It was about 5:00 PM when we pulled our tour bus up to the newly built Lambda Chi Alpha frat house on this hot and humid summer day in the deep South. The kids greeted us with much excitement as this party was the first to be held in their brand-new frat house. Upon entering the party room where we would be performing we were a bit surprised at the rooms size – about 30 x 30 with the stage and PA system taking up almost half of the available space. But isn’t this what frat parties are all about? Packing as many drunk college kids as you can into a small intimate setting conducive to chaos and mayhem. It was perfect. All the right ingredients were there.
We loaded in our gear, set up, and began our sound check. The Rhett Akins band is as much a rock band as it is a country band, and when we began checking our drums and instruments we were a bit concerned as the volume seemed ungodly in this tiny space. Granted, the room was empty at this point, so we were hopeful that the addition of some bodies would help tame down the volume a bit for the show. This proved to be the case, and by the time we hit the stage for our 11:30 PM start time the kids were raring to go.
“Down South” our typical opening number for shows in this part of the country, rendered us off to a roaring start, and the sounds of the band booming out the open doors and windows began drawing in more patrons from the adjoining courtyard. By the end of our second song “I Brake for Brunettes” the room was packed full and the energy was building by the second. A good-looking crowd, as far as frats go, the front row of folks were right up to the edge of the stage, with several attractive girls dancing and singing along in close proximity for some added inspiration. At one point during the show a couple of cuties hopped up on to the stage, dancing and singing with Rhett for a song.
The festivities maintained a high level of excitement right through to the very end of our blistering two hour set, and by the time we walked from the stage we were all dripping with sweat. We packed up our gear, loaded the bus, and said goodbye to the more than appreciative fraternity brothers. Their house had now been officially “broke in” and it was our honor to bust the cherry for them. Thanks Lambda Chi Alpha – we had a great time!
During the summer of 2008 when the Rhett Akins band was between bass players, our sound engineer Penn Robertson threw out the idea of calling his friend Oteil Burbridge to sub a few gigs, as he was currently on hiatus from his regular gig with the Allman Brothers. Apparently the brothers were on an extended break that summer and Oteil happened to be available and interested in coming out with us. The next thing I knew we were doing a handful of gigs with him and riding around on a bus listening to first-hand stories about my childhood idols. While the gigs and stories were great fun, it was the sound checks that were most memorable.
As Rhett and band are well-versed in the Allman Brothers classic material, our sound checks during this time period contained several songs from their repertoire; Blue Sky, Statesboro Blues, Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’, and Aint Wastin’ Time No More. These moments contained some great improvised jams propelled by Oteil’s masterful groove and melodic sensibility. It was almost as if a little piece of one of America’s greatest bands fell from the sky and landed on our doorstep, to be shared only in the moment with a few appreciative friends. Eventually our stint with Oteil came to an end but it was an inspired road to travel on while it lasted. One I will always remember with fondness and never forget. Thanks Oteil
Multi-band shows on any level, be it a national act with a local opener in a concert hall, a battle of the bands at a local high school, or the Bonnaroo Festival, can be a great musical experience for both the performers, and audience. They can also be a logistical nightmare for event organizers, production companies, crew members, and the musicians. The key to these kinds of events running smoothly is highly organized and coordinated advanced planning and an overall spirit of teamwork.
Typically, the most well run multi-band shows have a designated stage manager, usually hired by the event, the production company, or the headlining act. In the days and weeks prior to the event, the stage manager will coordinate between the event buyer, the production company, local crew, and the tour managers of the bands and artists involved. In a perfect world, the proper planning and effort will result in a painless day of load-ins and load-outs, sound checks, line checks, and performances, all happening glitch free and on-time. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world.
Some of the problems that can arise might range from performers and equipment arriving late, bad weather, equipment problems, a shortage of stagehands, ineffective communication, and often, just poor planning. I was recently involved in a show that suffered from literally all of these problems.
At any multi-band show, especially on a national level, there are some unspoken rules and protocols that come into play. If the event has hired a national act, they probably signed a contract and agreed to the terms of that acts rider. Usually these riders will provide very specific guidelines regarding all of the details pertaining to the daily activities and performance requirements of that artist or band. In many situations, it also gives the artist and tour manager final say regarding opening acts, set lengths, backstage traffic, etc. All of this must be mutually agreeable in advance, but after both parties have signed off on the rider, each will have specific responsibilities and expectations. In short, the tour manager of the headlining act and the event buyer will have complete authority over the performance related events of a given show day.
