It was just after 1 PM on Saturday, May 29 as we pulled into the Fast Lane minimart in Huntsville, Tennessee. The parking lot of this fine establishment would be our home base for the day as this was the closest our tour bus could safely get to the mountaintop concert site. The event we were playing on this hot and humid Memorial Day weekend was “The White Knuckle Event” at Brimstone Recreation, an annual ATV convention on which thousands converged from all over the country, some even traveling from as far as Canada.
Shortly after our arrival, the event coordinator arrived with a fleet of four-wheel drive pickup trucks, our gear hauling and runner service for the day. Some local fellows helped load the gear into the back of the trucks, and we hopped in to make the 5 mile, 30 minute ride to the top of the mountain. The first couple of miles of this trek was quite scenic, winding through a maze of fields and rolling hills spotted with picturesque homes and cabins. After about 10 minutes of driving, the pavement ended and we proceeded up some steeper inclines as the road turned to dirt and gravel. We we’re now going up the mountain, and the old logging road on which we were traveling was a flurry of activity, with a steady stream of four wheelers and other off-road vehicles coming and going in every direction. The air was thick with dirt and dust kicked up from all the ATV’s as we passed a couple of campsites along the way.
A little while later (it seemed like an hour) we reached the summit and a spectacular panoramic view of the mountain range came into focus. We backed up the pickups to the stage and commenced our load in and sound check. The stunning view off the back of the stage was that of several other peaks, jettisoning up across the horizon under some billowing clouds that seemed to stretch on for as far as the eye could see. The contrasting view off the front of the stage was that of a sea of four wheelers dotting the hilltop amidst several vendor tents, all viewed through a thick haze of freshly kicked up mountain dust.
By four o’clock we had finished sound check and strapped in for the bouncy ride back to the bus. Chilling on the bus for a little bit, we dug into the event provided meal of country ham, green beans, steamed corn, and hot rolls. As this was the only store around for miles, the parking lot was a flurry of activity, providing varying degrees of amusement which could be viewed through our tinted bus windows. At one point a truck pulled up towing a trailer upon which a four wheeler containing several young family members sat. A little while later, one bright fellow took off on a dirt bike with his toddler sitting on the handlebars. It was a regular ATV Woodstock, and after dinner and some showers we hopped back into the pickups for another bouncy ride up to the peak as it was getting near showtime.
Now nearing dusk, we were in amazement upon reaching the concert site when the view of 10,000 concertgoers sitting on thousands of ATVs came into sight. We hit the stage running, and the powerful PA system filled the night air with the sounds of Rhett Akins music. We began the show with our appropriate onslaught of ‘Down South’ and ‘I Brake for Brunettes’ and the crowd was instantly on our side. After a few more tunes, Rhett introduced me as the bands only Yankee and encouraged me to play some southern slide guitar. This led to our rendition of ‘Curtis Lowe’ which was followed a little while later by some hunting songs from his new CD like ‘My Baby Looks Good in Camouflage’ , ‘Duck Blind’ and ‘Hung Up’.
We finished the show to a massive ovation which brought us back for a brief encore. Just before we began our short second round I was informed that one of the patrons wanted to propose to his fiancée on stage. A minute later, an excited young fellow stood on stage in front of the masses and told his girl he loved her and wanted to marry her. Teary-eyed, the girl made her way to the stage to meet her love, at which point he gave her a ring. Everybody got all mushy at this point as we played Rhett’s hit ‘She Said Yes’.
Our mountain top adventure complete, we loaded up our gear, road back down the mountain, and hit the road.
It was about 9 AM Friday morning when I crawled out of my bunk and walked to the front lounge of our tour bus. I looked out the window to see a hotel parking lot, a very typical start to a day in the life of a touring musician (I often associate this routine with the movie Groundhog Day.) On this particularly hot and muggy spring day, we would be playing a benefit concert to help elect a new sheriff in Phenix City, Alabama.
Around 1 PM we headed over to the concert site, an outdoor patio attached to a plush clubhouse on the shore of a picturesque lake. The event coordinator greeted us and helped us get situated, providing us with stagehands for load in and our bus stock for lunch. The 95° southern air was stifling, like a heavy wet blanket clinging to our every move. Perhaps this would be the reason the local sound company was running so far behind, causing our sound check to start three hours late.
So while we waited, and waited, and waited for the owner of molasses audio to finish setting up the PA, Rhett went fishing for a spell while we watched the grass grow. Finally the sound check commenced, we had some dinner, and went back to the hotel for showers. By the time we arrived back to the party, an hour before show time, the place was wall-to-wall. An opening band was suffering the old “this is a private party and we could care less about a band” syndrome.
