It was about 9 AM Friday morning when I crawled out of my bunk and walked to the front lounge of our tour bus. I looked out the window to see a hotel parking lot, a very typical start to a day in the life of a touring musician (I often associate this routine with the movie Groundhog Day.) On this particularly hot and muggy spring day, we would be playing a benefit concert to help elect a new sheriff in Phenix City, Alabama.
Around 1 PM we headed over to the concert site, an outdoor patio attached to a plush clubhouse on the shore of a picturesque lake. The event coordinator greeted us and helped us get situated, providing us with stagehands for load in and our bus stock for lunch. The 95° southern air was stifling, like a heavy wet blanket clinging to our every move. Perhaps this would be the reason the local sound company was running so far behind, causing our sound check to start three hours late.
So while we waited, and waited, and waited for the owner of molasses audio to finish setting up the PA, Rhett went fishing for a spell while we watched the grass grow. Finally the sound check commenced, we had some dinner, and went back to the hotel for showers. By the time we arrived back to the party, an hour before show time, the place was wall-to-wall. An opening band was suffering the old “this is a private party and we could care less about a band” syndrome.
A short while later, after a brief introduction rallying support for the new would-be sheriff, we hit the stage running, or crawling is perhaps a more accurate term. Still hot as hell, the night felt like an uphill battle from the get-go as we relentlessly worked the audience. As a master showman, no crowd is a match for the wit of Rhett Akins, and he gradually won over the crowd of locals with a mix of originals and rarities.
Within five or six songs, he called up the future sheriff elect to sing a couple songs. Before the man could decide on a song, Rhett suggested “I Shot the Sheriff” by Eric Clapton, and the crowd was in stitches. We settled on Lynyrd Skynyrds’ ”Gimme Me Three Steps” followed by “Family Tradition” by Hank Jr. A little while later, we finished our set with an encore onslaught of “Last Chance for Mary Jane” interspersed with some assorted Led Zeppelin diversions. We then loaded out our gear and, after a little chill time in the clubhouse, headed down the road. The night’s sweat now drying to a thin protective coating upon us, we joked around for a bit while winding down in the air-conditioned front lounge. Nichols, Georgia here we come!
In light of the recent flood disaster that has decimated middle Tennessee, I feel compelled to put my music industry blogging on hold temporarily as I feel this developing story is much more pertinent. As some of you may have read in my last two blogs, my family and I have lived through this catastrophe, and while we are okay, our state of Tennessee is being widely impacted with the complete repercussions of this event far from over. In the coming weeks I will continue to write about any Rhett Akins shows as they happen, as well as anything else interesting that happens within my musical endeavors, but at least for the immediate future, I plan to keep most of my writing geared towards this unfolding disaster.
Saturday morning began for me at 5:30 AM, when I was suddenly awoken by the sound of a loud crack of thunder. By the time I dragged myself out of bed a short while later, a heavy downpour was underway, and our fair state of Tennessee was beginning to receive a walloping storm. On any other day this would have been less significant for me, but on this first day of May, 2010, Rhett Akins and band were leaving for an outdoor show in Alabama, and it was my job as tour manager to see it through.
All morning long, in between preparing for the trip, my wife Kelly and I kept checking the weather, and grew more concerned with every passing minute as the forecast was not good. During the 40 minute drive to the bus, which was exceptionally precarious due to the now torrential rain, I received a call from Rhett, who informed me he would be leaving late and driving himself to the show. We arrived at the bus, loaded up, and began the 130 mile drive to our destination, the small town of Hartselle, Alabama, just a little ways over the Tennessee/Alabama border.
The rain was relentless for the first half of the drive, and just when it seemed like our show was doomed, it gradually began to subside as we neared the Alabama border. I now received my second phone call from Rhett, and our newly found optimism was again put on hold when he told me that he just saw a car completely submerged underwater on the northbound side of Interstate 65. We all began to worry about our fearless leader (as well as our own fate) as we watched the news now showing video footage of the devastation this storm had just wreaked upon Arkansas, in the form of tornadoes, and Memphis, by way of flooding.
