EDMONTON RADIO: Clayton in the driver’s seat
Clayton Bellamy says he feels weird when he hears his own song on the radio – especially when he’s the DJ on the air at the time.
Who would’ve guessed it would turn out to be CISN Country that takes one of the biggest risks in Edmonton radio history? They’ve put a recording artist with no broadcasting experience on the air in prime time drive time. It’s never been done in this market before.
Bellamy – one third of the Road Hammers, whose song I’ve Been Everywhere is currently on high rotation on CISN – has in the last two years taken to the 2-7 pm “Drive Home” slot like a duck to water. He’s not cruising solo. Bellamy’s on-air partner Chelsea Bird is a schooled broadcaster “who keeps me out of the ditches.”
He’s more like a black sheep.
“I’ve always been a little left of centre. They were taking a bit of a chance on me,” Bellamy admits in a recent interview at the CISN studios. Long-haired, leathered and be-chained like a rock musician, he makes Johnny Fever look like Les Nessman. He’s lived the part, too. In a life balanced between family and blue collar jobs and being a road musician from Bonnyville to Edmonton to Nashville and back again through all points between, Bellamy’s tastes run more to outlaw country music, to gritty songwriters, to real-life storytellers.
“To me personally as an artist I want to hear songs that are torn from the flesh,” he says. “I want them to mean something. I feel I do my best writing when I’m doing my best living, good or bad, whatever I’m going through.”
During his show, Bellamy drops their names of the great storytellers, his “alt-country” heroes like Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt or Guy Clark, wherever he can, hoping to introduce CISN listeners to something they might not have heard before. At least by name – between Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line songs.
Hey, if you like this Dierks Bentley song we just played, check out this guy Johnny Cash …
Satellite radio is full of artists who produce their own music shows. But aside from Rich Terfry (aka Buck 65) on CBC, you don’t see it a lot of it on broadcast radio – aka “free” radio. Kim Mitchell is the best example; he’s an announcer on Toronto classic rock station Q-107, which on occasion plays Go For a Soda and other Kim hits. After Bellamy said yes to the CISN offer, he had a chance to meet with Mitchell. “I didn’t get any sage advice,” Bellamy says, “but we did talk about the awkwardness of hearing your own songs on the radio when you’re the host. I try not to make a big deal about me being in the Road Hammers.”
Turns out he and Kim Mitchell had worked with the same drummer, and here is the true appeal of getting a real musician to be radio announcer. It really breaks the ice when it comes to interviews – where Bellamy really shines.
“The one thing I noticed, once artists find out you’re a musician, is how their guard drops. It’s like a wall is let down,” Bellamy says. “A lot of times I know the artist, and if I don’t, I know people who do. Then we can go to places that other interviews might not be able to.”
He’s shared colourful on-air stories with guests that include Jason Blaine, Johnny Reid and Corb Lund, plus Brett Michaels from Poison. When Bellamy talked to the Dixie Chicks, it helped get the ball rolling when he found out a friend of his played in their band. When Jake Mathews came to town, the interview opened with the story about the time he rescued Bellamy from the side of the road when his truck broke down in the middle of winter. They were on tour together. In short, these are not your usual radio jock musician interviews. Much as said usual radio jocks know and love music – and many of them moonlight as musicians – they haven’t been there for real, on the road, on stage, in the trenches, sometimes in the ditches.
Also unique are the impromptu songwriting sessions Bellamy runs with visiting artists. These stars, he says, are often eager to try something different than the usual promotional run, answering the same questions all day long. CISN has a little song factory: Listeners are asked to send lyrical suggestions, from which Bellamy and the guest star write a song – during a break – and then perform it live on the air – five minutes later. These sort of forced collaborations go on in Nashville all the time, maybe not with such a short deadline. It’s all for fun. Recent example: Luke Bryan’s Butt. It’s one of the first songs Bellamy has written in months.
This automatically leads to the question of how one guy can possibly maintain two careers as both a radio announcer and recording artist, let alone create songs “torn from the flesh” in the latter case.
“It’s been tough,” Bellamy says. “In order for me to write songs and be creative, I have to breathe, to relax and have space. With this job, and two kids and Road Hammers, the spaces in between are a lot smaller. The solo stuff had to go on the back burner.”