A short while later, after a brief introduction rallying support for the new would-be sheriff, we hit the stage running, or crawling is perhaps a more accurate term. Still hot as hell, the night felt like an uphill battle from the get-go as we relentlessly worked the audience. As a master showman, no crowd is a match for the wit of Rhett Akins, and he gradually won over the crowd of locals with a mix of originals and rarities.
Within five or six songs, he called up the future sheriff elect to sing a couple songs. Before the man could decide on a song, Rhett suggested “I Shot the Sheriff” by Eric Clapton, and the crowd was in stitches. We settled on Lynyrd Skynyrds’ ”Gimme Me Three Steps” followed by “Family Tradition” by Hank Jr. A little while later, we finished our set with an encore onslaught of “Last Chance for Mary Jane” interspersed with some assorted Led Zeppelin diversions. We then loaded out our gear and, after a little chill time in the clubhouse, headed down the road. The night’s sweat now drying to a thin protective coating upon us, we joked around for a bit while winding down in the air-conditioned front lounge. Nichols, Georgia here we come!
Saturday morning began for me at 5:30 AM, when I was suddenly awoken by the sound of a loud crack of thunder. By the time I dragged myself out of bed a short while later, a heavy downpour was underway, and our fair state of Tennessee was beginning to receive a walloping storm. On any other day this would have been less significant for me, but on this first day of May, 2010, Rhett Akins and band were leaving for an outdoor show in Alabama, and it was my job as tour manager to see it through.
All morning long, in between preparing for the trip, my wife Kelly and I kept checking the weather, and grew more concerned with every passing minute as the forecast was not good. During the 40 minute drive to the bus, which was exceptionally precarious due to the now torrential rain, I received a call from Rhett, who informed me he would be leaving late and driving himself to the show. We arrived at the bus, loaded up, and began the 130 mile drive to our destination, the small town of Hartselle, Alabama, just a little ways over the Tennessee/Alabama border.
The rain was relentless for the first half of the drive, and just when it seemed like our show was doomed, it gradually began to subside as we neared the Alabama border. I now received my second phone call from Rhett, and our newly found optimism was again put on hold when he told me that he just saw a car completely submerged underwater on the northbound side of Interstate 65. We all began to worry about our fearless leader (as well as our own fate) as we watched the news now showing video footage of the devastation this storm had just wreaked upon Arkansas, in the form of tornadoes, and Memphis, by way of flooding.
We safely arrived to our destination, a large open field in the middle of nowhere upon which a local business, Frederick Tractor Supply, was throwing a groundbreaking ceremony. As we pulled down the long gravel driveway, I first spotted the stage; two flatbed trailers complete with a green tarp “awning”, supported by two by fours. I now received my third call from Rhett who informed me that the radio stations were no longer playing music, but delivering storm news, and that I65, I24, and I40 around Nashville were now closed due to flooding. A short while later I was greeted by the owner who told me “I think we may have dodged a bullet on this one.” as I felt a few light rain drops on my face.
The light sprinkle was short-lived, and we hesitantly began our load in and soundcheck. Halfway through soundcheck the sprinkle returned and intensified, so we covered our gear and returned to the bus. Around 5:30 it subsided, and we finished soundcheck and waited for dinner, some home-cooked barbecue that was allegedly “the best in the county”. As we sat on the bus, the latest news reports were now showing a broader picture of the pending apocalypse that loomed just outside our door step. Flipping between the Weather Channel and CNN, we were horrified to see images of Nashville interstates that looked more like lakes filled with half submerged cars and tractor-trailers, viewed through a gloomy mist of grey.
It seemed surreal that we were getting ready to play a concert, while just 100 miles to our north there were more than 70 cars underwater on the roadways we had just traveled upon. Strangely enough, it never did rain again on our quaint little country setting, and we played a 90 minute show to an approving audience of 500 or so tractors and concertgoers.
After the show was over, our bus driver Steve informed us that I65 was now passable, but that another round of storms was on its way, so we made a hasty departure to try to beat the next storm. Fortunately, the ride home was uneventful, and we arrived safely back to our cars in a parking lot near the Opryland Hotel. A short while later, as Kelly and I neared our home just West of Nashville, we came upon a city truck blocking the road in front of some standing water, and had to take a detour to a secondary entrance to our development. As we pulled into the driveway of our home, we were greeted by a cold dark house as the storm had knocked out the power in our area.
It’s now noon the next day, again raining heavily, and I’m writing this by hand as we’re still without power. We learned the day before that a flood watch will be in effect for middle Tennessee until Thursday, as this storm was not yet finished. Yesterday it rained 11 inches and less than 10 hours, and before the storm is done, we could receive up to 4 to 8 inches more. So far at least eight people have died from drowning in what is being deemed the worst flooding the state has seen in over 30 years.
