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.
As a guitarist, having good control of vibrato has been a key component in my ability to effectively communicate through my instrument. For many music purists, the use of vibrato has been widely debated, as so many artists and performers have used it with such a wide variance of efficiency and taste. There is the rapid fire, “billy goat” style vibrato as used by singers like Joan Baez and Eddie Vetter, the emotive, stinging vibrato used by guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy, and the stark, subtle almost non-vibrato of Miles Davis. All these styles, and others, have their place, but some approaches, arguably, may be more effective than others.
When I was first learning how to play guitar, it took all of my ability to simply play notes and chords cleanly, I wasn’t even aware of what vibrato was. A few years later, as I progressed, I gradually began to learn about the concept of vibrato from other guitarists. But my early development, similar to that of many guitarists, led to a quest for speed, rather than emotional content. When you are playing fast all the time, there is little time for vibrato as you never land on one note long enough to apply it. Fortunately, my early possession by a speed demon eventually came to an end, and a stronger, more pronounced sense of vibrato gradually became inherent to my playing.
What is vibrato? Here is a definition from the website answers.com:
“Vibrato is a musical effect consisting of a regular pulsating change of pitch. It is used to add expression to vocal and instrumental music. Vibrato can be characterized by the amount of pitch variation (“depth of vibrato”) and speed with which the pitch is varied (“speed of vibrato”).”
It goes on to say:
“The use of vibrato is intended to add warmth to a note. In the case of many string instruments the sound emitted is strongly directional, particularly at high frequencies, and the slight variations in pitch typical of vibrato playing can cause large changes in the directional patterns of the radiated sound. This can add a shimmer to the sound; with a well-made instrument it may also help a solo player to be heard more clearly when playing with a large orchestra. This directional effect is intended to interact with the room acoustics to add interest to the sound, in much the same way as an acoustic guitarist may swing the box around on a final sustain, or the rotating baffle of a Leslie speaker will spin the sound around the room.”
This brings up my first point, the battle to be heard. Although they are using classical music in the context of an orchestra, I believe the concept is universal. If you’re performing with a live amplified band, whether singing a lead vocal, playing a signature lick on a violin, or wailing a guitar solo, there is usually an effort required to make those notes audible and impactive above the roar of the band. Think of the total sound made by the band as one giant wall of sound. The lead melody, in most situations, is simply a group of chord tones and passing tones that fit into that wall of sound. A good strong melody in and of itself usually contains enough motion to create a contrast against the wall of sound, but when the melody sustains on a note, it begins to blend in. Using vibrato on those sustaining notes and at the end of phrases can create additional movement and allow the note to have a greater contrast against the otherwise static wall of sound upon which it sits.
Leopold Mozart, father of the famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, wrote a textbook for violin instruction, Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule which was published in 1756. In it he writes “there are performers who tremble consistently on each note as if they had the permanent fever. ” Although he ultimately condemned the practice, he does go on to suggest that vibrato should only be used on sustained notes and at the end of phrases.
This is where the line between preference and taste becomes greatly blurred. Many successful artists use an excessive amount of vibrato, such as the previously mentioned vocalists, and this creates the trembling effect as noted by Mozart. And while this does not prevent these artists from having successful careers, this kind of “billy goat” style vibrato is often the result of a less than stellar technique. The lead melody was already designed to sit on top of the mix, containing enough inner motion to do so without constant vibrato. By singing with a constant vibrato, it’s like putting extra notes in where they weren’t intended. Some musicians and singers create these habits early on and simply choose to stick with what works for them.
Now take this to the other extreme. Listen to, or envision the sound of a great David Gilmour guitar solo. The fast passages are played cleanly with no vibrato, but then at the end of the phrase, he might just sit on the last note for a few seconds before slowly and incrementally adding some substantial vibrato, usually at a speed that is a subdivision of the songs tempo. A lot of great blues and jazz musicians also employed this technique as well as vocalists like Etta James, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, and Paul Rogers.
