By Eric Normand
Sunny days, dusty hayfields, huge crowds, great music, great people, light beer, diesel fumes, gator balls – these were the sights, sounds and aromas of the 2014 Luke Bryan Farm Tour. I can’t believe it’s over, it seems like I just hopped on the bus yesterday. The 8 shows spanning two weeks whirled across the Deep South with the speed of a jet plane and the intensity of a freight train.
My role in this mega-tour as lead guitarist and bandleader for Nashville’s most successful songwriting team of all time, The Peach Pickers, began with our pre-tour warm-up show at a sold out Third and Linsley in downtown Nashville on September 26. The show, which benefited The Wounded Warrior Project was a huge success, and a couple of days after this electric night we hopped aboard a bus bound for Knoxville, TN.
Even though it was October 1, it still felt like summer when I hopped off the bus around 8 AM, the temperature already approaching 80°. This day began for me like every day that would follow on this tour, a trip to catering! After some eggs, home fries and coffee I got ready for my daily trip to the gym with members of Luke’s band and one of the other opening bands, Cole Swindell. While I was doing my thing at the gym, other members of our entourage walked the hayfields, while others took advantage of another luxury provided to the touring musician, sleeping late.
By mid-afternoon it was time for our load-in and sound check. The level of production on this tour was top notch, sporting state-of-the-art lighting, some really cool video walls, and a PA system that would rival that of any mega-rock tour. They even had a remote-controlled flying camera that captured video footage of the audience and performances, otherwise referred to as “the drone”.
Luke’s crew, along with the other crews (which included the world-class sound company, Claire Brothers) not only knew how to make us sound and look great, they were a pleasure to work with. After sound check it was time for a little rest, a quick shower and some dinner before taking the stage at 6:40 PM. Our 40 minute set began just a few minutes after the tour’s first opener, Louisiana native and singer-songwriter, Chancie Neal. The sun was just beginning to set as the DJ introduced our show with something like:
“These three guys are the most successful songwriting team in the history of Nashville. They have 60 number one hits…230 million downloads… please welcome to the stage – Rhett Akins, Ben Hayslip, Dallas Davidson…The Peach Pickers!”
The crowd went wild and we began our onslaught of 13 number one songs with “The Only Way I Know”, a Peach Pickers cut by Jason Aldean. In rapid-fire succession we played down our list, each song greeted with, and followed by the sound of 15,000 people going absolutely berserk! After a few rockers we slowed things down with the heartfelt ballad “I Don’t Dance”. A few of the songs towards the end of our set really seemed to hit home with themes that everybody in this crowd could relate to – “Small Town Throwdown”, “Parking Lot Party”, “All about Tonight”, and the epic hip-shaker, “Boys Round Here”. The set went by like a blur, seeming to end as quickly as it began, and the three stars of our show left the stage to a deafening applause. The crew and stagehands helped us tear down and pack up our gear with lightning speed, and by quarter of eight it was all loaded on the bus and we were done working for the night. Only six more hours until bedtime!
Our show was followed by the fast rising, Cole Swindell, another Georgia native currently enjoying his second number one song, and his four-piece band kept the party going full force. By 9 PM it was time for the Tour-D-Force of this event, Luke and gang to take the stage, his show beginning with the modern day phenomenon of thousands of cell phones being raised into the air to capture an endless barrage of digital photos.
Luke’s show is an exciting ball of kinetic energy, his top notch band providing an AC/DC like “foot stompability” that kept the audience pulsating for his 90 minute set. The phrase “sing along” doesn’t even begin to paint the sonic picture of the sound of 15,000 people singing at the top of their lungs at a Luke Bryan concert. After Luke’s show ended, the crowd quickly dispersed the field, only to be trapped in a massive traffic jam as thousands of cars began their slow motion journeys down the one lane road that led out of this little piece of rural America.
This first day and night of the tour was a huge success, and with each following show, the tour seemed to gain momentum. The only snag of this first week was some torrential rain during Friday afternoon in Tallahassee Florida, and despite what seemed like an impending disaster, the rain subsided right before showtime and the night went off without a hitch. The following night we ended the first leg of this tour to a crowd of 17,000 in Gainesville Florida, and this was, in my opinion, The Peach Pickers strongest performance yet.
A few days off and we were back at it for round two. The week started out smoothly, but late Thursday afternoon in Columbia, South Carolina it began to sprinkle, with the sounds of thunder and the view of lightning in the distance. Oh no, it was happening again! We pushed back the start of the performances by 20 minutes, and midway through Chancie’s set a downpour began. With a handheld wireless microphone, this brave girl stood out in the pouring rain on the middle of the runway and kept everybody’s spirits high. By the end of her show she was soaked head to toe, as was her acoustic guitar player and percussionist, Austin Marshall (who also just happens to be the Peach Pickers tour manager). The rain stopped as she exited the stage, which was now soaked, and a dozen stagehands began to dry the stage using push brooms, towels, and high-powered electric fans. We began our show with a strange hue lurking behind us in the form of some ominous storm clouds and lightning in the distance.
By the second to last show in Columbia, South Carolina our band was really beginning to hit its stride, and by the final night of the tour, Saturday in Macon Georgia, we were on fire. On the bus shortly before our set, we all talked about our agenda for the night, which basically consisted of kicking some serious ass. And that’s exactly what we did! At one point of the show, me and Dallas even did a couple of moves that might have almost seemed choreographed. The show ended with our usual closer “Boys Round Here” during which Dallas, Rhett, and Ben walked the runway with their wireless microphones, slapping hands with the audience in a climactic sing along.
There’s a really unique aspect to a Peach Pickers show. We play songs that are the most successful chart-toppers of modern-day country radio, songs written by these three guys, yet made famous by others. So the crowd knows our tunes, yet most have never heard them performed by the original writers. A Peach Pickers performance is very organic, powerful, sometimes rough around the edges, and performed by what many in Nashville would consider a “stripped down band”. Most of the radio versions of our songs feature multi-tracked guitars, layers of fiddle, steel, keyboards, background vocals, etc, and most touring bands that play behind country artists consist of this instrumentation. Our group is basically like a traditional rock band – drums, bass, and two electric guitars. Nothing against modern day radio production, but I find that this stripped down approach allows us to rock a little harder while allowing the essence of the song to shine through without obstruction.
While Rhett has had success and experience on the big stage, Ben and Dallas are newer to this forum, yet they rise to the occasion every time, perhaps with an excitement and enthusiasm that would be impossible to have in any other scenario. Together, the three of them make a formidable team. It probably doesn’t hurt that the rest of our band is made up of some extremely talented folks – Nick Forchione on drums and former G-men, Mike Chapman on bass and Chris Leuzinger on electric guitar. I’m extremely proud of this band, were all friends, we love playing music together, and we make it happen every time.