We safely arrived to our destination, a large open field in the middle of nowhere upon which a local business, Frederick Tractor Supply, was throwing a groundbreaking ceremony. As we pulled down the long gravel driveway, I first spotted the stage; two flatbed trailers complete with a green tarp “awning”, supported by two by fours. I now received my third call from Rhett who informed me that the radio stations were no longer playing music, but delivering storm news, and that I65, I24, and I40 around Nashville were now closed due to flooding. A short while later I was greeted by the owner who told me “I think we may have dodged a bullet on this one.” as I felt a few light rain drops on my face.
The light sprinkle was short-lived, and we hesitantly began our load in and soundcheck. Halfway through soundcheck the sprinkle returned and intensified, so we covered our gear and returned to the bus. Around 5:30 it subsided, and we finished soundcheck and waited for dinner, some home-cooked barbecue that was allegedly “the best in the county”. As we sat on the bus, the latest news reports were now showing a broader picture of the pending apocalypse that loomed just outside our door step. Flipping between the Weather Channel and CNN, we were horrified to see images of Nashville interstates that looked more like lakes filled with half submerged cars and tractor-trailers, viewed through a gloomy mist of grey.
It seemed surreal that we were getting ready to play a concert, while just 100 miles to our north there were more than 70 cars underwater on the roadways we had just traveled upon. Strangely enough, it never did rain again on our quaint little country setting, and we played a 90 minute show to an approving audience of 500 or so tractors and concertgoers.
After the show was over, our bus driver Steve informed us that I65 was now passable, but that another round of storms was on its way, so we made a hasty departure to try to beat the next storm. Fortunately, the ride home was uneventful, and we arrived safely back to our cars in a parking lot near the Opryland Hotel. A short while later, as Kelly and I neared our home just West of Nashville, we came upon a city truck blocking the road in front of some standing water, and had to take a detour to a secondary entrance to our development. As we pulled into the driveway of our home, we were greeted by a cold dark house as the storm had knocked out the power in our area.
It’s now noon the next day, again raining heavily, and I’m writing this by hand as we’re still without power. We learned the day before that a flood watch will be in effect for middle Tennessee until Thursday, as this storm was not yet finished. Yesterday it rained 11 inches and less than 10 hours, and before the storm is done, we could receive up to 4 to 8 inches more. So far at least eight people have died from drowning in what is being deemed the worst flooding the state has seen in over 30 years.
It’s not over yet, and I wonder what we’ll learn when the power comes back on. As I sit with a pen and paper, looking through a window at a rain soaked canopy of green and grey, I’m still amazed at how a mere 14 hour bus gig, the shortest in recent years, was one of the most stressful and terrifying we had ever experienced. While some weren’t so lucky, at least for our group, it looks like we might have dodged a bullet on this one.
It’s springtime, and festival season is upon us. The time of year for county fairs and outdoor music festivals is here, and along with it comes the unpredictable variable of the weather. Working as a tour manager and touring musician, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in situations where a concert promoter or event coordinator seems to think they have magic powers when it comes to predicting the weather. They all seem to have a crystal ball that literally guarantees them a clear day despite any meteorologists forecast.
First of all, anybody that plans an outdoor show is taking a big risk, as these events are booked months in advance with no way of knowing what the weather will be on the day of show. Outdoor concerts and events on the highest level, usually have stages with a roof, and optional sides that can be put up in the event of rain. This will keep the performers and equipment protected, although typically leaving the audience exposed to the elements. Concerts and events on a smaller scale have varying degrees of preparedness, and many have stages with less than adequate covering. Also inherent to many of these smaller “townie” style events are event coordinators that can be a little less than rational when it comes to contingency plans for bad weather.