This concept radiates my other point, our need to express. Music is simply communication. As a musician we are trying to convey or communicate stories, concepts, ideals, and emotions. Vibrato is simply one of the tools on our palate. So are dynamics, volume, speed, phrasings, etc. If you play constant 16th notes in your solos or drum fills, there is no contrast, the passages will be static and predictable. Insert some slower phrases within the fast flurries and the slow passages will create a contrast, ultimately giving more meaning to the 16th notes. I believe the same is true for vibrato. Use it constantly, and there is no contrast. Use it where it is most needed and most effective, and it will only serve to enhance your overall expressiveness.
From an electric guitarists standpoint, I like to use vibrato not only to create drama within a lead line, but also to help coax more sustain out of a note, and at times to induce controlled feedback. I’ve also adopted the technique of adding vibrato to the end of a bent note, a trick I learned from listening to recordings of guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and SRV. Of course, some would argue that true vibrato must come from a feeling, not a thought
This is all highly subjective and to be taken in stride. Explore the endless possibilities of vibrato but don’t overthink it, it should feel natural. Like one of my great instructors at Berklee once said “Practice your technique at home. But when you get to the gig, just play.”
Throughout my career as a professional guitarist I’ve played in all sorts of bands, and in all sorts of situations. I’ve played in rock bands, blues bands, jazz trio’s, and eight-piece country bands, and performed in night clubs, sports arenas, on flatbed trailers in a field, and at giant outdoor festivals. One of the biggest challenges of live performance has been the ongoing battle to achieve a palatable overall stage sound. As most musicians, myself included, use the same gear from one show to the next, this leaves the PA system, the sound engineer, and the natural acoustic “space” of your performance as the variables that will regularly change.
Let’s face it, most music performance venues are an afterthought. Whether it be a sports bar with a band in the corner, a tin roofed industrial building turned concert hall, or a 15,000 seat concrete sports arena moonlighting as a major concert venue, many of these situations simply don’t sound very inspiring. As a player in the band, I’m always trying to coax every ounce of sonic maximization out of every sound check or gig. But sometimes, no matter how much we keep tweaking monitor mixes, changing the angle or location of amplifiers, or notching annoying frequencies out of the PA, we just seem to wind up with a different version of mud. It is in these situations especially, that technique, concept, and style can have a huge bearing on the overall sound.
I saw an interview with Peter Frampton where he talked about a point early in his career when he transitioned from playing clubs and concert halls to sports arenas and stadiums. He mentioned how the sound was often less than great and that he adapted his songwriting style to work better in the context of “arena rock”. In the interview, he demonstrated this approach by playing a few simple power cords back to back and allowing the chords to ring openly. When I saw this interview, it not only reinforced a little of what I already knew, it got me thinking about how and why this would make sense.
When sound is in an acoustic space that results in a loss of definition, some of the finite details of a musical performance become lost in the mud, often because of an overly exaggerated natural reverb and/or certain over accentuated frequencies. This is especially true in large cavernous buildings, or at over sized outdoor festivals. If you’ve ever played in these situations, you may have noticed that the ballads often tend to sound and feel better than the up-tempo songs. One of the reasons for this is because a slower tempo allows for longer note durations, and longer pauses, or more space, in between the notes. Playing in a larger physical space means that it takes longer for a note to develop and bounce off of a wall, and by playing long slow passages you are allowing these notes time to develop before bombarding them with the next note. You are playing into the inherently slow reaction time of a large or inefficient space and working with this handicap.
Now think of this phenomenon in reverse. You are playing a busy, up-tempo song in the same clumsy, nondescript acoustic environment. The bass player is playing a pedal of steady eighth notes on the low E, but because of the nature of the room, it just sounds like one big long note. The intricacies of the cymbal work seem to get lost, and the guitar solo doesn’t seem to cut through the mix. Needless to say, the vocalist is now having a difficult time singing over the roar. The room is just too loose to handle this many notes in rapid fire succession at a high volume, and turning the mix up or down doesn’t seem to help. When all else fails, simplify. Rather than just playing the exact pattern of the studio recording of a song, or your interpretation thereof, try adapting your part to fit the sonic inadequacies of a particular situation. Maybe quarter notes on the bass and a simpler pattern on the hi hat will help create a more open, and spacious mix. Perhaps simplifying the guitar part by leaving out certain rhythmic nuances that are getting lost anyway will create a better feel in the moment.