It’s not over yet, and I wonder what we’ll learn when the power comes back on. As I sit with a pen and paper, looking through a window at a rain soaked canopy of green and grey, I’m still amazed at how a mere 14 hour bus gig, the shortest in recent years, was one of the most stressful and terrifying we had ever experienced. While some weren’t so lucky, at least for our group, it looks like we might have dodged a bullet on this one.
It’s springtime, and festival season is upon us. The time of year for county fairs and outdoor music festivals is here, and along with it comes the unpredictable variable of the weather. Working as a tour manager and touring musician, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in situations where a concert promoter or event coordinator seems to think they have magic powers when it comes to predicting the weather. They all seem to have a crystal ball that literally guarantees them a clear day despite any meteorologists forecast.
First of all, anybody that plans an outdoor show is taking a big risk, as these events are booked months in advance with no way of knowing what the weather will be on the day of show. Outdoor concerts and events on the highest level, usually have stages with a roof, and optional sides that can be put up in the event of rain. This will keep the performers and equipment protected, although typically leaving the audience exposed to the elements. Concerts and events on a smaller scale have varying degrees of preparedness, and many have stages with less than adequate covering. Also inherent to many of these smaller “townie” style events are event coordinators that can be a little less than rational when it comes to contingency plans for bad weather.
A few years ago I worked an outdoor show in Alabama in the month of June. The forecast all week long called for heavy rain and severe weather for the day of our concert. On show day, we arrived around noon, and it was already lightly sprinkling. A local high school football field was the site for this concert, and a large stage, with a roof but no sides had been constructed at one end of the field. Earlier in the week, I had suggested to the event coordinator that if the weather was looking bad, to have the concert in the high school gymnasium. As the weather predictions seemed to be spot on, I again made the suggestion, as there was still enough time to move the event inside. Of course, I was overruled, as the event coordinator said that the gym couldn’t hold all of the people they were expecting, along with the line “Most of the bad weather is supposed to blow just south of here.”
Not. By the time we were ready for sound check a couple of hours later, the rain started coming down heavy, and a strong wind was blowing the rain across stage. We quickly covered our gear, while the sound company frantically covered their equipment with large tarps. A couple hours later, the rain subsided long enough for us to do a brief sound check, which turned out to be our only performance on this day. No sooner did we finish the sound check, when the sky opened up with a vengeance, soaking us to the bone as we ran for the bus. By 8:00PM, our official show time, the steady rain was now accompanied by lightning, and the soaked concertgoer’s standing on the wet field were told to retreat to their cars for safety. We were all on standby for the next couple of hours hoping that the weather would pass, but the radar showed otherwise. Even with the certainty of this night upon us, I’ll never forget standing outside of the bus in the pouring rain and arguing with the promoter, who was now practically begging us to perform on the wet stage, an electrocution waiting to happen. With rain dripping off the front of his hat and in between an almost constant barrage of loud thunder, I believe his words were “It looks like it’s going to clear up any minute now.”
That particular show was no exception. I, like many touring musicians, have been in similar scenarios countless times. In fact that particular summer, we were rained out four or five times. Without the proper advanced planning, some situations don’t allow much of an option. But sometimes a show could be salvaged at the last minute if an event coordinator would simply bite the bullet and realize that a smaller concert indoors might be better than no concert at all.
Tomorrow, I’ll be leaving for an outdoor show in northern Alabama. Our group is scheduled to perform on a couple of flatbed trailers covered by “an awning” at 8:30 PM tomorrow night. Earlier in the week I suggested to the event coordinator the possibility of renting a large “circus style” tent, complete with sides, as rain has been in the forecast for almost a week now. As of this moment, the National Weather Service forecast says “Thunderstorms are expected to become widespread during Saturday across northwest Alabama, and spread gradually eastward during the afternoon and evening hours. A few thunderstorms may be capable of producing flash flooding.” I guess we’ll soon find out if he went with my tent idea. Regardless, I’m hoping we get lucky, but experience tells me to be prepared to hear the words “It looks like it’s going to clear up any minute now.”
