Casey Van Beek spent his teens playing rock n’ roll in the early 1960s, backing the hitmakers of the day for one night stands before transitioning into an in-demand session and touring musician. After stints with Linda Ronstadt and country rockers Moccasin, Van Beek would head east to record with Don Preston (of Leon Russell’s Shelter People) in Tulsa, Oklahoma where the land, the people, and most importantly, the groove compelled him to remain. Casey’s embrace of the Tulsa Sound, the natural style of artists like Russell, JJ Cale, and Elvin Bishop that’s influenced musicians from Eric Clapton to Widespread Panic, led him to join The Tractors in 1988– an adventure that would take him to the top of the charts and cement his legacy as one of the enduring pillars of the style. For his very first solo release, Casey assembled a who’s who of Tulsa stalwarts, including longtime friend, Tractor-mate, and Clapton collaborator Walt Richmond. The result is Heaven Forever, a smooth sippin’, pure effort featuring original and favorite tunes under the banner of The Tulsa Groove.
AI- I got to tell you how much fun I had diggin’ into your history to get ready for this interview. One surprising thing was that Heaven Forever is the first thing that you’ve released under your own banner. Why is that? And what put the whole thing in motion?
I’ve always been a side guy! This thing just kind of came around by accident. So here we are! We just started recordin’ a bunch of songs and I said, “Well, hell, maybe we could write a bunch more!” It was just kind of an accidental deal.
What put you together with the Little Village Foundation to put out the album?
Mike Kappus. He was JJ Cale’s manager for years and then a whole bunch of other people too, super nice guy. He actually tried to shop us around with a few record companies, but they weren’t really interested. The Little Village Foundation, that’s what they do. They give people an opportunity to make a record who are just kinda out of the normal loop.
You’ve got all of these fantastic players. I’d say the majority, if not all of them, are all your local Tulsa buddies that you’ve been playing music with for a long time. Was it just a, “Hey, everybody come over and let’s get started,” or was it an organic growth thing in the studio? Did you handpick who was coming to be part of the project?
Oh, it just kind of happened. Walt [Richmond] and Jim Byfield, and Charles Tuberville, they’ve been doing a lot of stuff over the years. I just kind of joined in and we started recordin’ a bunch of songs. I bet you we recorded 40 different songs and all in different stages. We started writing some of our own material and then we ended up with that. They’re all guys from around here, everybody, and people that I’ve known for years and they’re all great guys, great players.
I want to jog your memory just a little bit. You got your start playin’ in pickup bands out in Los Angeles back in the early ’60s, right?
Yeah, we had a little band that we put together as kids called The Vibrants. We just played instrumentals right at first and we didn’t have a singer, so I just started singin’ ’cause I kinda could. We ended up with this job out in Long Beach, California for ol’ Bob Eubanks, who was a DJ out there in LA and a game show host and all that kind of stuff. We did that for like five years. Back in those days, they didn’t have concerts at that particular time, the early ’60s. All the recording artists played in clubs, and we had a pretty large club where you could cram in a thousand people. Every Wednesday, somebody would come through, do a show, and we would be their band! It was a great learning ground for us. We could play with all these folks and go in the back room and sit around for a half-hour and run over their material and go out and do a show!
That’s always amazed me, the bands and the guys that were able to do that back then. ‘Cause that’s not really something that happens anymore. It never seemed like it was easy, but it always seemed like it had to be this scary, fun thing to do.
Yeah, it was a real spontaneous kinda thing. A lot of people did that in those days. They didn’t drag a band around with them, so guys like us got to do all that. Gosh, we played with everybody from Little Stevie Wonder to… Everybody!
What got you into rock n’ roll to begin with?
Actually, this little band that we started with was a little car club band out in LA. They had a lot of little car clubs and this particular one had a band and they were playing somewhere. I just happened to waltz in there. It was right in my neighborhood. I walked in there and they had a piano and I sat down and started playin’ piano with these guys! And they went, “Hey man, why don’t you join our band and blah, blah, blah….” And then just went on from there– and just kept going!
And you would keep going! But then you’d land in Tulsa in 1975 or thereabouts. What was the music scene like at that point in Tulsa?
Oh, you know, local dives and so forth. Of course, I came out here to play with a fellow named Don Preston, who I still stay in touch with to this day, but he was the guitar player for The Shelter People, Leon Russell’s band. He was doin’ a project on his own and he asked me to come out and sing on his record. And I did. And then got to seein’ some of the guys I had met out there. LA was a real rat race and I was pretty tired of it and loved it out here in the country. So I stuck around!
I love The Tractors. And the thing that I loved most about that band was that you guys always sounded like you were having such a great time on the record. And I hear that on the new album as well.
It’s all about having fun, tryin’ to catch a groove, and not too awfully serious– but I think we ended up with a good record and hope it’ll get around to the folks out in the country.
Y’all often tried to get a song down in a single take. Were you able to do that with Heaven Forever?
As far as The Tractors went? No, nothing happened in a single take. Everybody came in separately. With this project, we sat down and tried to do it the old fashioned way. The four of us, which was Walt, Jim Byfield, Charles Tuberville, and myself, we sat down and tried to sing and play all at the same time, but it was kinda hard to do. Of course, we would do the three or four guys tracking, but then we’d have to come back and do the vocals and some overdubs.
You have written a fair amount of Christmas music, Christmas songs. Are you naturally just a fan of the holidays?
Well, Walt had this little project goin’ years and years ago where every Christmas, we would go over and record some Christmas songs and we’d give them out as gifts to our friends.
Ohhhh… That’s great.
That was real nice. And then we said, “Well, let’s try to write a few Christmas songs of our own!” And then everybody did! I wrote half a dozen or so, and a few of them got on The Tractors Christmas records. That turned out to be a nice deal.
You have picked a terrible time to release an album with the pandemic…
(Laughs) Yeah! We were doin’ this probably a year before what I call the “pen-damnic, so we had too much invested in it already. We had Mike Kappus on the case tryin’ to get stuff going and it was too late to call it off after the pen-damnic hit. So here we are, we’re stuck with that deal! But who knows?
What are the plans moving forward? Do you think that there will come a time when you guys will try to get out and play the album live at some point?
We might do some selected gigs if they come up. Make some festivals or something worthwhile, but we’re not going to go out and get in the van and beat around the country (laughs). We have done that!
The Tulsa Sound it’s really been comin’ back around– and it does that. I think it’s cyclical, and I don’t know whether it’s just generations rediscovering artists or how it happens, but especially in Americana music and in roots music, younger artists are discovering the groove every day. Even some more established artists are making their second and third records in that manner. What’s the secret, do you think, to the sound and why do you think people are still in love with it today?
I think it’s an attitude. It came around by a fact that we got some really great drummers here– have had over the years and continue to have. I don’t know why exactly, but we’ve just been blessed with a plethora of great drummers– which is great for me ’cause I play the bass, you know? Bass and drums? Come on! It’s an attitude, like I say, in a casual kind of laid back, not too much in your face, easy to listen to over and over. Yeah.
What other projects do you have in the works other than Heaven Forever? Are you plannin’ on gettin’ behind anybody on a record? Everybody that I’ve been talking to lately, all they are doing is writing and recording. ‘Cause it’s all they have available to them.
I’m tryin’ to write some songs. Walt just sends over tracks to me and then I try to figure out some words and melody and so forth. He’s the guy who really sets up the groove and everything. He’s one of the greatest piano players in the world in my opinion. I also work with a fellow named Jared Tyler here in town. He’s a great singer-songwriter-producer kind of guy. We’re not doin’ anything now, but he’s got a record that we’ve recorded. You gotta check him out.