As I've lamented for so long, bands are often a hard sell in country music. A likely factor is the fact that many bands strike of just being thrown together on the spot, thus giving them little time to bond as a bona-fide act and develop any sort of chemistry. I've featured a few "thrown together" bands in this column before, such as The Buffalo Club, Rushlow, and The Remingtons. But I've also featured some who did have the time and experience to really bond artistically, such as Heartland, The Kentucky Headhunters, and The Wilkinsons, but just never took off for some reason.
The Lost Trailers are most definitely in the latter category. Founding members Stokes Nielson and Ryder Lee crossed paths with Willie Nelson, who heard a demo of theirs and invited them to play at his Fourth of July picnic. By this point, the group's lineup was finalized with Stokes on lead vocals, his brother Andrew on bass guitar, and Lee on keyboards, along with guitarist Manny Medina and drummer Jeff Potter. The band released one independent album called Trailer Trash, and another called Welcome to the Woods via Republic Records. Two singles were released, but neither made the charts.
In 2006, the band met with producer Blake Chancey and signed with BNA Records. Ryder Lee took over from Stokes Nielson as the frontman, offering a slightly more refined and radio-friendly, but still gruff and bracing voice up front. Their first BNA single was supposed to be "Chicken Fried," written by a then-unknown Zac Brown. Although it had not been officially released yet, it had gotten enough advance airplay to hit #53 before BNA announced that the single would be pulled because Zac had changed his mind about letting another artist cut it. "Chicken Fried" would, of course, go on to become the breakout single for the talented Zac Brown Band — even if it was far more lyrically stock (chicken stock?) than their later work, with its now-overdone Southern imagery. (Also, ZBB's is more of their signature laid-back jam, while the Trailers' take was more upbeat and rocking. As big of a ZBB fan as I am, I have to admit that choosing the better version is a real toss-up.)
BNA called a mulligan and replaced it with "Call Me Crazy," a song that I could swear was transplanted from some summer day in 1993 that I've forgotten about, with its laid-back, steel-heavy groove and its killer hook: "If it's crazy / To think maybe / That all you need / Is a love that's true / Well then, baby / You can call me crazy, 'cause I do." It balanced its successor, "Why Me," a lamentation of hard times for a working man that uses nonstandard but powerful imagery such as Jesus' prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. Unfortunately, both songs stopped just short of Top 40.
The band's second BNA album bore their only Top 10 hit with "Holler Back," also its title track. This song heralded a version of the Trailers that was even more mainstream yet, using (again) Southern imagery, but at least in a creative fashion: "Holler back when you get back home / I say, the only holler back that I know / Is that holler back in the woods…" As a big fan of wordplay, I can get behind a hook like that. The fiddles balanced out the electric guitars and shouted "hey ho"s in the chorus to remind you that yes, this is country. It was catchy, fun, and musically interesting enough to stand out in October 2008, a year ripe with "what the heck is going on?" syndrome.
The week the song hit its peak at #9, one would find no less than Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker finishing up his first trip to #1 (I've always joked that Darius went country so that people would stop calling him "Hootie"), while Kid Rock was nearing the end of a Top 5 bow with "All Summer Long." Heidi Newfield was making her first (and to date, only) Top 20 bow outside Trick Pony, who has been featured in this column before; Jamey Johnson was finally back on radio for a spell with the amazing "In Color"; not one, but two Canadian acts were getting their feet wet (Crystal Shawanda and Adam Gregory); James Otto was somehow failing to build an iota of momentum after notching what would be the year's biggest hit with the soulful "Just Got Started Lovin' You"; and BNA was trying a new, much more vanilla, uninteresting version of Pat Green on "Let Me." And oh yeah, Zac Brown Band's version of "Chicken Fried" was at #22 that week.
Still, the table was set for another hit. Cue "How 'Bout You Don't," a simple plea for a breakup not to end, sung every bit as passionately as the ear-worm before it. It made a respectable run into the Top 20. After it came "Country Folks (Livin' Loud)," another mishmash of country boy tropes (tailgates, church choirs, Waylon Jennings, George Strait, the stars and stripes, Talladega — wait a minute, Talladega? That's a new one on me!), that was at least catchy, if not nearly as loud as its title let on — even if its melody cut a little too close to Alabama's "Song of the South." A few stations instead chose the superior ballad "All This Love," enough to get it to chart as well, but "Country Folks" petered out at #36. It was at this point that I saw the Trailers in concert in Imlay City, Michigan, and they did not disappoint; I remember the show being loud and energetic, but never overdone or calculated. (I also remember having a really bad backache.)
Despite the low returns for "Country Folks," the band seemed to have enough buzz generated for a third BNA album. Instead, they announced their breakup, with each Trailer un-hitching to follow separate paths. Interestingly, only a year later, Stokes chose to revive the Trailers brand as a duo consisting of him and new member Jason Wyatt. Late in 2011, the newly-re-established duo released "Underdog," a beautiful ballad of a couple who overcomes adversity. Though Jason's voice is somewhat limited, he still shows plenty of emotion, while Stokes offers interesting lines such as describing the couple's kid as "two months early, two pounds / The tallest kid in third grade now," and especially the shift from third to first person on the last verse. Although it was released through their own label, it just barely entered Top 40 — no doubt a testament of the song's lyrical power. After it came "American Beauty," a mandolin-driven mid-tempo about a cute girl at the fair that recalls some of the vivid lyrics and tunefulness of "Call Me Crazy." (Just a shame that it fell from the charts shortly before The Henningsens' far weaker "American Beautiful" and Faith Hill's "American Heart" entered. And that it's not on iTunes.)
Despite their longevity, I feel that The Lost Trailers never really seemed to center on who they were artistically. Were they a rough-and-tumble country rock group? A slick and polished one with some lyrical smarts? Or a slick and polished one churning out the same Southern clichés as everyone else? Could they have found themselves had they not abruptly decided to break up? As for that last question, I think the answer is yes — though the Wyatt/Nielson duo has had limited releases to date, their contributions so far seem to suggest a higher degree of focus and clarity, even if their current membership and styles have so few common threads with their predecessors. Perhaps in time, the re-booted Trailers' own "Underdog" story will come true.