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Mother Truckers: Better than the van

Michael Corcoran
The Mother Truckers (from left, Danny G, Teal Collins, Josh Zee and Pete "the Beat" Langhans) will hit the West Coast this summer before embarking on the band's first European tour.

Hearing a great song can pull you out of the doldrums. Writing one can pull you out of the van and into a tour bus. At least that's the dream for Austin's Mother Truckers, who've penned an instant pop classic with `Keep It Simple,' from their new `Van Tour' CD. The tune, featuring Teal Collins' sensational soaring vocals, has a nostalgic Top 40 radio feel, as it yearns for love minus drama.

`I had the beginning part and sang it for Josh and he said "That's it!''' recalls Collins, who co-founded the Truckers with husband Josh Zee in the Bay Area in 2000.

`Yeah, I jumped on that like a bum on a bologna sandwich,' Zee says with a laugh. `I've always felt that the mark of a good song is when it makes you say "I can't believe no one's written that before." "Keep It Simple" struck me like that.' Zee wrote the song's bridge and together the pair, which co-wrote every song on `Van Tour,' hammered out the other verses.

The first time the Truckers, rounded out by drummer Pete the Beat and bassist Danny G., played `Keep It Simple' live, it slayed the audience.

`That was really the impetus for starting the new album,' Zee says. `We had to put the song out there.'

The years 2008 and 2009 were a bittersweet period for the couple, who moved to Austin five years ago this month. The 2008 release of `Let's All Go to Bed,' with the radio hit `Kaki's Song,' expanded the group's fanbase, but constant touring and dissatisfaction with their Arizona-based record label left the Truckers a little torn and frayed. What's more, tragedy struck when Collins' sister was killed in a murder-suicide soon after the album's release.

`We didn't write any songs for a long, long time,' says Collins. Looking for a way to get out of her funk, Collins took a friend's recommendation and read `The Artist's Way,' the 1992 book by Julia Cameron, which teaches ways to unblock creativity and reach new spiritual heights with your work.

During daily writing sessions, Collins started accumulating pieces of songs, including the spark that became `Keep It Simple.'

Although `Van Tour' contains only 10 tracks, Collins and Zee wrote and demo-ed 16 songs for consideration. Then they called producer/engineer Cris Burns, who had helmed the previous two Mother Trucker albums, `Broke Not Broken' and `Let's All Go to Bed.' The album's basic tracks were done in two days, though the vocals and guitar leads took another two weeks. Much of that time was spent getting just the right guitar tone for each song, as Zee experimented with five different-sounding guitar amps in the studio.

Though it's hard to top `Let's All Go To Bed' ­- and `Van Tour' doesn't - there are a handful of new songs, including `Size of the Sun,' that will elevate the live set.

`This is a little more of a Texas rock 'n' roll album than the last one,' says Zee, whose style of playing ranges from James Burton-like fretboard frolics to heavy Joe Walsh/ZZ Top riffs.

When Zee first picked up the guitar at age 11, he wanted to be the next Elmore James. `I was just wild about the blues,' he says. `If you're lucky when you're a kid, you have someone older to show you what's what. And I had a friend who was three years older who had a great blues record collection. And he taught me how to play the guitar.'

Collins started even earlier, playing the ukulele and singing at age 5. When she was 16, she wanted to play the electric guitar and join a band. Her father, Al `Jazzbeau' Collins - a 1950s jazz radio legend at New York's WNEW before taking his bebop jive to San Francisco airwaves in the 1960s - casually mentioned his daughter's aspirations one day to his radio show guest Les Paul and within a few days, a new Les Paul guitar arrived at the Collins house. `The Paul,' as the 1979 model is called, is still the electric guitar Collins plays most often onstage.

Collins and Zee met at an open mike at a club in San Rafael, Calif., but didn't date for several years. Zee was soon off on tour with Protein, a heavy metal pop band signed to Sony, but when he tired of that style of music and wanted to start a country-flavored rock band, he remembered the pretty girl with the big eyes and huge voice.

`Tealie's a pretty good guitar player and a great singer, and I can hold down the guitar pretty well and sing some, so it seemed like a good match,' Zee says. Collins' first boyfriend in the band was the drummer, not her co-frontman, whom she would go on to marry in 2005.

The other original members of the Mother Truckers had families or other commitments, so Josh and Teal started a new version of the band in Austin, where they watched their Thursday happy hour sets at the Continental Club becoming a weekly ritual for about 150 diehard fans. Some wore T-shirts they made themselves that played off the band's double-entendre name. Even in a town with a strong roots rock history, the Mother Truckers brought something different, as they could scorch one minute, then play a ukulele ballad the next. A recommendation from Ray Benson got the Truckers to Austin and the support of Continental Club owner Steve Wertheimer convinced them that they'd made the right decision. `The Continental Club will always be home,' Zee says.

Home is also the white Econoline van that has crisscrossed the country several times in the past few years. `We have a love-hate relationship with the van,' Collins says, with a laugh. `You're crammed in there, with no privacy, for hours every day.' The love part comes when the van pulls up to a club with a Mother Truckers poster on the front door.

`We wrote the song "Van Tour" on a long drive between shows,' says Collins. `It just spilled out and it's always connected live, so it was a natural choice for the album title.'

For the album's cover shot, however, the Truckers jilted their own van for a photo of a tricked-out 1976 Dodge van named `Harvest Moon' that Collins found while searching car-trader sites online. `I had to call a guy in Inoka, Minn., to get permission to use it for the cover, and he was thrilled,' she says.

The photo shows the van traveling through outer space, indicative of the band's goal to take their music further, both literally and figuratively.

The Mother Truckers are doing fine, but they're not getting rich by any means. To make ends meet, Collins and Zee give voice and guitar lessons, respectively. They also got a boost landing a few songs on movie (`Touching Home' with Ed Harris) and TV soundtracks (HBO's `True Blood'). And in September the band will embark on its first-ever tour of Europe.

But as they sing on their new LP's title track: `Got no crew it's just the four of us/ I hope someday soon we'll have a tour bus.'

Zee and Collins are probably the most talented guitar/vocals tandem in Austin since David Grissom used to play with Lou Ann Barton in the '80s. But the most gifted aren't always the most successful. You've gotta just keep doing what you love and hope for the best.

Keep it simple, in other words.

mcorcoran@statesman.com; 445-3652

Upcoming show

Mother Truckers play a record release show for `Van Tour' on Saturday at Antone's, 213 W. Fifth St. With Micky and the Motorcars and Amber Lucille. Doors at 7:30 p.m. $15. antones.net