The farm tour might be over, but the memories are forever. Luke’s entire crew, band, and management treated us with great care and respect, which speaks volumes of the man himself. We all made some new friends and strengthened the bonds between old ones, and I sure hope we get to do it again next year! In the meantime, The Peach Pickers might just have a few more surprises for you, stay tuned!
By Eric Normand
You might think that the life of a touring musician is easy – performing for thousands of screaming fans, sleeping late, eating at catering, free booze, lounging around all day on a million-dollar tour bus. While some, or all of this might be true depending on what tour you’re on, there are many other factors at play that can make the life of a traveling musician somewhat less than glamorous. Being away from your family, lack of privacy (rarely is there a moment on the road that you are not in the company of others), less than ideal sleeping conditions, and, believe it or not, too much free time, just to name a few. These factors can lead to a slew of problems – fatigue, depression, over eating, and overindulgence.
My recent outing with the Peach Pickers as an opening act on the Luke Bryan Farm Tour turned out to be a great experience and (thanks to a few forward thinking folks in Luke’s camp) a successful experiment in healthy living on the road. It turns out that several members from Luke’s band have built a daily gym run into their touring schedule, an activity that is open to the musicians and the opening bands, as well. Every day around 10:30 AM, anywhere between six and ten of us would pile into a runner van for a short ride to a local gym. Once at the gym many of us did our own thing, activities ranging from treadmill to circuit training to stretching and yoga.
Luke’s guitarist and bandleader, Michael Carter explained that “the one thing we do have out here is time” and that working out every day can be more difficult for people who work an eight hour workday with a commute. For many touring musicians, the first requirement of their work day is a sound check, usually sometime in the afternoon, and then the nightly show. Believe it or not, just lying around all day on a bus and watching TV can be tiring (not to mention boring) and this can be very draining. Not only does the morning workout speed up your metabolism and give you added energy for the day, it also temporarily removes you from “diesel city”, giving individuals a chance to have some privacy and clear the head.
Even on a tour of this level, working out at a gym can’t happen every single day, sometimes the closest gym is just too far away, a runner isn’t available at the necessary time, etc. When the gym run didn’t happen, we all got creative. On one day we all went for a run. On another day, when running wasn’t practical due to our location, we all found creative ways to get in a workout. Michael did a modified version of “Insanity” in the back of a semi trailer, a few members of Cole Swindell’s band (one of the other openers) played power frisbee, a few did some circuit training, and I did some yoga in a quiet corner of the field.
While the issue of what is, and what is not healthy food is still a mystery to many in Western culture, and it can be a touchy topic yielding much debate for some, I am going to go out on a limb here – healthy food is food that allows me to feel good after I eat it, unhealthy food is food that makes me feel crappy after I eat it! That being said, my diet typically consists of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, healthy oils, and protein derived from poultry and fish (preferably raised in a healthy and sustainable environment) – and as you might guess, this kind of food isn’t always easy to find on the road. So you can imagine how pleased I was to find that the catering on this year’s Farm Tour featured a pretty happenin’ salad bar. Every day my lunch and dinner consisted of a big plate of mixed greens, carrots, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, hard-boiled egg, grilled chicken, and topped with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I noticed that several of the other musicians on this tour made similar meals. On days when the main entrée was chicken and/or fish, and I would have this in addition to my salad for dinner. For breakfast, I was typically having a couple of eggs, some whole wheat toast, and a bowl of fruit.
To me, healthy eating on the road is all about choices and discipline. On this tour, there were many healthy options, and there were also unhealthy options. I’ve been on other tours that didn’t have catering with this many options, in those situations I often brought more of my own food. I generally steered clear of the “after show” food, which typically consisted of pizza, fried chicken, sandwiches on white bread, etc; and chose to eat almonds, corn chips and salsa, and of course, the occasional indulgence (it’s all about balance).
Taking advantage of my free time, I worked out every single day on this eight-show run across the Deep South. In addition to taking care of my body and helping me feel good, working out with members of Luke’s and Cole’s bands also helped create a sense of community. The more and more I get into healthy living, the more I want to align myself with others who are on the same path, and I instantly felt some common ground with the “2013 Farm Tour Gym Crew”. It was inspiring to be on a tour that gives musicians the option to have a daily workout, and a relatively healthy meal.
Healthy living isn’t just for a few oddball touring musicians.
So what if you work a day gig and don’t have as many idle hours during your day? Funny you should ask. In recent years my life as a touring musician has greatly diminished, and much of the time I’ve been holding down a steady day gig as a painter and drywall carpenter (something I’ve done on and off since high school). This job is very physically demanding, and if I don’t take care of myself, I am susceptible to shoulder aches, back pain, tendinitis flareups, and a whole host of other problems. Working out and healthy eating combats these problems. As far as daily workouts, I find that if I don’t do something first thing in the morning I might not get in any workout on that day. Knowing this, I make it a priority to do at least 30 minutes of exercise before leaving for work in the morning. I prepare my lunch the night before, usually consisting of leftovers from a healthy dinner, almonds, fruit, green tea and water.
I look at all of this as a choice. In addition to advanced planning, healthy eating simply requires a conscious decision to buy, prepare and eat healthy foods. The same is true for exercise, as I age, things hurt more, and the recovery time from injuries is longer. Rather than looking for answers within Western medicine, I choose a steady regiment of cardio, strength, and flexibility exercises (in addition to my healthy diet). I believe there is a healthy way to prepare all your favorite foods. And I believe that each individual has to find an exercise program that is right for them.
For more information about wellness through exercise and healthy eating, please visit http://www.doitthehardway.com/
by Eric Normand
This year’s Luke Bryan Farm Tour was an epic event and as a “Peach Pickers” band member I was a first-hand witness to what has become a yearly phenomenon in the Deep South. We played eight sold out shows in eleven days, most of them taking place on actual farms, and the fans showed over-the-top enthusiasm for Luke, The Peach Pickers, and the other acts on the bill, Cole Swindell and Chancie Neal.
For those of you not in the know, the Peach Pickers are the most successful songwriting team in the history of Nashville and are comprised of Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson, and Ben Hayslip who together have penned 40 number one hits and countless top 20’s. Lifelong friends of Mr. Bryan, they’ve written and co written several of his biggest songs and at the time of these concerts had five out of the top 10 songs on country radio. Full of nothing but chart topping hits, our 12 song, 45 minute set was extremely well received and while these Georgia natives don’t perform live on a regular basis, there is an undeniable honesty and vibe to their performances when they do.
