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
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”.
It’s the first week of this brand-new year of 2013 and, not that I believe in New Year’s resolutions, one of the things I’m going to try to do differently in this new year is to get back to blogging more regularly. In that spirit, I also want to learn how to write shorter blogs. Let’s see how I do at my first attempt.
2012 was an interesting year, a lot happened in our world. A long-winded, and divisive election season came and went, it was one of the most extreme years of extreme weather since record-keeping began; our military is still in the midst of several conflicts around the globe; the tragic Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut terrified us all, gun control is now a national conversation, and Facebook is still here after a disastrous stock market ploy.
I also had a few big moments. I played a handful of shows with The Peach Pickers (Rhett Akins and Dallas Davidson) on the sold-out Luke Bryan Farm Tour (you can read more about that adventure here), I hosted a monthly Berklee Alumni Jam, got to play music with Jack Pearson (read “Jack Pearson at the Nashville Berklee Jam) and Reese Wynans (read “Stevie Ray Vaughan keyboardist, Reese Wynans talks at Nashville Berklee Jam”), I ran in my first-ever 5K road race, met a lot of cool people, listened to a lot of great records, and cooked and ate a lot of good food!
I’m not sure what lies ahead in 2013, I’ve got a lot of big ideas and plans – we’ll see what happens. One thing that’s on my 2013 to-do list is to get out on the town little more often. After 23 years of being a professional musician I found that it’s still easy to get myself off the couch for a gig, but much harder to just go out and hang. I’m going to try to change that. I plan to still host the Berklee Alumni Jam (we are now going to be doing it quarterly). Thanks to my wife, Kelly, I’ve learned to enjoy running, and we are both training for our first half marathon in April. I’m trying to reassert myself into my musical craft, to take another step, and therefore practicing the guitar and vocals daily and learning new material is a top priority. Basically, I’m trying to stay healthy, inspired, and viable, while trying to help a few folks along the way.
So that’s about it for now. Let me know what you’ve got going on and don’t be afraid to drop me a line. I hope this New Year brings much happiness and success to you and your family. Thanks for reading!
By Eric Normand
What an amazing run of shows we had with Rhett Akins and Dallas Davidson on the forth installment of the Luke Bryan Farm Tour! The sold out tour embarked on eight shows across the Deep South, with Rhett and Dallas performing acoustically on the first four, and me and the boys joining in for full band performances on the second leg. The weather for these events was picture perfect, the crowds were huge, and the shows an amazing encapsulation of kinetic energy!
Me and the rest of the band (Nick Forchione on drums and Tom Good on bass) converged at a bus yard in Nashville on Tuesday night and hopped on Luke’s band bus. You never know what to expect in these situations, (as the two bands began this run as total strangers) and we were pleased to learn that Luke’s band and crew are some of the nicest people you could ever hope to work with. Gracious hosts, they made us feel instantly at home.
After a good night of sleep on a smooth riding Prevost I awoke in Villa Rica, Georgia. This first show was on a football field, and by the time I wandered over to catering around 10 AM the mobile stage was already up, the field buzzing with activity. Luke went all out on the production for this tour, and there were no less than eight buses accompanying the five semi’s full of staging, audio, lighting, video, and pyro it took to put on these mega-shows.
I was thrilled to find out that there were some other health-conscious folks in Luke’s entourage, and me and Nick joined several of Luke’s band-mates on a trip to the fitness facilities at the University of West Georgia. By 4 PM the stage crew was ready for our sound check, quickly dialing in our in-ear monitor mixes and a bigger than life sound through the mains of the million-dollar Claire Brothers sound system. As a guitar player, I’ve always struggled with in-ear mixes, lack of warmth and ambience being my main gripes, but on this lucky day I learned a new trick. Upon the suggestion of the Claire Brothers monitor engineer, we put a little reverb on my guitar in my ear mix, and this created some extra depth.
