Rhett Akins

This is another question I was asked in an interview by Wendy Willis for her upcoming book ‘Making It In Nashville‘. The question made me think of a few different scenarios regarding how auditions are conducted in the Nashville music industry. The following exemplifies two of the most common types of auditions.

The Gretchen Wilson Cattle Call

By 2004 I had already been in Nashville for a couple of years when Gretchen Wilson’s ‘Redneck Woman’ hit the airwaves, launching her into immediate super stardom. A few weeks after this song debuted on the radio, I heard through the grapevine that she was holding auditions to find an acoustic guitar player for her touring band. By the time I heard about these auditions, the rest of this band had already been assembled. By making a few phone calls I was able to track down a contact within her camp. During a very brief phone conversation he gave me the names of two songs to learn, ‘Redneck Woman’ and ‘When I Think about Cheatin’, and a timeslot to audition at the Sound Check rehearsal facility. I learned the songs and showed up to Sound Check about a half hour early on the day of my audition. As the auditions were running late, I picked a spot in the hallway outside of the rehearsal room amidst a sea of other hungry guitarists, all with their acoustics in hand, many wearing what was obviously their best stage clothes.

The high point of this day for me was not actually my audition, but listening to the band Journey rehearsing in one of the other rooms down the hall. They sounded magnificent and were truly inspiring! I even got to meet Neal Schon when they took a break. Standing outside their practice room door and listening to them play helped me to take my mind off of the nerve-racking moment that still awaited me. But this brief detour into my rock ‘n roll dreams of yesteryear ended when my name was finally called. I entered the cavernous room, which I believe was the biggest room at the facility, and the intimidating scene quickly came into focus. A large stage filled with gear and musicians and fronted by a substantial PA system was staring me in the face from the opposite end of the room. I was greeted near the doorway by Gretchen’s manager who chatted with me briefly, asking a few questions about my experience. I headed to the stage where the musicians that comprised her nearly complete touring band, none of whom I knew, patiently waited. After plugging in and getting a quick monitor level, Gretchen entered the room and sat on a stool about 30 feet in front of the stage.

So there I was, standing on the stage surrounded by strangers, and performing for an audience of country music’s newest superstar and her management. The band counted off ‘Redneck Woman’ and I began strummin’ away. While sitting on the stool, she belted out the song as if she were an arena filled to capacity, watching my every move. The song ended to a stone cold silence which was quickly interrupted by somebody yelling out ‘When I Think about Cheatin’, which was immediately counted off. That song ended, seemingly as soon as it started, and my audition was over. A couple of the players said “Good job” and her manager said “Thanks , we’ll let you know something by the end of the week.”

Fearing that I didn’t make the grade, I left the rehearsal hall and drove home not having a clue about how I was perceived. They did call me a few days later to notify me that I was not chosen. I remember hearing later that the player they chose for the spot had already been chosen before that day of auditions. Perhaps they were trying to see if there were any other options, looking for a backup, or appeasing the management. All in all, it was a fairly miserable and stressful experience, but it was educational. This was my first cattle call style audition, and while it did not land me the gig, it did help prepare me for future auditions. Since that day, I’ve done several other cattle call style auditions, all of which were somewhat similar. Until you ever get to do one of these, the term ”cattle call” will only have a vague meaning to you. But after you stand in the middle of a long line of auditioning players, get quickly corralled in it out of the feeding lot, tagged, tested, and sent on your way, you will immediately understand.

Rhett Akins Showcase for BNA Nashville

It was late summer, 2005, and right in the middle of touring season, when Rhett Akins, one of the artists I was working for at the time, told me we needed to prepare for a record label showcase. His management had helped him gain the attention of Joe Galante and some other executives from the record label, BNA. We had about two weeks to prepare for it, so a couple of rehearsals were scheduled for us to build and hone a short set of his strongest material that would hopefully land him a new deal.

His management made arrangements for the showcase to take place in a small comfortable nightclub located on Third Avenue in downtown Nashville. We arrived to the venue early in the afternoon on the day of the showcase, loaded in our stage gear and monitor rig, and began setting up. We did a sound check and rehearsed a few of the tunes. It was tough to get a good sound in this particular room as the acoustics were less than desirable, but after several adjustments, we arrived at an acceptable place. After sound check we chilled for a bit, ate some dinner, and waited for downbeat.