A few years ago I worked an outdoor show in Alabama in the month of June. The forecast all week long called for heavy rain and severe weather for the day of our concert. On show day, we arrived around noon, and it was already lightly sprinkling. A local high school football field was the site for this concert, and a large stage, with a roof but no sides had been constructed at one end of the field. Earlier in the week, I had suggested to the event coordinator that if the weather was looking bad, to have the concert in the high school gymnasium. As the weather predictions seemed to be spot on, I again made the suggestion, as there was still enough time to move the event inside. Of course, I was overruled, as the event coordinator said that the gym couldn’t hold all of the people they were expecting, along with the line “Most of the bad weather is supposed to blow just south of here.”
Not. By the time we were ready for sound check a couple of hours later, the rain started coming down heavy, and a strong wind was blowing the rain across stage. We quickly covered our gear, while the sound company frantically covered their equipment with large tarps. A couple hours later, the rain subsided long enough for us to do a brief sound check, which turned out to be our only performance on this day. No sooner did we finish the sound check, when the sky opened up with a vengeance, soaking us to the bone as we ran for the bus. By 8:00PM, our official show time, the steady rain was now accompanied by lightning, and the soaked concertgoer’s standing on the wet field were told to retreat to their cars for safety. We were all on standby for the next couple of hours hoping that the weather would pass, but the radar showed otherwise. Even with the certainty of this night upon us, I’ll never forget standing outside of the bus in the pouring rain and arguing with the promoter, who was now practically begging us to perform on the wet stage, an electrocution waiting to happen. With rain dripping off the front of his hat and in between an almost constant barrage of loud thunder, I believe his words were “It looks like it’s going to clear up any minute now.”
That particular show was no exception. I, like many touring musicians, have been in similar scenarios countless times. In fact that particular summer, we were rained out four or five times. Without the proper advanced planning, some situations don’t allow much of an option. But sometimes a show could be salvaged at the last minute if an event coordinator would simply bite the bullet and realize that a smaller concert indoors might be better than no concert at all.
Tomorrow, I’ll be leaving for an outdoor show in northern Alabama. Our group is scheduled to perform on a couple of flatbed trailers covered by “an awning” at 8:30 PM tomorrow night. Earlier in the week I suggested to the event coordinator the possibility of renting a large “circus style” tent, complete with sides, as rain has been in the forecast for almost a week now. As of this moment, the National Weather Service forecast says “Thunderstorms are expected to become widespread during Saturday across northwest Alabama, and spread gradually eastward during the afternoon and evening hours. A few thunderstorms may be capable of producing flash flooding.” I guess we’ll soon find out if he went with my tent idea. Regardless, I’m hoping we get lucky, but experience tells me to be prepared to hear the words “It looks like it’s going to clear up any minute now.”
What is the real difference between a cover song and an original song? For in reality, after a song is beyond the compositional stage of its life, it is forever “covered”, even by the artist or band that wrote it. I have been in cover bands that played three sets of top 40 covers and threw in a couple of originals. I have been in original bands that threw in the occasional cover. Both situations required me to know a list of tunes that I could perform well on a regular basis. Both of these situations can also allow for a song list to become predictable or even boring to the musicians performing those songs, regardless of who wrote them.
It is true that to be in a “cover band” you don’t need to know how to create or write music, but this is also true for many musicians in “original” bands. While some original bands write songs by total group collaboration, many do not. Most super-groups throughout history have had one or two members that did the bulk of the songwriting; Lennon/ McCartney, Jagger/Richards, Page/Plant etc. Regardless of how many members contributed to the songwriting of a given band, that band is still covering their material. How many hundreds or thousands of times have the Rolling Stones had to perform Satisfaction or Jumping Jack Flash? Do those songs still feel “original” to them?
I have been working for a country artist for the last six years, and for the most part, have been performing the same set list, occasionally adding some new material. Although I originally wrote some of the guitar licks and helped arrange some of this material, 200 performances later they feel like covers. Even if I improvise some guitar solos and other subtleties in these tunes during performances, the essence of these songs never really changes. I have many musician friends that work on other tours, and in most cases they are not a part of the songwriting process in those situations. They were hired by an artist or band, learned the required repertoire, and have been essentially “covering” that material all along.