Later that night and after the first two openers, Chancie Neal, and Cole Swindell, we took the stage for the first full-band show with Rhett and Dallas. As members of the red-hot songwriting team known as “The Peach Pickers”, Rhett and Dallas have 13 number one songs and countless top 20 hits between them, including a few of Luke’s recent hits “Rain Is a Good Thing”, “Country Girl Shake It for Me”, and “I Don’t Want This Night to End”. This fact makes it pretty easy to create a blockbuster 45 minute set which included Blake Shelton’s “All about Tonight“ and “Honeybee”, Rodney Atkins’ “Farmer’s Daughter” and “Take a Back Road”, and the Trace Adkins chart topper “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”, among others. At times the crowd was singing along at a volume that was as loud, if not louder than the band! The action-packed set went by at warp speed, and it seemed like no sooner than we had started we were walking off the stage.
The stagehands helped us get our gear off the stage and by 9 PM our workday was done. A short workday is characteristic for an opening act on a major tour – you’re the last to sound check and the first to play. Now it was Miller time, or in this case “Coors time”, or for a few of us “Crown Royal time”! After a quick cocktail and a little chill time on the bus we went out to check out Luke’s show. The level of musicianship in Luke’s band is nothing short of exceptional, and their 90 minute set was a rocking good time with some stunning visual aspects as this night was a dress rehearsal for the following show which was being taped for a television special.
The following day I awoke and looked out the bus window to the view of an open, grassy field in Athens Georgia – this concert was actually taking place on a real farm! After a little morning chow I decided to take a jog down some of the surrounding roads of this picturesque farming community, Rhett’s song, “Take a Back Road” having some real relevance on this warm autumn day. The day evolved similarly to the previous and the ultra-professional crew did an outstanding job erecting this mega-production in less than ideal circumstances. I later learned that the stagehands on this particular tour traveled from show to show (unlike many touring situations where stagehands are local to each venue) and this creates a continuity that helps the production run smoothly. The performances on this night went off without a hitch, with all of the bands delivering outstanding performances. Luke’s show was filled with special visual effects for the filming of the television production – including a laser show, pyro, and a massive finale of fireworks to end the night.
The next day would find us in Tallahassee, Florida and I joined up with some of the guys to go work out at the fitness facilities of Florida State University. After a great workout at a great facility we were ready to get back for some lunch, but not before winding up in a “runner altercation”. The runner informed us that he needed to stop at Lowe’s to get some stage pins for the production crew. Of course they didn’t have what he was looking for and sent us to another store that didn’t have it either. An hour and a half later we caught a lucky break at a John Deere tractor store and were finally heading back to the venue with the necessary part, and some growling stomachs. Another sold out show, another night of great performances and we were off to the tour’s grand finale in Macon, Georgia.
As Luke’s buses were returning to Nashville after this final show and we were going on to play one more show with Dallas and Rhett at the Georgia Throwdown in Dallas’ hometown of Albany, Georgia (a festival that Dallas helped organize), we had another bus arriving in Macon late morning. After the bus arrived we loaded our stuff onto it and continued about our day. As Macon is home of the final resting place of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, a couple of us took the mile and a half walk to the Rose Hill Cemetery, a place from another world where a young Allman Brothers Band once played guitars, wrote songs, and partied into the hot Georgia nights.
Later on we took the stage in front of 16,000 fans for a final, climactic performance on this epic tour. I’ve played countless big shows over my decade in Nashville, but on this particular night a special energy was present. The songs just seemed to play themselves and the crowd was singing every chorus (and many verses) at a near deafening volume. At one point I pulled out one of my in-ear monitors to really internalize the feeling of the moment. As a musician it’s almost otherworldly to hear and feel your guitar coming out of 100,000 watts or so of PA speakers, and to feel the interaction between artists, band and audience on a show at this level is truly amazing! Our band was really on and Rhett and Dallas were at the top of their game, putting on a dazzling show for what looked like a sea of humanity that stretched to the horizon.
