bus driver

Rhett Akins Tour 2010 Wraps up with Two Shows in Texas

October 8, 2010 – Dallas, Texas

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

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

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

Onward to Baytown

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Does It Take to Be a Good Tour Bus Driver?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Exceptional Bus Driving Skills of ‘Les the Wingnut’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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