If there is more than one national act, the other acts tour managers will also have a big say, but all in accordance to each acts specific rider and the agreements made when the show was advanced. This is where it can get a little grey as some artists riders might conflict with another’s. In these situations an unspoken rule comes into play, that being that the headliner has the ultimate say, followed by the artist with the second billing, followed by third billing, etc. if there are two or more acts that each receive equal billing (co-headliners), there is usually a mutual decision making between tour managers and the event buyer. The lines can become greatly blurred on a smaller scale, such as local bands performing together in a nightclub, or regional festivals, as these situations seldom have signed contracts.
Regardless of a given events level of profile, or organizational efficiency, being a team player is of utmost importance for all involved, especially the musicians.
On a recent Rhett Akins show I worked, we were co-headlining with another national artist, Ashton Shepherd. Several days prior to the show, the events stage manager contacted me and asked if our drummer would be willing to use Ashton’s drummers kit, both to save time, and much-needed stage space. After checking with our drummer, I agreed to this request, as did the band scheduled to play before us, Matt Stillwell. The event had four bands total, and the first band scheduled to play, a regional act, would be setting up their drums in front of the other drum kit. The sound checks were scheduled to take place in reverse order of the performances, and would be starting at 1:00 PM on the day of show for a 4:00 PM showtime. Sounds simple enough, right?
Not. The first thing to throw the schedule off was bad weather, as it rained in the morning pushing back the production set up. Ashton’s band began their set up at 2:00, and it was understood and accepted that the show would probably not start on time. About a half-hour into their set up, I walked out to the stage to discover the openers enormous eight piece drum kit being constructed in the middle of the undersized stage. When I asked the drum tech why he was setting up these drums before the other bands had sound checked, he replied “The stage manager said I have to have these setup by 4:00 no matter what.” I told him that the stage manager was wrong to request this, as there was simply not enough space on the tiny stage for three other bands to set up their backline and sound check. This resulted in a big argument between me and the unyielding drum tech, which resulted in another big argument with the stage manager.
The stage manager didn’t want to budge on his decision, despite the fact that he had discussed none of this with me in advance. Of course he was wrong in his actions, as this kind of decision-making was a complete breach of our rider, in addition to being just plain stupid. So rather than continue with the stalemate, I suggested asking Ashton’s drummer, Brian, if he would be willing to share the use of his kit with one more band. Brian agreed, asking simply that the positioning of his drums not be altered, a request that both Rhett and Matt Stillwell’s drummers had both previously agreed to. Perfect. Problem solved, right?
Nope. When the openers drummer was presented with this option, he said “I can’t play these drums without moving them. I need to change a few things. The height of the symbols, the height and angle of the toms, I need to move the hi hat cymbal stand so I can replace your kick pedal with my double kick pedal.” The look on Brian’s face was that of “you’ve got some nerve, kid”, but in the spirit of making this all work out, he agreed to let this unenlightened fellow make some of these changes.
In the end, it all worked out. The show started late, but all four bands play their shows to an enthusiastic crowd. This story underscores a few great points. Ashton’s drummer presented a grand gesture of goodwill will by offering to share the use of his drum kit. This is not expected in these kinds of situations, and is actually quite rare, but when it is offered, it’s another unspoken rule to simply not move the positioning of the drums, especially when specifically requested. His initial generosity, and his willingness to budge on his own principles for the common good, exemplify the meaning of the phrase ‘team player’. On the contrary, the opening band’s drummer and his tech acted in poor taste. They created an unnecessary tension between musicians and crew members and “took” something that was not offered. They created a feeling of ill will. They were essentially, a stick in the mud.
Every event contains two drastically different groups of people. The people that go to the show, and the people that are working the show. If you’re part of a band and performing at an event that has multiple bands, try to think of yourself as part of a team. A team of musicians, stagehands, crew members, and event staff all working together to present one great day or night of musical performances. You’re all on the same team, and need to work in harmony. You need to watch each other’s backs, protect each other’s gear, and work in a spirit of cooperation, not competition. No matter where you fall in the pecking order, being a team player and working towards the common good of all involved is ultimately what makes a great show. And being organized doesn’t hurt either.
