A light rain was falling as we drove our tour bus down the long dirt driveway leading into “the Clubhouse in Rye Patch”, the concert venue in which we would be performing on this night. Buried deep in the woods of Ludowici, Georgia, the view out of the bus window was quite picturesque as we passed some horses in a field on one side, and a gazebo in the middle of a small pond on the other from which an inviting sign put forth the words “propose to get married here.” After getting the bus parked, I directed some stagehands to load our gear into the performance area, an open sided breezeway complete with “that dirt floor charm” and air that smelled of barroom pleasantries and rabbit poop. Randy Hauser, the other headliner, was scheduled to play after us, at 10 PM, and his band was in the middle of sound check as I scoped out the room. A couple of hours later, after Hauser’s boys had extensively checked the system, it was our turn to set up and sound check in this room now half full of people, and we proceeded to the stage. An hour or so later we retreated to the dining hall for a catered meal of pork, chicken, mac and cheese, steamed corn, and fried bread, which was followed by some showers in the bunk house.
Sometime around 6 PM, the first of three opening acts took the stage and began the night with a pounding rendition of the rarity “Sweet Home Alabama”, complete with double bass drum fills throughout. This over-the-top band of locals was an explosion of kinetic energy, and they proceeded to entertain the crowd with their hour plus set of cult classics. With the following two openers of this music marathon each playing close to an hour, the night was running behind, and it was just after 9:30, before we took the stage. By this point of the night, the place was wall-to-wall, and the audience of 1200 festive Southerners, ranging in age from infancy to 80, was now spilling out into the courtyard. Our five piece group delivered a walloping performance, and the crowd reaction was magnanimous, one of our best receptions so far this year. During one point of the performance, a couple of kids hopped up onto the stage, singing and dancing along. This prompted a couple of “young ladies” to follow suit on the opposite side of this small and already overcrowded stage. The feisty ladies had difficulty showing restraint, and their dancing quickly evolved into more of a grinding-like motion. By the end of the song more people were trying to get on stage which prompted some “security personnel” to start grabbing folks and handing them off the back of the stage. In the middle of the next song another girl hopped onto the stage, however this time, one of the house sound engineers grabbed her bouncer-style and she was gone almost as quickly as she appeared. This prompted one of the “security personnel” to hop onto the stage and place himself strategically between me and Rhett, who was standing about 5 feet away. For this, he received an instant rejection notice from me, and he vanished quickly as well.
We finished our 60 minute set to a roaring applause that didn’t subside until we climbed back on stage for an encore. Rhett strapped on an electric guitar and proceeded to play some licks before launching into Tom Petty’s “Last Chance for Mary Jane”. After a few verses, the song morphed into “Breakdown” followed by a few riffs of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” and then into Pearl Jam’s “Alive” before returning the final dual lead guitar onslaught at the end of this carefully executed, fly by the seat of your pants style jam.
Our performance now finished, we quickly began to strike our gear amidst a chaotic stage that was now being rushed by Randy Hauser’s crew. We loaded up our bus, and a short while later Randy Hauser and band took the stage as I began to chase down the promoter for the settlement. Hauser’s performance was followed by the “Daisy Duke” contest, during which time another local band was setting up for the “after concert-show”, a strange ritual held by many local bar owners across the land.
A short while later and we were all back on the bus driving away, talking about the night amidst Rhett’s impersonation of ‘Damone’ from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”. It was another fun weekend in the deep South and we were headed home.
This day began like so many other days on the road, waking up on a tour bus to the view a hotel parking lot in the middle of nowhere. On this particularly warm spring day we were scheduled to play a multi-band extravaganza in Vienna Georgia, and after a couple of hours at the local Country Inn and suites, we set off to the concert site on other side of town. As we pulled down a long dirt road, the view of the “Pig Jig” festival grounds came into focus. An array of crudely built, weathered shacks and buildings that kind of reminded me of a movie set that fell somewhere between an imaginary western and a redneck Ewok village.
Upon our landing, I was greeted by Mack, the festival promoter, who direced some stage hands to unload our gear. I walked over to check out the stage, a large outdoor “shed” style structure in which Colt Ford and his band had just finished their soundcheck, and helped guide our gear into place. A couple hours later, after our soundcheck, I organized a hotel run for the band to get some showers and downtime. When we returned to the concert grounds around dinner time, there was already a good size crowd building, and some of our group retreated to the hospitality area for some “pig and fixin’s”.
