Rhett Akins

I was talking to a college student a while back who said he was interested in becoming a tour manager. It turns out that one of his best friends is an aspiring young artist with a bright future, one who will likely need a tour manager someday. “What does a tour manager do?” he asked. The specific duties can vary depending on the tour, but in general, the tour manager oversees all aspects of the touring entourage and coordinates each concert with the event buyer, production company, and all other pertinent parties. My job as tour manager for Rhett Akins requires me to wear a lot of hats; tour manager, band leader, lead guitarist – officially; and guitar tech, stage manager, assistant merch person, travel agent, part-time bartender, and occasional guidance counselor – unofficially. There are eight members of our entourage – Rhett, myself, three other band members, a sound engineer, a merch person, and a bus driver, and it is my job to make sure they are well taken care of when we are touring. To give some perspective, I thought it might be fun to take you on a recent one off with Rhett and gang. This post will be a bit long, but then again so is the day of a tour manager.

Rhett Akins

09-04-10 – Clay County Days Festival – Manchester Kentucky

It was about 11:30 PM on Friday, September 3rd when Kelly and I arrive to the bus near Opryland in Nashville, TN. Most of the other guys are already there and our sound engineer, Mike Jaeger, and bassist, Clint Jacobs, help me load my gear , Rhett’s merch, and some bus stock into the bays underneath the bus. Assistant tour manager and merch specialist, Kelly Normand, begins stocking the refrigerator with bottled waters and putting away some of the other supplies (paper plates, solo cups, etc.). On this run we have a substitute driver, and after making his acquaintance, I give him some paperwork and discuss some specifics of the trip. A little while later we pull out, bound for London, KY, the location of the hotel we would be using for our show at Rawlings Stinson Park in Manchester Kentucky. My official duties complete for this workday, I enjoy some chill time in the front lounge with the guys for a bit before heading to bed (or heading to bunk, rather).

Like most of our weekend runs, our bus arrives to a hotel parking lot sometime early morning and I awake a few hours later to begin my day. My first duty is getting checked into our hotel rooms, and this can require a special skill set (called charm) to get into these rooms at the early hour of 9 AM (most hotel check-in’s are between 1 and 3 PM). After offering a warm greeting to the hotel front desk clerk, I introduce myself – “My name is Eric Normand, I’m the tour manager for Rhett Akins and we’ve got four rooms booked with you. I realize it’s still kind of early, but I was wondering if any of them are ready.” “We should have a couple of rooms cleaned and ready in about 20 minutes and the other two in about an hour” she notifies me. “Great, thanks.” I return to the bus and eat some breakfast before returning to the hotel lobby for the room keys.

By noon, most everyone is up and hanging out in the front lounge. Were watching “Stand by Me” on the flatscreen TV as we head off for the venue, a 20 mile, 30 minute drive. While enroute I call my contact at the event to notify him we are almost there. We arrive on site and back the bus into a fire station parking lot across the street from the park. This is the closest the bus will be able to get to the stage which is located about an eighth of a mile away, and I quickly realize I’m going to get in a fair amount of walking on this sunny 70° day. I walk off the bus and meet, Gene, my go-to guy from this event for the day. “Tell me what you guys need, and I make it happen.” he informs me. “Everybody’s pretty hungry, so the bus stock would be great. After that we’ll need a pickup truck and some stagehands to cart the gear over the stage, and a runner to take our driver back to the hotel.” A few minutes later our bus stock is arriving, and I began to coordinate the load in.

After everybody eats, I find the runner who then takes our driver back to the hotel to sleep, and we begin our set up and sound check. As I still have a lot of details to tend to, I try to set up my gear as quickly as possible. Before I can finish, the event buyer requests a brief meeting with Rhett, as well as the handling of settlement (payment). Gene takes me via golf cart back to the bus so we can bring Rhett to meet the owner who is down the street cooking our BBQ dinner on a giant smoker. A little while later I’m back to the stage with sound check in full swing. Mike has done a good job of ‘ringing out the monitors’ and we are pretty much ready for Rhett. After running through two songs and making a few minor adjustments everybody’s pretty happy with the sound, so we ‘spike and strike’ our monitors and pedal boards to make room for the opening act.

Typically, the conclusion of sound check would mean that we’re all returning to hotel rooms for showers, but as this day had a late afternoon sound check with an early show time, there wasn’t enough time. I told everyone this in advance, and most of them had already taken a quick shower late morning at the hotel. So today, it’s a couple hours of downtime on-site. Some of the guys go walking around the festival for a bit, others hang out on the bus watching college football, while Kelly and I explore a walking trail off the back side of the park. Dinner was served in the firehouse at five o’clock – a massive spread of pulled pork, ribs, potato salad, and some outstanding homemade creamed corn. In fact, the creamed corn tastes so much like corn, that I realize how little so many other ‘corn products’ actually taste like corn.

After dinner it’s time to set up our merch station, so I accompany Kelly to her tent to make sure she has everything she needs. Upon our arrival to her side stage location, I see that the event has provided a 10×10 pop-up tent, table, and a half a dozen folding chairs. While Kelly begins setting up her merch, I find one of the production company workers and ask him to run some power over to the tent for lighting. Once the lighting is set I begin preparing for Rhett’s meet and greet by texting him to notify him that it’s 10 minutes out. I verify with Gene that the meet and greet party has gathered, and deliver Rhett, sharpie in hand, to the green room. During the middle of this autograph-signing photo-op I get a text from Kelly stating that she needs more change and that one of her lights has a burned-out bulb. I locate a spare bulb and $100 worth of 5’s,  make another walk to the stage area, and return to help wrap up the meet and greet.