The Peach Pickers band consists of Nick Forchione on drums (on loan from the Black Crowes crew), “G-men” members, Mike Chapman on bass and Chris Leuzinger on guitar (the G-men are a group of session musicians who played on all the Garth Brooks records), and myself on guitar and bandleader duties.
The production on this tour was truly impressive and it was amazing to watch the daily transformation of an empty field into a state of the art concert production in just a few hours. In addition to the audio, lighting, and video crews, the Luke Bryan Farm Tour travels with its own catering company, stagehands, security personnel, and mobile stage – they even erected a fence that encircled the concert grounds on a daily basis. Setups began in the early morning, the complete production was up by early afternoon, and all the bands were sound checked before the crowd funneled in at 5 PM. The first act was on at 6:30, Luke’s show ended around 11, and by 2 AM we were rolling down the road to the next farm (at least most of us were).
The evening’s first opener, Nashville based singer-songwriter; Chancie Neal played an intimate, acoustic set to begin warming up the capacity crowds of 8,000 to 17,000. Following Chancey was Cole Swindell who rocked the attentive crowds with his high-energy four-piece band on a nightly basis. By the time Cole finished his set the sun was just going down, and after a brief changeover we began our show to a crowd that was primed and ready.
Our set list was a literal Who’s Who of modern country radio featuring several number one songs written by The Peach Pickers and brought to the masses by artists like Billy Currington, Blake Shelton, and other country music giants. Our show went like this:
A set list of such well played radio tunes makes for quite the sing along and at times the sounds of thousands of voices singing along rivaled the volume of the band. Our show-ender, “Boys Round Here” made for a pinnacle moment during which Ben, Rhett, and Dallas walked “the runway” – high-fiving audience members while taking turns singing verses. Our shows ended with a roar of applause and minutes later our gear was packed up and under the bus. Shortly after the conclusion of our set, Luke and band brought the night home – their high energy, action-packed set as well received as any touring entity out there. Their show even featured an acoustic set, during which the entire band converged on an intimate setting created in the middle of the runway.
For me, this two week stint was one of my musical high water marks of the year and only bestowed a few minor inconveniences (bad cell phone coverage, short nights of sleep, and maybe a little extra dose of pollin and ragweed). I got to reconnect with some old friends and made some new ones – I even participated in a daily run to a local gym with some of the guys from Luke’s and Cole’s bands.
One thing I can say about the Luke Bryan Farm Tour is that it has a family-like vibe. The artists, musicians, and crew members all worked together with the common purpose of making a great show happen every night, and a great show did happen every night! On the last night of the tour, I found myself in a moment of irony watching one of Luke’s final songs of the evening from side stage, “I Don’t Want This Night to End”. I think there was some real truth in that moment for many of us.
If you want to learn more about what happens behind the scenes in the Nashville music industry, check out Eric’s book “The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide”.
There was one bright spot on our recent concert destination to Speedwell, TN, and that was our brief stay at the Hampton Inn in Caryville, TN. We arrived back to the hotel around 3 PM on Saturday after our tense and stressful outing in Speedwell, and had about eight hours to pass while our driver, Steve slept. About an hour north of Knoxville, and nestled in the hills of the Smoky Mountains, at first glance this hotel simply looked like just another typical Hampton Inn, not unlike many we have stayed in over the years.
When we walked to the edge of the fence, one friendly fellow was kind enough to pose with me for a photo. Another peculiarity was a couple of old “Model-T” style cars, circa early 1900s, on display in front of the main entrance.
Upon entering the hotel and walking down a long hallway to our rooms we began to view some fascinating pictures and folk art lining the walls.
A common theme in many of the photographs was moonshining, and many of these photos were accompanied by descriptions.
The photos themselves told amazing stories, but upon reading the accompanying descriptions we learned that the owner of this hotel, Hack Ayers was a “third-generation moonshiner”, and his father was killed in a moonshine raid in the 1950s.
Other photos and news clippings told of a long-since forgotten era in our recent history when moonshining was an important part of the local economy of “the Mountain people.”
Other photographs captured a moment in time of a simpler, but very different America.
One of the most fascinating newspaper clippings was an original copy of a 1913 Boston Globe newspaper telling the story of the sinking of the Titanic.
There was plenty of unique folk art of lesser historical significance that still brought us back in time, like this original movie poster of the film “Casablanca.”
Even the stair wells were decked out with everything from photographs of movie stars to a John F. Kennedy campaign poster – a reprint of the Constitution to sharecroppers in the cotton fields.
Luckily, my phone takes a pretty good picture, as I had forgotten to bring our digital camera. After capturing a handful of these striking images, we decided to walk to a sitting area off of the front parking lot. We sat on an old ski lift chair that had been converted into a porch-swing and enjoyed a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains, and the lake below.
On our way back, we stopped by the front desk and I asked the receptionist about the history of all this décor. She informed me that “The owner likes to keep everything,” and that he owns another motel which is similarly decked out.
“Do people come here specifically to see all of this, or is it kind of an added bonus?” I asked
“I think it’s kind of an added bonus, but when people come back for the second time, they make it a point to see anything they missed the first time.” she responded.
She also told me that all these photographs and newspaper prints were originals. I thanked her for her hospitality and headed back to the bus, as it was just about time for us to be heading to Florida. This quaint, little gem of a hotel was definitely a bright spot on this day. The rooms were clean and comfortable, the staff was friendly and helpful, and the experience was unlike that of any other hotel I had ever stayed at. Luckily for us, this unsuspecting place is owned by a man who takes great pride in preserving American history and culture and, although I never met him, his passion for storytelling is evident by the astounding display he has presented.
Hotel room – $89 plus tax
Dinner at Waffle House – $7.63
American history lesson – priceless
It was the spring of 2004, and I had just completed my first year as guitar tech for Toby Keith. The whirlwind tour ran almost nonstop from July through February, taking off the months of March through June before firing back up again. So with a few months of downtime ahead of me, I was on the hunt for other gigging opportunities. I started doing some in-town nightclub gigs as a “hired gun” and a few sporadic out-of-town weekends with a few different singers I started working with, basically trying to get my fingers into everything I could. Ultimately, I was searching for another road gig, one in which I would be a player and not a tech.
Then one day I got a call from my friend “D”, asking if I could sub for him on his gig with the Honky Tonk Tailgate Party. “It’s a lot of songs to learn for just one gig, but it will be good for you, and if you can make these guys happy they might call you again someday.” “Count me in; I’d love to do it!” I answered excitedly. “Now, you’ve got to make me look good. They’re nervous about me subbing this out, so you’ve got to nail this gig, and I mean nail it to the floor! This is my reputation on the line as much as it is yours.” I understand” I reassured him “I’ll make you look great!” “And one more thing,” he added “you can use charts if you have to, but it will be better if you don’t.”
