social skills

The Nashville Berklee Jam Goes Public

Today I want to tell you all about an exciting monthly event I have been hosting – The Nashville Berklee Jam, and its new accessibility to everyone in the Nashville music community. The beginnings of this idea came to me a few years ago when I first attended the annual Nashville Berklee Alumni Reception. On my way home that night, I remember thinking how great it was to meet so many musicians in one night who were so passionate about their musical ambitions and so hungry for knowledge. These musical comrades were a mix of Berklee alumni residing in middle Tennessee and Berklee students who came down for the annual Nashville field trip. At this reception I made connections with other like-minded alums and students who came down on the field trip, the latter peppering me with questions about my experiences in Music City. This event was a very stimulating night as the energy of three hundred musical minds meeting and conversing seemed to create an air of camaraderie and untapped potential! Then I went home and another year passed before I got this fix again.

So this past winter I decided to create a monthly event to try to emulate this musical networking hoedown on a smaller scale, and The Nashville Berklee Jam was born. Held on the first or second Tuesday of the month from 7 PM to 11 PM at The Fillin’ Station in Kingston Springs, TN, these events start out with an informal meet and greet, followed by a Nashville music industry guest speaker, and end with an open jam. So far the reception has been very positive, here’s a recap (with links to their corresponding blogs):

February – A-list session bassist, Mike Chapman gave a great talk about being a session musician, outlining key concepts in what he calls, “the essential slices of the session player pizza”. He also jammed with several alums after the talk.

March – award-winning vocal coach, producer, and hit songwriter, Judy Rodman gave an insightful talk about career paths for vocalists. She also performed a couple of songs with the house band and then critiqued and coached several vocal performances, helping vocalists make instant improvements.

April – Stevie Ray Vaughan keyboardist, Reese Wynans shared his fascinating story about being a lifelong-career musician, the life-changing moment that came on his last night with Delbert McClinton that landed him the SRV gig, and the whirlwind years that followed. After his talk, he joined us for a few inspired performances.

May – fellow alum, musician, and author of “The Nashville Number System”, Chas Williams gave an introductory class on this subject. After the class, he charted one of alum, Sarah Tollerson’s originals and performed it with Sarah and the house band with everybody reading the chart off a dry erase board.

June – drummer, producer, and clinician, Rich Redmond gave an inspiring talk on “Navigating the Nashville Music Industry” speaking candidly about his early “lean years” in Music City and different approaches to finding success here. After his talk he sat in for a few tunes and stuck around to chat with others in attendance.

For our next event, to be held on Tuesday, July 10, I will be giving a talk that continues last month’s theme – “Navigating the Nashville Music Industry – Part Two”, during which I will explore some of the concepts I write about in my book “The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide”. And, this just in, for our event in August we are proud to announce that the guest speaker/performer will be none other than Nashville guitar ace, Jack Pearson, formerly of the Allman Brothers, Vince Gill and many others.

All of the guest speakers have given great talks, sharing their knowledge and providing inspiration, and these talks have been interactive with many great questions and comments from alums. My band, Skinny Buddha (comprised of Berklee alumni and others from the Nashville music community) provides backline and a starting point for the laid back jams which have covered everything from originals to classic rock to blues tunes to two-chord  jams. All of these events have been great friendship building and networking experiences for all involved, as well as educational. So far, the attendance has been mostly comprised of Berklee alumni, but as there seems to be a growing interest from others in Nashville, we are now officially making this event open to the Public. Nashville is a diverse and complex music community in which a Berklee alumni community also resides, and it is my goal to help these two worlds intersect and meld together.

So come on out to our next “Nashville Berklee Jam” On Tuesday, July 10. I hope to see you there!

P.S. if you have any comments, thoughts, or questions, please feel free to e-mail me at

Coming Gigs and Events

As some of you might know, there’s a lot going on in Nashville this week. It’s that time of year again where 250,000 country music fans converge on the city for “CMA Music Fest Week” (formally known as Fanfare). Tourists, country music fans, and curiosity seekers from all over the globe will fill the streets, shops, hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and concert halls, and while this can make getting around a little sticky for the locals, it is truly an exciting week for Music City, not to mention good for the local economy. This year, I am fortunate to play my own part in these festivities.

Thursday, June 9 from 11 AM – 2 PM I will be doing a book signing at the Charlie Daniels Museum on Second Avenue in downtown Nashville (between the Hard Rock Café and the Wildhorse Saloon.) This unique museum/gift shop began selling my book last week at which time I was fortunate to meet the museum’s owner, Bud Messer, who requested I come back and do and in-store signing during Fanfare. Bud is a great guy and I am honored to receive this invitation from such a prestigious institution, not to mention the fact that they are now selling my book. (The Ernest Tubb Record Shop on Broadway is also now selling my book.)