The showcase was scheduled for seven o’clock, and around six o’clock some patrons began to arrive. It had been encouraged for us to all invite and bring as many friends and family as possible to help create a warm and inviting atmosphere for the big wigs. The turnout was pretty good, and the club was near full just a few minutes before showtime when Galante and his entourage arrived to be seated at a reserved table, one that had been strategically chosen for sight and sound.

Just a couple minutes before we hit the stage we all gathered in a back room to have a quick pep rally, kind of like a football team going into one last huddle before game time. If Rhett was nervous, he wasn’t showing it, he was cool as a cucumber. I was probably more nervous than he was. Dressed in our best, we hit the stage hard and fast, and the first two songs, played back-to-back, were over before I knew it. The crowd roared with approval, and Rhett began to turn on the charm, addressing the room as a whole and putting everyone at ease. He had been working out hard all year and was in great shape, not only giving off the vibe of a superstar, but also showing off a youthful physique, similar to that of his college quarterback days of yesteryear. We stomped through the rest of our 50 minute set with Rhett talking occasionally between songs, even getting some laughs out of the table of executives. The set ended and we began to break down our gear while Rhett courted the table of potential business partners.

As far as these kinds of showcases go, this one went off without a hitch. Rhett performed brilliantly, the band played well, the crowd loved it, and, more importantly, the folks from BNA loved it. After a couple more weeks of negotiations, Rhett was signed to BNA Nashville. So I guess we passed the audition!

What have been your audition experiences been like?

October 8, 2010 – Dallas, Texas

We left Nashville Thursday at midnight, bound for two shows deep in the heart of oil country, the first being at the oversized dance hall, Cowboys Red River in Dallas, Texas. Our regular bassist, Clint Jacobs, absent on this particular run, I sat in the front lounge chatting with his sub, friend and longtime Nashville veteran, Mike Chapman for a bit before heading to bed. This trip would normally take about 10 to 11 hours, but at about 5 AM I awoke and realized we had been stopped for a little bit. I drifted off for a while and when I got up around 10 I learned that Steve, our bus driver, got stuck in a massive traffic backup for three hours in the middle of the night, the result of an overturned tractor-trailer that had blocked the interstate. Scenarios like this are why we always allow for extra travel time on these trips. Nevertheless, the extra three hour wait added on to the middle of this 700 mile drive had left Steve exhausted, and we finally pulled into Dallas around 1:30.

As we entered the dark Honky Tonk, we noticed that musky stale beer odor inherent to these kinds of places, the kind of deep rooted lingering odor that takes decades to create, and while barely noticeable amidst the hustle and bustle of nighttime business, is almost overbearing during the empty daytime hours. While we were setting up, Rhett had the runner take him on a brief tour Dealey Plaza, the infamous location of the assassination of JFK. A little while later he returned with some memorabilia, as apparently a JFK assassination history buff has some kind of ‘merch table‘ at this location. I’m not sure if this is somebody’s desire to inform the masses of this tragic conspiracy, or simply capitalism at its worst. (Maybe it’s a little of both.)

Other than watching a little bit of a fascinating assassination documentary, the rest of this day, and night for that matter, were rather uneventful. I wish I could say that it was an exciting memorable show, like most of our shows, but it wasn’t. The audience just kinda laid there. Don’t get me wrong, the 1500 or so in attendance danced and drank, and even made some noise after some songs, it was just one of those nights that felt like it never quite got there. I later reiterated to Rhett one of the tour’s  long standing inside jokes “Out of all the shows we’ve ever done together, that was definitely one of them.”

Onward to Baytown

Baytown is a suburb of Houston, and a city of roughly 80,000 deep in the heart of oil country. We arrived to a hotel parking lot in the wee hours of the morning and taxied the bus over for load in around noon. On the previous day, everything had gone according to plan with no surprises, while this day would turn out to be full of surprises, the first being my discovery of a miscommunication regarding our ‘bus stock’. Our bus stock is a list of beverage and food items which appears on our rider, and is required, in most cases, to be delivered to our bus upon arrival as it serves to be lunch for our crew. I never got the memo that they wouldn’t be providing this and, fortunately, they were gracious enough to send somebody for it at the last-minute.