The next night I went out to the Fiddle and Steel and picked up a few CDs from Scott Mattevi, their sound engineer who also worked weeknights at the Steel back then. The Honky Tonk Tailgate Party, or HTTP for short, consisted of four artists; Rhett Akins, Daryle Singletary, Chad Brock, and David Kersh, all backed by one five-piece band, and traveling together in one “Camo” bus with a trailer.
I had about 35 songs to learn in about 2 1/2 weeks, and this material spanned four CDs, two containing the studio cuts, and two CDs of a live show, so I listened to these discs over and over again. When I’m learning new music for a new gig, time permitting, my method is as follows:
First, I employ a “SIRDB”, or “self-induced rapidly deployed brainwashing” of the new material (AKA listening to the CDs over and over again until I start hearing them in my sleep). I’ll use this rapid infusion technique for at least a week before even picking up a guitar.
Second, I’ll chart out all of the songs. While this can be time-consuming, it is well worth it as it helps me “visualize” the entire song structure and arrangement, and commits the songs to memory in a different way. It also helps me dissect any figures, breaks, or dynamics that are unique to each song.
Third, I’ll get out my guitar and, using the CDs, begin learning the specific parts and playing along with the songs. I’ll also begin to play the signature licks and intros without the recording, to further commit these most essential song signatures to memory.
So that’s how I spent those three weeks of my life. After the first week or so of nonstop listening, I spent five or six hours a day working on HTTP material, and by the time I was driving to the bus the night before the show, I was ready.
I arrived to the bus a half hour early, loaded my gear into the bays, and met the artists and rest of the band, some of whom I knew already from hanging out and sitting in at The Steel. After a night of sleep in the back lounge (there were 13 riders on this bus) and some downtime the next morning, we were loading in and setting up for outdoor show somewhere in Alabama. After getting the sound dialed in, we began rehearsing some of the material, one artist at a time. And thanks to my patented “SIRDB” technique, other than one piece of paper with a few key signatures written down, I didn’t have a chart in sight. So far so good, I didn’t make any glaring mistakes during the rehearsal, I hadn’t said anything stupid yet, I even managed to make Daryle Singletary laugh with a couple of offhand comments. But I was nervous, nevertheless. Even though I had previously done several shows playing guitar for Vern Gosdin, and had regularly stood on stages in front of 30,000 people when teching for Toby, this was different. I had to make FOUR different artists happy on this night, and each of these artists had their own unique song style, and performance approach.
After sound check/rehearsal, dinner, and showers at the hotel, we were back at the concert site getting ready for the show. Dressed in our best, we hit the stage around eight o’clock and were off and running with David’s set. The outdoor stage faced an open field filled with 1000 or so concert-goers and they quickly became immersed in the show. This show ran like a grid and there was very little space between songs, some songs even running into the next song “medley style”, so I had very little time to think. Before I knew it, David’s set was over and Chad Brock was walking onto the stage as David walked off, the music never stopping. Chad’s set went equally as smooth, and by the time we played his last song of the set, his hit “She Said Yes”, I was starting to feel pretty comfortable on this stage.
Now it was time for Daryle Singletary’s part of the show. Both David’s, and Chad’s sets were of the modern country/pop kind of sound, and this used a style of guitar playing that was more familiar to me. But Daryle’s music was more rooted in traditional country music, so his set required a different approach on the guitar, much more use of the “chicken pickin” technique, and the use of a clean sound throughout. Fortunately, my overkill approach to preparing for this gig came in handy and Daryle looked over at me and smiled at a couple of points during the show, at one point even commenting over the mic “I’d like to introduce Eric Normand filling in on guitar tonight. He’s a Yankee, but we won’t hold that against him… (laughs)…He’s doing a fine job.” The crowd reacted approvingly, and my confidence continued to grow. This was great; I was winning over the bosses!
Finally, an hour and a half into this nonstop barrage of country music fun, it was time for Rhett’s eight or nine songs. Rhett’s music is as much southern rock as it is country, and this driving approach was right up my alley. By the end of his set the crowd was in a frenzy and, after a brief pause, we began playing Hank Junior’s “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming over Tonight” for the encore. The HTTP encore featured all four artists on the stage at once, each taking turns singing verses, and big harmonies on the choruses. We did three or four songs; each followed with a roaring applause, before retreating to the bus.
After the show, the artists and band members told me I did a great job and that they appreciated how seriously I took the gig. It was a great feeling to know that my mission was successful. A couple of days later I got a call from D. “I heard you did a great job. You even made Singletary happy, and that’s hard to do.” “Thanks, it was tons of fun, all the hard work paid off. I hope it comes up again.”
In the meantime, here’s to “Nailing It to the Floor”!
Hey everybody, I apologize for the big gap in between blogs lately. I’m up to my armpits in this book project, literally swimming in it, and it’s been hard to break away and write a weekly blog. But here it is! As many of you have been reading, some of my most recent blogs have been about my experiences working on the Toby Keith tour. Well here’s one more to cap off that series!
It was a cold, March day in 2004 when the Toby Keith tour rolled into Portland, Maine for the final two shows of the Shock ‘N Y’All Tour at the Portland Civic Center. I thought it was a fitting finale to end this whirlwind of a touring season back in my native land of New England, kind of like coming full circle to where I began my journey into the big leagues just two short years before. Except for a couple of weeks off for the holidays, we had been running virtually nonstop since July, and many of us were ready for some real time off.
A tour on this level, or on any level for that matter, is very much like a family, everybody knows a little bit about everybody else’s business, there’s no escape. By this point of the tour, some 90 shows after I had begun my new vocation of guitar tech, I had become very proficient at my job, the only real debacle to date being Rich’s guitar rig going down for a few panicked moments a couple weeks back. Despite the fact that I was doing my job well, it was no secret to everyone else on the tour that I desired to land a gig as a player, and that my role as tech would likely be short-lived.
I have to admit, while my job was stressful at times, my specific daily tasks, while tedious, weren’t that difficult. It was the emotional quagmire of being a player stuck in a tech’s body that I found most challenging. Being gone for days or weeks on end, setting up guitars and gear all day long, watching the arena slowly fill to capacity, and then right at the peak of the night finding myself standing on the sidelines watching the game. Don’t get me wrong, it was still a thrill to be a part of. I stood on many a stage facing 20,000 or more concertgoers, with every note of the band’s 20 song set permeating my being. It was truly electrifying! But as much of a rush as this was, I wanted to be up there playing guitar, and everybody pretty much knew this. After all, not only is it fun to play music with a band for a receptive crowd, peer recognition is also one of the validations that many of us musicians seek.