This Saturday, June 11 my band will be performing at The Fillin’ Station in Kingston Springs. The fun starts at 7 PM, and if the weather is good (which it looks like it will be), the outdoor patio will be open. This week the band will consist of me on vocals and guitar, Nick “Shaggy Bag” Forchione on drums, Tom Good on bass, and special guest Patrick Weikenand (formerly of the band “War”) on harp and beer slinging. This club is a one-of-a-kind experience, so if you’ve never been, you owe it to yourself to check it out. (no cover.)

Monday, June 13 I will be giving my first talk on the book when I host “The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide Workshop” at Corky’s Ribs & BBQ, 100 Franklin Road, Brentwood, TN 37027. This luncheon will be sponsored by “Indie Connect” and held between 11:30 AM and 1:30 PM. Cost $10.00. This presentation will be somewhat informal and there will be a lot of questions and answers, networking and group interaction.

Other than that, it’s been hot as hell in middle Tennessee for the past month, and we’ve had over 10 straight days of 90° plus heat with no end in sight. Stay on the lookout for heat and poor air-quality advisories.

So that’s it for now, if you’re around, please stop in to one of my events or gigs and say hi.

Music Careers in Nashville – To Be or Not to Be

So far, the feedback I have received on my book has been very positive, and I’m thrilled about that. Several people who purchased the book have e-mailed me and share their thoughts; I’ve even had some European interest. However, a Craigslist response last week to one of my recent blogs brought up one issue that I must address.

The response was to my last blog “The Benefits of Having, and Being a Mentor” and, while it completely missed my point about mentoring, the writer stated views that “the music business is the biggest waste of human activity” and something else to the effect of ‘why should young people have to spend years playing in bars to get good or make connections?’ This person was obviously taking a shot at me and my book, while it was clear from the rhetoric that he or she formed opinions based only on reading a couple of my blogs, without actually reading the book.

So for the record, here are some of my thoughts regarding music careers in Nashville (or anywhere for that matter).

When I started writing this book, my intention was to present a document that would help “fill in the blanks” for both newcomers to Nashville and people who are considering relocating here. I wanted it to be full of useful information that would simply help musicians’ gain perspective about what’s here and I believe the finished book does just that. But it’s definitely not a “get rich quick” angle. I don’t make any promises; I’ve done my best to simply present information about the Nashville music industry from a journalistic standpoint.

In fact, nowhere in the book do I suggest that moving to, or embarking on a music career in Nashville (or anywhere else) is a good idea. For that matter, nowhere in the book do I state that it is a bad idea. People have been selling the farm and moving to Nashville to fulfill their musical dreams for decades. The way I see it, people are going to chase their dreams no matter what I write in a book or a blog, and the last thing I’m going to do is try to talk someone out of their dreams.

Do I think that the music business is a waste of human activity? It might be for some, but those folks will never know if it is until they try. And once they have it in their head that they think they can succeed, no one is going to be able to “talk them down from the ledge.”

In the foreword to my book I write “many find out that the music industry of Nashville is not what they thought and are unable to achieve their dreams and aspirations, often resulting in a premature and hasty exit.” This is one of the first lines in the book and reading it today makes me think of something one of my professors at Berklee once told me. It was my first day of “Harmony” class way back in 1988 and the professor began the class by saying “80% of you will not survive your first year at Berklee.” He wasn’t trying to paint a picture of gloom and doom, he was simply trying to instill that what we had chosen to pursue is extremely challenging, perhaps much harder than we were prepared for, and that it was simply a statistical fact that more would fail than would succeed.

This sums up the music business perfectly. It is extremely challenging, much more difficult than you could ever prepare for, and only a small number of those who try will succeed. But this doesn’t mean that it is a waste of human activity, or that some people shouldn’t try. Like I said, it’s not my place to talk people out of their dreams. My whole angle is, if you’re going to try to build a successful career in the music business, understand how hard it is and prepare yourself for the road ahead. Arm yourself with as much knowledge as you can. Practice your instrument and become a great player and play music with others often. Learn how to enjoy playing nightclub gigs, for these are the majority of gigs most musicians will play. Read as many books, magazines, and articles about music, business, and life as you can. Talk to others in the business to gain perspective. Be a good person and contribute to the community in which you live. Work hard, bring something to the table, and don’t be afraid to put your chips down. And HAVE A BACKUP PLAN – be good at doing something else too!

