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The Road Hammers

by Duff McCutcheon
Untitled Document

It's been a few decades since a trucker could spin the radio dial and have a hope of hearing Red Sovine's "Phantom 309", Dave Dudley's "Six Days on the Road" or some other ode to the trucking life. Scan the dial these days for some truck-inspired Country & Western musical accompaniment and you're more apt to hear Toby Keith crooning about his favorite bar, or Gretchen Wilson belting out an anthem to redneck womanhood.

Nothing wrong with either, but it's been a spell since anyone has broached the long-lost genre of trucking music. That's evidently what Canadian country star Jason McCoy thought, too. He teamed up with a few of his buddies in the music business - Clayton Bellamy and Chris Byrne - to form the Road Hammers, a country-southern-rock-style band with its heart in the cab of a truck.

"The Road Hammers is the ultimate driving album," says McCoy. "It's got country elements, like Waylon Jennings of the classic era of country, which truckers really relate to, and it's got southern rock elements like Lynyrd Skynryd or the Allman Brothers. It's rootsy and it's got a lot of good tempos on it - it's meant to keep people awake. It deals with love and loss, as well as regular trucking driving themes. We've got one song called 'Keep on Truckin'- it starts off talking about how it's hard to make it these days with the price of diesel and whatnot, but the second verse talks about seeing a band at a little bar and how hard they're rocking and hey, when the going gets tough, you just keep on trucking."

McCoy says the Road Hammers project started after he'd written a couple of trucking songs in the same vein as Red Sovine's Teddy Bear, "and all sorts of other classic, campy recitation songs, which I really liked growing up." That, coupled with the urging of his friends and relatives in the trucking business, as well as a week-long stint in a truck last year during a tour for a children's charity, gave birth to the idea behind the Road Hammers. Once he'd called up his pals Clayton and Chris (guitar and bass, respectively), the idea became reality.

He says he picked his bandmates because he liked the way they sounded together whenever they got the chance to sit around and jam.
"I sing real country, Clayton sings rock n' roll like John Cougar, and Chris sings real high like Timothy Schmidt of the Eagles. We'd be sitting around backstage together at various festivals and I loved the way our voices sounded together. I thought it would be great if we could create something new with all our various styles and that's what we've done. It's got a real country flavor with what I do, and it's got a real rockin' edge with Clayton - it's a whole new thing.

"Truckers are traditionally country fans. But you're also seeing them listening to classic rock. In my own backyard research, I notice a lot of truckers like AC/DC and Skynyrd, but then you've got your George Jones and Johnny Cash fans - not so much the new country. The Road Hammers fulfils a lot of the orders that they're requesting from the trucking world."

You hear the name "Road Hammers" and you automatically think of some truck booting along down the hammer lane, but McCoy says their handle has nothing to do with trucking. In fact, it stems from a time in Bermuda when McCoy and his bandmates were cruising around on Vespa scooters. "We thought we were some bad gang so we called ourselves the Road Hammers. Since then I've always had the name earmarked for a trucker band."

In his other life, McCoy is a country star with four albums to his name and a Canadian Country Music Association male vocalist of the year award (2004) on his shelf. Originally from Minesing, Ont, near Barrie, he's been playing country gigs with various bands since he was 16. He formed his own country band at age 20, and has been touring around ever since.

"This has been my main job since high school. I love rock, but I've always been country, traditional country. It's just genetics, that's what my voice sounds like."

K-k-k-keep On Truckin'

Looking for a groove to get you through the 4:00 a.m. lull? If the latest CD from Jason McCoy's new band, the Road Hammers, doesn't do it, maybe it's time for a nap. The disc is a 12-track mix of original tunes and a couple of covers with a kick-ass, give-'er-another-gear feel. McCoy has nailed the driver's love/hate relationship with the road. Whether you're out there wishing you were home, sitting loaded - and out of hours, or ripping down a two-lane highway a day late and a dollar short, this CD has something drivers can relate to.

'Call It a Day' is a ballad about the other life - I've got one life on the road, and one with you at home / And it feels like one too many when I'm gone / I need one to make a living and one to make it all worthwhile / I watch the miles slip away so I can finally call it a day, and 'Hammer Goin' Down' is one of those songs that makes it easy to understand "gotta-get-there"- My mind is grinding like a steel gear baby / I gotta cover some ground / She'd know how hard and fast I'm fallin' for her / if she could just hear the sound of the hammer goin' down.

The third track, 'Overdrive', will get your right foot tappin's just a little heavier on the hammer with each passing beat and keep it tapping all the way through to track 10, 'Willin'', a Little Feat cover that will bring you down just a bit with a reminder of how tough life in the left seat can be. But through it all, we keep on trucking, maybe just for the love of the game, maybe for the love and respect of family and friends.

Whatever drives us, the Road Hammers has captured all the highs and lows of driving for a living on this disc and wrapped it up with searing lead guitar, solid rhythms, and background vocals that fill the space between verses like the Tower of Power horn section. And where would it all be without the signature banjo twang on 'Eastbound and Down' and pedal steel riffs on 'Girl on the Billboard'? If you've got an ounce of diesel in your veins, this album will have you reaching for the repeat button over and over again.

The CD release date is slated for May 17, but the band will be airing a special on CMT Canada TV on April 23.


Trucker Tune Redux?

If there was ever a heyday for the trucking genre of country music, it was in the late 1960s, early 1970s, with Red Sovine and his country music-with-story style hits like 'Teddy Bear' and 'Phantom 309'.

"Those were the classic tunes that became the industry standard for what a trucking song was," says Jason McCoy. "But the ultimate truck tune was 'Six Days on the Road' by Dave Dudley - he was the trucker balladeer of trucker balladeers." Then there's C.W. McCall's 'Convoy' in the mid-1970s - which morphed into a movie starring Kris Kristofferson, Ernest Borgnine, and Ali McGraw.

The genre has since lain relatively fallow, but shows signs of a modest renaissance with Paul Brandt's remake of "Convoy", McCoy's Road Hammers project, as well as a southern rock outfit from the U.S. called the "Drive-by Truckers" who have garnered big acclaim from the alternative music world, if not the country world.

Doug Rollins, veteran country DJ and former program director at Hamilton's 820 CHAM, calls it part of the cycle. "That genre is tried and true," he says. "With so little certainty in the world, people naturally turn back to what's familiar - what they trust."

Rollins points to the current craze in dance and rap music of using samples from past hits. "I wouldn't be surprised to see a rap version of 'Six Days on the Road' sometime. The song has legs 'cause road songs have an almost universal appeal."

One doesn't have to look hard to find compilation discs of old trucking tunes like Dudley or the Willis Brothers in a truckstop or a flea market. In case you missed them the first time around, the words and music on those remastered CDs are a testament to a time when trucking was still fun. They'll bring a smile to even the most cynical faces - or a tear, in Sovine's case. Still, I'd argue that the absolute best rendition of a Red Sovine tune has to be Tom Wait's cover of 'Big Joe' and 'Phantom 309'. Only he could do it that way, and it's never worked better. It's on his 1975 double live album, Nighthawks at the Diner. You'll wish you were there.