There are many groups trying to establish their followings in the music scene that call themselves “original bands”, and these groups are trying to create a fan base around their original material. They go out and perform shows by “covering” their originals in an attempt to familiarize their audience with their songs, slowly over time. It is perhaps on this level that the biggest difference between covers and originals might be perceived, but ultimately, the typical audience simply hears and categorizes music as familiar or obscure and gives little thought, if any, to who wrote the material. The song either connects, or doesn’t, then this variable can have as much to do with the performance, as it does the song itself.
Many of the great blues and jazz artists of the 20th century had repertoires that were filled with covers or songs that were written for them. Some of the great rock groups that came out of the 60s and 70s started their careers covering blues tunes, and many megastars aren’t songwriters. Did Pavarotti ever write a song? Songwriting is a craft that takes great skill, but then again, so is performing. Why should it matter who wrote the song if you enjoy playing it, and your audience enjoys hearing it? To the audience, a song is just a song, and they either like it, or they don’t. So get used to the idea of covering songs, because the concept is as old as the hills, and in reality, after you’ve played a song once, it is forever a cover.
Over the years I have heard and engaged in many discussions about the validity of open mics and blues jams. Some argue that they only exist for club owners to have free entertainment and that skilled players shouldn’t play for free, others argue that it’s the only way for some to obtain exposure, connections, or experience, and some agree with both sides of the argument but don’t care and just want to play, often for a variety of reasons.
I have always been in the latter camp. My very first nightclub performance with a band came at the age of 17 at a local “hoot night” at a club called the Mill in Amesbury Massachusetts. The experience was a positive one, leading to several more sit-ins in the following months. These sit-ins allowed me to graduate from practicing in the bedroom, to playing full songs with a band in front of an audience. At these jam night, I also made friends with other musicians, locals, and even a couple of “lady friends”, and this was pretty exciting for a young kid who was barely out of high school. This was in the early stages of my development as a gigging musician, and helped me gain some valuable experience and confidence as a performer.
A couple of years later I was in music school and still attended jam nights regularly. I looked at jam nights as opportunities to road test some of what I was learning in school, it was part of the exploration process for me. After music school, I began playing professionally in a top 40 band, 3 to 4 nights a week. It was a great band, but pretty much a note for noter, not leaving much room for improv. At this point I began seeking out and attending many different jam nights and blues jams regularly. The basic attitude of “anything goes “found at many jam nights was an opportunity for me to further explore musical ideas and concepts. I also used jam nights and blues jams as a way to keep my sanity, temporarily freeing me from the restraints of my top 40 captivity. While not all of these were great musical experiences, some were, and I met some great players along the way, developing lasting friendships with many of them.
In the early 90s I heard about one particular jam night that was really happening. It was a cold Monday night in the middle of the winter, when I first arrived at an old rustic club called Colbys in the small town of Rochester New Hampshire. The place was packed and the band was rockin’ as I walked in carrying my Fender Strat and Marshall amp. The first thing I noticed was that the whole place was just alive with energy, everybody was really listening to the band, even clapping and singing along at times. The group that hosted this weekly event was the Ron Jones band, and they played a mix of rock, blues, and country, very well I might add. There weren’t many jammers there on that particular night, and after the band heard that I could play, they had me play with them for an entire set. It was an extremely rewarding musical experience, and I didn’t view it as something I was doing for free, I was simply doing something I love to do.
I returned often to Colby’s over the following months participating in many great jams as well as a nightly ritual called the Dr. Pepper, in which shots of 151 rum were lit on fire, dumped into a row of beers, and then consumed quickly by the band (by the way, don’t ever drink and drive). On one particular night I walked in and heard an amazing guitar player sitting in with the band. Simply put, he was one of the best guitar players I had ever heard. I was intimidated at first, but upon the encouragement of the band, I set up to play a few tunes with this fellow. From the first note we played together, everyone knew it was going to be good, it just felt right. We jammed for over an hour, engaging in some great band interplay, and became instant friends that night.