The next surprise came a couple of minutes later when the event coordinator informed me that they were having problems with the rented generator. It turns out that the generator rental company arrived earlier in the morning to drop off the generator, and then left without showing anybody how to work it. Around the same point in time I was introduced to the house sound technician whose introduction consisted of “Glad to meet you, I hope you brought a lot of patience with you because we’re running way behind.” “Glad to meet you too.” Next would come what was perhaps the biggest hurdle we would have to overcome on this day that was quickly evolving into what I commonly refer to as “a challenge” otherwise known as a good old-fashioned pain in the ass. That being, the stage from hell.

Upon setting foot upon this tin nightmare, I was baffled to see a gaping four-inch wide “space” that ran lengthwise across the 30 foot stage at about 5 foot intervals. “Well that’s a great way to break an ankle if I’ve ever seen one!” I commented to the promoter, who acknowledged “Yeah it is, I didn’t notice that before.” To make matters worse, a round piece of steel pipe protruded upward from this “space” at 6 foot intervals, serving as a strategic array of would-be landmines for everybody to trip over for the day. After some discussion with the promoter, we determined that we needed some rubber mats or plywood to place on top of this unsafe deck. A little while later I discovered a huge role of thick old industrial carpet backstage and, while it initially looked like it might serve our purpose, I quickly discovered that it was full of “fire ants”. I also learned, very quickly mind you, that fire ant’s bite! The bites on my fingers and hand still swollen as I write this.

One of the event coordinators suggested some four by eight sheets of rubber matting and, after I concurred that it might work, he set out for Home Depot. Around this time, I asked Scott, our other guitarist and part-time “Macgyver” if he could try to figure out the generator issue. A little while later a truck arrived with 10 sheets of rubber matting and I began to direct some stagehands to help ‘rubberize’ our stage while Scott dug into the genie. A couple of hours later and the stage was covered with a solid rubber matting (we had to cut holes for the protruding steel pipe with a drill and utility knife), Scott had brought the generator to life, and we began our load in and sound check.

After the sound check, we all feasted on some locally famous barbecue, and went to the hotel for some downtime before the show. I returned to the venue around 7:30 hoping to catch some of up and coming and Nashville based Matt Stillwell’s,  set. Unfortunately, because one of the other acts, George Dukas, was running late, their performance times were swapped, and I arrived after their show had already ended. We began our show at 9:30 on the dot, surprisingly right on time considering the chaotic mess of the day we had just encountered. This event was the annual “Helping a Hero Benefit” put on by the Baytown Police Department, and served to help raise money for a fund for families of officers lost in the line of duty. While the attendance was less than desired, the quality of the audience was anything but lacking. A handful of town folk that did show up spent quite a bit of money on some big dollar auction items for this great cause and stayed for the entirety of our 90 minute set. Mike Chapman, who had only played with us on a couple of other occasions, nailed the show to the floor, his 3+ decades working in the Nashville music industry recording with such giants as Garth Brooks, LeeAnn Rimes, and countless others, no doubt aiding in his proficiency.

This stressful day came together as the result of a lot of teamwork. Scott, with some background in electronics, was apparently the only person on site possessing the knowledge it would take to make that generator come to life and power the show. The Baytown police went and purchased the rubber mats for the stage. Our bus driver, Steve provided some of the tools that were necessary for our rubber stage modifications. Matt Stillwell and band was gracious enough to perform their show two hours ahead of schedule.  In hindsight, it’s funny, even kind of ironic, that while the day before had gone so smoothly, and it’s show had felt so sluggish (despite a crowd of almost 2000), that this difficult day, despite its low attendance and being full of problems, delivered a concert experience that was far more rewarding. Put these two wildly different events and shows together and you wind up with one great day and one great show – A fitting end to our 2010 touring season.

This past weekend was one of the last outings of the 2010 festival season for Rhett Akins and gang. Like many things in life, outdoor festivals are like a potluck dinner – you never know what’s under the lid of that next casserole dish. That goes for not just the event itself, but to the friend and foe of every outdoor show – the weather. We’ll get to the weather debacle in a minute.