So when I first caught wind about an impromptu jam that was being organized for the end of tour party after the show on this night you can only imagine my excitement. Being barely 2 years into my Nashville journey, I viewed this jam as a chance to prove to all my coworkers that I could play music as good as I could tech. Okay, maybe I needed to prove this to myself as well.
The day went pretty smoothly, like so many other show days over the past eight months, with everybody doing their thing and setting up for another sold-out show. As this venue was on my home turf, my typical routine was broken up with a couple of guided tours I provided for some family and friends. My wife, Kelly, was in town for this show, as well as my mom and dad and my good friend Russ Littlefield and his wife. Of course they were all thoroughly impressed with the massiveness and efficiency of this organization as I took them through the various workstations throughout the venue – front of house, monitor world, guitar world, dimmer beach, video world, and of course, a big stop at catering for dinner.
The concert went off without a hitch and my mom had a big thrill when her face appeared on the giant video wall, courtesy my friends on the video crew. A little while later the concert ended, the hall emptied, and after saying goodbye to my family and friends I rounded up a couple of crew guys to trek some band gear to the banquet room. As this was a rare two-nighter, all of the big production stayed in place, allowing this late night after party to begin at the early hour of 11 PM.
A short while later and the private banquet hall was filled with Toby Keith tour members, as well as the tours opener, Blake Shelton, and his entourage. The dinner on this night was all out – fresh Maine lobster and New York sirloin’s with an open bar as well, and Kelly and I enjoyed our share. Somewhere near the beginning of this night within a night, Toby made a brief speech, personally thanking everybody for helping make this particular tour one of the highest grossing country tours to date, somewhere in the neighborhood of $43 million. To show this appreciation, he announced that everyone would be receiving a special personalized plaque, and pointed to a table off to the side at which we could all acquire these special momentos.
After dinner ended people began circulating around the room and the alcohol began to take effect, quickly kicking things up a notch. It didn’t take long for the music to begin and somehow, I was included in the one of the first rounds of this no holds barred jam-a-thon. To the best of my recollection this grouping consisted of Toby, his drummer, Dave MacAfee; Blake’s bass player; and me on electric guitar. We played with this group and for a half-hour or so, rendering a few rocking versions of barroom standards like “Keep Your Hands to Yourself”, “Old-Time Rock ‘n Roll”, and the Doobie Brothers classic “Long Train Running” in which I unleashed a feverish solo during the ending vamp. I must have played quite well, for after this last number, Toby, who hadn’t said anything more to me than the occasional “Hey brother” for the past eight months, turned to me and said “you just smoked both of my guitar players!”
Of course this comment landed me on cloud nine, and I’m sure Toby meant no disrespect towards his longtime guitar players, Rich and Joey, both whom are fine musicians. It was just one of those rare moments in life I had been waiting for, kind of a secret audition in my own mind, with Toby reacting genuinely to my over-the-top moment of guitar antics. Of course this short-lived “tech elevated to player” status yielded some great applause from my fellow crew members. All the other band members already knew I could play, but most of the crew guys had only heard me play some fragmented licks during the soundchecks. Judging by their comments afterwards and the next day they were genuinely excited to see one of their own crewmates ‘kick out the jams’, perhaps a few of them living vicariously through me in that unique moment.
After our set, I handed the guitar off to Joey, and Blake got up as well. Over the next couple of hours, everybody who wanted to play got to play. The party was still raging at 3 AM with a couple of tour members passed out in their seats by this point. Sometime around 4 AM it finally started to dwindle, and we headed over to the hotel room to sleep (one of the only times I didn’t sleep on a bus for the entire tour).
The next day we were all back to work getting ready for the final show, and many of the crew and band members were nursing significant hangovers. When Toby arrived for a brief sound check he again commented on my guitar playing with “you rocked last night!” I thanked him for the complement and we went about our day. Later that night our second show in Portland also went off without a hitch, and I said goodbye to everybody afterwards, as I was staying behind to visit family and friends.
At that moment I assumed I would be continuing this gig when it started its next leg of touring that summer. But as fate would have it, another opportunity would soon present itself and the Toby Keith tour would be my one and only foray into the world of the guitar tech. I will be forever grateful for having that opportunity, for it yielded much knowledge, great memories, and many friendships. But my wish was about to come true and it wouldn’t be long before I would be standing up there on stages throughout the land, doing what I had set out to do, playing the guitar.
That said, I will never forget that special night in Portland!
Toby Keith Crew 2003/2004
Photos courtesy Brittany Allyn
One of the best things about working as a guitar tech on a major tour is that it provides you access to the world’s coolest guitar picks. When working on a high profile tour, there will be many occasions when you will share the bill with other national acts, be it award shows, multi-band festivals, and so on. As many artists and band members on this level get their own personalized custom picks by the gross, and their guitar tech is usually in charge of ordering and dispersing these picks, it’s only par for the course that the tech will have many opportunities to do a little pick trading with other techs and musicians.
During my time working as a guitar tech for Toby Keith, I came into possession of some real prizes. When we did a handful of shows with Willie Nelson, I traded some Toby picks with Willie’s tech and got a Farm Aid pick and a “Willie and The Dead – 30th 4th of July Picnic” pick, a couple of unique rarities. Somewhere along the way I met a tech who had worked with the Allman Brothers, and wound up with picks from Warren Haynes and Dickey Betts, two of my favorite guitarists. A few more standouts would be a Sammy Hagar “Cabo Wabo” pick, a Michael Anthony pick, and a rare Aerosmith/New England Patriots Commemorative Super Bowl pick.
Pick trading among techs is common practice and a tradition that goes way back. Some acts and techs are very laid back about their guitar picks, and often will just give you one if you are working on one of these tours and simply ask. Other tours and techs might employ a stricter rule regarding the handing out or trading of picks, only doing so sparingly, or not at all. On the Toby Tour during my tenure, the pick policy was somewhat laid-back, so trading a few picks when a good opportunity presented itself was not frowned upon.
Sometime in the fall of 2003 the tour came to an indoor sports arena somewhere in Illinois. It was just after dinner time when I returned backstage to guitar world for my preshow tuning duties. I had just barely started to dig in when a tall and lanky fellow dressed in a flamboyant outfit approached me. “Hi, Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick here. I just want to check out what you got.” It was kind of dark in the arena at this point, and I was a bit startled by this stark introduction that seemed to come out of nowhere. “I’m Eric, Toby’s guitar tech. Good to meet you.” I said as we shook hands. He briefly mentioned something about being a part owner of the hockey team that played in the arena, as well as being one of the owners of the arena itself, before taking a brief guided tour of our 22 guitars and basses. He seemed curious, but not overly impressed, which comes to no surprise as I had read that his collection of guitars once contained around 2000.