The concert begins with a local acoustic duo, RDR, who slowly began to wake up the crowd, now sweltering in the hot Georgia sun. Sonny Ledfurd, a three piece band from North Carolina, was up next, and the crowd seemed to really get into the bands tunes about drinking whisky, smokin’ dope, and “partying in my driveway”. Tyler Farr (from Colt’s band) then played a brief acoustic set just prior to our show, and the crowd was now thoroughly primed for Rhett and band. With the darkness of night now upon us, the mood was just right, and we launched into our 60 minute show of rockin’ southern country. The crowd responded warmly to some of Rhetts’ earlier hits as well as some newer material like “My Baby Looks Good in Camouflage” and “Duck Blind”. We finished our set with Rhett’s anthem “Kiss My Country Ass”, tore down our gear, and move it to backstage to wait for stagehands.
Upon spotting one of the stagehands backstage I instructed him to round up a few more hands to help deliver the gear to the bus. When 2 more husky fellows arrived a few minutes later, the first load of gear was delivered to our bus, after which the “hands” seemed to vanish into thin air. After another 5 minutes or so I call the promoter and “re-request” the stagehands. A minute later, one of the hands returned ahead of his co-workers and proceeded to walk right past me and the gear to briefly vomit around the corner. Our drunken helper returned and exclaimed “O.K., what’s next?” The other hands returned, we finished the load-out, and then we were done for the night. A few minutes later Colt took the stage with his band to rock the 1000 or so in attendance. A little while later and we we’re driving off into the night to our next destination, “The Clubhouse at Rye Patch” in Ludowici, GA. We we’re all exhausted, but it was a fun day, and the show went well. In the end, fun was had by all at the Big Pig Jig.
Nashville Tennessee remains a prime destination for many musicians, songwriters, artists, and industry professionals, and in light of the city’s unique musical heritage, this constant influx will unlikely stop anytime soon. But beneath the suggestive title of “Music City” is a place that for many newcomers might be more aptly titled “Mystery City”. For in reality, the Nashville music scene is a massive, diverse, competitive, and ever-changing community whose true scope and nature are near invisible to those not working within it. Becoming one of the few fortunate musicians to find work and acceptance within this community can be a formidable task, and even when those goals seem to have been achieved, sustaining that career long term can be just as challenging, as I have learned first-hand.
My Nashville adventure began like many transplants to Music City, a cross-country pilgrimage with a U-Haul full of belongings, some life savings, big ideas, and no clue about what I was getting myself into. That first year of 2002 would prove one of the hardest, with my wife and I both trying relentlessly to find employment, struggling to pay the bills, and earning the bulk of our income by selling off possessions on eBay while going out on the town at night to network. About one year into this new life, the networking paid off, and I landed a job as a guitar tech on the Toby Keith 2003 Shock ‘N Y’ all tour, a true financial lifeline. I have spent most of my years since that tour working for country music artist and songwriter Rhett Akins as tour manager, band leader, and lead guitarist. Along the way I have, and continue, to work some in-town club gigs and recording sessions and I still panic trying to pay the bills every winter when the touring season slows to a crawl. Overall, I am earning a living from music and I credit this good fortune to having an invaluable combination of skills, work ethic, and a friend in the music community who pointed me in the right direction.
This kind of good fortune is not the case for all who venture to Music City, and along my journey I have met many struggling musicians and artists who have had much harder luck. At a recent blues jam, I met a drummer who had been in Nashville for about a year. He had done a couple of gigs in town, but nothing consistent, and nothing that came close to paying any bills. He was doing his best to try to insert himself into the scene but wasn’t having much success. “How do you get a road gig, or any gig in this town for that matter?” he asked. I could see the look of desperation in his eyes as he told me that his savings were now all used up and he wasn’t sure what he was going to do next.
Unfortunately, this kind of story is far more common in Nashville.
That conversation, as well as other similar tales, led me to the realization that the world outside of the Nashville music community knew very little of its inner workings, and that there is a real need for this information to be available to the masses. What originally began for me as a series of blogs and message board postings has now evolved into the soon to be completed book “The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide” with its companion website www.survivenashville.com. Written from my perspective of being a working musician, the book outlines the structure and potential jobs within Nashville’s recording, touring, and nightclub communities. The basic job requirements, pay scales, and networking required to land those jobs are explored in great detail. Additional perspective in the form of several recent and ongoing interviews with music professionals will also be put forth, including A-list session bassist Mike Chapman, self-made indie artist Colt Ford, touring musicians, nightclub musicians, club owners, songwriters, engineers, managers, bus drivers, and more.
Nashville is a funny place. Everybody comes here to fulfill their dreams in music but most are unable to survive for any real length of time. Many of those who do survive long-term end up so trapped in the business end of things that their musical integrity often suffers. It seems that for many people, the Nashville experience isn’t what they hoped it would be. The key to surviving Nashville is to have a clear vision about your long-term goals, find different ways to earn income working within the current music scene while working towards those long-term goals, and use your relationships and connections from within the music community for financial survival and to achieve your long-term goals. None of this can be accomplished without some knowledge about the current state of the Nashville music community, a long-term commitment to this place and without building real, lasting relationships. It is my hope that this book and website will help some to accomplish their dreams.
