"It was probably the worst-case scenario a band could ever think of," singer and guitarist Todd Johnson recalls. "Going on at three in the morning our time, being there for one day, don't get a sound check. It's late, you're fuckin' jet lagged, you're tired, maybe even a little drunk 'cause you thought you were going on five hours ago, and everybody else you're playing up there with is singing to playback tracks. But so what if eight million people just saw you not do too good?"
Excuses in the rock world are like asshole musicians -- every band has one. Granted, Trucker's haphazard TV appearance might have sealed its reputation as a local music ne'er-do-well, but few area groups have managed to do so little with so much opportunity. For two years running, critics at the College Music Journal have dubbed Trucker one of America's top fifty unsigned bands; Jim Beam once gave the group a grant for being a Midwest artist to watch; and the group's latest opus was mastered by Brad Blackwood, whose clients have included Evanescence, Train and Alex Chilton. Hell, Trucker even has a diligent PR company toiling on its behalf, a rarity among unsigned acts. Yet the trio remains virtually invisible on the local scene, and CD sales indicate that Trucker has more fans in Germany than in its own hometown.
Trucker's lack of local love may have something to do with a dearth of area gigs -- the group's already light concert schedule became virtually nonexistent after the departure of bassist Wayne Rasmuss earlier this year. Furthermore, the national attention given to Trucker's unsigned status might have to do with the fact that even minor-league players such as Overstep and Getaway Driver have record deals, thus negating their chances to qualify as unsigned. Johnson blames everything from lack of insider connections to cheapskate promoters who prefer to book DJs instead of live bands, but he's equally quick to point the finger at the band itself.
"In some ways, we've been our own worst enemy," he confesses. "People's motivations drop off over time. It's hard to keep the dream alive."
The origins of Trucker's dream can be traced to Winter Park, Florida, where Johnson, an Olathe native, met drummer Tom Barletta while both were attending Full Sail, the school for musicians, filmmakers and other aspiring electro-media gadflies. After graduation, Johnson and Barletta returned to Lawrence, where Trucker was born in 1995. The trio gigged prodigiously in the early days, cultivating a small, grassroots audience with a string of singles and live efforts. In early 2000, Trucker issued the well-received Go Out EP, but things began to fall apart shortly after the Farmclub debacle.
"We basically got burned out," Johnson admits. "What's been hardest for us is the revolving-crowd issue. You'll have a really good couple of years, and then people graduate. We've had more luck nationally, which is why we quit playing around [here] as much."
Rather than barnstorming local venues, Trucker self-released its full-length debut, Nothing to See Here, in March. Recorded in Johnson's basement studio over six months, Nothing offers a compact Trucker history over the course of its thirteen tracks. Standout numbers such as "Two Days" underscore Trucker's ability to match gritty riffs to self-deprecating lyrics. Every morning I awake to the same meaningless chores/Of selling my life off like some paychecked whore, begins the appropriately titled "Bitter." At the heart of each tune is Johnson's trademark bellow -- a stiff-jawed country honk that invokes the spirit of Days of the New howler Travis Meeks. Nothing has been met with indifference from area music lovers, perhaps because it appeals to an audience that prefers Cheech and Chong flicks over live entertainment.
"It's hard to infiltrate the stoner crowd on their couch," Johnson says with a laugh. "Our audience is more underground than the underground kids -- they literally don't leave their house. It's fifteen guys sitting in a living room with a bong."
Trucker might never fulfill its platinum ambitions, but Johnson can say that he got to taste the big time. This June, on a whim, his wife, Robin, entered his name in a contest announced in Rolling Stone. A handful of winners received all-expenses-paid trips to New York City to attend Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp, a five-day extravaganza that paired would-be superstars with luminaries such as Roger Daltrey, Levon Helm and Marky Ramone. Johnson's entry was randomly drawn, and he soon found himself rocking out in the Big Apple.
"It was a lot of fuckin' fun," Johnson says. "There were a couple of younger guys there who thought it was their chance to show off and get the attention of people. But the majority of the other people there -- and it's the attitude I took -- were there to have fun with it. Just meeting those guys and seeing how humble they were was really cool -- they were kind of honored that you were there."
Too bad local audiences don't feel the same way about Trucker.