By CARL E. FEATHER - Lifestyle Editor - email@example.com
Ashtabula native Marc Fortney was barreling down I-65 toward Louisville, Ky., chatting on his cell phone and leaving the driving to a member of his band, Trailer Choir.
Suddenly, Fortney, better known as Butter, was distracted by what was happening on the concrete.
“Oh-oh, there’s a cop,” Fortney said calmly. “It would be cool to get a speeding ticket while I’m doing an interview.”
Looking for adventure in the ordinary, making your own fun in the most mundane situations and living for that next off-the-wall experience is what this country band with an Ashtabula connection is all about. The band’s big single of 2008, “Off the Hillbilly Hook,” is a theme song for the band’s fun-loving, party lifestyle.
“It’s off the hillbilly hook
off the redneck chain
Join the rebel revolution
It’s a runaway train
We’re country boys and girls
Take a real good look
We’re gonna show you how to rock it
Off the hillbilly hook”
(Marc Fortney/Jewels Hanson/Vinny Hickerson)
“It’s something that blows you away, it’s a hillbilly term that means something that’s off the wall,” Fortney says, explaining the “off-the-hook” lingo.
Fortney, who grew up on rock ’n’ roll, says it was only after he moved south and became immersed in the country-music culture there that he realized how pervasive the southern-country culture is here.
“I realized there is a red neck factor to Ashtabula ... even if it’s a northern city,” Fortney says.
The band will perform for that crowd, as well as fans of country, hillbilly and rap music, when they come to Jewel’s Dance Hall in Austinburg Dec. 20 for the 98.3 The Bull’s Christmas Bash 3. Trailer Choir takes the stage at 11 p.m., after the crowd has been warmed up by the Curtis Brothers, Dashboard Jesus, 86K, Tony Rio, and Relentless and Jonalee White.
Tickets are $25 and, if any are still available, they will be found at Kardohely’s Family Restaurant, 1730 W. Prospect Road. Last year’s show was also sold out with 300 in attendance.
“(Trailer Choir) is huge around here,” says Roger McCoy of The Bull. “They have done really well for themselves.”
A lot of that popularity can be attributed to the fact that Trailer Choir’s members hail from small-town America. Big Vinny “The Mack” Hickerson, a former Sonic (as in the fast-food chain) worker, is a native of microscopic Linden, Tenn. He and Fortney ended up sharing office space in Nashville, which led to the eventual melding of their talents. A song writer as well as a musician, Vinny takes up the most real estate on the stage and often steals the show with his pop-worm and hip-hopping moves.
Crystal Hoyt hails from a farming family in Cheneyville, La. She’s been singing since Fortney was in high school – just about her whole life – and her smooth voice rounds off the guys’ rough edges like a piece of extra fine sandpaper.
Fortney got his “Butter” moniker as a result of his demeanor while working as an intern for a record label.
“I used to dance and sing a lot,” says Fortney. “I was just dancing, goofing around and they started calling me ‘Butter.’ (They’d say) ‘He’s like butter,’ ‘Come on Butter.’”
Fortney went country while a student at Tennessee Middle State. He eventually decided to pursue a career in music and, like many rising stars, worked a number of jobs to support himself during the transition. Six years ago he sloughed these distractions and focused entirely on song writing and performing. Vinny and Butter formed Trailer Choir about two years into that determined venture.
The band has come a long way from the days of playing frat parties and club scenes. Its big break came when Toby Keith and Show Dog signed the Choir to his label and made Trailer Choir an opening act.
Fortney says he spent about 11 nights last summer sleeping in his Nashville apartment; the rest of the time the band was on the road with Keith, traveling in a Prevost coach and enjoying three meals a day prepared by Keith’s personal chef. It was a welcome relief from the days of paying their dues on the road with a U-Haul trailer in tow.
“Being on the road is being on the road,” Fortney says. “The road can eat you up, because you leave your loved ones. There are costs with it. But the road, to me, is fun, I enjoy it.”
The group’s shows took them to performances with up to 40,000 in the audience. Earlier this month, they opened to more than 20,000 enthusiastic listeners at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. They opened with “Off the Hillbilly Hook.”
That song was also chosen for the soundtrack of Toby Keith’s “Beer for My Horses” film soundtrack. Trailer Choir gives a cameo performance in the film.
Fortney says those events were the band’s highlights of 2008, a watershed year for the band. For Fortney personally, one of the greatest events of the year was opening for Keith at Blossom.
“It was a neat sort of feeling to be up there near my hometown,” he says.
There were disappointments, as well. Although “Off the Hillbilly Hook” landed Trailer Choir a spot in a movie, it didn’t race up the charts. But Fortney says part of that is the nature of the song and the music business. “Off the Hillbilly Hook” is a party song that doesn’t fit the format of many country stations. Fortney hopes their next single release, coming out in February, will change that.
The idea for the single came from Fortney’s father, who still lives in Ashtabula. He was touched by the story of the Sago, W.Va., miners who, trapped and knowing death was certain, wrote letters to their families.
“My dad was talking to me one day and said ‘Think about it, if your life got to that point, what would you say, what would you write in that letter?’” said Marc Fortney, who wrote a verse based on that concept. He and Vinny collaborated on the song and Keith gave them the nod to produce it.
The song is a departure from the kind of songs Trailer Choir usually performs. At the same time, it’s a crack in the door to their more serious side.
“It’s not a departure as much as an extension,” says Fortney, who’s written many songs that don’t fall into the beer-drinking, party genre.
Fortney says fans will be seeing another side of Trailer Choir in the months to come.
“I got 100 songs that have never made the show because they are not consistent with what we wanted to present,” he says.
The new song, which the band will perform at the Jewel’s concert, will be released as a download, as were their previous four singles. While making money 99 cents at a time is a tough way to get rich, Fortney feels the change in how music is distributed and sold brings opportunity unavailable with an album-based model.
“The 99-cent world opens up opportunities to people who would otherwise never buy your CD,” Fortney said.
The money is in touring and song writing – Fortney’s songs have been recorded by several other artists and he gets a steady paycheck as a song writer. As Fortney looks at the landscape of the immediate future, he sees even better days for their band, despite the national economic downturn.
“We’re in that sort-of middle-ground of money,” he says “I think the kind of venues we play, that type of thing won’t suffer that much.”
Fortney says band members will take time to visit with their families over the holiday, which, for Butter, will mean time with his parents, David and Jayne, and his sister, Leah Kollhoff, and her family, all of Ashtabula County.
“I’m going to hug my mom’s neck about 1,400 times,” Fortney says.