At age 28, Aaron McClinton took stock of his life. His parents had opened McClinton Auto Collision in 1997; the Albany shop was his to run now, and business was good. With that background, naturally, he assembled hot rods in his spare time, but found himself without a project. He was a homeowner, too, with a fix-it list tackled and complete. There was Netflix, sure, but such distractions are anathema to someone who thrives on work.
So, he resolved to chase a dream he’d harbored for years: learn to play guitar.
He approached the challenge with obsessive dedication. Every morning, six-string in hand, he studied YouTube tutorials. Once he felt comfortable strumming along, he met once a week after work for the better part of a year with an old family friend who also played guitar — in part for instruction, but also for experience performing with another person.
“Initially, I wanted to sit down and be able to play some songs around the campfire, maybe,” he recalled. “Basic stuff — your classic rock songs, country songs; that’s what I thought I was getting into. That was my initial intent and focus.”
Of course, it became more. Less than three years later, at age 31, Aaron McClinton sings and plays rhythm guitar for a band, Crash Rodeo, with a three-track EP calling card recorded in a professional studio, a full slate of shows, a major mid-valley festival in its rear-view, and 20-plus original compositions in its growing repertoire.
Crash Rodeo wasn’t even a band in the beginning — just some interplay between McClinton and his old high school friend, Travis Perkins, on drums and Damon Lee on guitar. Unlike McClinton, however, Perkins and Lee were seasoned vets. Perkins has logged time with myriad acts, including the Randy Nicholson Band, which played the Oregon Jamboree in 2011; songwriter and recording artist Lee has toured as a musician with Cirque du Soleil and released his own album, “Feeling the Blues,” in late 2018.
“Damon instilled within us how important it was to be creative and write our music, to stand out from the crowd,” McClinton said. “He challenged me. He said, ‘Go write a couple of songs and let’s play and learn them.’ That’s what we did. The first songs we played as a band, even before we played gigs, were originals. We worked on them, trimmed them and messed with them a little bit. We never really learned any covers. It was crazy.”
An opportunity arose for the trio in the fall of 2018, opening for Trevor Tagle at the South Liberty Bar & Grill in Salem on Oct. 6. Although still new, the group had chops and songs; unfortunately, it didn’t have a name, which could have made promotion problematic. Suggestions came and went, but Damon Lee came through with the clear winner: Crash Rodeo. Two simple words. No backstories, no clever references. It was short and memorable and rolled easily from the tongue.
Crash Rodeo’s three-piece configuration didn’t last beyond this first gig. Bassist Tyler Porter, formerly of Albany experimental rock band A Dream Too Late (they released a single album, “Intermission to the Moon,” through Tooth & Nail in the mid-2000s) and a tour manager for Alan Jackson, joined the following month.
It’s this lineup one hears on the group’s self-titled EP, recorded this spring at Lebanon’s Castle House, where producer Nate Roos’ strict no-cellphone policy keeps artists focused on the creative process.
For a collective yet to celebrate its first birthday, Crash Rodeo sounds remarkably tight. The three Damon Lee-penned tracks move boldly on country-rock grooves with plenty of dance space: “Honky Tonk Nights” and “Rodeo Queen” effectively capture the punch-out-for-the-weekend spirit in a permanent Friday night amber and “Jet Black Wings” invites the devil to get down in a playful darkness Crash Rodeo explores with joy.
In fact, when one evokes the recent country resurgence that gave rise to the dark/light likes of Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, and Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, McClinton responds affirmatively to each name.
“Those are our heroes,” he said. “It’s not really outlaw country. Some people call it red dirt country, some call it alt-country. There are a lot of different names for it. Those are our influences. We try to be unique, but that’s definitely where we try to head — to that darker, rockier vibe as opposed to the poppy stuff on Top 40.”
Despite still being more accustomed to repairing cars than entertaining audiences, McClinton acquits himself well on the recordings, singing with a quaver worthy of older, twangier souls.
“I’ve done a little karaoke over the years, but never put any kind of work into it,” he said. “I was never in choir. But with the help of the other guys and their backgrounds, I knew I had it in me. As far as developing my singing, the biggest change from where I started to where I’m at now is confidence. When you go up and you own it — and you actually give it everything you’ve got — it’s amazing.”
Even more amazing: playing for potential multitudes at the Oregon Jamboree in Sweet Home. Just imagine, your name among the giants: Hank Williams Jr. Brothers Osborne. Chris Young. Neal McCoy. Crash Rodeo. And there they were, Saturday, Aug. 3, standing atop the Deschutes Brewery Park Stage, rolling through their set for an appreciative crowd.
“They’re just die-hard about music and loving it,” McClinton said. “You get a lot of excited, cheering fans and it’s just — you can’t hardly top that. It’s definitely the highlight of our career. Getting invited to play and putting on a good performance with the help we had from them, that’s our biggest accomplishment so far. There are a lot of stories about bands starting out on smaller stages and being on the big stage a few years later. You get a lot of people who like to come over and watch the smaller bands, because they never know who they might see. That’s a really special thing about the Jamboree. That’s why we were honored to be there.”
But McClinton loves the clubs, too, the closeness, the intimacy. Plenty should be available Saturday, when Crash Rodeo headlines an evening with Linden Wood at the recently remodeled Tangent Inn (formerly the Dixie Creek Saloon), 32294 Highway 99E, Tangent. Showtime is 7 p.m. Tickets are $5 advance at https://bit.ly/33vVEGJ; $6 at the door.
The show came together in a kismet collision of music and commerce, when Willamette Valley Presents LLC's Dave Wilson approached McClinton about his shop sponsoring the King of the Valley Beer-B-Que Festival, slated for June 2020 in Albany. During the resulting discussion, McClinton’s band came up. Intrigued, Wilson caught a few Crash Rodeo shows, liked what he heard, and plotted the Saturday concert as one in a group of festival fundraisers. As a businessman himself, McClinton understands the parallels between art and business, even within the dynamic of a group.
“You’ve got to create a regimen of practice,” he said. “You have to take it seriously. What I’ve learned from running a business is that you have to create structure. You have to create roles for everybody, and you’ve got to stick to those roles. Everybody’s got work to do every day. It’s the exact same thing with a band, 100%. We all have to show up on time for practice every week and we all have to put in our work to make sure we’re ready to go. And that comes from everyone, everyone in the band. We all come from management and ownership programs where we understand the importance of taking things seriously, putting in the work and getting results.”