So, you don’t like modern country music? Good, then you’ll love the Road Hammers — if you don’t already.
On paper the story goes something like this: in 2004, Canadian country music star Jason McCoy put together a side project with Canadian roots rocker Clayton Bellamy and bassist Chris Byrne to make a whole album of truck driving-related songs. Some of the songs were new originals; some were famous covers. In an interesting twist, the early development of the band now called the Road Hammers was documented — as well as promoted — in a reality TV show as well.
An eponymous first album was released in 2005, and reissued in 2008 with a few new tracks as Blood, Sweat and Steel for the U.S. market. A Canadian release called Road Hammers II came out in 2009, and by 2010 the band was basically MIA, the principal players each pursuing other projects. Not too surprising, really. After all, how many songs are there out there about the joys of truck driving?
As it turns out, there are at least three album’s worth. In any case, it’s 2014 and the band has returned with a new album called Wheels, and it builds on all the promises of the band’s previous releases. This means that musically and lyrically, the album bears some resemblance to modern country music: it leans toward a big-dollar sonic production that mixes drums and electric guitars with traditional acoustic instruments like resonator guitars and harmonicas. (Interestingly, there’s not a lot of fiddle and banjos to be found anywhere.) But the music defies this instrumental guilt by association.
If one listens to the album a few times, the big picture becomes obvious: this is music that will appeal to country music fans, as well as those who don’t really like country music at all. Why? Because it’s as much a rock album as it is a country album.
Without having to (over)analyze the modern country music scene, let’s make it real simple. Like many modern country acts, the Road Hammers often pay homage to the “roots” of their genre. This time around, it’s a cover of “I’ve Been Everywhere,” made famous by fellow Canadian country music great-grandfather Hank Snow. They jack up the guitars as well as the overall volume, and drive this ol’ firewagon over the top. Cool, but pretty much any modern country act or alt-country act can do that. The trick here is they also cover “Roll On Down the Highway” by that other Canadian country music icon — Bachman-Turner Overdrive. (C’mon, in an old review BTO was once called “Creedence with firepower.”) They even got leather-lunged Fred Turner to put in a guest appearance and sing a verse and a couple of choruses. The point here is this: it doesn’t sound much different than BTO’s original.
It’s easy enough to hotwire old Waylon or Hank Sr. tunes, but the Road Hammers could probably do a classic rock cover of Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” and it wouldn’t sound much different than the original. (There’s a hint there for your next studio session, genn’elmen.) There’s a reference to David Bowie’s “Fame” right near the end of the current single “Mud,” and even a nod to ZZ Top in the video for “Get On Down the Road,” again adding to the band’s classic-rock orientation.
Forget about the genre it’s supposed (or not supposed) to be: The Road Hammers’ Wheels is a great summer album, made for the windows rolled down and the tunes rolled up — way up — as you’re rollin’ on down the highway.