⇒ Read our review of Red Collar's new album, Pilgrim
Near the end of a brief vacation in Johnstown, Penn., Jason Kutchma sighs about the state of his hometown: "It's sad," he says of the city of 23,000. "It's a small town, and the mall and all these stores, they're closing."
Johnstown had its days: Located about halfway between Pittsburgh and the state capital of Harrisburg, Johnstown served as a key port along the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal during the middle of the 19th century. For much of the last 100 years, Johnstown was a prosperous, booming steel town, the industry providing thousands of jobs at its peak. But geographic circumstance, a flood and steel-making competition abroad conspired to wreck Johnstown's economy to the point where, in 1992, the state government declared it a "financially distressed municipality." A decade later, the federal government proclaimed Johnstown as the American city least likely to attract newcomers.
Abetted by the current international financial crisis, the situation in Johnstown has gone from bad to worse. Unemployment stands around 8 percent and is climbing. According to one story in the town's Tribune-Democrat, these days local organizations host job fairs where unemployment benefits are explained instead of new jobs being offered.
Kutchma's parents still call Johnstown home, though, so early last Friday, Kutchma climbed into a car with his younger brother, Travis, and his three sons, ages 3, 5 and 8, for a weekend in his hometown. By weekend's end, Kutchma has grown weary of the city's economic trials, perhaps because they remind him of his own financial anxieties. While people are losing their jobs around the world, Kutchma quit his to hit the road with a rock band. He knows times could get tight quickly.
In two weeks, Kutchma will turn 36. By that point, he'll have been a full-time musician on the road with his little-known Fugazi-meets-The Boss rock band, Red Collar, for 13 days. The quartet—four professionals in their 30s, all with steady, safe jobs until last week—will release its first album, Pilgrim, this week (read our review) and hit the road in a van for, it hopes, a year of shows in any bar, house or rock club that will have it. Nobody in the band has ever attempted this, and the process of being a full-time band—booking, planning, forming a limited liability company—has proven challenging and humbling but completely invigorating. Red Collar knows this is something it must try, now or never.
"It's a really weird feeling. I know it's going to be tough financially, but there's just nothing in the world that cannot convince me that this is exactly what we're supposed to do," says Kutchma, sitting in his Durham dining room. Kutchma generally speaks with a calm, measured clip. Now, though, he exaggerates his syllables and squeezes his words together, becoming breathless, almost like an evangelist. He pushes his finger against the table, nailing the tail of each word to the hard pine. "There's no question, there's no doubt: This is exactly what we're supposed to do, and this is the exact time we're supposed to do it. It's going to be hard, but you just deal with that."
Plenty of bands hit the road every day without real contingency plans. Yet most of those bands are either successful (with managers, booking agents, promoters and record labels at their backs, making sure they have every chance to turn the road into a livelihood) or young (teenagers who opted out of college and into a conversion van, or post-grads giving rock 'n' roll one more shot before settling down).
But Red Collar is neither famous nor four fools of youth. Kutchma has already settled down. The table he's tapping belongs to him and his wife, Beth, in the well-appointed Durham house they own just south of downtown. They've been married for a decade and have lived in this house, which they rescued from disrepair, for five years. In the basement, they've designed a 12-seat movie theater for friends and a cozy practice space.
These days, old amplifiers with price tags and oversized movie posters clutter the basement. The Kutchmas have been discarding things at a yard sale because Beth, a guitarist for a decade, plays bass in Red Collar, and as soon as Red Collar hits the road, the house hits the market.
Mike Jackson, who shares guitars and vocals with Jason, waits tables at Piedmont, a high-end restaurant across from Durham's Central Park. A native of Illinois and a former track and field star, he attended Park College, a small liberal arts school, before working on political campaigns, including John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid. He lives in Durham with his girlfriend, whom he met on the campaign trail five years ago. He joined Red Collar after he went looking for a band on Craigslist, never expecting to find an outfit that would put him back on the road. For now, he'll keep his job at Piedmont since the restaurant is partially staffed by musicians who understand the risk he's taking.
Beth won't quit, either. She has worked as a program assistant for University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's international studies department for the last five years. She'll tour using several weeks of saved vacation time before deciding about her job this summer. "I have a very generous, open-minded, think-out-of-the-box kind of boss," she says.
But Jon Truesdale, the band's third—and, they hope, final—drummer, did quit his job. Three years ago, he left one post at Clemson University's library for another at UNC-Chapel Hill's Davis Library. He loved his job ("Well, as far as jobs go," he laughs) and also lives with his girlfriend, so it took some time for him to commit to unemployment and the road.
"It pays a lot better than it should for what I do. And my girlfriend, Jo, she's from New Zealand, and she's got visa issues. She's basically supporting me the whole time I'm doing this, and I'm not sure when her visa is going to expire," says Truesdale, who started beating the drums along to Dire Straits records when he was 7. At Clemson, he played in punk bands with quixotic names—The Squirts and Moose Boy, for instance. The goal was to get drunk and play fast, not to hit the road. "I had a lot to think about, but it's something I've wanted to do forever—literally, forever. If you ever get that chance, you can't not do it, no matter what."
Just four hours ago, Kutchma said goodnight to his co-workers. He's been a state employee for 10 years. First he was a public school teacher. Most recently, he worked as the clinic manager for UNC's Department of Psychology. His co-workers threw him a party, gave him a GPS system for the tour van and wished him well. Tonight, he's beaming.
"At this moment, in the world's history, I can't think of a more perfect time to quit my job because I would probably lose my job in a couple of months anyway," he says. "I don't think they'd get rid of me right away, but a lot of my colleagues, when it comes to it, will start losing people. That's why people are being so supportive. Might as well lose your job, might as well lose your house on your own terms."
The quartet knows the adventure's not going to be easy. They're prepared to eat cheap and crash on couches. Truesdale's mom bought each member of the band a $100 gift card to Subway. They all have things to lose, and at some point, they may have to leave the road, come home and find new jobs and places to live.
Presciently, that's the central theme of Pilgrim, a charging 11-track album of anthems that long for innocence, adventure and freedom and agonize over the doldrums of middle-age comfort. "The best thing about the future is it's never here," Jason sings on "Tonight." On "The Commuter," Jason laments the day's rote routine that pays the bill. On "Hands Up," he lambastes career paths chosen simply because they guaranteed some heralded good life.
And on "Radio," he shouts, "There's such pain in dreaming, in the failure of attempt/ but the sting of disappointment/ is less than the pain of regret." It's actually the kind of album that would cast its makers as hypocrites and liars had they not stopped punching clocks and started playing shows. Jason's always been one for going for broke, says Beth.
"Jason's proposal was really romantic," she remembers. "We came down to North Carolina and went to the beach for a day. We were driving back, and we were somewhere in West Virginia, and he said, 'I guess we should get married.' I said, 'I guess we should.' Quitting jobs and going on tour was sort of that easy."
"That's true," says Jason. "There was no thinking about it: 'Oh, where am I going to get the ring? Where am I going to propose?' It just had to be done. That's the way it is."
Red Collar releases Pilgrim Saturday, March 14, with a show at Triangle Brewing Company. The Dry Heathens and The Bones Royal open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10, which includes a copy of Pilgrim.