Saturday, June 19, 2010 started out innocent enough when I awoke on our tour bus in a motel parking lot in Montgomery Alabama. The fact that the nearest location of any hotel to this venue was a 30 mile, hour long bus ride, might have been the first clue that this was going to be a rough day. We set out at noon for this four band extravaganza at the Extreme Mud Sports Park in Eclectic, Alabama and the temperature was already into the 90s. The view from the bus window was picturesque as we wound thru this sparsely populated area of rural Alabama. The sky was beginning to cloud up a bit as we turned off the main road and began following a four wheeler down the half-mile or so “gravel” road that led into the park. The road was not in very good shape, and by the time that we realized we might be in trouble if it rained, it was too late, as we we’re already committed with no place to turn around. We came around the final corner to the “concert area” and almost got stuck in the soft ground just backing the bus into place.
“If it rains at all, we are never going to get up that hill.” were my first words to one of the event coordinators after a brief introduction. “We got plenty of big tractors round here, don’t worry we’ll getcha out” was the response I got, and I must admit that I felt hardly reassured. I had the runner take our driver Steve to the hotel and then met the ”stage manager”, a local radio station employee whom I will refer to as “Puff the magic DJ”. I deemed him this nickname because he magically organized the daily activities by chain-smoking cigarettes while sitting in a van that was parked about 50 feet from the stage, and facing the opposite direction.
It had already rained a bit that morning, so the sound crew was running behind and our sound check had to be pushed back. We were sharing this bill was Ashton Shepherd, and were allotted the third time slot, scheduled to play at 6 PM just before Ashton. One of the only saving graces of this entire day was a selfless gesture made by Ashton’s drummer, Brian, who volunteered the use of his drum kit to the other bands to save time and stage space. Of course such a grand gesture became needlessly complicated when ‘Puff’ instructed the first band to begin setting up their drums in the middle of this tiny stage during Ashton’s band’s set up. It was inevitably up to me, apparently the only person on site to attend stage-managing school, to sort things out, and the unneeded drum kit quickly vanished after a brief conversation between me and the drummers.
Then the rain came. It started coming down lightly sometime around 2:30, and by 3:00 it was pouring. At four o’clock it was still pouring. We watched in horror from the bus window as the only exit route, a couple of hundred feet of uphill clay colored dirt in front of us, became a nasty sea of orange mud. Meanwhile, out the other window of the bus, we viewed about 50 or so muddy looking Alabamans standing under the covered stage area in front of the sound equipment now covered in plastic, while mud covered trucks and four wheelers played in a muddy pit just beyond the stage.
Finally, around 5:30 the rain subsided, and I sent a runner to pick up Steve at the hotel, as we now needed to figure out how we would get the bus out of this hellacious valley of mud. Meanwhile, Ashton’s band finished setting up their backline, and the first band went on just after 6:00. As the event was running two hours behind, we were now foregoing our sound checks and in “throw and go” mode. I asked ‘Puff’ to find us a table and chairs for the merch area (a request that I had previously asked him earlier in the day, earlier in the week by telephone, and in an e-mail). His response came off as this was the first time he was hearing of this and stated “I don’t know what they have here, I’ll work on it. We’ll find something”, and then he hopped back in his smoke-filled van to continue his daylong duty of staring out the window. Needless to say, the requested items never appeared despite further repeated inquiries, although Kelly was able to eventually share a table provided by Matt Stillwell’s band.
From mid afternoon on, every trip from the bus to the stage or elsewhere on the grounds required a slippery trek through three or 4 inches of heavy wet mud, caking to our feet like ankle weights. At about 6:30, Steve arrived back on site, and I could see the look of amazement on his face as he appeared on the top of the hill, staring down at our pristine white bus as if it was sitting on a deserted island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. After conversing with Steve, I approached the owners and they presented their plan to scrape off the top three or 4 inches of mud from the road with a tractor, and then to tow the bus out. Shortly after this, they began scraping, and the rest of us continued stressing.
By 7:45, the second band ‘Matt Stillwell’ was just finishing their set and we loaded our gear onto the deck to prepare for our show. At about 8:15 we were ready to go, and Puff asked me if there was anything specific he should say regarding Rhett’s introduction. I told him to mention a few of Rhett’s radio hits, and that Rhett has just released a new CD of hunting songs with Michael Waddell called ‘Bone Collector’ which is available at the merch area. So, of course, Puff delivers an intro void of any of this, and after rambling some fast talking Alabama DJ bullshit, exudes “Ladies and gentlemen please welcome to the stage Rhett Akins.”