In the meantime, good luck on the path.
Since first moving to Nashville in 2002 I have worked on several national tours, and for the most part, have had the luxury of traveling around on Prevost XLII tour buses, the luxury liners of touring. In my opinion, traveling by tour bus with a professional driver is, by far, the most comfortable and stress-free way to travel long distances with a group. Many musicians, past and present, are not so fortunate, and for some, “vanning it” is the only option. At a few different points during my touring years, I too have wound up in that category.
A couple of years into my life in Nashville, I played a handful of gigs with a regional cover rock band. On one particular weekend, we were hired to play at a biker party on top of Fredonia Mountain, a remote area far from civilization as we knew it, near the Tennessee-Alabama border (think Deliverance). Kelly and I left Nashville early afternoon driving in, you guessed it, a van (our trustworthy 2001 Dodge Caravan), loaded with my guitar equipment, a bag lunch, and some sleeping bags, as we were planning to sleep over after the show. The majority of the 130 mile drive was on Interstate 24, and we made it to our exit in just under two hours. The last 20 or so miles of the trip were on backroads, winding through hilly terrain, with a couple of small towns occasionally popping up out of nowhere. Keep in mind that this took place just prior to the era of affordable GPS technology, so we were relying on our printed out directions from Microsoft’s “Streets and Trips” to guide us.
After driving around for about an hour, unable to find the access road to the mountain, we realized we were lost, and stopped at a convenience store to ask directions. There were two guys standing outside their pickup truck in the parking lot, and upon asking them how to get to Fredonia Mountain, they answered in a dialect of hick that was so far removed from the English language it might as well have been Klingon. At this point, now afraid to step outside of our van again, we realized we were on our own, and began to backtrack using our printed out directions. After taking a series of turns onto, what the directions labeled as “local roads”, we turned down one particular gravel road that, at first, seemed like the most logical access point to the mountain. As this gig was on top of a mountain, and we were driving on mountain roads, with the directions literally reflecting each new turn we took, we had no reason to think we were on the wrong track. Any thoughts of such certainty quickly vanished when the gravel road upon which we were traveling emerged from the forest allowing us a horrifying view of reality. Kelly, who had been driving up to this point, stopped the van suddenly when we saw out of the driver’s side window, a sheer drop off about 3 feet to the left of the van. The view out of her window was that of treetops a couple hundred feet below us, and with the road being deeply rutted and on a downhill slope, we couldn’t back out of this predicament.
Already a mile or so down what was obviously an old logging trail, and no longer in cell phone coverage, we had no choice but to continue forward, in the hopes that this road might bring us to our destination. I got out and walked ahead of the van, slowly helping to guide Kelly through this dangerous section of road. After a few hundred feet, the drop-off section now passed, I hopped back in the van and we continued driving down this trail. Another mile or so of slow-going on this rough terrain and the dirt road became suddenly blocked by some fallen trees, making it obvious that we were going to have to turn around. Kelly, who was now in a near state of panic with dusk approaching, asked me to make the drive out. As there was no place to turnaround on this dead-end road into hell, I backed the van up for about a half mile to a spot that would allow a six-point turn. One more panic stricken ride past the lookout of death, and we emerged safely out of the forest.
We eventually made it to our gig (somewhat late), and as is it turned out, this logging trail brought us to within 5 miles of it. Unfortunately, the Microsoft provided directions, while bringing us to the base of the mountain, failed to show the dangers of these “local roads” and that the only safe access road was about 30 miles around the other side of the mountain. I wish we had a camera with us on that day, as our view out the van window of the valley of death was beyond words. The near perilous experience we lived through on that unforgettable day did teach us some valuable lessons we will never forget. Don’t ever completely rely on a Microsoft program to get you safely from point A to point B, always be suspicious of anything labeled “local roads”, avoid asking locals for directions whenever possible, and, always beware of the pitfalls of “vanning it”.
The Saturday morning of April 17 started out like so many other one-off’s for all of us on the Rhett Akins tour, and on this day, it was the Kappa Alpha fraternity house at Georgia Tech in Atlanta that would be our destination. This particular day began in a slightly more than typical fashion with Rhett’s son, Thomas Rhett, and three of his best friends tagging along for this southern spring adventure.
