The Godfather of Tractor Punk
Feb 10, 2017 11:54AM
By Matt Williams
Thank Gary Dean Davis for creating a genre of music original to Nebraska: tractor punk.
The progenitor of tractor punk has been performing and recording music for 20 years on the independent label—SPEED! Nebraska Records—that he established and jointly operates with fellow Omaha punk rocker Mike Tulis.
Although they have released music in various formats (and in various genres of punk rock), SPEED! Nebraska specializes in 7-inch, 45 rpm vinyl records. “The first record I ever listened to was a 45, and it’ll be the last record I ever listen to,” Davis says of his favored medium.
Davis and Tulis are no strangers to the local indie-punk scene. Davis, who grew up in Bennington, was in (what he refers to as) the tractor punk band Frontier Trust in the early-1990s.
Davis says when he was writing his punk rock songs, he tried to write about what he knew growing up in rural Nebraska. He followed the examples of then-elder statesmen of punk: “The Replacements are singing about Minneapolis, Television is singing about living in New York.”
Tulis grew up in a military family and moved around a lot. When Davis was touring with Frontier Trust, he was often surprised to find Tulis living in a different city.
“Mike would come to all of our out-of-town shows, and I’d be like, ‘you live in Chicago now?’” Davis recalls. Thus began a friendship that would lead to their collaborative management of SPEED! Nebraska from the third record onward (after Tulis moved back to Omaha).
In 1996, Davis had independently released the first SPEED! Nebraska recording. It was a 7-inch featuring two songs from the Omaha indie rock band Solid Jackson. Acclaimed Omaha singer-songwriter Connor Oberst liked the band so much he wrote a song about them (the track, “Solid Jackson,” is featured on Bright Eyes’ A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997 from Saddle Creek Records).
SPEED! Nebraska started with Solid Jackson because, as Davis says emphatically, “They had recorded this song called ‘Fell’ that was my favorite song, but they weren’t going to do anything with it.”
The label’s first 7-inch from Solid Jackson, however, was more low-fi punk release than Davis’ personal brand of tractor punk. Likewise, Tulis does not classify his own music under the tractor punk genre, but he enjoys Davis’ regional stylings. “It’s a very good fit, because it’s a major industry at this point,” he says with a sarcastic grin, alluding to SPEED! Nebraska’s 20 years in business.
As the Solid Jackson record sold, Davis was able to produce more music. SPEED! Nebraska’s second release came from Davis. His band at the time was called D is for Dragster, and it was true-to-form tractor punk.
Tulis’ band at the time was named Fullblown. Fullblown was responsible for the label’s third 7-inch release.
Once Tulis moved back to Omaha, he quickly became more involved in the record label. They recorded a variety of groups, including Davis and Tulis’ band The Monroes, the post-punk group Ideal Cleaners out of Lincoln, and Domestica (with former members of Lincoln’s Mercy Rule, who are longtime friends of Davis and Tulis).
Along with desire to promote local punk music, Davis also wanted to work with his friends. “The unifying thing all the bands on SPEED! have is I like them and they’re nice people,” he says.
Davis’ current band, the Wagon Blasters, released its most recent record in 2011. The Wagon Blasters often play shows with Tulis’ current band, the Lupines. On Oct. 22, they performed together at the label’s 20th anniversary show at Brother’s Lounge.
“In Nebraska, as a musician, you had to leave town [to be considered successful],” says Tulis of the unfortunate perspective held by many local bands. “We thought, ‘Let’s promote Nebraska!’” When a new band joins the label, Davis says, “Now you’re on the team.”
Visit facebook.com/Speed-Nebraska-Records-215079805178952 for more information.