The event we would be playing on this eve was ‘The Old Threshers’ at the Shelbina Fairgrounds, in Shelbina Missouri. For those of you not in the know, an old threshers event is kind of a fair with a tractor theme, and this event sported some rare old beauties right out of yesteryear. After parking our bus and getting situated, we took a walk around the fairgrounds to see the sights. We didn’t get but 5 feet from the bus door when the first spectacle presented itself in the form of a 51 Chevy, the owner of which notified us that this vehicle was ours to use for the day. Who needs a runner when you’ve got a 51 Chevy at your disposal! After a few minutes of checking out and photographing this rarity, we set out on foot, camera in hand.

Right around the corner we stumbled upon a bluegrass band consisting of a couple of fellows on acoustic guitars, two banjo players, a woman playing a mandolin, they even had a wash tub base. They were pretty good too, and we stopped to listen for a few. It was then on to the blacksmith shop where we checked out some fine metal crafting by some locals. We dodged a few big tractors on the way over to an old schoolhouse, passing through an Amish village along the way. The old schoolhouse reeked of personality, circa late 1800s/early 1900s. As some kids were writing on the blackboard we took a look around, snapping a few more photos. This part of the day actually felt more like a class field trip than it did a gig. It was now getting to be time for load in, so we returned to the stage area to get to work.

After our gear was loaded onto the deck, we set up and went about our sound check. Once we got it dialed in pretty good we took a few minutes to learn one of Rhett’s most recent songs, ‘Chicks, Trucks, and Beer’, a catchy little ditty with a funky beat he wrote a couple of days prior. It was then off to the hotel for showers, and this was when the weather started to go downhill. The sky grew dark, almost as black as night on the horizon, the wind picked up, and a short while later a massive downpour ensued. People were leaving in droves as we received over an inch of rain in about 45 minutes. Back on the deck, stagehands and local crew scurried to tarp the equipment, but nothing could be done to prevent the rest of this once dusty Fairgrounds from becoming one gigantic mud pit.

After the rain stopped, tractors began scraping down the mud in front of the stage. Underneath the mud was more mud, so they had to bring out bales of hay and spread straw to create acceptable conditions for the concertgoers. They also ran a series of boards for us to walk on from the stage to the bus (yes, the mud was actually that bad). Despite these obstacles we weren’t going to let a little rain and mud ruin this day, and by 7:15 the opening band ‘Little Dixie’ was taking the stage. Even though the deluge had run off a good portion of the festival attendees, there was still at least 1000 or so that stuck around for our show. At 8:15 we were off and running and about three songs in Rhett played ‘Friends with Tractors’ an obvious crowd pleaser for an event such as this. The crowd was responsive and singing along, despite a strong prevailing wind that was a bit overbearing at times. About an hour into our show some massive lightning strikes began to appear on the horizon, so we did a couple of more songs to finish our set.

Our show complete, we tore down our gear and found our way over to the ‘Bluegrass Barn’ where the afternoon band was engaged in a little ‘pickin’ and grinnin’ after party. Rhett even sat in for a couple, leading the band through the Hank Williams classic ‘Honky-Tonkin’ and a couple of other rarities. The spirits were high, and everyone from this nice community made us feel right at home. A little while later, Steve made a mad dash with the bus across the muddy field, tires spinning every inch of the way. When we finally made it to the street, he made a big sigh of relief, perhaps having flashbacks of having to be towed out of a mud bog in Alabama earlier in the summer. Even if we had got stuck I wouldn’t have been too worried, at this show we definitely had ‘friends with tractors”. A  few minutes later, and we were rolling down the highway. Thanks for making it a great event Shelbina!

Saturday night’s show at the U.S. Bank Balloons, Tunes and BBQ Festival in Bowling Green Kentucky turned out to be a huge success, but earlier in the day things were looking pretty bleak. All week long the weather forecast showed a strong possibility of severe weather for this area, as the remnants of Tropical Storm Hermine were projected to move through. When we arrived on site at the Warren County Regional Airport a strong steady wind was already blowing, despite an otherwise beautiful sunny day.

Right around the time we were about to start micing up our instruments for soundcheck, the sky grew ominously dark, and a few minutes later a strong gust of wind knocked over a large column of PA speakers. Fortunately, nobody got hurt, but it was a frightful moment. As a downpour was imminent, we quickly scrambled to put tarps over our stage gear. Minutes later we watched from the bus window as a strong steady rain pummeled the airport grounds. Just when we thought our day was completely doomed the rain subsided, and a short while later the sun returned to dry out the rain soaked grounds.