The music business is an extremely competitive and difficult endeavor to succeed in, and making it work in Nashville is just as hard, if not harder than it is anywhere else. I don’t have all of the answers, I just know what worked for me and am sharing that with the hopes it might help a few others along the way.

So what are you waiting for? Buy my book today 😉

The Benefits of Having, and Being a Mentor

“Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions.” – Author Unknown

When I first arrived in Nashville in 2002, I realized that to succeed in this massive and confusing music industry I would be faced with great challenges in the months and years ahead. I was fortunate, however, as I had a good friend in the industry – one who had already paid his dues and found some success here, and he helped to illuminate a path that worked for me. He was my Nashville mentor.

“You may be only one person in this world, but to one person at one time, you are the world.” – Anonymous

He didn’t consider himself a Mentor, or teacher, he was simply a good friend helping another friend. But I was clueless about how this music industry worked, so to me he was a lifeline of information and inspiration. He knew I needed this guidance and direction, and for whatever reason, he decided to invest in my future. He went out of his way to help me on many occasions – advice-filled phone calls, one-on-one guitar lessons, trips to the music store to check out new gear, introductions to friends in the business, he even gave me an electric guitar.

“The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called ‘truth.’ “- Dan Rather

What he offered that probably helped me the most was insight and advice. He had already been working in this town for 10 years at this point in time, so he had a great perspective of a much larger view of the music community than one could see quickly. His accumulated wisdom also allowed him to see my strengths and weaknesses. After one embarrassing moment in a Nashville nightclub, one where I sat in and played a style in which I was in over my head, he was compassionate, but brutally honest.

“You might want to stay away from downtown for a little while; you need some more wood shedding.”

As much as I didn’t want to hear this, I knew it was the truth and I knew that there was more work to be done. Over time, I improved my weaknesses, largely thanks to his advice and suggestions, and returned to the in-town nightclub scene better prepared. I eventually wound up playing as a sideman on tours, recording on songwriter demos, etc. and I have been fortunate to wind up in the category of musicians who find a way to survive Nashville. If it weren’t for the great help I was given early on by this generous human being, who knows how it all would have turned out.

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” – Henry Brooks Adams

Years before I moved to Nashville I was a guitar teacher in New England. I taught 30 to 40 students privately per week. I did my best to help all of them, but some were more receptive than others, and for many my teaching went beyond the half-hour lesson – helping them pick out instruments, inviting them to sit in with my band, phone conversations – I gave more than I was expected to because it felt like the right thing to do.

Now, 10 years later, I have learned that one of these students is a guitar teacher himself and plays in a successful nightclub band as well. Another one of these students that received some extra “mentoring” went on to graduate from the Berklee College of Music and is earning his living as a touring musician. And still another former student, one who earns his living in the corporate world, continues to enjoy the healing power of music in his private life.

“There are two way to live your life. One as though nothing is a miracle, the other as though everything is a miracle.” – Albert Einstein

I too believe that life is a miracle and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Long before I had my Nashville mentoring, there were several other “mentor-like” figures in my life. These people acted in a selfless way, reserving judgment, and accepting me as I was, while doing many great things to help me become a better person. My wife, Kelly is one of these great people. To this day, she continues to help me shape my life in a way that makes me better, while still accepting me for who I am.

At this point of my life I am glad to be in a position where I can help some others along the way. For many, the Nashville dream is a tough row to hoe, and the book I just wrote is designed to help some of these struggling folks – kind of my way of paying it forward. And when someone asks me for advice I always do my best to offer insight that will really help that person.

So I urge you to take a minute and ask yourself a couple of questions – Who in your life is looking to you for answers? How can you help them on their path? If you put your best foot forward and help a few folks along the way, if nothing else, you’ll sleep better at night knowing that you did your small part to make the world a better place.

“Together we can change the world, one good deed at a time.” – Pay it Forwarders everywhere

As some of you may know, and for those of you who don’t know, I have just released my book “The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide.” This street-level perspective of the music-related jobs in the Nashville music industry is now available in print and eBook versions. To purchase your own copy, follow this link.

The people you are meeting today and the relationships you build with them are what is going to give you work five years from now

Hey everybody, I realize that I haven’t been writing very many blogs over the past couple of months and I feel like I owe y’all a few. This lack of regular blogging is mostly because of the frantic pace I kept while trying to finish the book. I’m going to do my best to put out a new blog everyday (or so) for a while.

