No this is not one of these American Idol alums who made it into the Top 20 of the show and tries to do everything they can to hold on to that glimmer of notoriety in an ill-fated attempt at a mainstream music career, this is Jason “Wolf” Hamlin who had the minds of many independent music fans reeling at the possibility of a genuine country roots artist making a real splash on America’s premier singing competition.
Of course Hamlin was a little too hard-edged to get very far on the show, but during the preliminary tryout phase of the 2012 season, American Idol selected him out of the crowd to be showcased in one of their extended segments on contestants. The 24-year-old engine mechanic carrying a “guit-fiddle” handmade by his recently-deceased father had a story, a look, and a voice that resonated with a crowd that was quite counter-intuitive to the American Idol audience. Wolf was singing Johnny Cash covers and showing a lot of attitude behind his music, despite maybe the Idol producers pushing the “Wolf” thing a little too hard.
“I hadn’t even planned on auditioning until I found out my wife was headed to San Diego a couple weeks before the auditions took place,” Wolf Hamlin explains. “I was told they were gonna be holding them there and figured, ‘Why not?’ It was never a make or break thing for me. People were able to see my father’s guitar and I was able to kickstart a career … People think either you’re a sell out or the next best thing when you go on American Idol. You realize that the level of vocalists and musicians is far beyond what is actually portrayed on the show. The competition out there is amazing.”
Hamlin got axed during Hollywood week and headed back home to Livermore, CA to start right back right where he left off, but with a renewed energy to pursue music further. “I came home with an all new outlook on music and what I wanted from it. I play with my band and other local musicians on a regular basis. I still work a full time job as a mechanic and last September married the woman of my dreams.”
In old-school back porch country music fashion, Jason Hamlin gathered together musicians from the surrounding area, his wife picked up the fiddle, and Wolf Hamlin became “Wolf Hamlin and the Front Porch Drifters.” Wolf says he loves his band. “I can’t thank them enough for what they do. It shows each and every time they get off work at 5pm, travel 2 to 3 hours to a gig, play ’till 2 AM, and drive 2 to 3 hours home.”
On July 30th, the band released their first, self-titled album independently. “The album is as real as possible. By that I mean it was recorded live In 48 tiring hours. We rehearsed for months, wrote a million songs, then hit the studio.” It’s a rough-hewn, raucous affair with its fair share of subdued songwriting moments, and some of the studio banter left on the tracks and a Southern rock flavor in stretches.
“It was a Friday night in February,” Wolf recalls. “We started at 4 PM and had booked the studio for the weekend. We a sat in separate rooms with our instruments and head phones and just pounded it out take after take ’till we got it right. Our theory was we wanted an album that was authentically us. If you see us play, this is what we sound like. No bells and whistles, no Auto-Tune, just good old fashion music being recorded.”
“In the song ‘Wolf Hotel’ at the end you will hear our drummer hold the beat a second to long and screams ‘Fuck!’ We left it in because it was a real emotion. We had done numerous takes on that song and changed a few progressions throughout the takes. It was 2 AM and we were all spent. He captured what everyone was feeling. That’s the side of musicianship we want people to see … I label it Outlaw country cause that my favorite type of music. I am frequently told that it has a Southern rock sound and I love that also. I grew up listening to John Prine, John Hartford, the Stones, you name it. I am particularly fond of the songwriting portion.”
The ironic part of Wolf Hamlin’s American Idol experience is it seemed to reinforce in him the most important part of music and the foundation for country music specifically, which is sharing music with friends, loved ones, and each other on back porches and in local watering holes. Not every musician can be in the national spotlight. “Life has been great, we travel and enjoy the the little things like a front porch jam with complete strangers.”
But Wolf Hamlin would love to have the opportunity to share his music with more people. “[I'd love to] play with my band everywhere we can. Sell records. Tour! Hell I’m not sure but as long as we can keep creating and bringing those creations to people I’m good with it.”
And no matter what happens with Wolf, his father’s handmade guitar will be right beside him. “When I write a song it’s me and my father’s Acoustic. From there I bring it to the band and that’s when the Magic happens … I will always play my Fathers guit-fiddle. It’s part of me!”
Sporting a squared off pompadour, work shirt, bushy beard, and a mess of tattoos, American Idol introduced Jason “Wolf” Hamlin as one of this year’s contestants on the episode that aired Sunday night. This mechanic-by-trade came in with his “guit-fiddle” (guitar) and sang a “CCR” song (which the well-versed would recognize as Leadbelly’s “Midnight Special”), and then when Steven Tyler asked him to sing another, he sang Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”.
And then the emails started coming, and the chatter raised on various social networking channels Saving Country Music patrols seemed positive for “Wolf” with many saying, “Well hell, if he’s gonna be on there, I may actually watch this year!”
…and now you know why he was featured.
And “Wolf” was not only featured on an audition, he was significantly highlighted on the episode. They sent a production crew to his job as a golf course mechanic, got an in-depth interview with him, etc. I’m assuming all of this stuff happened after his audition. I mean, they wouldn’t go though all that trouble pre-audition unless they already determined he would be a contestant or would be featured, would they?
…and now you know a little more of what’s going on here.
Look, the blue-collar “roots” demographic, though seemingly small because it is traditionally ignored by the mainstream, is in many ways blowing up as a cultural force. American Idol did not “pick” Jason Hamlin, they “chose” him, and specifically chose to make him a significant focus of their episode.
And American Idol isn’t the only one all-of-a-sudden paying attention to the independent roots music world. The shift of the punk culture into roots music is a very real, culturally-significant phenomenon that the greater world is taking notice of. And they are courting the roots fan for the passion and loyalty that are recognized as top attributes of their behavior.
Century Media, a traditionally heavy metal label recently started a roots division for artists like Joe Buck and Bob Wayne. Victory Records, who some will give credit for “killing” punk music, has announced a roots project with so far an unknown specificity. And there’s a pretty solid rumor out there that Kevin Lyman of The Warped Tour and the Country Throwdown Tour is putting plans together for a “roots” version of the annual touring festival, possibly as early as this year. We’ll see.
As for Jason “Wolf” Hamlin, he could be a great thing, or he could be a horrible thing. We don’t know the guy, and we shouldn’t pretend we do, and we should understand he’s just a mechanic at a golf course who likes Johnny Cash. Or is he? And sure, he could be a shill for FOX producers hoping to bring the burgeoning masses of roots fans into the fold. Or, he could be the country music Messiah that I’ve been dreaming of (and Eric Church mocks me for). Or he could dive out in the first few weeks and all this consternation is for naught, unless in the process he actually exposes some kids to some real music they would otherwise not be.
But be wary friends and neighbors. If you reacted positively to seeing Jason “Wolf” Hamlin on American Idol and said “Well hell, I kind of like this guy. I may actually watch this stupid show this year!” just understand that is exactly what the folks in Hollywood wanted you to say.
Here is Wolf performing an original song.
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