrics span world history from Old Testament stories to Ricky Ricardo and modern politics against a melody borrowed from "The Midnight Special."
That's not the only time that Ripley wears his influences on his sleeve. "Nine Eleven" is a credited sampling of the melody from Huey "Piano" Smith's "Rockin' Pneumonia." The title alludes to a love-related emergency call.
"Can't Go Nowhere" dips into Texas swing with an authenticity that rivals Asleep at the Wheel. It's about a hard-luck guy who can't seem to do what he once did: "You're a fast ball, baby -- Inside curve/ I'd take a swing -- I ain't got the nerve." The jaunty arrangement, which adds a dose of saxophone to the requisite pedal steel guitar, proves that Ripley and his hired guns don't have that problem.
The band slows the tempo for "Ready to Cry," a lean but gorgeously arranged ballad about being on the edge of tears. It's a terrific showcase for Ripley's deep baritone, which manages to sound rugged and vulnerable at the same time on a song that wouldn't sound out of place on an Iguanas album.
Ripley embraces his mission on "It's a Beautiful Thing," which examines the enduring power of Hank Williams and Chuck Berry against the tide of lesser competition. "There's a lot of new music," he sings. "Stop and think and you'll find. Even Hank was new music once, got to keep an open mind. I set aside my Faron Young and bought myself a Hootie. I rolled down the window of my pick-up truck and it sailed like a Frisbee."
It's worth rolling down the window for Fast Girl too -- so you can feel the wind in your hair when you turn up the volume.
Copyright © 2001, Orlando Sentinel
The release schedule of albums by the Tractors seems to be measured in glacial terms, but the results are rarely disappointing. Fast Girl finds the Tulsa-based country boogiemeisters bouncing to their own metronome, led by head Tractor and chief songwriter Steve Ripley. The act's debut on Nashville indie Audium is a sonic delight, with expert musicianship from top to bottom (including an "honorary Tractor" stint by Leon Russell). "Babalou" thumps with an Okie heartbeat, "Can't Get Nowhere" swings mightily, and "Ready to Cry" sways with dusty soul. Ripley pays homage to his roots with the back-porch anthem "Higher Ground" and a medley of " A Little Place of Our Own" and Dylan's "On the Road Again" that closes the set. Ripley remains an adventurous, risk-taking knob-twister in his own Church Studio, deftly deploying horns, piano, guitars, and backup vocals. Somehow, the Tractors manage to be loose and tight at the same time, plowing along like an old John Deere held together with spit and bailing wire.‹RW