A light rain was falling as we drove our tour bus down the long dirt driveway leading into “the Clubhouse in Rye Patch”, the concert venue in which we would be performing on this night. Buried deep in the woods of Ludowici, Georgia, the view out of the bus window was quite picturesque as we passed some horses in a field on one side, and a gazebo in the middle of a small pond on the other from which an inviting sign put forth the words “propose to get married here.” After getting the bus parked, I directed some stagehands to load our gear into the performance area, an open sided breezeway complete with “that dirt floor charm” and air that smelled of barroom pleasantries and rabbit poop. Randy Hauser, the other headliner, was scheduled to play after us, at 10 PM, and his band was in the middle of sound check as I scoped out the room. A couple of hours later, after Hauser’s boys had extensively checked the system, it was our turn to set up and sound check in this room now half full of people, and we proceeded to the stage. An hour or so later we retreated to the dining hall for a catered meal of pork, chicken, mac and cheese, steamed corn, and fried bread, which was followed by some showers in the bunk house.
Sometime around 6 PM, the first of three opening acts took the stage and began the night with a pounding rendition of the rarity “Sweet Home Alabama”, complete with double bass drum fills throughout. This over-the-top band of locals was an explosion of kinetic energy, and they proceeded to entertain the crowd with their hour plus set of cult classics. With the following two openers of this music marathon each playing close to an hour, the night was running behind, and it was just after 9:30, before we took the stage. By this point of the night, the place was wall-to-wall, and the audience of 1200 festive Southerners, ranging in age from infancy to 80, was now spilling out into the courtyard. Our five piece group delivered a walloping performance, and the crowd reaction was magnanimous, one of our best receptions so far this year. During one point of the performance, a couple of kids hopped up onto the stage, singing and dancing along. This prompted a couple of “young ladies” to follow suit on the opposite side of this small and already overcrowded stage. The feisty ladies had difficulty showing restraint, and their dancing quickly evolved into more of a grinding-like motion. By the end of the song more people were trying to get on stage which prompted some “security personnel” to start grabbing folks and handing them off the back of the stage. In the middle of the next song another girl hopped onto the stage, however this time, one of the house sound engineers grabbed her bouncer-style and she was gone almost as quickly as she appeared. This prompted one of the “security personnel” to hop onto the stage and place himself strategically between me and Rhett, who was standing about 5 feet away. For this, he received an instant rejection notice from me, and he vanished quickly as well.
We finished our 60 minute set to a roaring applause that didn’t subside until we climbed back on stage for an encore. Rhett strapped on an electric guitar and proceeded to play some licks before launching into Tom Petty’s “Last Chance for Mary Jane”. After a few verses, the song morphed into “Breakdown” followed by a few riffs of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” and then into Pearl Jam’s “Alive” before returning the final dual lead guitar onslaught at the end of this carefully executed, fly by the seat of your pants style jam.
Our performance now finished, we quickly began to strike our gear amidst a chaotic stage that was now being rushed by Randy Hauser’s crew. We loaded up our bus, and a short while later Randy Hauser and band took the stage as I began to chase down the promoter for the settlement. Hauser’s performance was followed by the “Daisy Duke” contest, during which time another local band was setting up for the “after concert-show”, a strange ritual held by many local bar owners across the land.
A short while later and we were all back on the bus driving away, talking about the night amidst Rhett’s impersonation of ‘Damone’ from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”. It was another fun weekend in the deep South and we were headed home.
This day began like so many other days on the road, waking up on a tour bus to the view a hotel parking lot in the middle of nowhere. On this particularly warm spring day we were scheduled to play a multi-band extravaganza in Vienna Georgia, and after a couple of hours at the local Country Inn and suites, we set off to the concert site on other side of town. As we pulled down a long dirt road, the view of the “Pig Jig” festival grounds came into focus. An array of crudely built, weathered shacks and buildings that kind of reminded me of a movie set that fell somewhere between an imaginary western and a redneck Ewok village.
Upon our landing, I was greeted by Mack, the festival promoter, who direced some stage hands to unload our gear. I walked over to check out the stage, a large outdoor “shed” style structure in which Colt Ford and his band had just finished their soundcheck, and helped guide our gear into place. A couple hours later, after our soundcheck, I organized a hotel run for the band to get some showers and downtime. When we returned to the concert grounds around dinner time, there was already a good size crowd building, and some of our group retreated to the hospitality area for some “pig and fixin’s”.
The concert begins with a local acoustic duo, RDR, who slowly began to wake up the crowd, now sweltering in the hot Georgia sun. Sonny Ledfurd, a three piece band from North Carolina, was up next, and the crowd seemed to really get into the bands tunes about drinking whisky, smokin’ dope, and “partying in my driveway”. Tyler Farr (from Colt’s band) then played a brief acoustic set just prior to our show, and the crowd was now thoroughly primed for Rhett and band. With the darkness of night now upon us, the mood was just right, and we launched into our 60 minute show of rockin’ southern country. The crowd responded warmly to some of Rhetts’ earlier hits as well as some newer material like “My Baby Looks Good in Camouflage” and “Duck Blind”. We finished our set with Rhett’s anthem “Kiss My Country Ass”, tore down our gear, and move it to backstage to wait for stagehands.
Upon spotting one of the stagehands backstage I instructed him to round up a few more hands to help deliver the gear to the bus. When 2 more husky fellows arrived a few minutes later, the first load of gear was delivered to our bus, after which the “hands” seemed to vanish into thin air. After another 5 minutes or so I call the promoter and “re-request” the stagehands. A minute later, one of the hands returned ahead of his co-workers and proceeded to walk right past me and the gear to briefly vomit around the corner. Our drunken helper returned and exclaimed “O.K., what’s next?” The other hands returned, we finished the load-out, and then we were done for the night. A few minutes later Colt took the stage with his band to rock the 1000 or so in attendance. A little while later and we we’re driving off into the night to our next destination, “The Clubhouse at Rye Patch” in Ludowici, GA. We we’re all exhausted, but it was a fun day, and the show went well. In the end, fun was had by all at the Big Pig Jig.
The Saturday morning of April 17 started out like so many other one-off’s for all of us on the Rhett Akins tour, and on this day, it was the Kappa Alpha fraternity house at Georgia Tech in Atlanta that would be our destination. This particular day began in a slightly more than typical fashion with Rhett’s son, Thomas Rhett, and three of his best friends tagging along for this southern spring adventure.
We arrived at the frat house late afternoon to be greeted by our contacts who were fairly organized, and they did a good job helping us get situated (if you’ve ever played a fraternity, then you know this is somewhat uncommon). We loaded our gear onto a plywood stage which was set up in the middle of a courtyard in the back of the frat house, and proceeded to set up and sound check amidst the backdrop of the downtown skyscrapers of this enormous city. This particular concert had an 11:30 PM start time, typical for a frat party, so we had a good amount of downtime between sound check and the show. A few hours later, after some dinner and a little chillin’ in the front lounge, I went out to the stage to get some things set for the show. Upon returning to the bus, I felt a little bit of that pre-show lag common with such late starts, and we all started talking about how we felt like we were ready for bed. Sorry everybody, show time is in five minutes!
The show began and a wave of energy quickly spread from the stage, through the crowd, and back to the stage in that kind of perpetual circular motion that only happens at a live concert. It’s amazing how quickly adrenaline will turn exhaustion into an abundance of energy, and now the night was really starting to evolve as we stomped through our repertoire. The packed courtyard was standing room only, and the receptive kids were singing along with Rhett’s earlier hits as well as much of his unreleased later material. Still going strong an hour and a half after we began, Rhett decided to pull out some old-school tunes, and the crowd of energetic youngsters, many of whom were still in their late teens, seemed to know every word of Allman Brothers classics like Statesboro Blues and Melissa, songs that were released years before these kids were even born. After I sang Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower to give Rhett a quick break, he launched into some more fun party tunes that kept everybody singing and grooving along, ending the electric part of this show with Hey Ho Let’s Go, by The Ramones, a song we had never played before that seemed to only further ignite the excitement of the crowd. Although we walked off the stage feeling exhausted, it was a good feeling exhausted.
It was now 2:00 AM and we had played nonstop for 2 1/2 hours, substantially longer than our typical concert, but not unheard of for us. Upon the relentless chanting for more, Rhett decided to send up his son, Thomas Rhett, to stand in for an acoustic encore. Thomas Rhett, apparently inheriting his dad’s uncanny ability to instantly win over a crowd, kept the party going strong for another 45 minutes, singing some of his favorite tunes. When Thomas left the stage, the kids, still wanting more, were then treated to a second acoustic encore by Rhett himself, who was apparently inspired by his son’s performance. Rhett announced “If it’s all right with y’all, I’m gonna keep singing until our bus driver gets here.” Of course, he thought our driver would be there shortly, which he would’ve, but because of a communication error, it would be another hour before he would arrive. By the time I finally went out to tell our fearless leader that we could now leave, it was 3:55 AM, bringing the total length of this concert to four hours and 25 minutes, what is certainly the longest Rhett Akins concert I’ve ever been a part of. Although the party had dwindled to a smaller size than its peak a couple of hours earlier, those who were left were still chanting for more as Rhett walked away.
As we drove off into the night, with a Waffle House as our next destination, we all sat around the front lounge of the bus, basking in the wonderment of the night. Even the fraternity’s security personell said we rocked. As far as Rhett Akins concerts go, it may have been the longest mile we’ve walked yet, and thanks to everybody that was there, it was another great Saturday night in Dixie!