It's Easter Sunday, and Jason Kutchma has just arrived at his parents' house in Johnstown, Pa., to relax for a few days before coming home to Durham. During a monthlong tour of the United States that's just ended, the road led west to Tucson before tracing its way back through the Midwest, reaching Ohio and West Virginia at its tail. Now, having covered most of America in a Honda CR-V, it's time for a break.
As the frontman for Durham's Red Collar, Kutchma is no stranger to the highways. In 2009, that band left steady jobs to chase their dreams, backing the band's outstanding debut, Pilgrim, on tours that never seemed to end. But on this run, as on four shorter prior jaunts, Kutchma ventured out without his band.
"Life will get caught up to you," Kutchma, 38, explains. "Whether that's through a marriage, or having a baby, or somebody having to move away, or somebody gets serious about their professional job—we've essentially had all of those things happen to us in the past year. Of all of the top five or six reasons why bands break up or slow down, normally bands have one of them. We've had all five or six. All you can do is keep moving forward, even if it's slowly."
Drummer Jon Truesdale broke his arm, then got married. Guitarist Mike Jackson became a father and moved to Western North Carolina with his family. Beth Kutchma, Jason's wife and Red Collar's bassist, focused on her documentary work with Carolina For Kibera, the non-governmental organization dedicated to spurring development in Kenya. Red Collar is still a band, though. About this, Kutchma is gently adamant. The quartet's second album is maybe halfway done, and they still aim to play once a month or so.
"You're a band as long as you and those three people you're playing with still enjoy playing with one another," he says, "regardless of whether you tour or whether you play once a year, or whether you release anything."
As Red Collar adjusts to the changes life has presented in the past year, Kutchma's focus never shifted. Playing solo was a way for Kutchma to keep Red Collar—or something like it—on the road. If the quartet couldn't play a gig, Jason Kutchma could. "It used to be an extension," he says. "In fact, that was the intention. Out of a 45-minute show, maybe 30 minutes were Red Collar songs."
But between the old songs that never would've worked for Red Collar and new songs written specifically for the acoustic project, Kutchma's set outgrew its reliance on the past. The project is no longer billed as "Jason Kutchma of Red Collar, solo/acoustic." Now, it's J Kutchma.
In his first ventures to the stage alone, the conviction that makes Red Collar so captivating wasn't always fully on display. Rooted in the same topsoil as Red Collar—Springsteen Americana, or a mix of working-class brow-sweat, punk passion and redemptive storytelling— Kutchma's unplugged solo work has reached a point where it's no less charged than his full band's output.
"The first tours that I did with Ben [Carr, of Last Year's Men] and BJ [Barham, of American Aquarium], I only had Red Collar stuff to sell, and believe me, it was so awkward saying, 'Thanks for listening folks. I have these CDs over there, and vinyl for sale, of a band that sounds nothing like what I just did,'" Kutchma explains. "And I would say this on the stage, which is not a good pitch for anything."
Now, he's released two EPs of live recordings. The first is a digital-only affair recorded in Gainesville, Fla., in a hotel room during the annual punk pilgrimage The Fest. The latest was recorded last month in Chapel Hill at Local 506, when Kutchma opened for Avail frontman Tim Barry. He pressed 50 copies on CD before heading west. By the time he got to Tucson, they'd been sold. "I had to get Beth to mail me 50 more cardboard sleeves and Sharpies and plastic sleeves and CDs for me to try to sell 50 more," he says. "And I just sold out of those last night."
That EP is Kutchma's most thrilling statement to date. Red Collar's "Rust Belt Heart" feels more resigned in its sparer arrangement. "Used To Believe" is an examination of music's power, or lack thereof, to effect change. Kutchma performed it on video at the Iron Brush tattoo parlor in Lincoln, Neb., while receiving his first tattoo, a Western spur on his left shoulder. "I'll Survive" moves from murder ballad to vengeful elegy. Here, his voice rises from a steady croon to a gravelly howl. The Red Collar conviction is palpable.
Aside from those handmade batches, Kutchma sells the EP online for $3.55, the average price per gallon of gasoline on March 30. "It's a real thing for people to kind of put their head around," he says of the specific price. "This $3.55 is going to buy me a gallon of gasoline, and that's going to get me a little closer to the next town."
The songs' images—like the gold, spurred work-boots Kutchma has made his trademark, and the spur he now wears on his skin—is born of Kutchma's longstanding fascination with American iconography and artifacts of the middle 20th century. Between gigs and on days off, Kutchma lands in pawnshops and antique stores, treasure hunting: "It's really how I like to pass the time. Occasionally, you can find something that's just really really cool. Other times I can find some first editions of some books that I'll either collect or sell on eBay to supplement the income a little bit, buy me some more gallons of gas."
Red Collar's most enduring anthem, "Used Guitars," cycles its dreams of young boys and failed musicians through a pawnshop. This time, Kutchma returns to Durham with finds ranging from the useful, like a bargain on a high-end Shure Beta 58 microphone, to the novel, like a buck knife and CD collections of old country and rockabilly tunes. And for the book collection, he's found first editions of Buzz Bissinger's Friday Night Lights, Ron Hansen's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and an autographed first edition copy of Elmore Leonard's 1985 novel, Glitz. "I had a couple of times where I had two days off in a row," Kutchma says. "I do exactly what everybody else does on their days off: I spend money. You go to whatever you think is your own mall. Some people, their mall is a record store; some people their mall is a bar."
For Kutchma, the mall—a quintessentially American concept in its own right—is America. The knickknacks he collects during his travels are like the images and themes he uses to adorn his songs, small pieces of history, people's struggles and our desire to make sense of the world through entertainment: "All I do is go yeah yeah, ohh yeah yeah, yeah yeah, all right," he sings in "Teenage DMZ," drawing a line from Gene Vincent's "Be-Bop-a-Lula," the Edsels' "Rama Lama Ding Dong" and the Ramones' "gabba gabba hey" refrain from "Pinhead" to himself. Like his rock 'n' roll forebears, like the buck knife and the books and the CDs, Kutchma's music is still about connecting with people, making sense of something.
"It's maybe obvious, but I'd rather play for—and this happened a lot on this tour—10 people who are absolutely engaged in what I'm doing, as opposed to playing for 100 people where it's just kind of dinner theater, if you're lucky," Kutchma concedes. "You're just kind of background music while they eat their mutton or whatever."