I escort Rhett back to the bus, put a fresh battery in his in-ear wireless belt pack, and return to the stage to reset my gear. The opening band now finished and the stage clear, I place my pedal board, tune my guitar, and check my rig with a few quick power chords. I continue on to Rhett’s position, tuning his acoustic and checking it for signal, checking his vocal mic in the monitors and in the house, installing a pic clip with guitar pics to his mic stand, and placing set lists and a beverage on the stage floor by his monitor. The other band members are all at their stations checking their rigs, and a DJ is selling himself over the mic in that nonstop annoying ramble that only a DJ can do. The park is filled to capacity, somewhere around 4000, and we’re ready to go. I make one more walk back to the bus to shuttle Rhett over via golf cart. A few minutes later and were off and sailing on our 90 minute ‘countrified’ rockathon.

In a day so full of endless details, the nightly concert is by far the high point for me. For these 90 minutes I get to play my guitar with a great band, behind a great front man, and it’s all about the music for me. Rhett, being the quintessential performer, possesses the uncanny ability to render a crowd in the palm of his hands in about as much time as it takes him to walk out onto the stage. The concertgoers on this particular night are no exception to this rule, and Rhett quickly wins them over. For this brief period, it doesn’t even seem like I’m working, after all, this is what I set out to do in the first place. Aside from our usual repertoire, one standout is an impromptu performance of Bon Jovi’s ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ (playing in all those early cover bands sure comes in handy every once in a while) and Rhett’s son, Thomas Rhett, joining us to sing a great rendition of ‘Duck Blind’.  90 minutes later our performance is complete, and the captive audience slowly makes their retreat as Rhett rides back to the bus via golf cart while the band tears down the gear. I quickly transition from musician mindset back to road manager and instruct Gene to pull up a truck next to the stage for load out. We load the gear, ride over to the bus, and load it into the bays. I send the runner to pickup our driver, they return about an hour later, and we fire up the bus to ride off into the night. My workday done, I enjoy a frosty beverage in the front lounge with the gang. I awake on the bus the next morning back in Nashville, load my car, and get the fuel receipts and some other paperwork from the bus driver. “Great job everybody, see you next week!”

This one-off is typical for a small to midsized tour, such as ours. On tours of this size and nature, the tour manager advances these details over the days and weeks preceding the show (quite often it is these advance phone calls and e-mails that make or break how well each show day and show goes). In the days after a weekend run, the tour manager addresses payroll, bank deposits, bus lease payment, and some light accounting duties while advancing upcoming shows. On a larger more active tour, there would simply be more tour members, more tour buses, and more equipment, and they would likely be staying out for longer periods of time. A day similar to the one I just described would be repeated in succession, kind of like Groundhog Day, each day beginning the same  as the last – the view of an obscure parking lot from the bus window, somewhere far from home. On one of these tours, the ‘TM’ would still be the grand overseer, but would be delegating many of these roles to others – stage managers, guitar techs, etc. He still has to deal with all the same kinds of details, he just doesn’t have to wear as many hats. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about wearing so many hats, he probably doesn’t get to play guitar during the show.

My name is Eric Normand and welcome to ‘Country Concerts’!

It was a warm Wednesday night in July of 2007 when the Rhett Akins tour left Nashville, Tennessee, bound for Macon, Georgia, on what would be a four city run across the deep South. The bus, a still shiny and new looking 2005 Prevost XLII, wreaked of personality, while the driver, Les, was somewhat reserved and looked a bit less than shiny and new. As is typical in the world of one-off bus leasing, this would be our first and only trip with this driver, and although he seemed to drive okay, we knew almost nothing about him. Well, over the next four days we would learn everything we needed to know about ‘Mr. personality’.

The six-hour ride to Macon was uneventful enough, and I didn’t even wake up when we pulled into the Ramada Inn parking lot. The rest of the day went pretty smoothly, and we even managed to fit in a visit to the infamous ‘Rose Hill Cemetary’, the Allman Brothers early stomping ground and eventual resting place of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley. Our show at the Cox Capitol Theatre later that night went well, after which we taxied the bus back to the hotel to sleep over as our next destination, Thomaston, Georgia, was only 50 miles away.

We left Macon at 11:00 AM on Friday morning for the one-hour trip to the small town of Thomaston, Georgia, eventually landing in front of ‘Q’s Downtown Grill and Music Hall’, and had a little down time between our arrival and load-in. Most of us were hanging in the front lounge when Les began his first in a series of rude and inconsiderate commentaries. “I was just offered an $85,000 a year driving job, but I think I’m going to turn it down” he boasted. “Why? That sounds like a great gig” one of us asked. “I usually make a lot more than that. Last year, I made $120,000” he continued in an annoying offhand manner. “What an asshole!” we all thought. We all knew that bus drivers make a ton of money but didn’t need to be reminded just how much more they make then the rest of us.

A short while later we sent Les off to his hotel room for sleep and went about our day. Rightafter load-in the wind picked up outside and it began to pour. Some severe weather had moved in and the power was knocked out for a while. We later learned that a tornado had touchdown a couple of miles away, but fortunately the weather passed, the power came back on, and we continued about our day. We played our show that night to a packed house, loaded out, and enjoyed some late night partying on the bus while we waited for our driver. As luck would have it, the runner was late picking up Les, who apparently had to wait in the hotel lobby for about 45 minutes. So by the time Les arrived back to the bus, he was somewhat agitated and had a hard time concealing this.