We arrived at the frat house late afternoon to be greeted by our contacts who were fairly organized, and they did a good job helping us get situated (if you’ve ever played a fraternity, then you know this is somewhat uncommon). We loaded our gear onto a plywood stage which was set up in the middle of a courtyard in the back of the frat house, and proceeded to set up and sound check amidst the backdrop of the downtown skyscrapers of this enormous city. This particular concert had an 11:30 PM start time, typical for a frat party, so we had a good amount of downtime between sound check and the show. A few hours later, after some dinner and a little chillin’ in the front lounge, I went out to the stage to get some things set for the show. Upon returning to the bus, I felt a little bit of that pre-show lag common with such late starts, and we all started talking about how we felt like we were ready for bed. Sorry everybody, show time is in five minutes!
The show began and a wave of energy quickly spread from the stage, through the crowd, and back to the stage in that kind of perpetual circular motion that only happens at a live concert. It’s amazing how quickly adrenaline will turn exhaustion into an abundance of energy, and now the night was really starting to evolve as we stomped through our repertoire. The packed courtyard was standing room only, and the receptive kids were singing along with Rhett’s earlier hits as well as much of his unreleased later material. Still going strong an hour and a half after we began, Rhett decided to pull out some old-school tunes, and the crowd of energetic youngsters, many of whom were still in their late teens, seemed to know every word of Allman Brothers classics like Statesboro Blues and Melissa, songs that were released years before these kids were even born. After I sang Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower to give Rhett a quick break, he launched into some more fun party tunes that kept everybody singing and grooving along, ending the electric part of this show with Hey Ho Let’s Go, by The Ramones, a song we had never played before that seemed to only further ignite the excitement of the crowd. Although we walked off the stage feeling exhausted, it was a good feeling exhausted.
It was now 2:00 AM and we had played nonstop for 2 1/2 hours, substantially longer than our typical concert, but not unheard of for us. Upon the relentless chanting for more, Rhett decided to send up his son, Thomas Rhett, to stand in for an acoustic encore. Thomas Rhett, apparently inheriting his dad’s uncanny ability to instantly win over a crowd, kept the party going strong for another 45 minutes, singing some of his favorite tunes. When Thomas left the stage, the kids, still wanting more, were then treated to a second acoustic encore by Rhett himself, who was apparently inspired by his son’s performance. Rhett announced “If it’s all right with y’all, I’m gonna keep singing until our bus driver gets here.” Of course, he thought our driver would be there shortly, which he would’ve, but because of a communication error, it would be another hour before he would arrive. By the time I finally went out to tell our fearless leader that we could now leave, it was 3:55 AM, bringing the total length of this concert to four hours and 25 minutes, what is certainly the longest Rhett Akins concert I’ve ever been a part of. Although the party had dwindled to a smaller size than its peak a couple of hours earlier, those who were left were still chanting for more as Rhett walked away.
As we drove off into the night, with a Waffle House as our next destination, we all sat around the front lounge of the bus, basking in the wonderment of the night. Even the fraternity’s security personell said we rocked. As far as Rhett Akins concerts go, it may have been the longest mile we’ve walked yet, and thanks to everybody that was there, it was another great Saturday night in Dixie!
Success is all about expectations, and everyone has their own definition of success. But is it possible that many people have currently, or previously achieved a major success in their life, but simply fail to recognize that success because it wasn’t what they expected?
My wife and I were sitting around yesterday talking about a great cover rock band that we used to go see frequently in the 90s, when we lived in New England. Most of the guys in this band worked day jobs and primarily played on the weekends. They were a fun, energetic, talented party band that played classic and modern rock. Over time, they built a large following, eventually packing every venue they played and getting paid well to do so. Every show they played was an event, with people showing up early, dancing and partying all night, and at the end of the night nobody wanted to leave. These guys were doing well enough to hire a production company that not only set up and ran a PA, they actually carted around and set up the band’s personal gear, allowing them to show up minutes before downbeat, making a rock star entrance every time. They even had girls falling all over themselves to make their acquaintances.
While they never wrote a song, made a recording, or even ventured outside of their region, they were the kings of the New England night club circuit for over 10 years. During that same time, I played in a rival band on the same circuit. Although we didn’t have quite as large a success, we also did okay. Looking back, none of the bands that played on this circuit, mine included, really viewed themselves as achieving a high level of success, everybody was still trying to “make it”. Flash forward another decade to Nashville Tennessee, and I’ve now played on concert stages in front of tens of thousands of people, in every state in the country. I’ve played in Canada, France, Switzerland, and on the Grand Ole’ Opry. By everybody’s definition back home, I have “made it”. While the numbers might be bigger, the concept is still the same. I’m still just playing music with a good band, to receptive audiences, and getting paid to do it. But now that it’s a “career”, while there are still some high points, there is also more pressure, and less stability. In reality, there is no real difference, it’s all just music and life. Now when I look back to my nightclubbing days in New England, it is with fondness and pride. I had already made it long before I moved to Nashville. Have you already made it, but just don’t know it yet?