Midway through our set, we all witnessed what was perhaps the most exciting event of the day, that of our bus slowly moving up the hill, towed by a large tractor. I literally wanted to stop mid song and applaud as I saw it slowly disappearing from site, well on its path to solid ground. Upon this, I waved Kelly over to the stage, and asked her to organize after show transportation to the bus. She went and found Puff and requested that he had a ride ready for Rhett as soon as the set was complete, and transportation for the rest of us and our gear a few minutes later. We rocked the small but enthusiastic, mud covered crowd for about 60 minutes total, and needless to say Rhett walked off the stage to find no vehicle awaiting him. After quickly packing up our gear and clearing the stage, I went and found Puff and said “Where’s the ride? Rhett’s been waiting 10 minutes already.” “It’s not here yet?” he exclaimed. “I asked them to send somebody 5 minutes ago.” And with that, he quickly hopped in his van and drove off, never to be seen again. I can’t say I was surprised as it had long become obvious that either his memory, or his sincerity was literally nonexistent.
I found one of the owners, organized our exit, and a few minutes later we were back at the bus on the street above. The valley of mud now behind us, we could finally begin to relax. None of this kind of turmoil is ever funny in the moment, but as time is the ultimate healer, we were quickly able to see this horrific day a little more cheerfully, although we we’re now completely drained. Kelly grabbed the bottle of Crown and some solo cups, and poured a much-needed round of shots. I proposed a toast to cap off our adventures in the valley of mud. “Here’s to friends with tractors!”
I would like to add a special thanks to the guys with the big tractors, and everyone in Ashton Shepherd’s group for their generous sharing of backline, and overall team spirit.
It was Saturday morning when I suddenly was awakened in my bunk to the sensation of a rough ride on a bumpy road somewhere in southern Pennsylvania. Our destination was the little town of Reinholds, PA, and a short while later we pulled our tour bus in to the parking lot of the Black Horse Lodge and Suites, just a few miles from the concert site. Just after noon we rode the bus over to the site, commenced load in, and enjoyed a healthy lunch.
The event coordinator, Larry Wolf, was on top of the details, as he has been helping to organize this annual outdoor summer concert series for over 20 years. The walls on the backstage greenroom were like a who’s who in country music history, with signed posters of artists like Reba McEntire, Johnny Paycheck, Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, Tracy Lawrence, and many others lining the walls. After lunch we began our sound check, and this would be the second day in a row that we would build an arrangement for one of Rhett’s recent chart toppers ‘All Over Me’, which was cut by Josh Turner. When Rhett began strumming and singing this piece on his acoustic, it seemed to warrant a feel somewhat reminiscent of Little Feet or Dr. John, and we brought a hint of New Orleans to this hot humid afternoon in the north.
A few hours later, after our typical routine of showers at the hotel and a catered meal, we were back on the bus waiting for showtime while a local opening band performed. Midway through the opener’s set the crowd of 2000 plus ran for cover when a torrential downpour let loose. We feared that we were done for the night, but fortunately about a half-hour later the rain subsided and the opener returned to finish their set.
We hit the stage at about 9:15 with our usual set openers of ‘Down South’, ‘I Brake for Brunettes’, and ‘Don’t Get Me Started’ and the crowd responded warmly. As Pennsylvania is literally the hunting capital of the world, we could do no wrong by playing some of the cuts from Rhett’s recent hunting album ‘Bone Collector’. Despite never hearing these songs before, the audience instantly fell in love with songs like ‘My Baby Looks Good in Camouflage’, ‘Granddaddy’s Gun’, and ‘Duck Blind’.
Our shows with Rhett have evolved into an interesting mix of music that represents every facet of his 15 year career. On this show, as on most shows at this point, the audience would hear his first wave of radio hits from the mid to late 90s, songs from recent releases ‘People like Me’ and ‘Down South’, some of the new hunting songs, a few classics from his idols, and a barrage of original versions of his most recent songwriting chart busters recorded by other artists. This all makes for an action-packed, exciting show, and the crowd’s energy on this muggy summer night was building steadily throughout our electric 90 minute performance. By the encore, the sea of audience members sitting in lawn chairs could still be seen beyond the couple hundred that were now standing directly in front of the stage.