Sometime around 3 AM we began the 7 Hour drive to Augusta, Georgia, although now, the quality of the drive was noticeably rougher. Other than some hard braking at a few points, we assumed that the rough ride was just due to some poor road conditions across that part of the state. By the time we pulled into ‘The Country Club’, the happening nightspot in which we would be performing on this Friday night, a red carpet had been laid out for our arrival. Band and crew quickly attacked a huge platter of chicken fingers, shrimp cocktail, and a veggie plate that had been set out for us in the green room.

We sent Les off to his room, loaded in, and sound checked. This was of course followed by dinner, hotel time, and a blistering performance to a packed house of 1000 plus concertgoers and parties. The crowd was overly enthusiastic on this hot summer night and the party spilled out into the parking lot after the show. By the time Les returned around 2 AM the front lounge of the bus was full of nightclub patrons and in full ‘K-tel dance party’ mode. There was also 30 or 40 people hanging out in the parking lot near the bus, and this is where Les delivered his next uncanny remark. “Does Rhett party like this every night?” he said judgingly. “Every night’s different, sometimes we party a little bit, other times we’re tired and go to bed. Why do you care?” I answered, now  annoyed with this would-be high school prom chaperone. “It just seems pretty irresponsible to me. Not a good way to run a business.” he grumbled.

About an hour later we set sail for Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the final stop of this five legged bus ride that was getting rougher every minute. Apparently annoyed by our after show activities, Les tossed us around pretty good for the five hour trip, perhaps as some sort of punishment for having “too much fun”. A lot of side to side sway, hard braking, you know, the kind of bus driver tendencies typical of a moron. We pulled into the parking lot of ‘The Boathouse’ which was the venue we would be playing,  and this time I was instantly awoken as the bus jerked to a quick, hard stop. A little while later I sent Les off to his room at the adjacent Holiday Inn, notifying him that we planned to depart for home at 11 PM that night.

Saturday proved to be another great outing for Rhett and band, an outdoor summertime concert behind a nightclub on the banks of a river. Again, the day’s activities and concert went quite well, with the biggest drama being delivered by our wing-nut bus driver at the end of the night. Our show had ended at 9:30 and we were all hanging out inside the bar waiting for the 11:00 PM bus call. Around 10 of, I walked out to the bus to see if Les was ready. Upon opening the bus door I was astonished to see him sitting in the driver’s seat smoking a cigarette (In case you’ve never ridden on a tour bus, in general, this is a no-no). Smoking on our busses is only permitted while the bus is in motion, as this will allow the smoke to ventilate out an open window. I asked him to not smoke on the bus while not moving, and he reluctantly extinguished his cigarette.

I told him I would go get the rest of the guys and that we could leave shortly. Upon returning to the bar I quickly realized a couple of the guys must’ve gone over to the hotel, and called them to tell them we were ready to leave. When I returned to the parking lot I was dumbfounded to see the tail lights of our bus growing smaller in the distance as Les was apparently more than ready to be done with us. When I called him on my cell phone and asked “What are you doing?” he sarcastically answered “Are you ready to go yet?”. “Well yeah, I was just rounding up the guys. I told everyone were about to leave, and next thing I know I’ve got guys running after the bus across the parking lot carrying suitcases. What the hell are you doing?” “All right, I’m coming back now.” He said in a cocky tone of voice, almost as if this was some sort of weird game of bus driver/tour manager chicken.

He brought the bus back, we hopped on, and took off down the highway, more than ready to be done with this jack-off. About an hour Into the drive, our drummer, Cliff, informed me that he had left his suitcase back at the hotel. I was horrified. I was already at a breaking point with this driver, and it seemed like he hated driving us. This is the last thing I wanted to do, but I had to do it. “Hey Les, I hate to tell you this, but Cliff left his luggage back at the hotel and we need to go back and get it.” After muttering some sort of offhand comment under his breath, he literally locked up the brakes, sending people flying as bottles fell off the counter and smashed on the floor. Again, I was dumbfounded. “What the hell you doing? He didn’t forget his bag on purpose. We want to be done with this trip just as badly as you do. Do you really think we want to spend an extra two hours on this bus with you?” I unleashed.

“Sorry about that. I didn’t mean to hit the brakes that hard.” he said. I then added “So far on this trip, each night your driving has gotten rougher and rougher. We don’t care about making good time on these trips, we want a smooth ride so we can sleep. Do you think you can lose the attitude just long enough for that to happen?”

With that, he turned around, went back for Cliff’s bag, and then began the 600 mile trip home two hours later, and for the second time. I guess the only satisfaction we got out of this was the knowledge that we made the final leg of the trip two hours longer than necessary for “les the mess’.

I’ve been on a lot of buses, with a lot of different drivers, but this particular trip was a first. Never, and I mean never, have I had a driver just drive a waiting tour bus off into the night without telling somebody. Never have I seen one smoke a cigarette in the driver’s seat while the bus was parked. Never have I had a driver question our organization, or our right to party after the show. But then again, never had I ever experienced the exceptional bus driving skills of ‘Les the wing-nut’.