I eventually lost touch with my new guitar buddy, but continued playing in bands and using jam nights as a musical outlet. Over the years, I made mental notes about the stronger players I would encounter, and when a player would leave my band, I would sometimes hire players that I had previously met at jam nights. On more than one occasion, I would bring my band to a jam night and use it as an opportunity to audition live for the club owner, sometimes obtaining work from this approach.
By the early 2000’s I was burning out on the New England nightclub circuit, or lack thereof, and began to think about relocating to a place with more music industry. I had heard some rumors that my old guitar buddy had moved to Nashville and was doing quite well there. I tracked him down, called him up, and even though we hadn’t spoken in 10 years, it was as if our conversation picked up right where it left off. He understood my frustration with trying to earn a living as a musician in New England, and suggested that I check out Nashville. A couple of weeks later my wife and I made the drive to Music City and my old friend greeted us with a smile. He graciously took us around to all of his hangouts, introduced us to his friends, and gave me the scoop about Nashville. A couple of months later we made a permanent move to Nashville and my old guitar buddy was instrumental in helping us get situated.
Since being in Nashville, I have attended a few jam nights and blues jams. Over the first year I spent a lot of time going to the Fiddle and Steel in Printers alley. Sometimes I would have to wait all night, but eventually I would get to sit in. It wasn’t advertised as a jam night, but it seemed to be kind of an unofficial sit-in after the first set on weeknights. After about a year of going to the Steel regularly, one of the relationships I made there led to an opportunity to work as a guitar tech on the Toby Keith tour. That tour lead to other tours. I have been working as a professional musician ever since. I wonder if I ever would have come here if I hadn’t met my guitar buddy at a jam night.
So, what have I gained by going to jam nights?
8. Social Skills
9. A Career
10. A Lot Of Fun along the Way
Why does it matter if a nightclub owner profits from others playing for free if those who are playing for free can also find ways to benefit or “profit” over time by doing so? Jam nights, open mics, and blues jams have been around for decades and are what you make of them. They can be great and they can be terrible, sometimes within the same night. You might have to search hard to find one with a group of players or vibe that fits you. You might have to make repeated attempts at any given jam night to gradually work your way into the niche, and you probably won’t get discovered at a jam night as the next “superstar”. But I believe, with the right approach, a jam night can be a useful tool for some. For me, they have helped me discover myself.
A light rain was falling as we drove our tour bus down the long dirt driveway leading into “the Clubhouse in Rye Patch”, the concert venue in which we would be performing on this night. Buried deep in the woods of Ludowici, Georgia, the view out of the bus window was quite picturesque as we passed some horses in a field on one side, and a gazebo in the middle of a small pond on the other from which an inviting sign put forth the words “propose to get married here.” After getting the bus parked, I directed some stagehands to load our gear into the performance area, an open sided breezeway complete with “that dirt floor charm” and air that smelled of barroom pleasantries and rabbit poop. Randy Hauser, the other headliner, was scheduled to play after us, at 10 PM, and his band was in the middle of sound check as I scoped out the room. A couple of hours later, after Hauser’s boys had extensively checked the system, it was our turn to set up and sound check in this room now half full of people, and we proceeded to the stage. An hour or so later we retreated to the dining hall for a catered meal of pork, chicken, mac and cheese, steamed corn, and fried bread, which was followed by some showers in the bunk house.