We are fortunate that nearly all of our shows seem to have some kind of magic happen at different points throughout the performance. But on this particular night Rhett and band were particularly on, the crowd was in tune, the sound was happening, and it was one of those magical nights where everything seems to come into alignment. The kind of musical inspiration that we, as performers, live for. It’s hard to imagine that anybody, band or audience, could go away from a concert experience like this without feeling a little better about life.
Inspiration on this level isn’t something you can plan on, or make happen, so when it does, don’t take magic for granted.
Our weekend tour began Thursday at midnight, when we pulled out of Nashville, bound for Wake Forest, North Carolina. By early afternoon on Friday, we were loading our gear into Crossroads, a large nightclub located in a strip mall that would be home for most of this day. After a couple hours of setting up and dialing in our sound we began to build an arrangement for one of Rhett’s most recent songs to make the charts, All About Tonight, which was cut by Blake Shelton. In most touring situations, when an artist needs their band to learn new material, band leader will distribute CDs, and the players will learn the parts that were created by the studio musicians that cut the original tracks. But the situation in the Rhett Akins band is far from the typical Nashville way of doing things.
During sound check, he will sing the new song, accompanying himself with the acoustic guitar while we listen and begin thinking of parts. Sometimes, Rhett will hum a signature lyric and convey other ideas, while we begin piecing an arrangement together. Usually two or three run-throughs at full volume, and things start coming together. There’s usually some conversation and an open ended exchanging of ideas between Rhett and the band that enable these songs to take shape.
This is the fourth or fifth time we’ve done this in the past couple of years, and as Rhett continues to have major cuts with popular artists, it only makes sense to continue this trend. This unique approach is quite exciting, as it allows the individual band members to create their own parts, ultimately allowing us to become more connected with his songs than we would if we were just learning somebody else’s parts. Each of the players in Rhett’s band has their own strengths; Pasi on drums, Clint on bass, Scott and myself on guitar, we each bring something to the table. The fact that Rhett allows us to participate in the arranging of his songs is the ultimate sign of respect.
In Nashville, the journey a song takes is typically far more diluted. In most situations a songwriter, or more than likely two or three co-writers, write the song, and then record a rough acoustic guitar and vocal “work tape”. This work tape will then be sent to a group of studio musicians who will record a demo based off of that rough recording. This demo will then be pitched to different artists, and when an artist decides to cut the song, another group of studio musicians will record the final album version based off of the demo. When that artist goes on tour, his touring band will learn the parts that were created by the studio musicians that cut the album tracks. So the touring band is learning, usually note for note, parts that were created by studio players, who copied or interpreted parts created by other studio players, that created parts from the writers work tape. Three generations removed from the original writers spin or “vibe” on the tune. Obviously this can work because there are plenty of successful touring artists and bands.
Rhett’s band and myself are very fortunate to be in a situation that allows for creative participation with the music we play. I’ve been in plenty of situations where that was not the case, and I must say this is far more organic and rewarding. It’s kind of funny, I’ve never even heard some of the other artists radio versions of these songs. In a few situations, the band actually began working up these arrangements and playing his tunes before they even got demoed or cut by other artists. This was the case with Kiss My Country Ass, and Put a Girl in It. I realize this isn’t practical for all band situations, and I am greatly appreciative of my good fortune that allows me to get to the heart of a song.
I am now about fourteen months into this project and am happy to say that there is an end in sight. As I have about 95% of the writing finished, I decided it was time to turn it into an unformatted hard copy so I could give it a read thru and assess. So last week Kelly turned it into a PDF and we ordered 3 copies thru Café Press which we received in the mail last Saturday. Even though it’s only a first draft and there’s a lot to still be done, it was pretty exciting to open the package and see my work finally in print.
All week long my daily ritual has been to wake up early, eat breakfast, and tear into the reading with a pen in hand. I’ve been fixing some grammar and punctuation mistakes, assessing the overall flow, and making notes about potential changes and images to obtain. I’m almost thru with this first read thru/edit and so far I’m quite pleased. Among a few of the big tasks that lie ahead are the writing of the last chapter “Define Making It” and the Rhett Akins interview on songwriting.
I’m writing this from the road in a hotel room in Wake Forest, North Carolina (tonight I’ll be performing with Rhett at the nightclub, Crossroads, in town), and I just finished the interview. As Rhett is on a mega roll with his writing as of late, his perspective was deep on this subject and I can’t wait to transcribe and edit our 55 minute exploration.