It was almost midnight on a Friday in late September, 2006 when I pulled up to the bus near Opryland in Nashville, TN. The Longbranch saloon in Raleigh, North Carolina would be the destination for Rhett Akins and band, and this ten hour – 540 mile trip would be a one-off. The driver, Ed, was sitting in the driver’s seat when I opened the door to enter the bus, and I immediately noticed a few peculiarities. To the right of his dash-mounted GPS was a little platform upon which sat a laptop, screen open and powered on. On the floor to his right was a large igloo cooler. On his head sat an oversized telephone headset (think AT&T operators of yesteryear) which was wired to a cell phone also mounted on the dash. “Hi, I’m Ed. Pleased to meet you” he said, and with this enthusiastic introduction I thought ‘Okay, I guess I’ll have to give this guy a chance, even though he looks like he’s wired for a moon landing.’

A short while later we were loaded up and headed east on interstate 40, and I went to my bunk to go to sleep. Now anybody that’s done this ride before knows that I40 through eastern Tennessee and North Carolina is a mountainous region, full of steep inclines and hard grades. ‘The gorge’ is one particularly harrowing mountain pass in the middle of this trip that requires some careful navigating, as do a few other spots. It was in these mountain passes where I first realized that Ed was a bit less than great when I awoke in my bunk with my face pressed up against the wall. I could hear the sounds of the diesel engine moaning loudly as he dug in hard up one incline after the next. I eventually fell back asleep but not without a few restless hours of wondering if he was going to drive the bus off of a cliff, as his bouts with the rumble strip occurred at regular intervals. The sway factor was also pretty intense, almost as if he was conducting experiments in weightlessness for NASA. I found out the next day that Cliff Thompson, our drummer, has slammed his head into the bathroom wall as a result of some rough braking during the night, and that a guitar had fallen out of junk bunk. Sometime midmorning I sleepily crawled out of my bunk feeling a bit like a tossed salad.

“Did you sleep well?” Ed unknowingly exclaimed as I entered the now stationary front lounge. “Actually, I didn’t, the ride was kind of rough. I could feel quite a bit of side to side sway in my bunk.” I said in the most neutral tone I could muster. “Yeah, I noticed that a little bit too. Maybe the suspension on this bus needs to be adjusted.” “Maybe you could just drive a little bit slower on the ride home” I requested and he agreed to try. By this point of my touring life I had already been on many bus rides with many different bus drivers, some great, some terrible, and many in between. From my experiences they all think they’re great, I mean let’s face it, nobody thinks they suck. So usually by the time you figure out your driver sucks you’re well into your trip, it’s too late to do anything about it, and criticizing him or her can go either way.

By noon we were loading into the club and I was sending Ed off to his hotel room to get some sleep. “Can you put me on the guest list for tonight?” he asked “I might come back a little early and catch the last part of the show.” “Sure” I answered to this more than typical request. We went about our day, sound checking, hotels, dinner, meet and greet, etc. We hit the stage at 11:00 PM to a packed house and nothing seemed too out of the ordinary until midway through our set when I spotted our driver line dancing with some locals on the dance floor. That was the only time I noticed him in the club during our show, but immediately afterwards our merch person told me that Ed had come up to the merch table with a girl under one arm, and alcohol on his breath. A little while later I was the first tour member onto the bus and was astonished to be greeted by Ed and some unknown floozy. “Great show!” He gleefully exclaimed as they stepped off the otherwise empty bus. Is this guy for real? You would think he was the one on tour.

We loaded our gear, climbed aboard, and settled in for another frightful trip through the gorge. I wasn’t alone in my distaste for this driver, as everyone else had commented throughout the day on the rough ride and his odd behavior. Right before we set out on the voyage home I made one more attempt at coercing a smoother ride from this brainless wonder, but a short while later it was obvious that he just plain sucked. Bobby Dancy, our bass player at the time, also suspected that we were in for another 10 hour hell ride and grabbed the unopened bottle of Crown Royal from the countertop. “This is the only thing that’s going to put me to sleep tonight.” and with that he took a big swig. “I agree. With this clown at the wheel we’re going to have to change the name of the tour to Bob Weaver and the Wanderers” and with that I took a swig. We all but killed off that bottle by four or five in the morning on this would-be roller coaster ride thru hell, at which point we each began slowly retreating to our bunks, wondering if this might be the last bus trip of our lives.

Amazingly, we did eventually pull back into Nashville and the boat-like motion finally came to an end. Aside from a nasty three-day hangover, the only thing that was damaged was Cliffs forehead (from hitting the bathroom wall), and the drivers pride from the ass reaming I unleashed on him just before I drove off. I learned later from Kelly, that at one point Scott had walked to the front of the bus to discover Ed surfing on match.com on his laptop while going 75 down the highway.

I don’t remember the name of the bus company we were using at this point, it was one of several $300 a day companies that disappointed us during this time. There’s no free lunch in this world, if you try to save money with buses, you’ll still pay in the end – whether through stress, lost sleep, breakdowns, whatever. Ultimately, it was a handful of bad experiences like this one that would lead us to the decision to switch to top shelf bus companies. Because if you try to skimp out, the money you save on busses, you will spend on whiskey instead.

My experiences with a brake happy novice bus driver this past weekend have prompted me to write a few articles on the do’s and don’ts of driving an entertainer coach. This article will be the first of a series I will be writing in the next couple of weeks.

Working for Rhett Akins over the past few years I’ve become a bit spoiled regarding how we travel around the country. We regularly lease top-of-the-line tour busses from Roberts Brothers Coach, one of the best bus companies on the planet, and as most of our activity are weekends runs, it’s usually a different bus each time. Usually this kind of one-off leasing means  a different driver each time too, but we’ve been fortunate to wind up with an arrangement that allows us to have the same driver, Steve Pope, for most of these trips. This has turned out to be a best case scenario as he is an exceptional driver, and a great guy too. The downside is that he is so good that most others pale in comparison.

