Fiddle and Steel
It was the spring of 2004, and I had just completed my first year as guitar tech for Toby Keith. The whirlwind tour ran almost nonstop from July through February, taking off the months of March through June before firing back up again. So with a few months of downtime ahead of me, I was on the hunt for other gigging opportunities. I started doing some in-town nightclub gigs as a “hired gun” and a few sporadic out-of-town weekends with a few different singers I started working with, basically trying to get my fingers into everything I could. Ultimately, I was searching for another road gig, one in which I would be a player and not a tech.
Then one day I got a call from my friend “D”, asking if I could sub for him on his gig with the Honky Tonk Tailgate Party. “It’s a lot of songs to learn for just one gig, but it will be good for you, and if you can make these guys happy they might call you again someday.” “Count me in; I’d love to do it!” I answered excitedly. “Now, you’ve got to make me look good. They’re nervous about me subbing this out, so you’ve got to nail this gig, and I mean nail it to the floor! This is my reputation on the line as much as it is yours.” I understand” I reassured him “I’ll make you look great!” “And one more thing,” he added “you can use charts if you have to, but it will be better if you don’t.”
The next night I went out to the Fiddle and Steel and picked up a few CDs from Scott Mattevi, their sound engineer who also worked weeknights at the Steel back then. The Honky Tonk Tailgate Party, or HTTP for short, consisted of four artists; Rhett Akins, Daryle Singletary, Chad Brock, and David Kersh, all backed by one five-piece band, and traveling together in one “Camo” bus with a trailer.
I had about 35 songs to learn in about 2 1/2 weeks, and this material spanned four CDs, two containing the studio cuts, and two CDs of a live show, so I listened to these discs over and over again. When I’m learning new music for a new gig, time permitting, my method is as follows:
First, I employ a “SIRDB”, or “self-induced rapidly deployed brainwashing” of the new material (AKA listening to the CDs over and over again until I start hearing them in my sleep). I’ll use this rapid infusion technique for at least a week before even picking up a guitar.
Second, I’ll chart out all of the songs. While this can be time-consuming, it is well worth it as it helps me “visualize” the entire song structure and arrangement, and commits the songs to memory in a different way. It also helps me dissect any figures, breaks, or dynamics that are unique to each song.
Third, I’ll get out my guitar and, using the CDs, begin learning the specific parts and playing along with the songs. I’ll also begin to play the signature licks and intros without the recording, to further commit these most essential song signatures to memory.
So that’s how I spent those three weeks of my life. After the first week or so of nonstop listening, I spent five or six hours a day working on HTTP material, and by the time I was driving to the bus the night before the show, I was ready.
I arrived to the bus a half hour early, loaded my gear into the bays, and met the artists and rest of the band, some of whom I knew already from hanging out and sitting in at The Steel. After a night of sleep in the back lounge (there were 13 riders on this bus) and some downtime the next morning, we were loading in and setting up for outdoor show somewhere in Alabama. After getting the sound dialed in, we began rehearsing some of the material, one artist at a time. And thanks to my patented “SIRDB” technique, other than one piece of paper with a few key signatures written down, I didn’t have a chart in sight. So far so good, I didn’t make any glaring mistakes during the rehearsal, I hadn’t said anything stupid yet, I even managed to make Daryle Singletary laugh with a couple of offhand comments. But I was nervous, nevertheless. Even though I had previously done several shows playing guitar for Vern Gosdin, and had regularly stood on stages in front of 30,000 people when teching for Toby, this was different. I had to make FOUR different artists happy on this night, and each of these artists had their own unique song style, and performance approach.
After sound check/rehearsal, dinner, and showers at the hotel, we were back at the concert site getting ready for the show. Dressed in our best, we hit the stage around eight o’clock and were off and running with David’s set. The outdoor stage faced an open field filled with 1000 or so concert-goers and they quickly became immersed in the show. This show ran like a grid and there was very little space between songs, some songs even running into the next song “medley style”, so I had very little time to think. Before I knew it, David’s set was over and Chad Brock was walking onto the stage as David walked off, the music never stopping. Chad’s set went equally as smooth, and by the time we played his last song of the set, his hit “She Said Yes”, I was starting to feel pretty comfortable on this stage.
Now it was time for Daryle Singletary’s part of the show. Both David’s, and Chad’s sets were of the modern country/pop kind of sound, and this used a style of guitar playing that was more familiar to me. But Daryle’s music was more rooted in traditional country music, so his set required a different approach on the guitar, much more use of the “chicken pickin” technique, and the use of a clean sound throughout. Fortunately, my overkill approach to preparing for this gig came in handy and Daryle looked over at me and smiled at a couple of points during the show, at one point even commenting over the mic “I’d like to introduce Eric Normand filling in on guitar tonight. He’s a Yankee, but we won’t hold that against him… (laughs)…He’s doing a fine job.” The crowd reacted approvingly, and my confidence continued to grow. This was great; I was winning over the bosses!