His demeanor was a little quirky, and his short bursts of fast-paced dialogue continued to keep me on edge. “Got any picks?” he asked out of the blue. “Yes, we sure do.” I answered. “Wanna do a little trade? How about 10 for 10?” he asked briskly. This was beginning to feel like some sort of back alley drug deal. “Sure, step on over to my guitar work box” I replied beginning to rummage through the drawers. Before I could even grab one pick from each of Toby’s collection for the trade, he had placed his picks on top of the work table. “Here you go.” I said a minute later handing him the picks. Not but a few seconds later he barked out in an almost accusatory tone “Hey, there’s only 7 here. I gave you 10. What are you trying to do?” and with this I began to have visions of buying a watch from some guy wearing an overcoat in an alleyway. “Oops, sorry. I didn’t realize you were actually counting” I awkwardly confessed, and reached into the draw for a few more picks. “Thanks.” He stated bluntly, and the picks were no sooner in his hand before he had disappeared from sight around the corner, into the blackness of the night.
Before this night I had traded a lot of picks, but none of my previous “deals” held this kind of weight, this was a first. Most techs don’t take their pick trading as seriously as this fellow did. This guy knew what he wanted, and he knew how to get it. You’ve got to respect that. He drove a hard bargain, and I have the picks to prove it!
It was a couple of months into my new gig as guitar tech on the Toby Keith tour and things were going pretty well. I was getting used to this new world of touring life, had become accepted by the band and crew, and had my job down pat. Or so I thought.
This fast-paced tour was a whirlwind and most days were a blur. We were playing 20 to 30,000 seat arenas and sheds in 4 to 5 major cities a week and most shows were sold out. My job as guitar tech required me to have 22 guitars and basses (plus one fiddle) in tune, polished, and in perfect working order for each show. I was also responsible for the pedal steel guitar, the keyboard rig, the backline (excluding drums), a few pedal boards, and Chuck’s (Toby’s bass player and band leader) infamous MIDI pedal.
So that was the gig, make sure the gear was ready for the sound check and show, assist a few guitar swaps during the concert, and make sure all the gear made it safely onto the truck each night. The job was quite stressful, as I was responsible for maneuvering all of this expensive and delicate gear, much of which held sentimental value to the players, through a sea of crew members, stagehands, and thousand pound road cases, each day in a noisy and unfamiliar concert arena. In other words, total chaos.
So you can begin to understand how someone could lose one itty-bitty MIDI pedal within all of this chaos.
The tour was like the movie, Groundhog Day. Each day I would awake in my bunk, walk to the front lounge of the bus, and look out the window to a view of the back side of a generic concrete and steel structure. After getting dressed and going into catering for breakfast, I would patiently await a call over my two-way radio alerting me it was time to load-in my truck. After overseeing the stagehands load my backline and “guitar cart” to some temporary location inside the arena, I would set up an out of the way workstation and begin restringing guitars.
Before I could begin the next phase of my work, the placement and set-up of the backline on the deck, pretty much everything else had to be in place. The video wall had to be erected and flown, followed by the lighting truss and speaker towers, the Ford F150 truck/prop and its hydraulic “Dolly”, and then the large set wall would finally be constructed, the entire process usually taking several hours.
On this particular day it was sometime just after lunch when my gear was fork lifted onto the deck. After a couple of stagehands assisted me in lifting the Hammond organ up onto the keyboard riser, I began taking the lids off of the racks and speaker cabinets behind the set wall. A little while later I had finished wiring the rigs and began placing and wiring the pedal boards. After placing Rich and Joey’s boards out on the deck, I returned to my guitar work box for Chuck’s MIDI pedal, only to be horrified upon opening the empty draw it was usually stored in.
I began searching through the other drawers of the work box and found it nowhere in sight. I asked Earl, the monitor engineer, if he had seen it, and he said he hadn’t. I began a systematic search for it, looking through every road case within sight (in reality, I probably looked more like a crazed drug addict searching for his missing dope). Finally, in the midst of my frantic behavior (which was now beginning to alarm some of my fellow crew members), one of the lighting guys, a spirited fellow that everyone called “Convict”, spoke up. “Are you missing something?” I answered “Yeah, I can’t find Chuck’s MIDI pedal”. “Oh” he replied, with the slightest hint of sarcasm “Maybe you left it behind last night, I’ll check with the other lighting guys.”
I sensed that I was being had, but as I was still the new guy on the tour, I wasn’t quite sure. A few minutes later, my panic now escalating, I asked one of the other audio guys if he had seen it. “Why don’t you ask Convict?” was the reply, and I now realized that I was officially being toyed with. I went back to lighting world or “Dimmer Beach” as we called it, and again spoke with Convict. “Are you sure you haven’t seen the MIDI pedal?” I desperately asked. “What’s it look like?” he chided. “It’s black, about a foot long, and has some buttons on top.” “I might know where it is, but it’s going to cost you.” He stated matter-of-factly. “What’s it going to cost?” I asked, my frustration beginning to grow. “One bottle of Jack Daniels” was his playful response. “You’re holding the MIDI pedal ransom for a bottle of booze? That’s not fair.” “I guess it’s not that important to you.” he said, and then walked off.
Furious, I stormed off and found Dave, the road manager, to complain about this obviously unfair play. After telling him my story in great detail, he replied by stating what by now should have been obvious to me “Well then, I guess you better buy him a bottle of Jack!”. “That’s not right.” I begged. “What do you want me to do, I didn’t lose the pedal.” he replied dismissively. And with that I started walking off to again confront Convict. Before I was completely out of the room, he added “When you’re ready, give me some cash and I’ll send a runner to go buy a bottle.” As I continued down the hall I swear I could’ve heard subdued laughter coming from the production office I had just left.
I made one last feeble attempt at convincing Convict that the right thing to do was to just hand over the pedal, but he wouldn’t budge. No one was coming to my aid, and it seemed inevitable that I would need to give in to this would-be extortion. Out of time, with sound check now fast approaching, I went back to Convict with my tail between my legs. “Okay, I’ll get you a bottle of Jack.” And with that, he opened a nearby road case and handed me the pedal.
I did have sour grapes about this for a few days but managed to get over it. In hindsight, Convict had done a huge favor for me by grabbing the pedal. It wasn’t his responsibility and he could have just left it there on the arena floor, and that would have made my life much more difficult. I never did completely figure out if this whole thing was some sort of weird initiation for the new guy, or a lesson to teach me the importance of making sure all of my gear was accounted for before quitting for the day. Needless to say, that was the first and last time that I would ever forget to pack up Chuck’s MIDI pedal (or any other piece of gear for that matter).