Well on this past weekends’ run, unfortunately as it turned out, Steve had to take the weekend off and we were stuck with a substitute driver. As bad luck would have it, the bus was sub leased through another company as well. So last Friday we set out from Nashville at 11 AM with our ‘mystery driver’ for the weekend. You never know how good or bad a driver will be until you’re down the road a ways, but on this trip it didn’t take long to figure out that this guy wasn’t very good.

We all noticed that he was a bit ‘brake happy’ before we even get out of the city, and by the time we were going 70 mph down I 65 we could feel some excessive side to side sway as well. A short while after our departure, the sounds of country music could be heard loudly in the front lounge, emitting from the driver’s seat stereo. At one point during the drive I asked him if he had been driving buses for very long, and he said “I just recently started driving buses, but before that I drove semi’s for a long time.” I felt like saying ‘I’m not surprised.’ but decided to refrain. I couldn’t help but notice several CD jackets and CDs strewn about the floor by his feet. Perhaps it might have served him well to spend a bit more time focusing on the road rather than his CD collection. By the time we arrived in Troy, Alabama six hours later, I was fairly worn out from the excessive G-force this novice driver delivered.

We arrived at Troy University and the driver pulled the bus over to figure out where our final destination would be, which seemed odd considering I had already given him an itinerary with the venue’s street address and he was using a GPS. When I asked him what street we were on he exclaimed “I don’t know.” It seemed like there just was not a lot going on upstairs with this fellow. So I got my contact at the fraternity on the phone and he guided us in. After the bus had landed, I asked him to level the bus with the air shocks as we were parked on an incline. After a few failed attempts he gave up, either because the leveling function on this bus didn’t work, or the leveling function in his brain didn’t work.

We sent the driver off to a hotel room to sleep and went about our day loading in, sound checking, hotel time, etc. We played our show, loaded out, and waited for our driver to return to embark on leg two of this bounce-athon. Shortly after he returned, we departed for the 430 mile, eight hour ride to Kentucky. After several minutes of ‘testing’ the brakes on the way out of the parking lot, we were rolling down the highway and I went to bed. After about a half hour or so of being tossed around in my bunk I felt the bus come to a quick, hard stop, almost as if he had slammed on the brakes. This was the last straw, I couldn’t take it anymore. I walked to the front of the bus and confronted our driver.

“What’s going on up here?” I asked. “Sorry, the light came up kind of quick.” He apologized. With this, I could no longer refrain and unleashed on him “You need to look ahead more and allow yourself more time. I wasn’t going to say anything, but this whole trip has been pretty rough so far. You’re really hard on the brakes. If you can’t deliver a smoother ride, none of us are going to get any sleep, and we badly need our sleep tonight.”

I returned to my bunk, and I must say that the quality of the ride did improve, at least for the next six or seven hours. I was awake in my bunk when he took an exit and pulled into a mini mart a little while later, the braking considerably smoother. The side to side sway had improved as well. Unfortunately his new habits were short-lived and I was awoken around 10 AM to what seemed like an endless tour of a Hampton Inn parking lot. After what must have been some sort of 15 point turn followed by some more brake ‘testing’ we had finally landed. He then notified me that he needed to add some water to the bus’s septic as it had run out. It was also at this point he admitted that he didn’t actually know how to do this. A couple of other things that he apparently didn’t know he was supposed to do were the emptying of the trash, and a quick once over cleaning of the front lounge after each drive. We played our show and did safely arrive back to Nashville later that night, but not without a rough ride and some unnecessary stress.

Driving a tour bus goes way beyond simply keeping the bus on the road. A good bus driver thinks of his job as not just driving a bus full of people, but driving a bus full of people who are sleeping. This means a smooth ride must be delivered throughout the duration of the trip, especially the last part of the trip. People stay up late on these tours, so when the bus is finally landing in the morning, it is crucial not to wake the passengers as the mornings are often when they get most of their sleep. Avoiding unnecessary distractions (like cranking a stereo, or fumbling through CDs) is another big no-no. Most tour buses are 45 feet long and weigh over 30,000 pounds, they are not particularly maneuverable, nor can they stop on a dime. How can you hear the horn of another vehicle if you’ve got your stereo cranked? How would you be able to avert an accident if you are staring down at your CD collection? A good bus driver should know his equipment too – how to add water, bus leveling, GPS programming, etc.

So what did this guy do wrong? Perhaps a question with a shorter answer might be, what did this guy do right? Well, he didn’t kill us, I guess that’s one thing he did right. You know how at Christmas time somebody always gets a big box of mixed chocolates? And you grab one, excited at the prospect that you might get the one with an almond inside, but fearful that you might get the one with the cherry? Well that’s what it’s like with bus drivers, some are wonderful, and some will make it so you don’t like chocolate anymore. After last weekend, I’m sick of chocolate.

It was about 10 AM on Saturday morning when I crawled out of my bunk to peek out the front lounge window of our tour bus. All week long the weather forecast showed a good chance of rain, and I thought our outside show was doomed when I viewed the rain coming down on the already soaked Hampton Inn parking lot. A little while later we pulled our bus into the festival grounds along the shore of Lake Barkley in Kuttawa Kentucky. The rain had now stopped, but the grounds were soaked. The night before had been a late one, as frat parties usually are, and most of the band had not gone to sleep until around four or five. So the 11:00 AM load in felt a bit sluggish, especially as it seemed we had dragged the hot humid air we had felt in Alabama with us.