A little while later Luke and his boys played their final show of the Farm Tour, and their epic performances received over-the-top responses after each song. When the show ended all of the artists, musicians, and crew members gathered on the stage for a group photo of the entire entourage. I was sad to see this run end, but we left for Albany with the knowledge that we made a lot of people happy over the course of this week, and we had also made some great new friends! See you next year, Farm Tour!
To view a slideshow of some pics from the tour click here.
We’ve done a handful of shows with Georgia native, Corey Smith over the years, and Saturday’s performance at the packed Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Alpharetta, Georgia was another blockbuster. It was a warm summer day when we pulled into the backstage area just after noon, although not quite as over-the-top as the heat and humidity we’ve been experiencing in Nashville this summer. Who would have thought that we would have to travel further south to experience a cooler day! We loaded in and sound checked just after 2 PM and then chilled for a couple of hours while we waited for showtime.
A little while later it was catering, showers, and a quick changeover after opener, Rachel Farley’s set. We hit the stage hard and fast at 7:45, the crowd quickly showing some love for Rhett and band. 40 minutes later, after blazing through a mixture of Rhett’s classic hits and some of his newer charttoppers, and we were putting the final touches on our closer, Kiss My Country Ass, the crowd now on its feet and singing along. The stagehands helped us strike our gear, and it was packed up under the bus in minutes. The guys hung out by the bus enjoying a few cold ones while Corey finished out the night.
Over the years I’ve played many amphitheaters and concert halls across the land, and the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Alpharetta is perhaps one of the nicest of them all. Kelly took some great photos throughout the day and during the show. Here’s a few to give you a taste. (Nashville photographer, Dan Harr, also photographed the night and was kind enough to donate some photos, a few of which are also shown below. Dan’s photos are credited accordingly). Left click on a photo to view it full size:
Even though summer hadn’t yet officially started, it sure felt like it when we pulled into Ridge Ferry Park in Rome, Georgia last Saturday to play at the fifth annual ‘Rome River Jam.’ It was just before noon and the temperature was already approaching 95°, the air thick with humidity. Yes, it was “fixin’ to be a hot one” as we would say in these parts, and that would be okay for this multiband festival.
We parked our bus in the fenced-off backstage area next to headliner, Darius Rucker‘s three buses and I stepped out to meet the stage manager and check out the grounds. With five acts on this bill there would be no sound check for us on this day, just a line check and monitor check immediately prior to our set – what is commonly referred to in the touring industry as “throw and go.” Still, there was work to be done so I got busy.
Under my direction, the stagehands loaded in our gear to one of the “sound wings” adjacent to the main stage, and our merch to the merchandise tent. I went on a mission to commandeer our “bus stock,” which, upon its arrival a short while later, was quickly devoured by our band and crew for lunch. After icing down some beverages on the bus for later, I had a runner take us over to the hotel for showers and a brief rest before our late afternoon performance.
Typically, I use this down time to check and respond to e-mails, return phone calls, and maybe squeeze in a quick nap before showering and returning to the venue. On this day, however, I did something I rarely do in hotel rooms on the road – I watched TV. Upon turning on the TV, the reality show “Pawn Stars” happened to be airing, so I gave it a chance. I would probably blow right by a show like this if scrolling through the channels at home, but for some reason, I found myself drawn in. The show was actually quite interesting, and at points, funny as hell.
A little while later we were all back at the concert site, and the first artist, Sam Hunt, was performing his set as the Park began to fill up. We began to hear about some inclement weather possibly moving in, the worst of it predicted to hit around 5:00 PM, which of course happened to be right smack in the middle of the set change prior to our performance. The local band playing just prior to our set, “Kneckdown” (which incidentally featured the events promoter, Jay Schell, on lead vocals), finished at about 4:45 and we began our set up. About 15 minutes later, almost as if on cue, the weather began to turn nasty. The wind picked up, the rain began to come down, and a portion of the crowd that had already grown to around 2500 ran for cover.