The Road Hammers, with his partners Jason McCoy and Chris Byrne, are a going concern. Another perk of a dream job that already allows for late night honky tonkin’, CISN is letting their new discovery have a few weeks off to tour. They play the River Cree Casino on Dec. 6. Bellamy will be filing regular inside reports from the road – so it’s not really time off the job after all.
Whose idea was this, anyway?
Phil Kallsen, director of country programming for Corus Radio (which also runs country stations in Calgary and London, Ontario, along with Q-107 in Toronto), gives two reasons for hiring Bellamy: “He’s funny, and he’s a good storyteller.” As for time off for the band, he says, “The more he goes out and has unique and interesting experiences with the Road Hammers to tell us about, the better for all of us.”
The blurred line between media and music is nothing new. Two popular Edmonton bands in the 1960s included the CJCA Rebels and the A&W Lords. Papa burgers on the rider! Not to worry the Road Hammers will change their name to the “CISN Country Road Hammers,” but this deal is good for both parties.
“They’re very passionate about this symbiotic relationship,” Bellamy says. “They told me my success is theirs, and we work together to build something.”
He’d been building something on his own, on and off, since he was a teenager, raised on a steady diet of rock radio via 630 CHED (another Corus property, it was a music station back in the day). Bellamy’s second solo record, Five Crow Silver, came out before he had any notion of a career in radio. On it are personal tracks like Goodbye America, a melancholy rocker (if that’s possible) wherein he says farewell to his dream of making it in Nashville, while expressing a few thoughts about America that pretty much guarantees the song won’t be on the CMT hit parade: “Tattooed and broke, alone in an empty bed, goodbye America, thanks for the memories,” he sings over chugging rock guitars. “Hey, throw it all away. Tomorrow you’ll just be another broken yesterday.”
Like many Canadian peers, Bellamy tried to make it in Nashville for about seven years, hanging out with people like fellow Bonnyvillian Mike Plume, now a full-time Nashville resident who makes his living writing songs for other artists.
“He’s one of my dearest friends. I tell everybody I learned how to write songs from Mike Plume, and by listening to a lot of great records he turned me onto,” Bellamy says. “He lived in Toronto, I lived in his couch. He lived in Nashville, I lived on his couch, and finally he just gave me the couch and said, ‘get your own place.’ So I did.”
Things went well until his record company went bankrupt, leaving Bellamy with no deal, no job and no work visa. He’d been making a living in music for years up to then, so it was a blow to the ego to have to come back and get a real job – on the oil rigs in Fort McMurray. He didn’t mind too much.
“I’ve done that throughout my career, working day jobs,” he says. “I grew up on the farm. That was always the mentality. You’ve got to take care of business first. You’ve got to take care of your family. Whatever you’ve got to do to work, as long as you’re working that’s the honorable thing.”
Still, “It was a tough blow, and it was scary because I had no idea what I was doing, I’d never done that kind of work before, welder’s helper, and I went down there in my brand new coveralls and my brand new workboots and they spotted me right away. I was the newbie. But I wrote the bulk of the record when I was out there.”
Bellamy’s fortunes have since turned around, needless to say. The Road Hammers are doing well enough, touring behind their new album, called Wheels. There seems to be a lot of songs about driving; three have the word “highway” in their titles. The band also performed Life Is A Highway with Tom Cochrane at the opening of the recent CCMA awards in Edmonton. There’s a theme here. Bellamy recently got a gig on CMT hosting the reality series Ice Road Racers, being filmed in Edmonton and Calgary in January and February. And the drive-time ratings? They’re up since Bellamy went on the air, according to his bosses. His disarming interviews and live musical collaborations are part of the attraction, and there’s talk – from him, at least – that maybe, just maybe he could produce a late-night alt-country show that could actually play songs by Townes Van Zandt, or at least Corb Lund.
Bellamy is going with the flow, as he’s done all along. He may be a radio newbie with his new coveralls and workboots, but he knows this industry is fickle.
“Having had it and lost it and had it again and lost it so many times, I know how blessed I am,” he says. “This could leave at any time, and I know that. I could walk in here one day and they could say, well, it’s been great, thank you very much, goodbye. So you just enjoy it, be grateful, and do the best job you can.”