Most artists would consider half a dozen solo albums, a string of hit singles, and a handful of awards a successful career. Hits like “There’s More Where That Came From,” “Kind of Like It’s Love,” “I Feel A Sin Comin’ On,” “She Ain’t Missin’ Missin’ Me,” and “This Used To Be Our Town” earned Jason McCoy five Juno Awards, 19 Canadian Country Music Association award nominations, and was in Nashville in 2006 to receive the Global Artist award at the Country Music Association awards.
And while he’s quick to consider himself among the lucky few to be good at something he loves doing, it was his yearning to start something fresh that gave birth to the Road Hammers. “I didn’t have a direction for a follow-up solo record after awhile. I didn’t know where I wanted to go,” he said.
Always inspired by the whole truck driving scene, he wanted to pay tribute to the myths, stories and legends. He tossed the idea of a reality TV show to CMT executives in 2004, who jumped on the chance to follow one of Canada’s top solo artists on his journey to find the right partners in his vision of creating something, fresh and vibrant – but at the same time a little brash and rough around the edges. In the end, the co-starring roles of the Road Hammers, both the band and the TV show belonged to Bonnyville, Alberta-native guitarist Clayton Bellamy, who’d already released a string of solo albums, and his drummer Corbett Frasz. Bassist Chris Byrne had been in McCoy’s and Bellamy’s solo bands previously.
“Doing the show was intimidating at first, but after a week or so you just forget about the cameras and stuff. And when the show was over, it felt like you’d lost a few band members,” McCoy said. “I’d certainly do it again. It was fun. It was certainly great for the band. I had a fun time. I really enjoyed it, plus it’s fun to have all that stuff catalogued and filmed so you can look back and see how it all happened.” The first sign of it being a ‘real band’ was McCoy’s cameo in Paul Brandt’s video for his remake of the classic song “Convoy”. McCoy appears in the video wearing a Road Hammers shirt. Originally the entire band was to appear, but scheduling conflicts prevented it from happening.
They inked a deal with Open Road Records and released their self-titled debut in 2005, and tore up the charts with “I’m A Road Hammer” and “Nashville Bound.” Two other tracks, covers, also charted in the top 10, and while it seems everyone records an old hit these days, the Road Hammers choose their covers carefully, from Del Reeve’s “Girl On The Billboard” or Jerry Reed’s “East Bound and Down” work so well into the band’s repertoire they’re actually mistaken as originals.
Bellamy said it’s not easy choosing what to cover, but it’s a process that the band’s always enjoyed. “A lot of stuff gets thrown against the wall, but not everything sticks. It has to have a few criteria. Everyone has to believe in the message in the song, and it has to have a certain coolness factor because we don’t want to do anything too cheesy. It has to strike a chord as being real. The Road Hammers are never going to record a ‘honky donk da donk dedonk’ song. It has to be something we can relate to, and a message we want to get out to our fans.”
The band took home their own share of Juno and CCMA awards for the first record, and if it’s true the sum of the Road Hammers is greater than its parts, then McCoy reflected that’s probably what gives the band their distinctive edge and sets them apart.
“I’m the country part, Clay’s the rock and roll part, Chris is the bluesy part. All of the sudden you put it all together, and I think we have a pretty formidable sound. I always had in my head this is what it would sound like. When you put mic to tape, it actually comes out even better. And we’re just as good live, just in a different way.”
CMT’s airing of the show’s second season painted a picture that McCoy said isn’t necessarily the way things are. The second season showed the band as they tried to secure an American recording deal. Comparing the whole project as ‘an unplanned pregnancy,’ he said it’s now a happy lovefest, and things between McCoy, Bellamy and Byrne couldn’t be better. “With any band, there’s a whole pile of ups and downs, but that’s like with anything. Season two showed a whole bunch of negative stuff, and people come up to you thinking it must be so hard being in a band. I tell them to try selling shoes. Any business you get into, if you want to be successful it’s going to be hard,” he said.
They signed with Montage Music Group, and the group’s debut American single, “I Don’t Know When to Quit” – a haunting mid-tempo number that Bellamy says no one had heard from any of them before was released in time for the Christmas rush in 2007. “It’s a cool departure from the ‘in your face’ overdrive style that we have. It’s definitely a growth, an expansion of our sound,” Bellamy said.
Part of the band’s itinerary that year was a trip to China, where they were introduced to a whole new audience while doing half a dozen shows. Bellamy called it, “amazing and horrifying all at the same time. “I’ve never seen so many people in one place in my life. The food and the people were amazing. There’s a large separation between the wealthy and the poor, so there’s a lot of disparity there, as well. It was really a life-changing experience. I came home with a new set of eyes, for sure.” The concerts themselves? He laughed at the experience. “No one could understand a word you were saying, it was interesting. To the Chinese audience, we were a rock and roll audience, there was nothing country about it in their eyes. But they seemed to really enjoy it. Music really is the universal language, and they were getting everything we were laying down.”