Fortunately, our stage had a pretty solid roof that extended past the edges of the stage, and this kept us and the gear dry, but it was still a frightening storm. The storm was packing wind gusts of up to 50 mph and was also accompanied by intense lightning, which was visible from the stage. I learned later that a tree fell on the adjacent property, seriously injuring two people who had to be rushed to the hospital. Resisting pressure from the stage manager and production company owner to start our set, we waited until the lightning had completely stopped to kick it off.
A few stressful minutes later the storm had passed, and the air seemed quite a bit cooler as we were now on the backside of a front that had moved through. After a brief introduction from the local DJ we were off and running. Despite the rocky changeover, we were off to a good start, and the crowd quickly piled back into the main area in front of the stage. Rhett was in a good mood, the band was playing great, and the fans got right into it. By the peak of our set the crowd had swelled to around 4000, many whom were singing along with some of Rhett’s latest songwriting successes, one of which was “Honeybee,” Blake Shelton‘s recent number one smash. We ended our 70 minute set with the anthem “Kiss My Country Ass,” and the crowd roared with approval.
One of the cool things about playing festivals is the interaction between musicians and crew members from different tours. On this day I met Andrew, the merchandise person for country artist, David Nail; and Patrick, the fiddle player for Darius Rucker. Scott, our other guitarist, got to meet Darius and have a photo taken with him. Another cool thing about playing festivals is getting to hear these other artists and bands, and on this day, all the bands played great! It was a great concert, fun was had by all, and we got real lucky that the nasty storm didn’t end the day early for everybody. See you next time Rome!
I would like to thank local photographer, Andy Butler, for donating the use of these pictures. – Butler Photo/Cartersville Ga
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.
Perhaps the first giveaway that this place was a little different was the llama farm off of the back of the parking lot.
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.
In fact there were so many photos, newspaper clippings, and other memorabilia, that Kelly and I decided to put our bags in the room and walk the halls for a bit to take a closer look.
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
Our concert last Saturday in Speedwell, Tennessee was a wash, and not because of the rain. We arrived on site to this would-be country Woodstock a little after noon, and from the moment I stepped off the bus I knew something wasn’t quite right. You could just sense and feel the tension in the air.
Everything was in place for this mega-country bash – a great lineup featuring Rhett Akins, Jimmie Van Zant, Confederate Railroad,Bush Hawg, Matt Stillwell, and several others; a great concert stage and production; vendors; campsites – yes, everything was in place, except for the people. Somehow, despite considerable advertising, there were only 100 or so folks scattered across the giant field in front of the stage on this second day of the festival.
At this point we still remained optimistic as there have been plenty of shows that started out this way and still turned out okay. But our optimism would begin to fade quickly. As I began walking around looking for the promoter’s office, I started overhearing conversations that the festival was falling apart. Somebody said that the promoter was running out of money and that “the beer truck and the Porta Potty Company were pulling out.” Obviously, this wasn’t very encouraging news.
A few minutes later I found the promoter’s office and was greeted by the contact with whom I had advanced the show. When I asked him how it was going his reply was honest, but grim.
“Not good at all. The promoter is out of money and I’m not sure how this will all go down.”
“I suppose this means we won’t be able to get our bus stock?” I replied, half jokingly.
He responded, “That was one of the first red flags. When I told him I needed $300 to get bus stock for the different bands, he said he didn’t have it.”
“Ookaaay. I guess I should talk to him so we can figure out what we’re doing. ” I replied, realizing that if a three day festival was broke at noon on Saturday, and already losing their beer truck, that things could get ugly.
I walked into the next room to speak to the promoter, and saw that he was in a meeting with a couple of other event coordinators and three or four state police. Realizing this was not a good moment to approach him, I returned to the bus to tell Rhett and the gang of the situation. No sooner had I opened the bus door when a tall fellow wearing an orange “security shirt,” and sporting some really bad teeth, poked his head in and yelled into the front lounge where Rhett was sitting.