Epilogue: A few days later, Convict invited me onto his bus for what was obviously some kind of peace offering – a toast to Chuck’s MIDI pedal with shot of Jack Daniels!
It was a hot summer night in July of 2003, and I was hanging out at the Fiddle and Steel, when my good friend, Dave McAfee, told me that there was a job opening up on the Toby Keith tour. The position was for that of guitar tech, and Dave, who had been with Toby since the early days, felt that he could make it happen if I was interested.
“I know you came here to work as a player, but I think you could gain some good experience working on this tour for a while.” he said. I had been in Nashville for a year and, despite having built up some steady in-town gigs, was ready to take this next step. “I could definitely use the experience of working on a major tour, not to mention some real income, but I don’t have any experience working as a tech.” I responded. “Don’t worry about that, the job is mainly restringing and tuning guitars, and taking care of backline. They’ll teach you everything you need to know.” He said. “Okay, count me in! When do we leave?”
The next step was a brief phone call the following day with Toby’s tour manager, Sean Sargent. Based solely on my commitment to work hard and my obvious hunger for the position, and of course the good word Dave had already put in for me, I was hired. I was now about to officially become a “road dog”. I had no idea whatsoever what I was in for.
To give a little perspective here, prior to landing this gig with Toby, the most extensive touring I had done was a couple weekend outings with Vern Gosdin and BB Watson, basically one-offs within 500 miles of Nashville with 8 to 10 people traveling on one bus, our backline stowed in bays underneath. The Toby tour that year, dubbed the title “Shock’n Y’all”, touted an entourage of 50 plus band and crew members, traveling by six buses, and carrying full production in six semis.
My virgin outing with this mega tour was a doozy of a trip. We were scheduled to play in Cheyenne, Wyoming on Saturday, July 19; Harrington, Delaware on Monday, July 21, and then returning to Nashville for a few days before departing for Toronto, Ontario. This is what is known in the touring industry as “deadheading”, or in the country music industry as the “dartboard tour”, meaning that some of these runs seemed so illogical that you might as well throw darts at a map on the wall to determine the routing.
Here’s what my first five weeks of working on this tour looked like:
07/19/03 Cheyenne, WY Frontier Days
07/21/03 Harrington, DE Delaware State Fair
07/23/03 Paso Robles, CA California Mid-State Fair (fly date)
07/25/03 Toronto, ON To Be Announced
07/26/03 Ottawa, ON Corel Centre
08/01/03 Maryland Heights, MO UMB Bank Pavilion
08/02/03 Tinley Park, IL Tweeter Center
08/03/03 Bonner Springs, KS Verizon Wireless Amphitheater
08/07/03 Pelham, AL Oak Mountain Amph.
08/08/03 Charlotte, NC Verizon Wireless Amp. Charlotte
08/09/03 Raleigh, NC Alltel Pavilion @ Walnut Creek
08/14/03 Corpus Christi, TX Concrete Street Amphitheatre
08/16/03 Selma, TX Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre
08/19/03 Meadville, PA Crawford County Fair
08/22/03 Albuquerque, NM Journal Pavilion
08/23/03 Phoenix, AZ Cricket Pavilion
08/24/03 Los Angeles, CA Staples Center
08/28/03 San Diego, CA Coors Ampitheatre
08/29/03 Las Vegas, NV MGM Grand
08/30/03 Mountain View, CA Shoreline Amphitheatre
08/31/03 Kelseyville, CA Konocti Harbor Resort & Spa
I quickly learned that I was going to be gone a lot and living on the road with my new “family”. Realizing that my in town gigging was about to grind to a halt, I decided to buy a “zoom” style guitar unit so I could practice my guitar via headphones on the bus to keep my chops up. I also had a laptop, a video camera, headset for my cell phone; I was totally geaked out and ready to “embrace the road”.
With good intentions, but totally green behind the ears, I said goodbye to my wife, Kelly, and set out for the bus at 7:00 AM on a Friday morning. Still not completely familiar with Nashville, I got lost on the way to the bus and called my wife in a panic for a little help with MapQuest. She set me straight and I arrived to a Kroger parking lot in Hermitage at about 7:30. There were several buses parked together and, not knowing a soul other than Dave, I introduced myself to the first person I saw and told him I was looking for the “audio crew bus”. “That’s the bus I’m on too, the blue one right over there. You must be Eric? I’m Marty.” he said. “The bottom front passenger’s side bunk is available, or you could take one of the top two junk bunks.” “Junk bunks?” I asked. “Those are the empty bunks that we can use for luggage.” he answered, my greenness showing already.
Nashville to Cheyenne, Wyoming is 1200 miles, or about a 22 hour bus ride with a few stops. Wyoming to Delaware was another 1800 miles, or close to 40 hours with stops. So while I was loading my luggage, laptop, box of food, guitar, and briefcase full of practice equipment, the other guys were all making a food run into the nearby supermarket to stock up. It was at this moment that I committed my first bus foul (albeit unknowingly), and took a big ole’ dump in the bus bathroom. The few bus trips I had previously made with BB and Vern were so short, that as chance would have it, I never had to use the bathroom, and no one on those runs had informed me of the “no poop” rule enforced on most of these buses. The reason for this rule (as I would later learn) is that anything other than peeing on a bus requires a much higher level of daily water and septic maintenance, so most tours instill this rule to save time, money, and to prevent the interiors of the buses from smelling like a sewer hole.
A few minutes later the rest of the crew returned and we set out for Cheyenne. A little while later “Pork Chop”, one of the audio guys, used the bathroom, and when he reentered the front lounge exclaimed “Did somebody shit in there?” I instantly felt a sinking feeling in my stomach but instinctively chose to just sit there and say nothing, staring straight ahead, kind of like the scene in “A Christmas Story” in which Ralphie and his cohorts play dumb when Flick gets his tongue stuck to the frozen flagpole. As I was just making the acquaintance of these folks and trying to make a good impression, I didn’t want to admit to being so utterly clueless. I’m pretty sure that they suspected it was me anyway.
Most of these buses have a small table in the front lounge, with a small bench seat on either side, basically enough room to seat two people somewhat comfortably. A little later in the day I decided to practice some guitar, and brought my stuff out to the front lounge. I sat down at the table and proceeded to take over the small space, spreading out my electronic gadgetry, music books, and guitar gear. For an hour so, I sat there playing guitar with headphones on, finding it somewhat difficult to do this in such a confined space. If I had ever bothered to look up, I’m sure I would’ve received some annoying looks from some of the other crew members, all of whom were veterans of the road.