Trying to improve on the success of the band’s debut and follow-up stateside was a daunting task, and McCoy remarked the only way to achieve that was to be true to themselves, which they were. But by the time ROAD HAMMERS II was released in February, 09, Frasz was gone, and the band was effectively a trio with a supporting cast for recordings and tours. The lead-off single “Homegrown” cracked the Top 20 at home practically overnight after its release.
The album’s title is a message close to the band’s own collective philosophy, according to McCoy. “It just kind of goes along with the Hammer motto, blue collar hard working dudes. We set out to make the best driving records we can. We’ve been together for awhile now. The record’s probably a little more refined, maybe a little more polished in the studio. That often seems to come off as a negative approach, but it’s not. It’s just a different approach. Plus we were a little pickier than before in song selection. We shaved for this one and cleaned up a little bit for the wedding,” he joked.
McCoy noted that defining the ingredients to a Road Hammers song isn’t easy. It’s the end result that matters. “It’s got to have a great vocal part, it’s got to speak to the common person. On the first record we wanted to make the ultimate driving record. On this one we wanted to make a blue collar record because that’s who we are. You can tell if someone’s putting that crap on or not, and we’re not.” “Getting’ Screwed” addresses today’s economic realities, from an angry person’s perspective that’s a little disenchanted with the newsmakers of the day – as he phrased it, “the rich getting richer and the poor working harder.” “Things like the whole Bernie Maydoff thing, that really pisses me off.”
One of the most noticeable shifts on the new record was the only cover is a John Denver classic. McCoy said that was a purposeful change in direction to better showcase the inner songwriting talents. “We wanted to pick the best truck driving songs we could for the first record that were still hooky. That was the whole theme we had going on. On the new record, “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” is the only cover, and that’s only because we’ve always done it live and it’s morphed into it’s own little thing. People are digging it in our live shows. It’s just evolved into this whole trashy metal southern rock country thing. We’ve definitely made it our own, which I think is important,” he explained.
“We’ve been lucky enough to work with some great people. This new record deal in Nashville has afforded us the opportunity to work with some great talents,” Bellamy added, noting “Working Hard At Loving You” is another highlight he’s quick to praise. “It could be the sister to “I’m A Road Hammer, just a ‘throw your hands up in the air’ type of anthem. I think people seem to dig it,” he said.
Other tracks like the soulful “I’ve Got The Scars To Prove It,” the driving rhythm of “Workin’ Hard At Loving You” are testament to the band’s songwriting fortitude and not willing to sacrifice anything – and something McCoy said he’s not afraid to put in the CD player himself now and then. “We’re a fun band. I listen to the records, for sure. I’m at a point in lifenow where I can, where when I was younger I couldn’t listen to my old stuff. Now I put it in the disc player as much as the other stuff, because I like it. I still like “East Bound and Down,” and “I’m A Road Hammer,” and “Willin’.” There’s a reason you cut a song, you like it. You worked really hard to get it where you wanted it,” he said. “And if you’ve got a memory like mine it’s like a goldfish, so I don’t even remember the problems we might have had at the time.”
The band is proud to wave the maple leaf, but there’s still a business aspect to it all that he says means they have to make themselves marketable stateside something they’ve had no problem doing. “It certainly is important, and we have to do it because it’s the next step. You’ve got to keep exploring and it’s just a natural evolution. I don’t know if it’s the be-all to end-all, but it’s certainly the biggest market. If you want to sell widgets you’re going to go to Widget Land. It just happens we sell Canadian widgets, which are better,” he quipped.
He said in general the homegrown music scene is more vibrant, and better well known around the world, than ever before. The biggest difference though is the places to play. “Here you’ve got one big highway that goes from east to west. In the States, it’s easier to get around to the major centres. Here, it’s more important to get out to the smaller towns, that’s where country music was born and lives.”
But a tonne of awards, countless sold out shows and two seasons on CMT haven’t gone to anyone’s head. Amongst all the success, Bellamy laughed and said it’s not hard to keep grounded. “I’ve got a good wife. She’s always there to tell me to go take out the garbage. We’re all seasoned in this, in that music has been our lives. This isn’t new to us as far as the music goes. And the fans help keep us grounded because they like our band because we’re real. And they see that. We’re just blue collar guys that like to have fun. We’re in this for the right reason. We want to put out music and impact people.”