Fortunately, it never rained again and the sun came out which helped to dry the wet field. We set up, sound checked, and then returned to the hotel for some brief downtime and showers. Upon our arrival back to the bus at dinner time, the guys were excited to see several Styrofoam containers of various and assorted BBQ – brisket, pulled pork, ribs – heck, who needs sides with such a varied selection of pork products! A little while later I accompanied Rhett to the meet and greet, which actually wound up being more of an eat and greet, as the banquet room in which it was held boasted a table of food for the guests.

Back to the bus, and we were ready for the show. Our performance began at 7:00 PM and by the time we were three songs in, the crowd had swelled to about 3000, as the music drew in the rest of the festival goers from other areas within the grounds. The crowd was quite vocal, singing along and cheering loudly after every song. Rhett’s show now contains several hunting songs from his upcoming Warner Brothers release, ‘Bone Collector’ and judging by the response to these numbers, it’s safe to assume that there are a lot of hunters in Kentucky. The show also featured a couple more of Rhett’s recent chart busters ‘It’s All about Tonight’ recorded by Blake Shelton and currently sitting at the number one spot on Billboard, and the funky New Orleans style ‘All over Me’ recorded by Josh Turner and also sitting high on the charts. The show ended with one of our usual encore numbers, Tom Petty’s ‘Last Chance for Mary Jane’ which Rhett introduced with a brief story about his experience seeing Tom Petty in concert earlier in the week.

Upon the show’s conclusion, Rhett was escorted via golf cart back to the bus. We loaded out and returned to the bus, everyone more than ready for some more BBQ and a few cold ones. Our weekend of shows now over, it was time to head back to Nashville. Tired but happy, we rode off into the night.

It was about 5:00 PM when we pulled our tour bus up to the newly built Lambda Chi Alpha frat house on this hot and humid summer day in the deep South. The kids greeted us with much excitement as this party was the first to be held in their brand-new frat house. Upon entering the party room where we would be performing we were a bit surprised at the rooms size – about 30 x 30 with the stage and PA system taking up almost half of the available space. But isn’t this what frat parties are all about? Packing as many drunk college kids as you can into a small intimate setting conducive to chaos and mayhem. It was perfect. All the right ingredients were there.

We loaded in our gear, set up, and began our sound check. The Rhett Akins band is as much a rock band as it is a country band, and when we began checking our drums and instruments we were a bit concerned as the volume seemed ungodly in this tiny space. Granted, the room was empty at this point, so we were hopeful that the addition of some bodies would help tame down the volume a bit for the show. This proved to be the case, and by the time we hit the stage for our 11:30 PM start time the kids were raring to go.

“Down South” our typical opening number for shows in this part of the country, rendered us off to a roaring start, and the sounds of the band booming out the open doors and windows began drawing in more patrons from the adjoining courtyard. By the end of our second song “I Brake for Brunettes” the room was packed full and the energy was building by the second. A good-looking crowd, as far as frats go, the front row of folks were right up to the edge of the stage, with several attractive girls dancing and singing along in close proximity for some added inspiration. At one point during the show a couple of cuties hopped up on to the stage, dancing and singing with Rhett for a song.

The festivities maintained a high level of excitement right through to the very end of our blistering two hour set, and by the time we walked from the stage we were all dripping with sweat. We packed up our gear, loaded the bus, and said goodbye to the more than appreciative fraternity brothers. Their house had now been officially “broke in” and it was our honor to bust the cherry for them. Thanks Lambda Chi Alpha – we had a great time!

During the summer of 2008 when the Rhett Akins band was between bass players, our sound engineer Penn Robertson threw out the idea of calling his friend Oteil Burbridge to sub a few gigs, as he was currently on hiatus from his regular gig with the Allman Brothers. Apparently the brothers were on an extended break that summer and Oteil happened to be available and interested in coming out with us. The next thing I knew we were doing a handful of gigs with him and riding around on a bus listening to first-hand stories about my childhood idols. While the gigs and stories were great fun, it was the sound checks that were most memorable.

As Rhett and band are well-versed in the Allman Brothers classic material, our sound checks during this time period contained several songs from their repertoire; Blue Sky, Statesboro Blues, Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’, and Aint Wastin’ Time No More. These moments contained some great improvised jams propelled by Oteil’s masterful groove and melodic sensibility. It was almost as if a little piece of one of America’s greatest bands fell from the sky and landed on our doorstep, to be shared only in the moment with a few appreciative friends. Eventually our stint with Oteil came to an end but it was an inspired road to travel on while it lasted. One I will always remember with fondness and never forget. Thanks Oteil

Saturday, June 19, 2010 started out innocent enough when I awoke on our tour bus in a motel parking lot in Montgomery Alabama. The fact that the nearest location of any hotel to this venue was a 30 mile, hour long bus ride, might have been the first clue that this was going to be a rough day. We set out at noon for this four band extravaganza at the Extreme Mud Sports Park in Eclectic, Alabama and the temperature was already into the 90s. The view from the bus window was picturesque as we wound thru this sparsely populated area of rural Alabama. The sky was beginning to cloud up a bit as we turned off the main road and began following a four wheeler down the half-mile or so “gravel” road that led into the park. The road was not in very good shape, and by the time that we realized we might be in trouble if it rained, it was too late, as we we’re already committed with no place to turn around. We came around the final corner to the “concert area” and almost got stuck in the soft ground just backing the bus into place.

