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”.
I can’t believe summer is drawing to a close! Well, not really…It’ll still be really hot down here in middle Tennessee for at least another month or so. But to me, especially being from the north, Labor Day weekend always feels like the end of summer – kids go back to school, it begins to get colder, the holidays start creeping up, and so on. And it has been a great summer, at least for me. I worked hard, played some cool shows, hosted a couple of Berklee alumni events, took my first yoga class, released a CD of originals with my band “Skinny Buddha” and had an action-packed 10 day trip to New England, during which I gave a clinic and performance at the Berklee College of Music. And most importantly, I celebrated another anniversary with my wife and best friend of 18 years (I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship…).
So what’s in store for the fall, you might ask? I’ve got lots going on – I just had the transmission rebuilt in my van, began a new round of P90X, started an herb garden on my back deck, plan to have a yard sale this coming weekend…seriously, I do have a lot of big things in the works.
Skinny Buddha will be the guest artist on “The Mando Blues Radio Show”, with the taping coming up on Monday, November 16, and aired on Wednesday, September 18 on 107.1 FM Radio Free Nashville. Thanks to Whit Hubner from Nashville’s very own “Hippie Radio” we will be rocking the “Mando Blues Tent” with a six song performance. If you haven’t yet discovered it, Hippie Radio is the coolest radio station in Nashville, and you can get a free phone app from their website and listen to them anywhere. Pretty groovy stuff!
Coming up in October, I’ll be playing guitar with “The Peach Pickers” featuring Rhett Akins and Dallas Davidson on the sold out “Luke Bryan Farm Tour”. We did this last year and it was a hoot! This year’s band will consist of Nick Forchione on drums, “G-men” Mike Chapman on bass and Chris Luzinger on guitar, and yours truly on guitar and harmony vocals (for those of you who don’t know, the G-men are an infamous group of Nashville session players who played on all of the Garth Brooks records). Look for us when we come to a farm near you!
On Monday, October 28 I’ll be hosting the last Nashville Berklee Jam of 2013 at The Rutledge with special guest speaker, performance coach, Diane Kimbrough. Diane has coached a wide array of artists ranging from beginners to artists like Shania Twain and Toby Keith. After her talk, she will be critiquing and coaching some of the regular performers from our bimonthly jam. This event is open to the public and should be a great night!
Starting in November, I will be playing some shows with a northern Alabama-based band “The Flashbacks”. Along with Mike Chapman and some other veteran players, I will be digging into a night of 60s and 70s R&B and Motown.
On Wednesday, November 27 Skinny Buddha will be performing a set of Jimi Hendrix music at Nashville’s “Soulshine Pizza” for their special “Jimi Hendrix Tribute Night ” being held on the great guitarist’s birthday. This night will begin with our performance at 9 PM and will conclude with a second show of Hendrix music performed by the legendary, Phil Brown (formerly of Little Feat). This is a great excuse to learn some new Hendrix tunes (well, new to me) and I’m planning on digging into some deep cuts like “Who Knows”, “Hear My Train a Comin’”, “Drivin’ South” and “Stone Free”, in addition to my regular repertoire of Jimi favorites. For any of you that know me, this is an extra special night; one I am honored to be a part of. I first heard Jimi Hendrix at the age of 11, when the sounds of his Woodstock performance of the Star-Spangled Banner sent me on a musical adventure that I am happy to be still exploring.
And lastly, I am planning to record some more Skinny Buddha music.
That’s about it for now. I hope you all had a great summer and that the fall will bring you much peace and happiness. I guess I’d better go clean out my garage to get ready for the big yard sale!
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!
Even though the majority of the people who come to Nashville for CMA week are country music fans, you didn’t have to be one to enjoy the BMI songwriter showcase-tailgate party yesterday at LP Field. This unique event was as much a foot stompin’ rock concert as it was country music show, and the crowd of 3000 plus concertgoers received a rare treat on this warm, sunny afternoon. 2011 EMI songwriter of the year, Rhett Akins, and 2011 BMI songwriter of the year, Dallas Davidson, also known as the Peach Pickers, have written some of the biggest chart-toppers in recent country music history, and collectively have more hits songs currently on the radio than any of the major artists they write for.
As professional songwriters, they sit in a room with their acoustic guitars daily, writing hundreds of songs a year to come up with a handful of radio-bound gems. These songwriting sessions, and the demo recording process that follows, are quite often the first and last times they get to perform this music. So this rare occasion to play the hits they wrote in front of a large audience was as much, if not even more of a treat to the Peach Pickers as it was to anybody in attendance.
The hour-long show was off and running with the number one hit cut by Blake Shelton, “All About Tonight”, a fitting start for this musical adventure. Rhett and Dallas took turns singing verses and choruses as we moved through what was essentially a “greatest hits” of modern country radio music, including the six number ones they’ve written in recent years. The crowd sang along throughout the show as we put our own twist on songs like Honeybee, Take a Back Road, Gimme That Girl, Put a Girl in It, Honky-Tonk Badonkadonk, This Ole’ Boy, and several others.
Near the end of the show, Rhett unexpectedly pulled out a couple of surprises, performing his own hits “That Ain’t My Truck”, and the showstopper, “Kiss My Country Ass”. At a few different points throughout the show, Rhett gave credit to the band which was comprised of Nick Forchione on drums, Mike Chapman on bass, Scott Tweten on guitar, and me on guitar and harmony vocals, the excited crowd responding with cheers of approval every time. We concluded this blockbuster set with the fitting “I Don’t Want This Night to End” a number one song which was cut by Luke Bryan and had just won video of the year the night before.
The truth is that none of us wanted this night to end, it was a special moment and the unique nature of this show will make it one of the more memorable things I have been a part of in my 10+ years working in the Nashville music industry. But the good news is that we will be taking this show on the road a little later on in the summer, performing at Michael Waddell’s annual Bone Collector fan club party on August 17 in Montgomery, Alabama. I want to send out a special thank you to all the fans that came out for this show, and everybody who put in a lot of hard work behind the scenes to make this event the huge success it was. Till next time, “it’s all about tonight”!
Click here to view some photos from the show (courtesy Kelly Normand)
For more in-depth perspective on the behind the scenes of the Nashville music industry, please check out my book “The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide”, which features an in-depth interview with Rhett as well as many others Nashville insiders.