Sometime around 6 PM, the first of three opening acts took the stage and began the night with a pounding rendition of the rarity “Sweet Home Alabama”, complete with double bass drum fills throughout. This over-the-top band of locals was an explosion of kinetic energy, and they proceeded to entertain the crowd with their hour plus set of cult classics. With the following two openers of this music marathon each playing close to an hour, the night was running behind, and it was just after 9:30, before we took the stage. By this point of the night, the place was wall-to-wall, and the audience of 1200 festive Southerners, ranging in age from infancy to 80, was now spilling out into the courtyard. Our five piece group delivered a walloping performance, and the crowd reaction was magnanimous, one of our best receptions so far this year. During one point of the performance, a couple of kids hopped up onto the stage, singing and dancing along. This prompted a couple of “young ladies” to follow suit on the opposite side of this small and already overcrowded stage. The feisty ladies had difficulty showing restraint, and their dancing quickly evolved into more of a grinding-like motion. By the end of the song more people were trying to get on stage which prompted some “security personnel” to start grabbing folks and handing them off the back of the stage. In the middle of the next song another girl hopped onto the stage, however this time, one of the house sound engineers grabbed her bouncer-style and she was gone almost as quickly as she appeared. This prompted one of the “security personnel” to hop onto the stage and place himself strategically between me and Rhett, who was standing about 5 feet away. For this, he received an instant rejection notice from me, and he vanished quickly as well.
We finished our 60 minute set to a roaring applause that didn’t subside until we climbed back on stage for an encore. Rhett strapped on an electric guitar and proceeded to play some licks before launching into Tom Petty’s “Last Chance for Mary Jane”. After a few verses, the song morphed into “Breakdown” followed by a few riffs of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” and then into Pearl Jam’s “Alive” before returning the final dual lead guitar onslaught at the end of this carefully executed, fly by the seat of your pants style jam.
Our performance now finished, we quickly began to strike our gear amidst a chaotic stage that was now being rushed by Randy Hauser’s crew. We loaded up our bus, and a short while later Randy Hauser and band took the stage as I began to chase down the promoter for the settlement. Hauser’s performance was followed by the “Daisy Duke” contest, during which time another local band was setting up for the “after concert-show”, a strange ritual held by many local bar owners across the land.
A short while later and we were all back on the bus driving away, talking about the night amidst Rhett’s impersonation of ‘Damone’ from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”. It was another fun weekend in the deep South and we were headed home.
This day began like so many other days on the road, waking up on a tour bus to the view a hotel parking lot in the middle of nowhere. On this particularly warm spring day we were scheduled to play a multi-band extravaganza in Vienna Georgia, and after a couple of hours at the local Country Inn and suites, we set off to the concert site on other side of town. As we pulled down a long dirt road, the view of the “Pig Jig” festival grounds came into focus. An array of crudely built, weathered shacks and buildings that kind of reminded me of a movie set that fell somewhere between an imaginary western and a redneck Ewok village.
Upon our landing, I was greeted by Mack, the festival promoter, who direced some stage hands to unload our gear. I walked over to check out the stage, a large outdoor “shed” style structure in which Colt Ford and his band had just finished their soundcheck, and helped guide our gear into place. A couple hours later, after our soundcheck, I organized a hotel run for the band to get some showers and downtime. When we returned to the concert grounds around dinner time, there was already a good size crowd building, and some of our group retreated to the hospitality area for some “pig and fixin’s”.
The concert begins with a local acoustic duo, RDR, who slowly began to wake up the crowd, now sweltering in the hot Georgia sun. Sonny Ledfurd, a three piece band from North Carolina, was up next, and the crowd seemed to really get into the bands tunes about drinking whisky, smokin’ dope, and “partying in my driveway”. Tyler Farr (from Colt’s band) then played a brief acoustic set just prior to our show, and the crowd was now thoroughly primed for Rhett and band. With the darkness of night now upon us, the mood was just right, and we launched into our 60 minute show of rockin’ southern country. The crowd responded warmly to some of Rhetts’ earlier hits as well as some newer material like “My Baby Looks Good in Camouflage” and “Duck Blind”. We finished our set with Rhett’s anthem “Kiss My Country Ass”, tore down our gear, and move it to backstage to wait for stagehands.
