If decades in the hellfire that is the music industry have taught the members of TrailerHawk anything, it’s that one’s never disappointed by shooting low on the expectations front. That’s served the Vancouver roots rockers well as what started as an excuse to have fun over beers has blossomed into something more.
“For me personally, this is the happiest and most fulfilled I’ve ever felt in a band,” says guitarist Rod Bruno, interviewed over lunch at the St. Regis Bar and Grill in Downtown Vancouver. “That’s partly because of the people, partly because of the music we’re making, and partly because there’s no real agenda for what we want to accomplish. We’re pushing forward, but maybe the best way to frame things is that we’re wise enough to not have delusions of grandeur. It’s kind of fun, because we’re not relying on this to pay the rent. We can get as creative as we want without having to answer to some guy in a suit with a degree back East who’s looking at the bottom line.”
The members of TrailerHawk have enough industry experience to remember when strings were often pulled in a major-label boardroom. Bruno formerly played with acts ranging from hard rocker Tommy Floyd to Canadian icon Matthew Good. TrailerHawk started with the rhythm section of drummer Don Short and bassist Don Binns—both of whom first rose to prominence as members of West Coast alternative giants Sons of Freedom. Guitarist pedal-steel ace Lanny Hussey’s resume includes a tenure with Ginger—the project founded by brothers Tom and Chris Hooper after the dissolution of the much-loved Grapes of Wrath. Rounding out the band (which today includes drummer Shane Wilson) is singer Carmen Bruno, sometimes seen sitting in with local scene vet Bruce Wilson’s Sunday Morning project.
In the beginning, TrailerHawk was a casual project, its members having little interest in diving back into the music business. With Carmen (to whom he’s married) and Hussey riding shotgun at the table, Rod says: “I’d pulled out of the whole music thing because I felt I’d given it a go. TrailerHawk happened really organically. Just when I thought that I was out, it ended up catching fire real quick, becoming the band that I’d always dreamed about my whole life. We started as a cover band for a giggle and some beers, and then it became a real thing.”
Hussey adds, “We knew this was going to work right from the first few rehearsals. It happened as soon as Carm started singing her own stuff.”
TrailerHawk’s covers were initially all about pioneering country, the band’s impeccable taste in the genre’s giants demonstrated by its love and admiration for the works of Kitty Wells, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and don’t-give-a-fuck badass Hank Williams III. While the Y-chromosome members of the group came at things through rock ’n’ roll, Carmen’s path was in some ways set when she was a kid.
“I grew up in a house where the radio was always cranked and everyone sang along,” she says over a plate of pierogies. “My dad played in dive-bar country bands around town in the ’70s and ’80s. I listen to and like pretty much everything—Pearl Jam was the first tape that I ever bought. But it literally says in my Grade 9 yearbook somewhere ‘Stop listening to country music,’ because it would be blaring out my bedroom window every single day. My first concert that I ever went to was Charlie Pride at the Lynden Fair in Washington. We’d go down every year when I was a kid—from when I was born to the first 10 years of my life.”
Singing was something she was forever encouraged to do.
“It was always a thing in my house,” Carmen says. “With me, my sister, my mom, and my nieces, everything was a song. I mean everything. We were encouraged to sing out loud while we were cooking dinner, cleaning, or whatever.”
And Christ knows she can sing—her work with TrailerHawk suggesting she could totally hold her own around a roadhouse jukebox with legends like Linda Ronstadt, Lucinda Williams, and Maria McKee. Her range aside, what blows Hussey’s mind about Carmen is the way she makes everything seem effortless.
“She’s self-taught, but she never falters,” he marvels. “That’s pretty amazing. We’ve all played with vocalists who are kind of hit-and-miss. Most of what Carmen does is first take.”
Pretty quickly, TrailerHawk started shooting for more than covers, the band’s superior musicianship and proto-punk energy augmented by Carmen’s powerhouse pipes.
“We started with a rule that, for each song we wrote, we’d get rid of a cover,” Rod says. “Within a few short weeks, we’d written our first EP. And it took off from there.”
The road taken by TrailerHawk is different from the days when major label deals were the holy grail. The band recorded its independent debut EP, Half Up Front, with Nashville-based Canadian musician and producer Colin Linden (Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan), and then used his Music City connections to move things forward.
A Nashville-based radio promoter happily took the band on, helping break TrailerHawk’s early single “Car” on more than 100 stations around the world—fans as enamoured with the track’s coal-burning backbeat as with the torch-twang vocals.
“‘Car’ really started ripping it up on Music Row in Nashville, through Southern Belt radio, and into Europe,” Rod says. “That was within a year—if we’d known things were going to happen that quick, we would have made sure to have a tour to follow it. Geniuses that we are, we didn’t, but it opened up a lot of opportunities.”
A big one was being embraced by fans of Nashville, the television series that follows the lives of fictitious characters struggling to crack the country-music industry. Savvy networking led to series’ star Charles Esten guesting on TrailerHawk’s powerblues stomper “Church of Jim Beam”.
“A funny thing is, before TrailerHawk, Carm and I would sit around watching Nashville thinking ‘That could be us. Why aren’t we doing something like that?’” Rod says. “Flash forward six months, and basically all the players from Nashville are on our record, with the star of the show doing a vocal duo with Carm.”
Since then, TrailerHawk has embraced the reality that music consumption has changed radically in the past few years. These days streaming is king, with Spotify, Tidal, and Apple Music subscribers often more interested in playlists than full albums. To that end, TrailerHawk has spent the past few months stoking interest in the band by rolling out single after single, which will be bundled on the band’s about-to-be-released debut, 12 Tracks and Road Maps.
The compilation showcases a group that’s as stoked to be rolling around in the mud and the blood and the beer as it is sitting at the lonely end of the dive bar when the lights come up at 2 a.m. “Pretty Thing” is loping cowpunk from an era when bolo ties were the height of Los Angeles cool, “Cold Day” plays connect-the-dots between the Grand Ole Opry and Muscle Shoals, and “Rival” is perfect for driving a lost highway with a warm Lone Star tallboy.
After stepping away from music to help raise three kids, Hussey feels blessed to have found a solid footing in a genre where no one has to worry about getting older.
“I know, for me, that’s a big part of the genre we’re in,” he muses. “We’re pretty loud and powerful. But you can feel proud that you’re out there playing and not having to jump around like a 25-year-old and feeling foolish. You don’t have to be a 60-year-old guy wearing black nail polish.”
He continues with, “Having been in the business, we’re at this stage where we only do what we want to do. Luckily it all came together—what we’re doing has proved viable. People really do like it.”
Moving forward, 2020 is when TrailerHawk will be kicking things up a gear, including seriously thinking about touring down south. The challenge will be balancing the responsibilities that come with adulthood with the sacrifices that come when working in the music industry. So as excited as everyone is about Trailerhawk, sometimes it’s best to keep one’s expectations realistic.
“We’re committed and all-in on whatever it takes,” Rod says. “We’ve been the financiers of TrailerHawk and we own the whole program, which is really great versus how things were done in the old days. We’re not 20 years old anymore, so the thought of getting in a van and doing 30 dates across the country for beer tickets just isn’t appealing. Now, thanks to analytics and social media and streaming, there’s a bit of a luxury where you can go, ‘We can put 300 people in a room in Wichita, Kansas, which is worthy of a fly-in and a hotel.’ That’s better than driving across the vastlands of Canada playing to three people at a time eating day-old hoagies.”
TrailerHawk plays a 12 Tracks and Road Maps release party at the WISE Hall on Saturday (January 18).