Centre County band Chicken Tractor Deluxe to part ways — for now

Chicken Tractor Deluxe performs on the Allen Street stage during the Summer's Best Music Fest in 2013.
Chicken Tractor Deluxe performs on the Allen Street stage during the Summer's Best Music Fest in 2013. adrey@centredaily.com

As George Harrison sang in his epic 1970 triple album release, “all things must pass.”

That same wisdom can now be applied to one of Centre County’s gems, Chicken Tractor Deluxe, because the members have decided it’s time to move on, that the roots music and pseudo-medicine show tractor won’t roll any more.

“For a variety of reasons, Chicken Tractor is transitioning from generally reducing the number of gigs we book to moving the band into a project that will occasionally emerge from the shadows,” Chicken Tractor Deluxe banjo player Kai Schafft said.

To commemorate their final gig together, the members of Chicken Tractor Deluxe are playing one final show at Elk Creek Café + Aleworks at 8 p.m. May 26. Although the band is likely to play some gigs together in the future, it is the end of a Chicken Tractor Deluxe culture that features an often prolific run of gigs.

“We started this band about 12 years ago,” Shafft said, “and spent many years playing 30-40 gigs annually.”

When the band first got together, its sets were heavily immersed in American roots music, which provides a seemingly endless supply of styles, genres, themes and instrumentation, and as time has gone on the band has extended its reach into more modern forms without ever abandoning its original mission.

“The band started as a three piece (guitar, banjo upright bass),” Schafft said, “much more focused on traditional old time music, but we quickly grew to include drums and pedal steel and electric guitars and later fiddle, moving into classic country and rock 'n' roll.”

The band consists of Schafft, Jimmy James on bass and vocals, Gary Gyekis on percussion and vocals, Nell Hannsen on guitar, vocals and trumpet, James Meloan on fiddle and Dave Mudgett on pedal steel, stunt guitars and vocals. It’s a diverse array of local talent and, even though the members are moving on, they share an affinity for the vast richness of the music they play.

“The band's focus has always been around plumbing the deep well of American rural and roots music,” Shafft said. “But over the last few years our members have gotten increasingly involved with side projects, both musically and otherwise. It’s been difficult to keep this project as front and center as we have in the past.”

The dissolution of Chicken Tractor Deluxe makes an impact on the Centre County scene, because really no other band in the area is so devoted to American roots music while also remaining so innovative. But, again, that’s part of the members’ vision.

“It's vernacular music — of, by and for the people,” Schafft said, “and we find that there is a mystical quality to a lot of this material that draws connections across time and space. Because of this, harnessing this material in gigs has always seemed to me to be a bit of a conjuring act.”

Part of that innovation has to do with the energy the band brings to the music. I’ve heard them. They can cook. Plus, Jimmy James is both an irresistible force and an immovable object on bass. He’s a force to be reckoned with — as a musician — just like the other members of the band.

“When this band is firing on all cylinders it is a beast,” Shafft said. “We can tear up a room, and we have been very fortunate to have a fan base who understands what we're doing and really appreciates it. The show at Elk Creek will be our last until probably sometime in the fall and we hope lots of folks will take the opportunity to make it out.”

James and Schafft were careful to clarify this is not the absolute end of the road for Chicken Tractor and its 12 year stand, but the members are definitely clearing space in their musical universes for new sources of inspiration, growth and an insatiable sense of wonder.

“This is not to say that (Chicken Tractor Deluxe) is no more,” Schafft said, “but rather that in the months and years ahead we anticipate focusing more on side projects and playing only several times a year rather than, as we often used to, several times a month.”

Kevin Briggs is a musician, writer and teacher who performs at venues throughout central Pennsylvania. Contact him at . KevinTBriggs@gmail.com