Upon spotting one of the stagehands backstage I instructed him to round up a few more hands to help deliver the gear to the bus. When 2 more husky fellows arrived a few minutes later, the first load of gear was delivered to our bus, after which the “hands” seemed to vanish into thin air. After another 5 minutes or so I call the promoter and “re-request” the stagehands. A minute later, one of the hands returned ahead of his co-workers and proceeded to walk right past me and the gear to briefly vomit around the corner. Our drunken helper returned and exclaimed “O.K., what’s next?” The other hands returned, we finished the load-out, and then we were done for the night. A few minutes later Colt took the stage with his band to rock the 1000 or so in attendance. A little while later and we we’re driving off into the night to our next destination, “The Clubhouse at Rye Patch” in Ludowici, GA. We we’re all exhausted, but it was a fun day, and the show went well. In the end, fun was had by all at the Big Pig Jig.
Nashville Tennessee remains a prime destination for many musicians, songwriters, artists, and industry professionals, and in light of the city’s unique musical heritage, this constant influx will unlikely stop anytime soon. But beneath the suggestive title of “Music City” is a place that for many newcomers might be more aptly titled “Mystery City”. For in reality, the Nashville music scene is a massive, diverse, competitive, and ever-changing community whose true scope and nature are near invisible to those not working within it. Becoming one of the few fortunate musicians to find work and acceptance within this community can be a formidable task, and even when those goals seem to have been achieved, sustaining that career long term can be just as challenging, as I have learned first-hand.
My Nashville adventure began like many transplants to Music City, a cross-country pilgrimage with a U-Haul full of belongings, some life savings, big ideas, and no clue about what I was getting myself into. That first year of 2002 would prove one of the hardest, with my wife and I both trying relentlessly to find employment, struggling to pay the bills, and earning the bulk of our income by selling off possessions on eBay while going out on the town at night to network. About one year into this new life, the networking paid off, and I landed a job as a guitar tech on the Toby Keith 2003 Shock ‘N Y’ all tour, a true financial lifeline. I have spent most of my years since that tour working for country music artist and songwriter Rhett Akins as tour manager, band leader, and lead guitarist. Along the way I have, and continue, to work some in-town club gigs and recording sessions and I still panic trying to pay the bills every winter when the touring season slows to a crawl. Overall, I am earning a living from music and I credit this good fortune to having an invaluable combination of skills, work ethic, and a friend in the music community who pointed me in the right direction.
This kind of good fortune is not the case for all who venture to Music City, and along my journey I have met many struggling musicians and artists who have had much harder luck. At a recent blues jam, I met a drummer who had been in Nashville for about a year. He had done a couple of gigs in town, but nothing consistent, and nothing that came close to paying any bills. He was doing his best to try to insert himself into the scene but wasn’t having much success. “How do you get a road gig, or any gig in this town for that matter?” he asked. I could see the look of desperation in his eyes as he told me that his savings were now all used up and he wasn’t sure what he was going to do next.
Unfortunately, this kind of story is far more common in Nashville.
That conversation, as well as other similar tales, led me to the realization that the world outside of the Nashville music community knew very little of its inner workings, and that there is a real need for this information to be available to the masses. What originally began for me as a series of blogs and message board postings has now evolved into the soon to be completed book “The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide” with its companion website www.survivenashville.com. Written from my perspective of being a working musician, the book outlines the structure and potential jobs within Nashville’s recording, touring, and nightclub communities. The basic job requirements, pay scales, and networking required to land those jobs are explored in great detail. Additional perspective in the form of several recent and ongoing interviews with music professionals will also be put forth, including A-list session bassist Mike Chapman, self-made indie artist Colt Ford, touring musicians, nightclub musicians, club owners, songwriters, engineers, managers, bus drivers, and more.
Nashville is a funny place. Everybody comes here to fulfill their dreams in music but most are unable to survive for any real length of time. Many of those who do survive long-term end up so trapped in the business end of things that their musical integrity often suffers. It seems that for many people, the Nashville experience isn’t what they hoped it would be. The key to surviving Nashville is to have a clear vision about your long-term goals, find different ways to earn income working within the current music scene while working towards those long-term goals, and use your relationships and connections from within the music community for financial survival and to achieve your long-term goals. None of this can be accomplished without some knowledge about the current state of the Nashville music community, a long-term commitment to this place and without building real, lasting relationships. It is my hope that this book and website will help some to accomplish their dreams.
