DECATUR — When people learn he hails from Bourbonnais, they tend to give Jason Bertrand an odd look. Based on his look of a cowboy as the frontman for his raucous band The Haymakers, Bourbonnais seems an unlikely place of origin for a rising performer of traditional country music.
But a closer look into the songwriter’s childhood reveals the seeds of his career.
“The family farm was in the small town of Clifton, going four or five generations back,” said Bertrand, who performs Saturday night with The Haymakers at Decatur’s Lock Stock and Barrel. “I spent all my summers and weekends out there baling hay and raising beans, so I was definitely a country boy at heart, and that was my kind of music.”
The self-titled country boy also possessed a curiosity for expanding his horizons, however. After attending and graduating from Eastern Illinois University with a degree in speech communications, he moved west to Arizona and set his sights on songwriting.
“Once I started to get really into it, I just didn’t want to do covers anymore like I was in my college band,” he said. “I played all over the place for the next decade before starting up the band that became Jason and the Haymakers around four years ago and cutting a demo at Pogo Studios in Champaign.”
That might have been the entire story of Jason and the Haymakers if not for the intervention of Jimmy Johnson, a well-known guitarist and producer who heard the demo and took the band under his wing. Suddenly, Bertrand found himself working with a man who had produced albums for the likes of The Rolling Stones, Bob Seger and Lynyrd Skynyrd, recording a full-length debut in Nashville. That record, “True, Original, American Country,” represented the group’s break-out.
“Through the recording process, we were using a lot of the same session players as the major artists in town, and they kind of came up with this ‘true, original, American’ moniker for me because of the songs I was writing,” Bertrand said. “If you ask my opinion, I’d say the name means ‘true stories about real life, without embellishment.’ It all happened to me, good or bad. I’m nothing special really, just someone who tries to bust his tail.”
Since the release of the album July 4, 2011, Bertrand has toured far and wide with big names in country music that include Kenny Chesney, Lady Antebellum, Montgomery Gentry, Eric Church, Josh Thompson and Kid Rock. He remains unsigned, however, choosing to distribute and promote his music through his own label, Bigg Rigg Entertainment, and trusting in a growing fan base to continue spreading word of his performances via word of mouth.
“We just want to do it the old-fashioned way,” he said. “We’ll drive 15 hours through the night to make it to a gig that we really want to do. I wouldn’t say this is the easiest way to do things, but I do think it’s the most important way today for a new band to get its music out there and build a fan base. Touring is definitely the backbone of our revenue, and because of that I’m spending 200-plus nights a year in a hotel or in a bus.”
The fun that Jason and the Haymakers have on stage is the reward that makes all that time spent traveling worthwhile.
“We’re a very rowdy bunch of guys who just like to have a good time wherever we go,” Bertrand said. “We stick pretty close to the true country music and just try to give an exciting show. There’s a lot of sweat and a lot of laughter.”