Hailing from Edmonton, Captain Tractor was formed in the early ’90s around vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Brock “Skywalker” Armstrong (the only Edmonton-born member), guitarists Chris Wynters (from London, England), Scott Peters (from Dartmouth, NS), drummer Jules Mounteer(also from England),, Manitoba-native Jeff Smook on bass, and Aimee Hill (from Vancouver) on vocals, flute, and percussion.
They grew a reputation for their fun-filled, energetic live shows primarily based on Celtic and Irish influences, but also managed to sneak in their own individual influences into the mix. They worked the clubs and festival circuit around the prairies for a couple of years while writing some of their own material, with Wynters, Peters and Skywalker as the main songwriters. They signed a deal with independent Square Dog Records and began work on their debut album.
Produced by Ian Armstrong at Wolf Willow Studio, it came in the form of LAND in the stores in 1994, and began a tradition of what fans came to expect as a blend of original fun tunes like “Mmmm Donut,” “Not In This Town,” and “This Is Not A Sad Song,” along with more traditional tunes like “The Log Driver’s Waltz” and “Pitcairn Island.” But while the crowds were eating up what the band was serving, they were gaining the ire of some of the other bands on the circuit. Simply put, some of them weren’t taking Captain Tractor seriously, based on the fun and drinking games that had would eventually help make the band as successful as it was. Another part of the jealousy from some of the other groups was the band’s rather instant success, snagging nominations from ARIA (Alberta Recording Industry Association) for group of the year and most promising group.
They released EAST OF EDSON a year later. It was recorded at Beta Sound Studios in Edmonton, but this time with new producer Colin Lay. More lighthearted fun but with serious musical integrity, it featured some originals, including their first video for “Up The Hill” (filmed at Heartbreak Ridge outside Didsbury, Alberta), as well as covers that personified their diversity, from The Clash’s “London Calling” to Arrogant Worms‘ “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate” to the traditional “Lord Of The Dance” and “Drunken Sailor.”
Other noteable cuts included “Talk” – a ballad about the importance of honesty in relationships, and the country-tinged “Jesus and the Thieves.” That same year, they followed that up with BUS MADNESS, an interactive CD-ROM while touring the country, doing around 250 shows that year, a pace they managed to maintain for a few more years, as well.
The band’s stock was rising, and a cross-Canada tour was followed by dates in New Zealand. By the time the band hooked back up with Lay for BOUGHT THE FARM in the summer of ’97, Aimee Hill had left the band, and they’d also recruited violinist Shannon Johnson to served as co-producer. With guest musicians that included Bill Damur on flute, Dave Wilke on mandolin and Craig Brenan on trombone, the music was more well-rounded than in previous outings.
Originals like “Frozen Puck To The Head” and “This Time Tomorrow” were again balanced out with carefully chosen covers, including “If I Were A Rich Man” from “Fiddler On The Roof.” “Mary Donnel” and “1,000 Goodbyes” also highlighted the band’s more serious nature, taking on subjects of a less jovial nature. The band captured three ARIA awards in ’97 – for single of the year for “Up the Hill,” best alternative/new music artist on record, and group recording artist of the year.
Smook was now gone on bass and was replaced by North Battleford, Saskatchwan native Jon Nordstrom. They were included in a Due South soundtrack with Drunken Sailor, and recorded The Robert MacKenzie with Paul Gross. After the 1998 compilation album, HAT TRICK summed up their three albums to date, and then a video compilation called INCONSEQUENTIAL THINGS, they returned a year later with CELEBRITY TRAFFIC JAM.
The band recorded outside Edmonton for the first time – at Vancouver’s famed Mushroom and Hipponsoic Studios, with John Webster (Red Rider, Tom Cochrane) producing. It featured a host of guest musicians on the tracks, including Annette Ducharme, Janele Woodley, and Rocko Vaugeois (One Horse Blue), and a trio of classic drunken debuachery tunes – “One Good Drop of Poison,” “Pour Me Another,” and “Another Drinking Song.” “The Summer of Our Discontent,” “Bridges,” and “How Do You Figure That?” were all placed with TV shows. The album also netted them another pair of ARIAs that year, for best band, and for best album.
After tours of the US and throughout Europe, their first offering in the new millennium was HOSERISTA, produced by Luke Doucet (Whitehorse). The music was leaning more towards the roots end of the spectrum, and the song subjects were more palatable to a general prairies way of thinking, with the somewhat darker “City of Champions” (dubbed by Edmonton council and made official with several welcoming signs to visitors during the city’s heyday of the Oilers and Eskimos), “Snowman” and “Vowel Sounds.”
Although they made another jaunt to New Zealand and were still playing a couple of hundred shows per year, the band was actually taking some more time off than usual over the next couple of years, as everyone was getting on with life outside of music, or just releasing outside projects. After Nordstrom released his first solo album, BRICK AND STONE in 03, in celebration of the band’s tenth anniversary, Alley Kat Brewing Company released the specially-brewed limited edition, Captain Tractor Yellowhead Wheat Ale.
Skywalker meanwhile had left the fold to strike it out on his own, with CEREBRAL RE-RUNS in ’04. He was replaced by Jason Kodie, and the band returned to the stages and the studios, resulting in NORTH OF THE YELLOWHEAD in 2005. The music was again tailoring to the Albertans’ sense of geography. Gone were the songs of sailing ships and lobsters, and in their place were references to Edmonton, in the title track and “Bastard of Strathcona County.” Still, the typical drinking songs found their way into the list, with “Maria’s Last Words” and “Here Comes A Regular.”
They packed up the tour buses and headed out on the road for a few months, making some stops in the US, and before the year was up, Nordstrom had released his sophomore indie solo album, WAITING FOR SUMMER, and Wynters had also joined the solo albums parade that year, releasing SKYWRITING, a collection of material he’d been writing that hadn’t made it to the Captain Tractor catalogue.
In 2011, they released FAMOUS LAST WORDS. Along with the title track, it featured another mix of playful originals and traditional covers, from “Going To A Hockey Game” and the reflectful “Memory Street” to “Johnny’s Ghost” and “The Rat Creek Rebellion.”