“Is that him, is that Rhett Atkins?” he yelled, incorrectly pronouncing Rhett’s last name.
“No, I’m Ricky Nelson.” replied Rhett playfully.
The fellows reply was astonishing, “You ain’t nothin’ to me, you’re just another feather in my bird!”
Quickly ushering him out the door, I assumed he was just really stupid and socially inept, or that maybe perhaps he was a meth-head.
A few minutes later I walked back to the promoter’s office to find out about getting some food. I asked if we could get some meal tickets for catering and if we could at least get a case of water and a case of beer. I was presented with meal tickets which were good for some “ham sandwiches” and chips, and I was also presented with an interesting box of bus stock consisting of:
1 case of spring water
1 open case of Bud Light (with about 8 beers in it)
1 jar of peanut butter
1 bag of corn chips
1 open bag of potato chips (about half full)
“Thanks, I guess somebody was already hungry.” I said, amazed that we got anything at all.
A little while later I was able to finally speak to the promoter who informed me that it was our option to play, and that he might be able to pay us “some money” but that it was unlikely he would be able to pay us our entire fee, and that this would be the case for the other bands as well. I told him I would check with the boss and get back to him.
After relaying all this to Rhett, he decided that in spite of not getting paid that we might as well play anyway, as we were already there. On the way back to the promoter’s office to relay this message some other folks who were hanging around backstage told me that they had heard the Porta Potties would be pulled out by seven o’clock, at which point the police or Board of Health would shut down the festival. When I asked one of the state troopers if he had heard anything like this, his reply was “yes, I have heard those rumors too, but I can’t confirm anything. I can tell you that we are pulling out our extraction team and that the remaining officers will be stationed on the perimeter.” I wasn’t entirely sure of this significance, but it sure didn’t sound good.
As I approached the promoter’s office, I could hear a loud argument. In front of the main entrance stood a big, tall state trooper, his arms folded in front in an intimidating power stance. As I got closer I heard several event workers demanding to see the promoter about their pay, as they had apparently heard rumors that they were going to get stiffed.
“I need to see him now!” demanded an angry worker.
“I’m sorry sir, nobody can see him right now.” the trooper stated firmly. After another minute of yelling and arguing by the crowd of 8 or so, the trooper restated his position – “Nobody is going to see him right now, I’m just doing my job and trying to make sure that nobody gets hurt or shot!”
Over my seven years of working as a road manager, this was the first time I had ever heard or seen anything quite like this, and the angry mob-like scene was enough to send me scurrying back to the bus. Along the way back to the bus a drenching rain set in, and we overheard more angry workers with comments about people getting shot. This would-be country Woodstock was beginning to look more like Altamont – only without the masses. Despite Rhett’s willingness to play for free, in light of the most recent developments, we decided it was best to head on down the road. I’ll have to check, but I’m pretty sure that getting shot is not one of the requirements in our rider.
After our hasty retreat we arrived safely back to our hotel, the Hampton Inn in Carryville, TN. A little while later, Nick, our drummer, received a text from one of his friends who was playing in another band at the festival – something to the effect of “We’re getting out of here before the shooting starts!”
From what we could tell, there were no riots and nobody got shot at the festival. But still, the whole situation was quite unnerving and unfortunate. Obviously, several other bands besides us were leaving town without their pay, as were many vendors and event workers. The festival goers who were in attendance were ultimately shortchanged. And the promoter obviously lost his shirt, not to mention credibility.
On a brighter note, we did have a great time hanging out at the Hampton Inn and the guys did enjoy a fabulous dinner at the local Waffle House!
Apopka, Florida here we come!
The Hampton Inn in Caryville, TN, was the most unique Hampton Inn we have ever visited – the walls of the lobby, hallways, and stairwells covered with hundreds of old photographs, newspaper clippings, and folk art and providing a retrospective of the old South. It even had an adjacent llama farm. I’m going to try to write a blog over the next couple of days as there’s not enough space to do it justice here.
