Trailer Choir’s Mark Fortney—more commonly known to fans by his stage name “Butter”—believes the emerging Show Dog Nashville trio, of which he is the so-called “comic leader and front man,” will go a long way in country music.
They just need to figure out how to pack for the trip.
“Vinny, are you bringin’ your suitcase with you?” he asks.
“Yeah, well, I don’t have to. We could consolidate.”
“Well, this is something we need to think about, too,” adds a female voice. It’s Crystal, Trailer Choir’s “cute blonde” (as described by Butter), who nonetheless seems to be the most pragmatic of the group. “My suitcase is completely full. And we have to bring merchandise with us from Chicago. Wait, are we driving back to Portland, or are we flying? I don’t remember. But we have to take the merchandise back with us, and I have no idea how we’re going to travel with it.”
So begins a day in the life of an up-and-coming, independent-label country music band. It’s not exactly the life of luxury that most music fans would expect, what with having to transport your own T-shirts and CDs across the country. But for Fortney and his bandmates, these little logistical hiccups are only bumps on the road to bigger things. Much bigger.
“I think, on this album, we’ll have Grammy winning songs,” Butter says of the trio’s debut effort—which is currently “about halfway finished,” and which should be in stores, if all goes according to plan, in time for Christmas. “I think we’ll have a first album that could go down in the history of sales. We believe that much in what we’re doing.”
Signed by Toby Keith to his label in mid 2006, Trailer Choir is a band that, despite its unorthodox appearance and a string of off-the-wall songs with names like “Off The Hillbilly Hook” and “Rockin’ The Beer Gut,” insists that it is artistically genuine, a culmination of the melding of three distinct personalities.
“We always get asked, in a sort of roundabout way, ‘who came up with this, who manufactured this?’” Crystal says. “It may look like that’s what happened because we are a very different looking group. But we’re not something that was manufactured. Toby’s been great about just letting us be who we are.”
“It’s more than just a gimmick,” Vinny adds.
Point Of Convergence
Butter’s musical dreams didn’t start to take shape until his college years. The Ashtabula, Ohio, native had written a few songs as a teenager, and had performed a cover of Mellencamp’s “Small Town” at a high school talent show, but hadn’t really thought about a career in the music industry until he enrolled in a Recording Arts class at a local community college.
“The class had one mic and one mic cable,” Butter says. “We were basically recording into a boom box.”
But at the end of the term, the class was scheduled to take a field trip to a studio in Cleveland, where they would record a song in better facilities. “Everyone in the class had to submit a song, and the class voted on which one we’d record. 98% of the class picked my song. It was at that moment I realized that this is something I could do. I started to realize I might be able to be good at this.”
So the northern boy, who grew up memorizing Poison songs, moved south to Nashville, and transferred into the Recording Arts program at Middle Tennessee State University, a school located about an hour away from Nashville in Murfreesboro.
“That program changed my life completely,” he says. “I got everything out of that program any one person could get. I was a lab assistant, I was an engineer, I learned about copyright law, publishing, management, so many things about the business, as well as developing my creative side at that point. Everything that I deal with today I learned at that school.”
Vinny, on the other hand, took a less academic approach—although his musical aspirations also started to cement in the days following his high school graduation.
“I worked at Sonic my whole life,” says the four-hundred pound former football star from Perry Country, Tennessee.
Once school—and football—ended, Vinny, whose middle name is Van Zant, found himself with a lot of spare time and very little to do with it. So he had his younger brother teach him to play the guitar, and he started writing songs.
Just a few years later, after moving to Nashville, he had signed a publishing deal as a songwriter.
By 2003, Butter and Vinny were both renting “offices” on Music Row–(the so-called offices that line the famed Nashville street are really residential houses that have been converted into working space for publishers and writers)—when their musical partnership first began to bloom.
“My life had kinda turned upside down,” Butter says. “I lost a girl, and I was drinking all the time. Basically, I never left this office.” He stayed inside, isolated, and wrote songs day and night.
“I wasn’t a pretty person,” he says.
“One day, at about four in morning, I’m sitting out on the front porch playing a guitar with three strings on it, and Vinny, who was renting the place next door, came in late from somewhere and we started talking. He picked up that guitar and I swear lights were turning on all up and down the street, ‘cause Vinny has the biggest voice I’ve ever heard. We started, at that moment, becoming musical friends.”
If the first incarnation of Trailer Choir wasn’t formed on that early morning on Butter’s front porch, it wasn’t long after until the pair officially became a duo.
But they wouldn’t stay one.
Butter and Vinny set out making road trips around the southeast, playing parties and frat houses–sticking mostly to sets full of covers, with an occasional original or two mixed in—and booking dates in Nashville. The response to their music and their show was overwhelmingly positive. And they had endeared themselves to one fan in particular–Crystal.
Crystal, who grew up listening to Reba and Strait in a “tiny, tiny town” in mid-south Louisiana, had seen Butter and Vinny performing together around Nashville, and she knew both of them casually, as is often the case in the close-knit community of Nashville musicians. She thought they were great. But something was missing. And one night she figured out what that thing was—they needed a female harmony.
What happened next changed the band forever. Crystal jumped up on stage–uninvited–and took over Vinny’s mic.
“I backed away slowly, and didn’t let her hit me,” he says.
Rockin’ The Good Stuff
Less than two years later, the trio is on a tour bus in Los Angeles, talking to this reporter as they get ready to make the long trip north to Seattle, where they’ll be opening on the main-stage of Toby Keith’s Big Dog Daddy Tour. The trio will also appear in Keith’s upcoming movie, Beer For My Horses, and their debut single, “Off The Hillbilly Hook,” is featured on the film’s soundtrack.
I ask the band if, considering the unorthodox style and tone of the songs they’ve released so far, they’re worried about becoming pigeonholed as a “novelty” act.
“What does novelty mean?” Butter counters, a hint of frustration rising in his voice. He’s not confrontational, but there is passion bubbling below the surface of his answer. It’s the kind of response that comes from someone who genuinely cares about his music.
“What would you consider to be novelty about Trailer Choir?” He asks me. “What defines ‘good’ and ‘novelty’ and ‘serious’? When you hear that…to me, it means something that doesn’t have a chance at longevity, something that’s here to make a quick impact and then go away. But we’re built from songwriting. We know the depth. We’d stand in the same room with Craig Wiseman or Jeffrey Steele all day long and write songs and be competitive. When you get past “Beer Gut” and some of the fun stuff—which I think will always be a part of what we do—there’s a very serious side, and a very compassionate side.”
“…We love who we are,” Crystal adds.
And, clearly, this is a band that loves where it’s going.
Now all they need to do is figure out how to get their stuff there, too.
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