As it turns out, we got real lucky and it never did rain again. The first two days of the festival had been a complete washout due to the weather, but by late afternoon the winds had died down, and some hot air balloons began to permeate the sky for the first time on this weekend. By the time the first group, Easy Street, went on stage at 5:30 there was already a couple of thousand people in front of the large mobile stage, and their set was well received. A little while later, after the second band, Floord, was finished with their set, Nick Hoffman (Kenny Chesney’s fiddle player) took the stage with his band. During Nick’ set I organized and led a large meet and greet backstage with some radio station contest winners who were more than excited to meet Rhett.

At about 8:45 it was finally our turn for some stage time, the crowd had now swelled to around 10,000, and was at the peak of this annual event’s outing. We dug in hard for a rockin’ 90 minute show, the crowd into it from the onset. About halfway through our show, Rhett brought up his son, Thomas Rhett to sing the soon-to-be classic ‘Duck Blind’. After this well received rendition, a woman somewhere near the front row yelled out “He’s real sexy too!” This helped prompt Rhett to prod young Thomas into doing one more song, ‘Tobacco’, one of Thomas’s original compositions which he performed solo acoustic. Apparently, Thomas takes after his dad, who bragged about his son’s first cut as a songwriter on Jason Aldeans’ latest album, and the fact that “Some day soon you’re going to be hearing Thomas Rhett on the radio too!” After Thomas left the stage to a roaring applause, we continued on with our set, and a little while later Rhett invited up Nick Hoffman to sit in for a couple of tunes on the fiddle. Rhett ended the show by playing a solo acoustic version of “Gimme That Girl” the blockbuster hit he wrote for Joe Nichols. This soft and soulful piece helped to wind down the electricity in the crowd, and upon its conclusion they began to slowly exit the concert grounds.

It was a long day, but a good day, and we were all thrilled that the weather wound up being on our side. While this isn’t always the case with these kinds of outdoor shows, past experience has taught me to always hope for the best, while preparing for the worst. We’ve got two more outdoor shows on the books in the upcoming weeks. Hopefully, we’ll get lucky on those too!

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

Rhett Akins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about 1:00 AM and were traveling east on Interstate 40 on our leased Prevost XLII tour bus, just a little bit east of Knoxville, Tennessee on our way to Manteo, North Carolina. I’m getting kind of sleepy so I say goodnight to our bus driver, Steve and the rest of the guys and crawl into my bunk. After a while I am lulled to sleep by the soft cushy ride and steady drone of the diesel engine. Barring the occasional pothole, the sensation of this ride from the interior of my bunk is almost boat-like – more like floating down the highway. I fall into a deep sleep and awaken some hours later, unsure of whether the bus is still in motion or parked and idling, as the diesel moan is unwavering at this point. When the pitch of the engine raises slightly a few minutes later I realize we are still moving, although you would never know it because the ride is so smooth. I fall back to sleep and wake up several hours later, again unsure of whether or not the bus is still in motion. Upon walking into the front lounge I now realize that we are parked at a rest stop. I never even felt the bus stop.

A few minutes later Steve returns to the bus after topping off the tank. “Good morning Eric!” he says in a cheerful tone despite the fact that he was fairly tired from 8 plus hours of driving. I greet him with the one question he is asked the most “Are we almost there yet?” “About an hour out” he announces. With that I return to my bunk for some more sleep. After dozing off for a bit I awake, again unknowing whether or not the bus is stopped or in motion. This time when I walk to the front lounge I know we are at the hotel as Steve has checked into the hotel rooms and left the extra room keys and a note on the table. A short while later he returns and we taxi the bus over to the venue for load-in.

“The generator has a bad voltage regulator.” he notifies me “I’ll need to get a part to fix it or we won’t be able to use it today.” I set him up with a runner and he’s off to the auto parts store. A little while later we’re loading in and he returns with the new part and begins working on the bus on this sweltering 95° day. I know he must be exhausted by now as he’s just finished a long drive and now into mechanic duties, but you’d never know it as he continually projects a positive attitude. A little while later and the ‘genie’ is fixed, he empties the trash, does a quick vacuum of the front lounge, and is finally off to the hotel for sleep. As a tour manager, it is my duty to take care of the bus driver – to make sure he has whatever he needs – be it a ride, a meal, a quiet hotel room, etc. Even though he works like a machine, he is still human and gets tired like the rest of us.