After several days of heavy rain had inundated the coastal town of Darien, Georgia, I was more than pleased to view a beautiful sunny day out the window when I first walked to the front lounge of our bus last Friday morning. All week long I had feared a washout for our concert at the annual “Blessing of the Fleet” in the picturesque fishing community of Darien, so it was comforting to know that the weather would be on our side for this one. A little while later we landed our bus at the concert site – a homey little park lined with majestic old trees covered in Spanish moss on one side; and a long, riverside dock lined with fishing boats that abutted the river inlet that led to the Atlantic Ocean on the other.
Darien, Georgia, is a town right of southern folklore, and retains a unique feeling and charm despite its rocky history. Built right on the Altamaha River in 1736 by Scottish Highlanders, it was a historic battleground during the Civil War where black troops saw some of their first action. On June 11, 1863, the town was looted and “burned to the ground” by Federal Troops, an act that would later be referred to as a “Satanic Action” by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the reluctant commander whose troops committed the act. Darien was rebuilt after the Civil War ended, and would eventually become a fishing village, with wild Georgia shrimp becoming a major part of the local community’s livelihood.
Of course we would be fortunate to experience some of this fine local seafood firsthand shortly after sound check when we were treated to a dinner at “Skippers Fish Camp,” a cozy little restaurant that sat right on the edge of the river. After dinner and a little downtime, the sun began to set and the park began to come alive with activity. As the warmth of the sun began to fade, an amazing sunset briefly appeared over the nearby bridge overpass, and the sky became a deep red until the sun disappeared beneath the horizon. Darkness now upon us, the grounds began to quickly fill with locals and concertgoers while a local band took the stage to heat things up for Rhett’s show.
A little while later it was show-time and the park was filled to capacity. Concertgoers covered every visible square inch of grass in the park, lined the hill to our right, and filled the docks to our left. Meanwhile others enjoyed the show while hanging out on the dozens of boats that were tied to the dock. Rhett was in great form and ran through his set of radio friendly hits, a few renditions of his favorite classics, and our own versions of some of his most recent songwriting masterpieces – “The Shape I’m in” recently cut by Joe Nichols being one of the standouts.
The crowd on this warm and vibrant night was festive and on our side from the start. They were quite vocal too, cheering loudly after every song, and singing along with many. When the main part of the show ended; the strong, roaring applause warranted an encore, and we returned to the stage for a few more. By the time we left the stage for the last time on this evening, we had played an hour and 45 minute set, and fun was truly had by all.
I find it inspiring to see that Rhett, despite having such recent, major success as a full-time songwriter, still loves to perform live. Regardless of the kind of day he is having, when he hits the stage, he gives his all to the performance at hand, and to the people who came to see him. This kind of energy and focus makes it easy for the rest of us to play with the same kind of fervor. A small town like Darien, Georgia, with a population of around 2000, doesn’t have a festival or concert on this level very often, and their appreciation of our performance was both genuine, and evident. By the time we were heading back to Nashville, we all had a good feeling about our short stay in Darien. The town had been a wonderful host, and we were happy to help this community feel good on this day.
In the world of the touring musician, years of playing live shows can render concerts to be a bit of a blur, with one show blending into the next. But all of these shows do matter – each concert can, and should be a special event. When we visit a small community like Darien for a brief moment as this, it can have a lasting impact on people. This was also the case when we performed in the small town of Winchester, Tennessee, a few weeks ago. Even though the crowd wasn’t particularly large in Winchester, maybe two or three hundred folks in a local high school gym, everyone in attendance that night left with a smile. When you give your all to these folks, you might to help create a special memory that could last a lifetime, at least for some. I believe that this sense of community and goodwill is at the core of many a great performer. The great feeling we got at the show from the people of Darien last Friday is why many of us musicians love what we do, and this helps make being a musician a noble and worthy endeavor. Thanks Darien!
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”!