When I first moved to Nashville, back in the summer of 2002, I was hungry for work. But gigs, especially gigs that paid well, seemed few and far between. My mentor and friend, “D” gave me tons of good advice, including networking on the town as often as I could. I followed this advice, going out on the town four or five nights a week, taking every oddball gig that was offered, sitting in whenever I could, etc. After six months of this routine, although I was making a lot of friends and connections, I still didn’t have any consistent gigs that paid any real money to speak of.

So one day I told him “Things just don’t seem to be evolving very fast for me. I’m going out on the town all the time, sitting in, making friends and networking, but the phone just isn’t ringing very much. What am I doing wrong?”

His response was quite simple, although I wouldn’t entirely comprehend the entirety of it for a couple of years.

“Patience my boy, Rome wasn’t built in a day. This town goes at its own speed. You’re doing all the right things and making a good impression around town. Everyone I’ve introduced you to likes you and you’re building a good reputation for yourself. The people you are meeting today and the relationships you build with them are what is going to give you work five years from now.”

Although that last statement was probably the most important thing he said during our conversation, the things that I heard the loudest were “This town goes at its own speed,” and “five years.” Geeesh! The Nashville music scene goes in slow motion, and I have to wait five years to get busy – NOT exactly what I wanted to hear!

But looking back at that moment, now going on 10 years into my Nashville life, those telling words make so much sense. I met a lot of people during that first hard year of Nashville – musicians, engineers, songwriters, artists, etc. – and became friends with many of them. In the years that followed, many of these friends and acquaintances would eventually call me for work. Sometimes it was a simple “one-off” gig, other times it was several gigs, sometimes it was songwriter demos.

In 2006 I did a ton of gigs on Broadway, mostly at Tootsies, but also at The Stage and a few other clubs on the strip. It was good supplemental income, good for my chops, and I met and gigged with several great players whom I became good friends with in the years that followed. These gigs all started with one phone call from a guitar player friend I had met during my first couple of months in town. He subbed out a few gigs to me, these gigs led to more gigs, and before I knew it I had all the work I could handle on the strip – All because of one relationship.

Several years later I was working more as a touring musician and no longer gigging regularly downtown. On many occasions I found myself in need of musicians for different situations, and ended up calling players I had met during those earlier years of steady gigging on Broadway. Sometimes I would need a player last minute and call someone I hadn’t even spoken to for a couple of years, someone that had obviously made a good impression at an earlier point in time.

I have learned that the town (and life for that matter) does go at its own speed, and quite often that speed is slower than we would all like. But I have also learned that there really is a lot of truth to “The people you are meeting today and the relationships you build with them are what is going to give you work five years from now.”

As some of you may know, and for those of you who don’t know, I have just released my book “The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide.” This street-level perspective of the music-related jobs in the Nashville music industry is now available in print version, and the e-book will be available within a few days. To purchase your own copy, follow this link.

“The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide” Is Here!

That’s right everybody, the book really is finally done and now available to all who have been patiently awaiting its arrival. Orders for the print version will be processed and shipped this week, the e-book and Kindle version will be ready and available by the middle of next week, and I can’t tell you how excited I am to finally be at this point in time! Others involved in the project are getting excited too. Check out these back cover blurbs that a couple of folks offered after checking out advance copies:

“Awesome! Required reading for any musician moving to Nashville, especially as a hired gun.
Hundreds of hours of priceless advice condensed into one thorough and brilliant book
– an incredibly helpful masterpiece. Makes me want to move there now!”
DEREK SIVERS, Founder of CD Baby


“If you are making or want to make money in the music industry of Nashville, “The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide” should be your next purchase. Eric Normand’s beautiful and comprehensive book contains invaluable insider information and practical advice from pros actually making a living in the industry now. A terrific read for anyone interested in peeking into the unique world of music Nashville. Even the pictures rock!”
JUDY RODMAN, Vocal Coach, Producer, Hit Songwriter

As you could imagine, there was a big celebration at the Normand house when these e-mails arrived!

When I embarked on this journey two years ago last January, I had no idea I would be entering the world of book self publishing. In fact, when I initially began writing the content that became the foundation of this book, I had no intention of writing a book at all, or even the knowledge about how to go about doing this. At that point in time, I was simply trying to help a few folks on Craigslist and other message boards who wanted some info about the Nashville music biz’. The next thing I knew I was writing a book, almost by accident. The more I wrote, the more I began to understand the massive scope of this project, and the work it would entail to finish it – