PASTORAL BEGINNINGS JKutchma & The Five Fifths

The NC
musician – also of punk upstarts Red Collar – finds his inner dustbowl
rocker-balladeer in spectacular fashion.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

When we catch up with Jason Kutchma by phone, he’s just
leaving a local print-shop in his hometown of Durham, North Carolina.
He’s been in there picking up sticker-logos for an upcoming 17-day tour of the
Midwest and Canada
with his new band, JKutchma & the Five Fifths, in support of their debut
record, Pastoral.

 

There’s nothing particularly headline-worthy about a new
band getting work done at the corner Kinkos. What is notable, though, is that
Kutchma is 39 years old and by his own account has just made his best record.
Not only that, it’s come with an epiphany that these nine tracks – whose folk
and country rock lineage traces from Guthrie’s Dustbowl Ballads and Freewheelin’
Bob Dylan
through Springsteen’s Nebraska and Son Volt’s Trace, as well as contemporaries
like Bry Webb and Craig Finn – are what he’s been pointing towards from the
get-go.

 

“Something really special happened, the chemistry between me
and these people,” Kutchma says of his new quintet, which includes
multi-instrumentalist Patrick O’Neill, drummer Evan Rowe, bassist Rusty Sutton,
and guitarist Elysse Thebner. “I was afforded the opportunity to record, if not
a life’s work, then exactly what I want to say about a certain point in my
life.”

 

Kutchma’s better known as a member of the democratic
songwriting unit Red Collar – a bar punk quartet of Fugazi-meets-Constantines everyman
maelstroms – who’ve released an EP and two previous full lengths, including Red
Collar’s excellent Welcome Home earlier this year. But he concedes his 20s were more like the average rockers’
30s, in that it was his 20s when he worked full-time jobs and only dabbled in
music. It’s only been in this decade of his life that he’s committed to music
as a career, and that transition is, in large part, what Pastoral and Welcome Home chronicle.

 

But the road hasn’t been smooth. Momentum for Red Collar’s
promising 2009 debut, Pilgrim,
fizzled due to various setbacks (unexpected fatherhood, a drummer’s broken arm,
relocations, etc.). The band – which also consists of guitarist Mike Jackson,
Kutchma’s bass-playing wife of 15 years, Beth, and drummer Jonathan Truesdale –
had suddenly traded in a promising future for near-total uncertainty.  

 

At a crossroads, Kutchma wrote and live-recorded a couple of
EPs and sold them for the going rate of a gallon of gas, hitting the road alone
with the intention of playing predominantly Red Collar songs. But while
traversing America,
sometimes saying little more than “may I have a receipt
for that?” for days at a time, he says, the set-list metamorphosed. His solo
songs, written on acoustic guitar for the first time and without being bounced
off bandmates, came to dominate the set-list.

 

“I’d only done a couple of tours (solo) prior to that,”
Kutchma says. “I was in a place where I just had no idea what I was going to do
or whether I was even interested in writing songs without those other three
people in Red Collar – whether I had anything to say by myself was really,
really unclear.”

 

The turning point happened when he completed the song “Used
To Believe,” chronicled through an email exchange with his wife that’s included
in a handsome soft-cover book that accompanies Pastoral (along with lyrics, illustrations, photos, writings, and
epigrams ranging from Aristotle and Rilke to sportswriter Heywood Brown and
Kinky Friedman). The song serves as the LP’s centerpiece, both literally and
figuratively, as the narrator comes to grips with rock & roll’s promise and
limitations: “My pops don’t believe in the power of song/Son, the only way a
song’s gonna right a wrong/Take them lyrics of ‘Blowin in the Wind,’ write ‘em
on the bills of Ben Franklin, my friend/Pass ‘em around to the poor across this
great country,” Kutchma growls over the shuffling beat and a strummed acoustic.

 

He’s speaking for every rock & roller who’s come to the
dispiriting conclusion that the transformative nature of rock & roll goes
only so far. But Kutchma concludes on an upbeat note that suggests a different,
if just as vital, transformation. In this case, an understanding of his own role
– “Still got something to say and a guitar/maybe that’s all the reason in the
world I need to believe.”

 

“Whatever profession you’re in, I think you just have these
moments where you think, ‘holy hell, that’s it. I did it. I just made
something, or created something, or was a part of something amazing;’ ‘I worked
40 hours a week, 200-some-odd days a year, and I just nailed it today,'”
Kutchma says. “That particular day that’s how I felt: ‘This says everything
that I want to say at this time of my life right now.’ And if you can get that,
it’s an amazing feeling.”

 

 


End Of The World by JKutchma

 

 

After home-recording the songs alone, Kutchma hit the road
for another solo leg convinced he’d made the record of his life.  But when he returned and listened to the LP
for the first time in weeks, the songs sounded flat and only semi-fleshed out.
He quickly realized he needed a band. So he recruited members from local North Carolina outfits
like The Honored Guests, Maple Stave, Some Army and Rat Jackson, and formed
what has become the Five Fifths. That group recorded for two days at
Asheville’s Echo Mountain Studios, and then Kutchma added vocals and crucial
touches from pedal steel guru Nathan Golub (John Howie, Jr., Catherine Whalen)
– whom, it should be noted, he’d met during a Nebraska tribute gig.

 

“I’m really, really fortunate that the right people got
involved with it and that the right chemistry is there,” he says. “Not only
with everybody musically, but personality wise, too. Right off the bat
everyone’s understood what we’re here to do.”

 

Throughout Pastoral,
Kutchma grapples with rock & roll’s meaning in his life, which has also
included significant stints as a school teacher and home remodeler. But the
album is a journey to understanding. The stately opener “End of the World,”
with its wistful melody and harmonica reminiscent of The River-era Springsteen, brushed beats and elegant guitar fills,
states the query in existential terms: If the end is approaching, will we have
left anything worth leaving behind? The next track, “Every Good Boy Does Fine”
is named after the mnemonic shorthand for the musical notes of the bass clef, and
hints at music’s role in structuring the typically unstructured life of the
average musician. That’s something that “Teenage DMZ,” the sonic link between
Kutchma’s new band and Red Collar, also suggests through its punk-paced honky tonk
chronicling young man angst.

 

“There’s a Light” is a gospel-flavored number that echoes,
if not directly quotes, the Louvin Brothers in its intro, and captures the redemptive
factor rock comes to play in many musicians’ lives. By the time the listener
reaches the end of the LP with the defiant call to arms “Will Not Be Broken,”
Kutchma’s unapologetic about the path he’s chosen. “I heard, ‘stay down, don’t
get up, boy,'” the singer implores, like the punch-drunk fighter who won’t stay
down even when he probably should, yet earns our ultimate respect for not
giving up. Ironically, by the end of Pastoral,
we’re seduced all over again by rock & roll’s redemptive
promise.

 

Only Kutchma’s not letting us off the hook that easy. Having
made this soul-searching investigation over the course of the LP, his answer
has all the nuance a good rock & roll song should include.

 

“I think it does have a transformative power,” he says, “but
you can’t believe in rock & roll.
It’s made by these complete fuck-ups. It’s almost a requirement that you have
be a complete fuck up. You have to be unable to hold any other kind of job; all
these other ones keep on spitting you out back into the gutter. How many
different times in my life have I sold every guitar I had because I thought it
was time for me to get a real job and live in the real world – but the real
world kept spitting me back to
whatever this is.”

 

The central element of the Kutchma experience is the true
believer conviction he and his bandmates in Red Collar and the Five-Fifths
perform with. Watching Kutchma and fellow guitarist Mike Jackson careen across
a stage and gang-holler Red Collar anthems has the power of a gospel tent
revival held in a mosh-pit. And though the Five Fifths may burn slower, the
flame winds up being just as consuming. With his jackhammer leg-stomp that
emphasizes the percussion his boot-spurs provide, it’s not uncommon to see in
Kutchma the charismatic believability and honesty that Springsteen or a Joe
Strummer brought to their performances.

 

“That’s what people get to see at a show; someone in a
confessional,” he begins, “and they get to see someone on the leather couch in
a psychiatrist’s office, and then get to hear these whispers between best
friends, or things I’m saying from my life or that someone’s told me that I’m
rephrasing in a different story, and I have to be as honest as I can in my
music for it to have staying power. That I can recall that emotional thread of
honesty from whenever that song was written, that helps me sing the song. You
hate to say the word ‘sell it’ in this conversation, this isn’t insurance, but
to me I’ve got to have that emotional connection to it.”

 

The
band is touring throughout the fall, including a high profile at the Hopscotch
Festival in Raleigh
in early September. Check the dates
here.

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