While this story doesn’t contain the apparent drama of some of the more obvious ‘hell ride’ stories regarding bus travel, perhaps what is most interesting is what doesn’t happen. We don’t get tossed around like concrete in a cement mixer. We don’t get scared to death because we hear the rumble strip more often than we don’t. We’re not made to feel uncomfortable because the driver is socially inept. We don’t have to worry about not getting a good night sleep because we will. We don’t have to worry about any of these things because our driver is a consummate professional and a great guy.

The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide contains several chapters pertaining to bus travel – including a chapter about bus drivers, and an extensive interview with one of the best in the business, a driver we are extremely fortunate to work with, Steve P. (Steve is such a great driver, that I am omitting his last name for the time being, in fear of him being stolen by another tour) The following excerpts were taken from that interview.

Steve P has been a professional tour bus driver since 1989 and has logged hundreds of thousands of miles driving some of the biggest names in rock, pop, and country to concert destinations throughout the US and Canada. Included in this list of touring artists and bands are: Hank Williams Jr., Rascal Flatts, Faith Hill, Rod Stewart, Dave Matthews, Jeff Beck, Creed, The Other Ones, Jimmy Buffett, and many more.

A native of Bowling Green, Kentucky, Steve is retired from full-time driving, now working as an ASE certified mechanic at the Nashville based Prevost bus shop as a team leader/shift supervisor. He still enjoys driving part time, going out on weekend runs regularly.

{Eric Normand} In the world of commercial driving many drivers including those who drive semis, delivery trucks, Greyhound buses, city buses, aspire to drive entertainment coaches. Why does everyone want to drive an entertainer coach?

{Steve P} I think they all think it’s a glamorous position to be out there on the road with some top name touring act, the draw of the prestige. It’s just the simple fact of driving a very nice entertainer bus that’s polished up and shiny. It just kind of draws them in.

{EN} What is different about how you approach driving an entertainer coach compared to these other types of commercial driving?

{SP} Well I’ve never driven a truck, but to drive a bus you just have to be smooth. Even though you’re sitting in front, you have to put your head in the back, to where the passengers are riding, and every move you make effects what’s going on back there. You can’t be hard on the brakes, rough on the in and out of parking lots. You can’t make sudden and drastic moves unless absolutely necessary.

{EN} Many of these other commercial drivers that aspire to drive entertainer coaches think they are qualified simply because they drive a large, heavy vehicle. In what ways are they not prepared?

{SP} Just sitting in the driver’s seat and driving a bus isn’t all of it. You have to be able to get along with the clients. Sometimes you’re a maid, sometimes you’re a babysitter, sometimes you’re a plumber, an electrician. Driving’s the easy part.

{EN} It’s no secret in the touring industry that good bus drivers are not only in demand, they are well paid. What is an average yearly income for a bus driver working on a busy tour?

{SP} You could easily make $100,000 a year. You could make as much as you want to be gone basically. If you don’t mind being gone year-round, you’re a single guy, no kids, and don’t mind being on the road, you can easily make 100 grand or more.

{EN} What do you love about being a bus driver?

{SP} Just the travel and the experience. To go all over the United States and Canada, I don’t think I would have gotten that opportunity with any other career that I would have chosen. And, meet some interesting people on the way.

{EN} What is one of the things you like least about being a bus driver?

{SP} It sounds contradictory but, being gone all the time. Yes, I enjoyed it, but when you’re on the road for six months, it gets old, especially after doing it for years and years. When you’ve been to the same town, and the same venues, and the same hotels again and again and again, it’s kind of like Groundhog Day.

As Steve mentioned, there is much more to this job than simply driving. While safety and delivering a smooth ride is of the utmost importance, keeping the bus relatively clean, keeping the fuel and water tanks full, addressing mechanical problems, even checking into hotel rooms, are common duties for tour bus driver. And of course, getting along with the clients and contributing to an overall “good vibe” is key. More from Steve later…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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