Photography by Ashley Champagne
He sports a tattoo on his arm that reads, “Art is long. Life is short.” It’s an appropriate choice for Clayton Bellamy, the 36-year-old Bonnyville native whose art form has grown through a number of iterations during the last decade. In 2004 he joined the southern rock band, the Road Hammers, which was also the subject of a reality TV series of the same name. He became a country music and CMT reality television series star all at once – a move that culminated in a move from Edmonton to Nashville in 2007. There, the second season followed the band’s struggle to break into the Music City, USA circuit.
When the band went on hiatus in 2010, Bellamy tried to find his footing with a solo career. He released the album Everyone’s a Dreamer in 2012, but like the storied country songs of the genre, Bellamy’s solo experience was like a strained relationship teetering on the edge.
But Bellamy picked himself up by his bootstraps and moseyed on back to Edmonton where he now serves as host on the Drive Home on CISN Country. His most recent album, Five Crow Silver, earned him a nomination for Roots Artist of the Year in this past September’s Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA) awards. (The category was won by another Edmontonian, Corb Lund.) And he has filmed a pilot for his own motorcycle-centric reality series.
It’s been a year of reinvention for Bellamy, and the proof is evident in his style. Where once stood a typical clean-cut country musician (see inset below) now stands a bowler hat-wearing, long-haired, bearded biker. And though much of his apparel comes with a hefty price tag, his look is down-and-dirty – showcasing what he calls his “inner-dirtbag.”
Did you grow up in Alberta?
Yes, Bonnyville. It was awesome. I was a farm kid. My dad was raising sheep so I guess you could say I was a shepherd boy. I grew up on the farm, racing motorcycles and riding horses, and getting into trouble as farm kids do – nothing major – just burnin’ doughnuts in the neighbours’ yard and that kind of stuff.
It looks like your love of motorcycles stuck around.
Yeah. Up until I was almost 20, I played music in the off-season and trained to be a racer the rest of the time. That was going to be my calling, but I got into a bad wreck and nearly died – here in Edmonton, actually, at Rexall Place in an arena cross. That was the catalyst that changed my life. I decided to go to college to study music, and then took off recording and writing and stuff. Y’know, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
There’s a college picture of you on your Facebook page, with a sweater-vest on …
And a curly mullet? Yeah. And here I thought girls just didn’t understand me. [Laughs] Little did I know, as soon as I shaved the peach fuzz and lost the braces, my world would start turning – at least in the female department.
Where did you get your break?
I recorded an EP in ’99 and I won an Alberta Recording Industry Award – I think it was the Single of the Year. Then everything started to turn. I started getting recognition as an Alberta artist and I just plowed ahead, applying that farmer mentality of just going out to “make fence” and keep working. It really turned, in a big way though, when I got the audition for the Road Hammers. As soon as that door opened, my career just shot into the stratosphere.
How did you find being in a band that was the subject of a reality show?
They followed us from the inception of the band right until we made our record and released it. It was all in real-time. And, of course, [before the] audition, they didn’t tell me they were filming. I had never been in an audition before and, when I walked in, they stuck a lapel mic on me. The guy, [director] Joel Stewart, stuck a camera in my face and said: “OK. Let’s see what you got.” So I was like: “Well, I’ll tell you what I got, a little bit of shit in my pants right now.” Sorry. It paints a nasty picture, but I was nervous, to say the least.
Did your experience with the Road Hammers change you in any way?
Yeah. Absolutely. Some for the good, and some for the not-so-good. Sometimes you can spend too much time in Nashville and you get “Nashville-ized,” for lack of a better term. You never want to be one of those guys who’s shaking a hand and looking around the room for someone more important to talk to – someone who’s full of shit. But I think that being an Alberta boy, it would never happen to me.
Was there pressure to be “Nashville-ized?”
I would say when we signed our record deal, it was the typical, “You guys are great. We love you just the way you are. Don’t change a thing.” But as soon as the ink was dry on the paper, they wanted change. From the time we put pen to paper with that label, to the time it was all done, it was a war.
What did they want to change?
They wanted to change how you dressed. They wanted to change the songs you sing. They wanted to change everything. Listen; they sign you because they fall in love with you – with your spirit, energy, fans and your music. But then, when they get you, they figure that “this song won’t work here.” And yet it was a number-one song in Canada. Why wouldn’t it be one in America? It’s the same people with an invisible line separating us. But they had it in their head that it wouldn’t work.
Did you feel pressure to change the way you look?
With the Road Hammers, there was pressure from the label to wear designer jeans and pleated shirts, but I always wore shirts with cut-off sleeves with biker boots and that kind of thing. When I recorded Everyone’s a Dreamer – as much as I loved some of the songs on the record – that was a time when I really felt the pressure to fit a square peg into a round hole Because it was all these people telling me if I do this and we do that and you do this and you do that, you’ll get a record deal. For a period of time there was a disconnect between the way I looked and the music I was playing. But eventually I just embraced this and did my own thing. I’m rebelling against compromise. And the cornerstone song of my new record, “Victim of My Own Compromise” was all about that.
What did you take away from that experience?
I think now I’ve really embraced my “inner dirtbag,” y’know? I’m in my mid-30s and I’m just going for it. I’m not going to let anybody tell me what I should or shouldn’t be, or what I should wear to get a record deal. If I do all the things everyone else tells me to do, then I’m just one of those Nashville guys, chasing trends. That’s not what I got into music for. And, hell, now that I’m in radio I’ve had to wrangle back up some street cred – so I grew my beard. [Laughs] Y’know. Rebel against the man!
Was the job at CISN the clincher for you to move back home?
Well, there were a bunch of reasons. One of them being family. Y’know being away from home and trying to raise [two] kids. Career-wise, I had opportunities here that I couldn’t capitalize on in the U.S. The radio gig at CISN was one of the big catalysts.
How would you describe your sense of style?
It’s really a mix of rockabilly and biker, I would say. If there’s a term for that I’m not sure, but it’s probably “good ol’ dirtbag rock ‘n’ roll.” The stuff that I love is functional for riding bikes: The boots, the leather jacket and these sorts of things. Finally, just like my music, I honed what it is and what I do into a fine point. So with my look, I just found what really works for me and what doesn’t.
Do you stay on the lookout for cool trinkets and clothes while you are on tour?
When I’m travelling, the first thing I look for is where the cool little shops are that I can go into. I love going to Toronto so I can cruise Kensington Market. Even here there’s Divine or other cool little shops on Whyte Ave. You can go and dig around every few weeks to see what’s new or what’s come in. But if I bring home one more leather jacket my wife is probably going to divorce me. I own probably a dozen – ranging from completely old and falling apart to brand new.
Do you shop at secondhand shops exclusively?
I like the vintage stuff. I’m a fan of that. But again, if I go into a box store and there’s one piece that looks really great, I’ll get it. But most of the time if it smells a bit too new, or if Tim McGraw is wearing it, I don’t want to wear it. Nothing against Tim McGraw, but he’s just sort of my barometer.
Instrument: A ’74 Gibson Les Paul guitar
Musicians: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers
Album: Steve Earle‘s Copperhead Road
Book: On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Local Shop: Divine
Hangout: The Empress Ale House
TV Show: The Walking Dead
Motorcycle: Triumph Bonneville
Pastime: Spending time with my wife and kids
Survival Tool: Pocket knife
Grooming Tool: A boar bristle brush
Vintage find: A brown leather Waylon vest