Finally, an hour and a half into this nonstop barrage of country music fun, it was time for Rhett’s eight or nine songs. Rhett’s music is as much southern rock as it is country, and this driving approach was right up my alley. By the end of his set the crowd was in a frenzy and, after a brief pause, we began playing Hank Junior’s “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming over Tonight” for the encore. The HTTP encore featured all four artists on the stage at once, each taking turns singing verses, and big harmonies on the choruses. We did three or four songs; each followed with a roaring applause, before retreating to the bus.
After the show, the artists and band members told me I did a great job and that they appreciated how seriously I took the gig. It was a great feeling to know that my mission was successful. A couple of days later I got a call from D. “I heard you did a great job. You even made Singletary happy, and that’s hard to do.” “Thanks, it was tons of fun, all the hard work paid off. I hope it comes up again.”
In the meantime, here’s to “Nailing It to the Floor”!
It was a hot summer night in July of 2003, and I was hanging out at the Fiddle and Steel, when my good friend, Dave McAfee, told me that there was a job opening up on the Toby Keith tour. The position was for that of guitar tech, and Dave, who had been with Toby since the early days, felt that he could make it happen if I was interested.
“I know you came here to work as a player, but I think you could gain some good experience working on this tour for a while.” he said. I had been in Nashville for a year and, despite having built up some steady in-town gigs, was ready to take this next step. “I could definitely use the experience of working on a major tour, not to mention some real income, but I don’t have any experience working as a tech.” I responded. “Don’t worry about that, the job is mainly restringing and tuning guitars, and taking care of backline. They’ll teach you everything you need to know.” He said. “Okay, count me in! When do we leave?”
The next step was a brief phone call the following day with Toby’s tour manager, Sean Sargent. Based solely on my commitment to work hard and my obvious hunger for the position, and of course the good word Dave had already put in for me, I was hired. I was now about to officially become a “road dog”. I had no idea whatsoever what I was in for.
To give a little perspective here, prior to landing this gig with Toby, the most extensive touring I had done was a couple weekend outings with Vern Gosdin and BB Watson, basically one-offs within 500 miles of Nashville with 8 to 10 people traveling on one bus, our backline stowed in bays underneath. The Toby tour that year, dubbed the title “Shock’n Y’all”, touted an entourage of 50 plus band and crew members, traveling by six buses, and carrying full production in six semis.
My virgin outing with this mega tour was a doozy of a trip. We were scheduled to play in Cheyenne, Wyoming on Saturday, July 19; Harrington, Delaware on Monday, July 21, and then returning to Nashville for a few days before departing for Toronto, Ontario. This is what is known in the touring industry as “deadheading”, or in the country music industry as the “dartboard tour”, meaning that some of these runs seemed so illogical that you might as well throw darts at a map on the wall to determine the routing.
Here’s what my first five weeks of working on this tour looked like:
07/19/03 Cheyenne, WY Frontier Days
07/21/03 Harrington, DE Delaware State Fair
07/23/03 Paso Robles, CA California Mid-State Fair (fly date)
07/25/03 Toronto, ON To Be Announced
07/26/03 Ottawa, ON Corel Centre
08/01/03 Maryland Heights, MO UMB Bank Pavilion
08/02/03 Tinley Park, IL Tweeter Center
08/03/03 Bonner Springs, KS Verizon Wireless Amphitheater
08/07/03 Pelham, AL Oak Mountain Amph.
08/08/03 Charlotte, NC Verizon Wireless Amp. Charlotte
08/09/03 Raleigh, NC Alltel Pavilion @ Walnut Creek
08/14/03 Corpus Christi, TX Concrete Street Amphitheatre
08/16/03 Selma, TX Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre
08/19/03 Meadville, PA Crawford County Fair
08/22/03 Albuquerque, NM Journal Pavilion
08/23/03 Phoenix, AZ Cricket Pavilion
08/24/03 Los Angeles, CA Staples Center
08/28/03 San Diego, CA Coors Ampitheatre
08/29/03 Las Vegas, NV MGM Grand
08/30/03 Mountain View, CA Shoreline Amphitheatre
08/31/03 Kelseyville, CA Konocti Harbor Resort & Spa
I quickly learned that I was going to be gone a lot and living on the road with my new “family”. Realizing that my in town gigging was about to grind to a halt, I decided to buy a “zoom” style guitar unit so I could practice my guitar via headphones on the bus to keep my chops up. I also had a laptop, a video camera, headset for my cell phone; I was totally geaked out and ready to “embrace the road”.