“If it rains at all, we are never going to get up that hill.” were my first words to one of the event coordinators after a brief introduction. “We got plenty of big tractors round here, don’t worry we’ll getcha out” was the response I got, and I must admit that I felt hardly reassured. I had the runner take our driver Steve to the hotel and then met the ”stage manager”, a local radio station employee whom I will refer to as “Puff the magic DJ”. I deemed him this nickname because he magically organized the daily activities by chain-smoking cigarettes while sitting in a van that was parked about 50 feet from the stage, and facing the opposite direction.

It had already rained a bit that morning, so the sound crew was running behind and our sound check had to be pushed back. We were sharing this bill was Ashton Shepherd, and were allotted the third time slot, scheduled to play at 6 PM just before Ashton. One of the only saving graces of this entire day was a selfless gesture made by Ashton’s drummer, Brian, who volunteered the use of his drum kit to the other bands to save time and stage space. Of course such a grand gesture became needlessly complicated when ‘Puff’ instructed the first band to begin setting up their drums in the middle of this tiny stage during Ashton’s band’s set up. It was inevitably up to me, apparently the only person on site to attend stage-managing school, to sort things out, and the unneeded drum kit quickly vanished after a brief conversation between me and the drummers.

Then the rain came. It started coming down lightly sometime around 2:30, and by 3:00 it was pouring. At four o’clock it was still pouring. We watched in horror from the bus window as the only exit route, a couple of hundred feet of uphill clay colored dirt in front of us, became a nasty sea of orange mud. Meanwhile, out the other window of the bus, we viewed about 50 or so muddy looking Alabamans standing under the covered stage area in front of the sound equipment now covered in plastic, while mud covered trucks and four wheelers played in a muddy pit just beyond the stage.

Finally, around 5:30 the rain subsided, and I sent a runner to pick up Steve at the hotel, as we now needed to figure out how we would get the bus out of this hellacious valley of mud. Meanwhile, Ashton’s band finished setting up their backline, and the first band went on just after 6:00. As the event was running two hours behind, we were now foregoing our sound checks and in “throw and go” mode. I asked ‘Puff’ to find us a table and chairs for the merch area (a request that I had previously asked him earlier in the day, earlier in the week by telephone, and in an e-mail). His response came off as this was the first time he was hearing of this and stated “I don’t know what they have here, I’ll work on it. We’ll find something”, and then he hopped back in his smoke-filled van to continue his daylong duty of staring out the window. Needless to say, the requested items never appeared despite further repeated inquiries, although Kelly was able to eventually share a table provided by Matt Stillwell’s band.

From mid afternoon on, every trip from the bus to the stage or elsewhere on the grounds required a slippery trek through three or 4 inches of heavy wet mud, caking to our feet like ankle weights. At about 6:30, Steve arrived back on site, and I could see the look of amazement on his face as he appeared on the top of the hill, staring down at our pristine white bus as if it was sitting on a deserted island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. After conversing with Steve, I approached the owners and they presented their plan to scrape off the top three or 4 inches of mud from the road with a tractor, and then to tow the bus out. Shortly after this, they began scraping, and the rest of us continued stressing.

By 7:45, the second band ‘Matt Stillwell’ was just finishing their set and we loaded our gear onto the deck to prepare for our show. At about 8:15 we were ready to go, and Puff asked me if there was anything specific he should say regarding Rhett’s introduction. I told him to mention a few of Rhett’s radio hits, and that Rhett has just released a new CD of hunting songs with Michael Waddell called ‘Bone Collector’ which is available at the merch area. So, of course, Puff delivers an intro void of any of this, and after rambling some fast talking Alabama DJ bullshit, exudes “Ladies and gentlemen please welcome to the stage Rhett Akins.”

Midway through our set, we all witnessed what was perhaps the most exciting event of the day, that of our bus slowly moving up the hill, towed by a large tractor. I literally wanted to stop mid song and applaud as I saw it slowly disappearing from site, well on its path to solid ground. Upon this, I waved Kelly over to the stage, and asked her to organize after show transportation to the bus. She went and found Puff and requested that he had a ride ready for Rhett as soon as the set was complete, and transportation for the rest of us and our gear a few minutes later. We rocked the small but enthusiastic, mud covered crowd for about 60 minutes total, and needless to say Rhett walked off the stage to find no vehicle awaiting him. After quickly packing up our gear and clearing the stage, I went and found Puff and said “Where’s the ride? Rhett’s been waiting 10 minutes already.” “It’s not here yet?” he exclaimed. “I asked them to send somebody 5 minutes ago.” And with that, he quickly hopped in his van and drove off, never to be seen again. I can’t say I was surprised as it had long become obvious that either his memory, or his sincerity was literally nonexistent.

I found one of the owners, organized our exit, and a few minutes later we were back at the bus on the street above. The valley of mud now behind us, we could finally begin to relax. None of this kind of turmoil is ever funny in the moment, but as time is the ultimate healer, we were quickly able to see this horrific day a little more cheerfully, although we we’re now completely drained. Kelly grabbed the bottle of Crown and some solo cups, and poured a much-needed round of shots. I proposed a toast to cap off our adventures in the valley of mud. “Here’s to friends with tractors!”

I would like to add a special thanks to the guys with the big tractors, and everyone in Ashton Shepherd’s group for their generous sharing of backline, and overall team spirit.

It was Saturday morning when I suddenly was awakened in my bunk to the sensation of a rough ride on a bumpy road somewhere in southern Pennsylvania. Our destination was the little town of Reinholds, PA, and a short while later we pulled our tour bus in to the parking lot of the Black Horse Lodge and Suites, just a few miles from the concert site. Just after noon we rode the bus over to the site, commenced load in, and enjoyed a healthy lunch.