In the meantime, good luck on the path.
Since first moving to Nashville in 2002 I have worked on several national tours, and for the most part, have had the luxury of traveling around on Prevost XLII tour buses, the luxury liners of touring. In my opinion, traveling by tour bus with a professional driver is, by far, the most comfortable and stress-free way to travel long distances with a group. Many musicians, past and present, are not so fortunate, and for some, “vanning it” is the only option. At a few different points during my touring years, I too have wound up in that category.
A couple of years into my life in Nashville, I played a handful of gigs with a regional cover rock band. On one particular weekend, we were hired to play at a biker party on top of Fredonia Mountain, a remote area far from civilization as we knew it, near the Tennessee-Alabama border (think Deliverance). Kelly and I left Nashville early afternoon driving in, you guessed it, a van (our trustworthy 2001 Dodge Caravan), loaded with my guitar equipment, a bag lunch, and some sleeping bags, as we were planning to sleep over after the show. The majority of the 130 mile drive was on Interstate 24, and we made it to our exit in just under two hours. The last 20 or so miles of the trip were on backroads, winding through hilly terrain, with a couple of small towns occasionally popping up out of nowhere. Keep in mind that this took place just prior to the era of affordable GPS technology, so we were relying on our printed out directions from Microsoft’s “Streets and Trips” to guide us.
After driving around for about an hour, unable to find the access road to the mountain, we realized we were lost, and stopped at a convenience store to ask directions. There were two guys standing outside their pickup truck in the parking lot, and upon asking them how to get to Fredonia Mountain, they answered in a dialect of hick that was so far removed from the English language it might as well have been Klingon. At this point, now afraid to step outside of our van again, we realized we were on our own, and began to backtrack using our printed out directions. After taking a series of turns onto, what the directions labeled as “local roads”, we turned down one particular gravel road that, at first, seemed like the most logical access point to the mountain. As this gig was on top of a mountain, and we were driving on mountain roads, with the directions literally reflecting each new turn we took, we had no reason to think we were on the wrong track. Any thoughts of such certainty quickly vanished when the gravel road upon which we were traveling emerged from the forest allowing us a horrifying view of reality. Kelly, who had been driving up to this point, stopped the van suddenly when we saw out of the driver’s side window, a sheer drop off about 3 feet to the left of the van. The view out of her window was that of treetops a couple hundred feet below us, and with the road being deeply rutted and on a downhill slope, we couldn’t back out of this predicament.
Already a mile or so down what was obviously an old logging trail, and no longer in cell phone coverage, we had no choice but to continue forward, in the hopes that this road might bring us to our destination. I got out and walked ahead of the van, slowly helping to guide Kelly through this dangerous section of road. After a few hundred feet, the drop-off section now passed, I hopped back in the van and we continued driving down this trail. Another mile or so of slow-going on this rough terrain and the dirt road became suddenly blocked by some fallen trees, making it obvious that we were going to have to turn around. Kelly, who was now in a near state of panic with dusk approaching, asked me to make the drive out. As there was no place to turnaround on this dead-end road into hell, I backed the van up for about a half mile to a spot that would allow a six-point turn. One more panic stricken ride past the lookout of death, and we emerged safely out of the forest.
We eventually made it to our gig (somewhat late), and as is it turned out, this logging trail brought us to within 5 miles of it. Unfortunately, the Microsoft provided directions, while bringing us to the base of the mountain, failed to show the dangers of these “local roads” and that the only safe access road was about 30 miles around the other side of the mountain. I wish we had a camera with us on that day, as our view out the van window of the valley of death was beyond words. The near perilous experience we lived through on that unforgettable day did teach us some valuable lessons we will never forget. Don’t ever completely rely on a Microsoft program to get you safely from point A to point B, always be suspicious of anything labeled “local roads”, avoid asking locals for directions whenever possible, and, always beware of the pitfalls of “vanning it”.