After a while, I got up and went to go sit in the co-pilot seat next to the driver for a few, and this would be when I committed my second bus etiquette offence. Not yet realizing that seating and table space are considered prime real estate on a bus, I left my guitar and gadgetry strewn all over the table and seat. So when I returned a little while later, I was confused to see the table cleared and my stuff nowhere in sight. Apparently, somebody had moved it all to my bunk.
“I wasn’t done practicing yet.” I stated to a front lounge full of glaring eyes. “Yeah you are, you left that stuff there for an hour.” “Oh, I didn’t know you can’t leave stuff out in the lounge.” I said apologetically, beginning to feel like a real dork. “Oops. Sorry guys.”
This is not how I wanted my introduction to the Toby Tour to begin, but it was too late, like they say, there’s no such thing as a second first impression. In time, I would get the hang of how to live with others on a bus, the importance of not taking up too much space, and the communal approach one must take to live on a tour. But at this moment we were only a few hours into a trip that would span 4000 miles over five days, and my new comrades weren’t exactly taking a quick liking to me. Not to mention the interior of the bus was now starting to smell kind of foul from my first debacle.
It was going to be a long ride.
Having grown up in the Northeast on a diet of rock and blues, and listening to very little country music prior to moving to Nashville, the name Vern Gosdin was not one I was familiar with. So when I got a late-night phone call in the fall of 2002 about playing a show with him, my initial reaction may have been somewhat muted. The call came from a producer named Kenny whom I had met a few weeks earlier at my house gig at Libby’s. He described the show as being a one-off with Vern to somewhere in Kentucky and asked me if I could put together and rehearse a band. Hungry for work, I accepted the show and began making calls to recruit players the next day.
One of the first calls I made was to D for some advice. “Vern Gosdin! Do you realize who he is?” he replied in amazement. “Well I know he had some success a few years back.” I replied unknowingly. “They call him ‘the voice’ of country. It’s like getting a gig with Merle Haggard. I’ve been here 10 years and I’ve never got to play with him.” a hint of jealousy riddled his voice. “He’s a real legend. This will be a great experience for you.”
D’s excited reaction prompted a little further investigation, which of course revealed that ole Vern was sure enough a bona fide superstar. In a career that spanned over four decades, he had recorded somewhere around 20 albums yielding roughly the same number of top 10 hits. Now I began to get a little nervous. Always up for a good challenge, I began calling some of the better players I had met over the past couple of months. The role of a bandleader in Nashville, I quickly learned, puts one in the unique position of being able to offer work to other players, and in Nashville, work is something there is never enough of. Once people know you’re a bandleader, phone calls start getting returned with more expediency and other musicians seem to have more interest in you when you walk into a room (of course when things go wrong, you will be the first one everyone looks to).
Within a few days I had put together a five piece band of the best players I could find consisting of Chip on drums, Sid on bass, Mark on keys, Brian on steel, and me on guitar. I obtained recordings of Vern’s material from his assistant, charted the songs, and dispersed these materials to the other players. As the show date grew closer, Vern’s assistant notified me that one rehearsal would be required the week of the show. I also learned that we would need to provide transportation for Vern to and from the rehearsal, as he no longer drove.
On the day of the rehearsal, a couple of the band guys that lived close to Vern’s home near Opryland stopped by to pick him up. My only encounter with Vern up to this point had been one brief phone call, and our discussion was so brief that I still had yet to gain a real sense of the man. Over the weeks leading up to this rehearsal I had begun hearing a few horror stories about Vern. Apparently, he had a penchant for firing drummers, at least according to the rumors, and had a reputation of being quite “ornery” from time to time. He had even been known to pull a gun on a few unsuspecting musicians over the years, supposedly.
This was not the Vern that I would meet later on that night. For into my house walked one of the kindest, sweetest fellows you could ever meet. He had a sense of humor too, as we all learned when I was the butt of his first joke on this night. “How are you feeling today?” he asked. “Great, thanks.” I replied. “Well it’s a good thing that you don’t feel like you look.” he responded as muted chuckles engulfed the room. This kind of dry humor was apparently typical for Vern as I would later learn.
I had rearranged my basement music room to accommodate this band rehearsal, and the limited space was quickly filled with gear and bodies. Once the gear was up and running, our rehearsal began. Another thing that I would later learn was that Vern had suffered a stroke in recent years, and this often impeded his communicative ability. Several songs were stopped short when he needed to convey different musical ideas – signature licks, key changes, intros, endings – he couldn’t always communicate exactly what he was thinking, but it became obvious that he knew his music well, and that he knew when something wasn’t being played right.
We did our best to make his songs feel right to him, and although the mood of this night was fairly upbeat, the rehearsal wound up being shorter than optimum for us, and longer than optimum for Vern. He was getting tired and called the night before we could get through all of the material, rendering it essential that the band be extra prepared for the gig.
A few days later we all met at Fiddlers Inn near Opryland and hopped on a bus bound for a show in Kentucky. We rode the bus for a few hours before arriving at our gig where we loaded in, sound checked, and ran a few tunes. We did two shows that night in a midsized venue that was reminiscent of an old church out of yesteryear. The two sets were night and day by comparison, the first being quite bad as Vern was feeling a bit under the weather. We did our best to hold it together behind him, but it was a struggle. After a long break, during which Vern got some food and rest, we hit the stage again for our second and final show. Vern, now feeling much better, performed brilliantly. His sweet, resonant voice conveying a wide spectrum of emotions, I could now hear why he had been deemed “the voice” by so many. This strong vocal performance made it effortless for the band to follow him – We were on! The show ended to a strong applause and a room full of smiles. We had done what we had set out to do, and were on our way home.
Over the next year I played a handful of dates with Vern, and remained as bandleader and guitarist through my tenure with him. About a year later I started working on a busy tour and could no longer do Vern’s dates. But during that time we had become good friends, and years later he still called me from time to time to say hi. He had a handful of jokes that weren’t particularly funny, that somehow made me laugh anyway. I would be walking around a supermarket or Wal-Mart and the phone would ring – “Hey son, it’s Vern, I’ve got to ask you something. Do you hear that sound?” “What is it?” I would ask. “It’s the sound of my boot hittin’ your ass!”
He would literally start out every conversation with a joke like this, and I would laugh every single time. Around 2008 I was fortunate enough to have a schedule that would allow me to do a few more shows with him. Then I heard the sad news in April of 2009 that he had died from complications due to another stroke. “The Voice” of country may have moved on, but his musical legacy remains a timeless testament to his greatness. And the Vern that I grew to know and love will always hold a special place in my heart. Even though I know he won’t be calling any time soon, I still keep his number in my cell phone, just in case.