With good intentions, but totally green behind the ears, I said goodbye to my wife, Kelly, and set out for the bus at 7:00 AM on a Friday morning. Still not completely familiar with Nashville, I got lost on the way to the bus and called my wife in a panic for a little help with MapQuest. She set me straight and I arrived to a Kroger parking lot in Hermitage at about 7:30. There were several buses parked together and, not knowing a soul other than Dave, I introduced myself to the first person I saw and told him I was looking for the “audio crew bus”. “That’s the bus I’m on too, the blue one right over there. You must be Eric? I’m Marty.” he said. “The bottom front passenger’s side bunk is available, or you could take one of the top two junk bunks.” “Junk bunks?” I asked. “Those are the empty bunks that we can use for luggage.” he answered, my greenness showing already.
Nashville to Cheyenne, Wyoming is 1200 miles, or about a 22 hour bus ride with a few stops. Wyoming to Delaware was another 1800 miles, or close to 40 hours with stops. So while I was loading my luggage, laptop, box of food, guitar, and briefcase full of practice equipment, the other guys were all making a food run into the nearby supermarket to stock up. It was at this moment that I committed my first bus foul (albeit unknowingly), and took a big ole’ dump in the bus bathroom. The few bus trips I had previously made with BB and Vern were so short, that as chance would have it, I never had to use the bathroom, and no one on those runs had informed me of the “no poop” rule enforced on most of these buses. The reason for this rule (as I would later learn) is that anything other than peeing on a bus requires a much higher level of daily water and septic maintenance, so most tours instill this rule to save time, money, and to prevent the interiors of the buses from smelling like a sewer hole.
A few minutes later the rest of the crew returned and we set out for Cheyenne. A little while later “Pork Chop”, one of the audio guys, used the bathroom, and when he reentered the front lounge exclaimed “Did somebody shit in there?” I instantly felt a sinking feeling in my stomach but instinctively chose to just sit there and say nothing, staring straight ahead, kind of like the scene in “A Christmas Story” in which Ralphie and his cohorts play dumb when Flick gets his tongue stuck to the frozen flagpole. As I was just making the acquaintance of these folks and trying to make a good impression, I didn’t want to admit to being so utterly clueless. I’m pretty sure that they suspected it was me anyway.
Most of these buses have a small table in the front lounge, with a small bench seat on either side, basically enough room to seat two people somewhat comfortably. A little later in the day I decided to practice some guitar, and brought my stuff out to the front lounge. I sat down at the table and proceeded to take over the small space, spreading out my electronic gadgetry, music books, and guitar gear. For an hour so, I sat there playing guitar with headphones on, finding it somewhat difficult to do this in such a confined space. If I had ever bothered to look up, I’m sure I would’ve received some annoying looks from some of the other crew members, all of whom were veterans of the road.
After a while, I got up and went to go sit in the co-pilot seat next to the driver for a few, and this would be when I committed my second bus etiquette offence. Not yet realizing that seating and table space are considered prime real estate on a bus, I left my guitar and gadgetry strewn all over the table and seat. So when I returned a little while later, I was confused to see the table cleared and my stuff nowhere in sight. Apparently, somebody had moved it all to my bunk.
“I wasn’t done practicing yet.” I stated to a front lounge full of glaring eyes. “Yeah you are, you left that stuff there for an hour.” “Oh, I didn’t know you can’t leave stuff out in the lounge.” I said apologetically, beginning to feel like a real dork. “Oops. Sorry guys.”
This is not how I wanted my introduction to the Toby Tour to begin, but it was too late, like they say, there’s no such thing as a second first impression. In time, I would get the hang of how to live with others on a bus, the importance of not taking up too much space, and the communal approach one must take to live on a tour. But at this moment we were only a few hours into a trip that would span 4000 miles over five days, and my new comrades weren’t exactly taking a quick liking to me. Not to mention the interior of the bus was now starting to smell kind of foul from my first debacle.
It was going to be a long ride.
Ask any musician or songwriter that’s been in Nashville for a while if they’ve ever heard of, or been to the Fiddle and Steel and most will say yes, for sure. The Fiddle and Steel Guitar Bar, aptly dubbed “The Steel”, is located in historic Printer’s Alley off of Church Street and has been a staple of the Nashville nightclub scene since 1996. This homey, rustic club, often referred to as “the cheers” bar of Music City, is a place where musicians, artists, tourists, and locals gather to enjoy great music, see old friends, and make new ones. The Steel has also been a launching pad for some of the biggest artists in country music today, including Rascal Flatts, Eric Church, and many others.