The event coordinator, Larry Wolf, was on top of the details, as he has been helping to organize this annual outdoor summer concert series  for over 20 years. The walls on the backstage greenroom were like a who’s who in country music history, with signed posters of artists like Reba McEntire, Johnny Paycheck, Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, Tracy Lawrence, and many others lining the walls. After lunch we began our sound check, and this would be the second day in a row that we would build an arrangement for one of Rhett’s recent chart toppers ‘All Over Me’, which was cut by Josh Turner. When Rhett began strumming and singing this piece on his acoustic, it seemed to warrant a feel somewhat reminiscent of Little Feet or Dr. John, and we brought a hint of New Orleans to this hot humid afternoon in the north.

A few hours later, after our typical routine of showers at the hotel and a catered meal, we were back on the bus waiting for showtime while a local opening band performed. Midway through the opener’s set the crowd of 2000 plus ran for cover when a torrential downpour let loose. We feared that we were done for the night, but fortunately about a half-hour later the rain subsided and the opener returned to finish their set.

We hit the stage at about 9:15 with our usual set openers of ‘Down South’, ‘I Brake for Brunettes’, and ‘Don’t Get Me Started’ and the crowd responded warmly. As Pennsylvania is literally the hunting capital of the world, we could do no wrong by playing some of the cuts from Rhett’s recent hunting album ‘Bone Collector’. Despite never hearing these songs before, the audience instantly fell in love with songs like ‘My Baby Looks Good in Camouflage’, ‘Granddaddy’s Gun’, and ‘Duck Blind’.

Our shows with Rhett have evolved into an interesting mix of music that represents every facet of his 15 year career. On this show, as on most shows at this point, the audience would hear his first wave of radio hits from the mid to late 90s, songs from recent releases ‘People like Me’ and ‘Down South’, some of the new hunting songs, a few classics from his idols, and a barrage of original versions of his most recent songwriting chart busters recorded by other artists. This all makes for an action-packed, exciting show, and the crowd’s energy on this muggy summer night was building steadily throughout our electric 90 minute performance. By the encore, the sea of audience members sitting in lawn chairs could still be seen beyond the couple hundred that were now standing directly in front of the stage.

We are fortunate that nearly all of our shows seem to have some kind of magic happen at different points throughout the performance. But on this particular night Rhett and band were particularly on, the crowd was in tune, the sound was happening, and it was one of those magical nights where everything seems to come into alignment. The kind of musical inspiration that we, as performers, live for. It’s hard to imagine that anybody, band or audience,  could go away from a concert experience like this without feeling a little better about life.

Inspiration on this level isn’t something you can plan on, or make happen, so when it does, don’t take magic for granted.

Our weekend tour began Thursday at midnight, when we pulled out of Nashville, bound for Wake Forest, North Carolina. By early afternoon on Friday, we were loading our gear into Crossroads, a large nightclub located in a strip mall that would be home for most of this day. After a couple hours of setting up and dialing in our sound we began to build an arrangement for one of Rhett’s most recent songs to make the charts, All About Tonight, which was cut by Blake Shelton. In most touring situations, when an artist needs their band to learn new material, band leader will distribute CDs, and the players will learn the parts that were created by the studio musicians that cut the original tracks. But the situation in the Rhett Akins band is far from the typical Nashville way of doing things.

During sound check, he will sing the new song, accompanying himself with the acoustic guitar while we listen and begin thinking of parts. Sometimes, Rhett will hum a signature lyric and convey other ideas, while we begin piecing an arrangement together. Usually two or three run-throughs at full volume, and things start coming together. There’s usually some conversation and an open ended exchanging of ideas between Rhett and the band that enable these songs to take shape.

This is the fourth or fifth time we’ve done this in the past couple of years, and as Rhett continues to have major cuts with popular artists, it only makes sense to continue this trend. This unique approach is quite exciting, as it allows the individual band members to create their own parts, ultimately allowing us to become more connected with his songs than we would if we were just learning somebody else’s parts. Each of the players in Rhett’s band has their own strengths; Pasi on drums, Clint on bass, Scott and myself on guitar, we each bring something to the table. The fact that Rhett allows us to participate in the arranging of his songs is the ultimate sign of respect.

In Nashville, the journey a song takes is typically far more diluted. In most situations a songwriter, or more than likely two or three co-writers, write the song, and then record a rough acoustic guitar and vocal “work tape”. This work tape will then be sent to a group of studio musicians who will record a demo based off of that rough recording. This demo will then be pitched to different artists, and when an artist decides to cut the song, another group of studio musicians will record the final album version based off of the demo. When that artist goes on tour, his touring band will learn the parts that were created by the studio musicians that cut the album tracks. So the touring band is learning, usually note for note, parts that were created by studio players, who copied or interpreted parts created by other studio players, that created parts from the writers work tape. Three generations removed from the original writers spin or “vibe” on the tune. Obviously this can work because there are plenty of successful touring artists and bands.

Rhett’s band and myself are very fortunate to be in a situation that allows for creative participation with the music we play. I’ve been in plenty of situations where that was not the case, and I must say this is far more organic and rewarding. It’s kind of funny, I’ve never even heard some of the other artists radio versions of these songs. In a few situations, the band actually began working up these arrangements and playing his tunes before they even got demoed or cut by other artists. This was the case with Kiss My Country Ass, and Put a Girl in It. I realize this isn’t practical for all band situations, and I am greatly appreciative of my good fortune that allows me to get to the heart of a song.