Back in the early 2000’s a friend of mine asked me to sub a gig for him on a national tour. His advice was to learn the material to the best of my abilities, but to play “big and spacey”. In the years since, I’ve worked hard at my ability to play into the sound of each “space” and have learned that not only is less more, quite often, less is better. Playing simply in live situations allows each note to have more meaning and also creates more space in the overall mix for the other instruments. And when all the players of a group work within this mindset it can also result in a more controlled, and often more inspired stage sound. So if you’re playing a show and it doesn’t sound good on stage, don’t just go on autopilot and accept that fate. Work towards finding a balance between the inadequate physical space of the venue, and the amount of perceived “space” in the music. Space has its own vibe. Space is beautiful.
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.
It’s springtime, and festival season is upon us. The time of year for county fairs and outdoor music festivals is here, and along with it comes the unpredictable variable of the weather. Working as a tour manager and touring musician, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in situations where a concert promoter or event coordinator seems to think they have magic powers when it comes to predicting the weather. They all seem to have a crystal ball that literally guarantees them a clear day despite any meteorologists forecast.
First of all, anybody that plans an outdoor show is taking a big risk, as these events are booked months in advance with no way of knowing what the weather will be on the day of show. Outdoor concerts and events on the highest level, usually have stages with a roof, and optional sides that can be put up in the event of rain. This will keep the performers and equipment protected, although typically leaving the audience exposed to the elements. Concerts and events on a smaller scale have varying degrees of preparedness, and many have stages with less than adequate covering. Also inherent to many of these smaller “townie” style events are event coordinators that can be a little less than rational when it comes to contingency plans for bad weather.
A few years ago I worked an outdoor show in Alabama in the month of June. The forecast all week long called for heavy rain and severe weather for the day of our concert. On show day, we arrived around noon, and it was already lightly sprinkling. A local high school football field was the site for this concert, and a large stage, with a roof but no sides had been constructed at one end of the field. Earlier in the week, I had suggested to the event coordinator that if the weather was looking bad, to have the concert in the high school gymnasium. As the weather predictions seemed to be spot on, I again made the suggestion, as there was still enough time to move the event inside. Of course, I was overruled, as the event coordinator said that the gym couldn’t hold all of the people they were expecting, along with the line “Most of the bad weather is supposed to blow just south of here.”
Not. By the time we were ready for sound check a couple of hours later, the rain started coming down heavy, and a strong wind was blowing the rain across stage. We quickly covered our gear, while the sound company frantically covered their equipment with large tarps. A couple hours later, the rain subsided long enough for us to do a brief sound check, which turned out to be our only performance on this day. No sooner did we finish the sound check, when the sky opened up with a vengeance, soaking us to the bone as we ran for the bus. By 8:00PM, our official show time, the steady rain was now accompanied by lightning, and the soaked concertgoer’s standing on the wet field were told to retreat to their cars for safety. We were all on standby for the next couple of hours hoping that the weather would pass, but the radar showed otherwise. Even with the certainty of this night upon us, I’ll never forget standing outside of the bus in the pouring rain and arguing with the promoter, who was now practically begging us to perform on the wet stage, an electrocution waiting to happen. With rain dripping off the front of his hat and in between an almost constant barrage of loud thunder, I believe his words were “It looks like it’s going to clear up any minute now.”
That particular show was no exception. I, like many touring musicians, have been in similar scenarios countless times. In fact that particular summer, we were rained out four or five times. Without the proper advanced planning, some situations don’t allow much of an option. But sometimes a show could be salvaged at the last minute if an event coordinator would simply bite the bullet and realize that a smaller concert indoors might be better than no concert at all.
Tomorrow, I’ll be leaving for an outdoor show in northern Alabama. Our group is scheduled to perform on a couple of flatbed trailers covered by “an awning” at 8:30 PM tomorrow night. Earlier in the week I suggested to the event coordinator the possibility of renting a large “circus style” tent, complete with sides, as rain has been in the forecast for almost a week now. As of this moment, the National Weather Service forecast says “Thunderstorms are expected to become widespread during Saturday across northwest Alabama, and spread gradually eastward during the afternoon and evening hours. A few thunderstorms may be capable of producing flash flooding.” I guess we’ll soon find out if he went with my tent idea. Regardless, I’m hoping we get lucky, but experience tells me to be prepared to hear the words “It looks like it’s going to clear up any minute now.”
What is the real difference between a cover song and an original song? For in reality, after a song is beyond the compositional stage of its life, it is forever “covered”, even by the artist or band that wrote it. I have been in cover bands that played three sets of top 40 covers and threw in a couple of originals. I have been in original bands that threw in the occasional cover. Both situations required me to know a list of tunes that I could perform well on a regular basis. Both of these situations can also allow for a song list to become predictable or even boring to the musicians performing those songs, regardless of who wrote them.
It is true that to be in a “cover band” you don’t need to know how to create or write music, but this is also true for many musicians in “original” bands. While some original bands write songs by total group collaboration, many do not. Most super-groups throughout history have had one or two members that did the bulk of the songwriting; Lennon/ McCartney, Jagger/Richards, Page/Plant etc. Regardless of how many members contributed to the songwriting of a given band, that band is still covering their material. How many hundreds or thousands of times have the Rolling Stones had to perform Satisfaction or Jumping Jack Flash? Do those songs still feel “original” to them?
I have been working for a country artist for the last six years, and for the most part, have been performing the same set list, occasionally adding some new material. Although I originally wrote some of the guitar licks and helped arrange some of this material, 200 performances later they feel like covers. Even if I improvise some guitar solos and other subtleties in these tunes during performances, the essence of these songs never really changes. I have many musician friends that work on other tours, and in most cases they are not a part of the songwriting process in those situations. They were hired by an artist or band, learned the required repertoire, and have been essentially “covering” that material all along.
There are many groups trying to establish their followings in the music scene that call themselves “original bands”, and these groups are trying to create a fan base around their original material. They go out and perform shows by “covering” their originals in an attempt to familiarize their audience with their songs, slowly over time. It is perhaps on this level that the biggest difference between covers and originals might be perceived, but ultimately, the typical audience simply hears and categorizes music as familiar or obscure and gives little thought, if any, to who wrote the material. The song either connects, or doesn’t, then this variable can have as much to do with the performance, as it does the song itself.
Many of the great blues and jazz artists of the 20th century had repertoires that were filled with covers or songs that were written for them. Some of the great rock groups that came out of the 60s and 70s started their careers covering blues tunes, and many megastars aren’t songwriters. Did Pavarotti ever write a song? Songwriting is a craft that takes great skill, but then again, so is performing. Why should it matter who wrote the song if you enjoy playing it, and your audience enjoys hearing it? To the audience, a song is just a song, and they either like it, or they don’t. So get used to the idea of covering songs, because the concept is as old as the hills, and in reality, after you’ve played a song once, it is forever a cover.
Over the years I have heard and engaged in many discussions about the validity of open mics and blues jams. Some argue that they only exist for club owners to have free entertainment and that skilled players shouldn’t play for free, others argue that it’s the only way for some to obtain exposure, connections, or experience, and some agree with both sides of the argument but don’t care and just want to play, often for a variety of reasons.
I have always been in the latter camp. My very first nightclub performance with a band came at the age of 17 at a local “hoot night” at a club called the Mill in Amesbury Massachusetts. The experience was a positive one, leading to several more sit-ins in the following months. These sit-ins allowed me to graduate from practicing in the bedroom, to playing full songs with a band in front of an audience. At these jam night, I also made friends with other musicians, locals, and even a couple of “lady friends”, and this was pretty exciting for a young kid who was barely out of high school. This was in the early stages of my development as a gigging musician, and helped me gain some valuable experience and confidence as a performer.
A couple of years later I was in music school and still attended jam nights regularly. I looked at jam nights as opportunities to road test some of what I was learning in school, it was part of the exploration process for me. After music school, I began playing professionally in a top 40 band, 3 to 4 nights a week. It was a great band, but pretty much a note for noter, not leaving much room for improv. At this point I began seeking out and attending many different jam nights and blues jams regularly. The basic attitude of “anything goes “found at many jam nights was an opportunity for me to further explore musical ideas and concepts. I also used jam nights and blues jams as a way to keep my sanity, temporarily freeing me from the restraints of my top 40 captivity. While not all of these were great musical experiences, some were, and I met some great players along the way, developing lasting friendships with many of them.
In the early 90s I heard about one particular jam night that was really happening. It was a cold Monday night in the middle of the winter, when I first arrived at an old rustic club called Colbys in the small town of Rochester New Hampshire. The place was packed and the band was rockin’ as I walked in carrying my Fender Strat and Marshall amp. The first thing I noticed was that the whole place was just alive with energy, everybody was really listening to the band, even clapping and singing along at times. The group that hosted this weekly event was the Ron Jones band, and they played a mix of rock, blues, and country, very well I might add. There weren’t many jammers there on that particular night, and after the band heard that I could play, they had me play with them for an entire set. It was an extremely rewarding musical experience, and I didn’t view it as something I was doing for free, I was simply doing something I love to do.
I returned often to Colby’s over the following months participating in many great jams as well as a nightly ritual called the Dr. Pepper, in which shots of 151 rum were lit on fire, dumped into a row of beers, and then consumed quickly by the band (by the way, don’t ever drink and drive). On one particular night I walked in and heard an amazing guitar player sitting in with the band. Simply put, he was one of the best guitar players I had ever heard. I was intimidated at first, but upon the encouragement of the band, I set up to play a few tunes with this fellow. From the first note we played together, everyone knew it was going to be good, it just felt right. We jammed for over an hour, engaging in some great band interplay, and became instant friends that night.
I eventually lost touch with my new guitar buddy, but continued playing in bands and using jam nights as a musical outlet. Over the years, I made mental notes about the stronger players I would encounter, and when a player would leave my band, I would sometimes hire players that I had previously met at jam nights. On more than one occasion, I would bring my band to a jam night and use it as an opportunity to audition live for the club owner, sometimes obtaining work from this approach.
By the early 2000’s I was burning out on the New England nightclub circuit, or lack thereof, and began to think about relocating to a place with more music industry. I had heard some rumors that my old guitar buddy had moved to Nashville and was doing quite well there. I tracked him down, called him up, and even though we hadn’t spoken in 10 years, it was as if our conversation picked up right where it left off. He understood my frustration with trying to earn a living as a musician in New England, and suggested that I check out Nashville. A couple of weeks later my wife and I made the drive to Music City and my old friend greeted us with a smile. He graciously took us around to all of his hangouts, introduced us to his friends, and gave me the scoop about Nashville. A couple of months later we made a permanent move to Nashville and my old guitar buddy was instrumental in helping us get situated.
Since being in Nashville, I have attended a few jam nights and blues jams. Over the first year I spent a lot of time going to the Fiddle and Steel in Printers alley. Sometimes I would have to wait all night, but eventually I would get to sit in. It wasn’t advertised as a jam night, but it seemed to be kind of an unofficial sit-in after the first set on weeknights. After about a year of going to the Steel regularly, one of the relationships I made there led to an opportunity to work as a guitar tech on the Toby Keith tour. That tour lead to other tours. I have been working as a professional musician ever since. I wonder if I ever would have come here if I hadn’t met my guitar buddy at a jam night.
So, what have I gained by going to jam nights?
8. Social Skills
9. A Career
10. A Lot Of Fun along the Way
Why does it matter if a nightclub owner profits from others playing for free if those who are playing for free can also find ways to benefit or “profit” over time by doing so? Jam nights, open mics, and blues jams have been around for decades and are what you make of them. They can be great and they can be terrible, sometimes within the same night. You might have to search hard to find one with a group of players or vibe that fits you. You might have to make repeated attempts at any given jam night to gradually work your way into the niche, and you probably won’t get discovered at a jam night as the next “superstar”. But I believe, with the right approach, a jam night can be a useful tool for some. For me, they have helped me discover myself.