To many musicians working within the Nashville music industry, the Steel is a special place, kind of a home away from home. The club’s owner, Alison Bradsher, takes great pride in creating a vibe that is comfortable and relevant to music industry types, while still appealing to locals and tourists. The club has a decent PA system and one of the best sounding stages in the city, making it a desirable room in which to perform. In line with the clubs friendly nature, guest musicians and singers sit in regularly with the house bands, a tradition that dates back to the clubs earliest years.
Over the years, many Nashville players and artists have established friendships and relationships at the Steel that have helped their careers, often leading to other gigs, touring and recording work, kind of a “gateway club” for some. So it’s no wonder that a couple of visits to the Steel by my wife and I during our “Nashville field trip” in 2002 helped prompt us to move here in the first place.
During my first year in Nashville we were pretty steady regulars at the Steel, hardly missing any of the Tuesday night jams hosted by Ronnie Pittman, and frequenting the club as often as we could. By September of that year I was gigging regularly with Ronnie on Mondays at the Second Fiddle on Broadway while playing in Kentucky on the weekends, and it was during this time that I first met Frank Taylor, a talented singer and songwriter who frequented the Steel quite a bit back then. A deep-rooted part of the club’s fabric, Frank was one of the very first singers to ever perform at the Steel, and whenever he was around; his presence only seemed to further enhance the charm of the place.
So when he asked me if I would be interested in playing guitar for him at his regular Saturday night gig there, of course I said yes. He’s a great singer and audiences related to him, the club was a great hang, and I was ready to take the next step in my Nashville evolution – pretty much a no-brainer. So I gave notice to my house gig in Kentucky and started playing every Saturday night at the Steel.
I’m not sure how this lineup came to be, but our band consisted of Frank on lead vocals and acoustic, Jack Gavin on drums, Brenda Clarke on bass and vocals, Steve Poole on keys, and me on electric guitar and vocals. It was a great lineup, we gelled well. Every Saturday night I would park in a nearby parking garage and wheel my gear down the old cobblestone street of Printers Alley, past the Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar, and into the Steel. Every gig was an adventure, you never knew who might show up or what we might attempt, so I was genuinely excited to play.
Frank isn’t the typical country singer; he has a unique angelic quality to his voice – soothing, soulful, yet compelling and almost hypnotic. He sang songs by artists like Vince Gill, Delbert McClinton, the Eagles, Jimmy Buffett, CCR, all of course with his own spin. He could make you laugh too. At least once a night he would say something like “Kelly’s coming around with the tip jar, and this is how we make our living in Nashville. If you could just spare a few dollars, I’ll be able to pick up some Krystal burgers for my daughter on the way home. Please throw in some money so I can feed her, she hasn’t eaten all day.” This was especially funny to anyone who knew Frank, as he didn’t even have a daughter.
Frank genuinely enjoyed singing and entertaining and this feeling was infectious, usually spilling over into the other players, the crowd, and the staff. After playing a good long hour or so for our first set we would take a break, and then, during the second set, we would get up any players and singers that wanted to sit in. The guests could range from some young aspiring singer on vacation from out of town, to touring musicians on hiatus, to artists like Joe Nichols or Toby Keith. Even the occasional tourist who wanted to sing Margaritaville was welcome on our stage (although most of the tourists had no business performing anywhere other than in a karaoke setting).
So that’s how I spent my Saturday nights for quite a while. We never had a rehearsal and didn’t really hang out together outside of these gigs, but we were a unit. By the time a couple of months had passed, this band was tight! Sometimes one of us would have to sub out our gig for something more lucrative, and eventually a couple of the other players moved on, but for a while, this lineup held together. And while I wasn’t making a lot of money, I was having tons of fun, gaining experience, and making contacts. By the middle of the summer of 2003 I was offered a road gig that I couldn’t turn down, and had to give Frank my notice. Ironically, the road gig came about through a friendship I had made at the Steel.
Looking back, those seven or eight months I spent at the Steel with Frank and the gang were among some of the best times I’ve had in Nashville. We may have all been on our own separate paths, searching for the next big gig, publishing deal, or connection, but once a week our paths crossed and we came together to play music and forget about our life struggles. Time stood still at the Steel on those nights and it seemed like those moments would last forever. Since those days, everyone that was in that band has moved on to different gigs. Isn’t it funny how life’s circumstances bring people together for a common purpose only to eventually spread us apart again like ash strewn to the wind. Even though I haven’t seen or spoken to some of my comrades at the Steel since those days, I’ll always have great memories of those times. For me, that’s what a great night club experience, or life for that matter, is all about – sharing good music and fun times with good friends, even if only for a brief moment. Thanks Frankie!