I still need to find a couple dozen more appropriate quotes, a few specific photos and images, write the acknowledgements, and the glossary, and of course make all the editing changes from my read thru. Then I need to hire a professional editor, an interior designer, and find the most affordable way to get this printed. To learn more about these final steps I ordered the critically acclaimed book “Dan Poyntner’s Self Publishing Manual”. One last thing, I also plan to add one or two of my “Flood Blogs” to the book, with a brief summary, as this was one of the most important things to ever happen in Nashville.
So if all goes according to plan, this book will complete and ready to ship sometime in September. It’s been a long road, but ultimately, the road has just begun. Well that’s it for now, I’m off to the show.
It was just after 1 PM on Saturday, May 29 as we pulled into the Fast Lane minimart in Huntsville, Tennessee. The parking lot of this fine establishment would be our home base for the day as this was the closest our tour bus could safely get to the mountaintop concert site. The event we were playing on this hot and humid Memorial Day weekend was “The White Knuckle Event” at Brimstone Recreation, an annual ATV convention on which thousands converged from all over the country, some even traveling from as far as Canada.
Shortly after our arrival, the event coordinator arrived with a fleet of four-wheel drive pickup trucks, our gear hauling and runner service for the day. Some local fellows helped load the gear into the back of the trucks, and we hopped in to make the 5 mile, 30 minute ride to the top of the mountain. The first couple of miles of this trek was quite scenic, winding through a maze of fields and rolling hills spotted with picturesque homes and cabins. After about 10 minutes of driving, the pavement ended and we proceeded up some steeper inclines as the road turned to dirt and gravel. We we’re now going up the mountain, and the old logging road on which we were traveling was a flurry of activity, with a steady stream of four wheelers and other off-road vehicles coming and going in every direction. The air was thick with dirt and dust kicked up from all the ATV’s as we passed a couple of campsites along the way.
A little while later (it seemed like an hour) we reached the summit and a spectacular panoramic view of the mountain range came into focus. We backed up the pickups to the stage and commenced our load in and sound check. The stunning view off the back of the stage was that of several other peaks, jettisoning up across the horizon under some billowing clouds that seemed to stretch on for as far as the eye could see. The contrasting view off the front of the stage was that of a sea of four wheelers dotting the hilltop amidst several vendor tents, all viewed through a thick haze of freshly kicked up mountain dust.
By four o’clock we had finished sound check and strapped in for the bouncy ride back to the bus. Chilling on the bus for a little bit, we dug into the event provided meal of country ham, green beans, steamed corn, and hot rolls. As this was the only store around for miles, the parking lot was a flurry of activity, providing varying degrees of amusement which could be viewed through our tinted bus windows. At one point a truck pulled up towing a trailer upon which a four wheeler containing several young family members sat. A little while later, one bright fellow took off on a dirt bike with his toddler sitting on the handlebars. It was a regular ATV Woodstock, and after dinner and some showers we hopped back into the pickups for another bouncy ride up to the peak as it was getting near showtime.
Now nearing dusk, we were in amazement upon reaching the concert site when the view of 10,000 concertgoers sitting on thousands of ATVs came into sight. We hit the stage running, and the powerful PA system filled the night air with the sounds of Rhett Akins music. We began the show with our appropriate onslaught of ‘Down South’ and ‘I Brake for Brunettes’ and the crowd was instantly on our side. After a few more tunes, Rhett introduced me as the bands only Yankee and encouraged me to play some southern slide guitar. This led to our rendition of ‘Curtis Lowe’ which was followed a little while later by some hunting songs from his new CD like ‘My Baby Looks Good in Camouflage’ , ‘Duck Blind’ and ‘Hung Up’.
We finished the show to a massive ovation which brought us back for a brief encore. Just before we began our short second round I was informed that one of the patrons wanted to propose to his fiancée on stage. A minute later, an excited young fellow stood on stage in front of the masses and told his girl he loved her and wanted to marry her. Teary-eyed, the girl made her way to the stage to meet her love, at which point he gave her a ring. Everybody got all mushy at this point as we played Rhett’s hit ‘She Said Yes’.
Our mountain top adventure complete, we loaded up our gear, road back down the mountain, and hit the road.
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!
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.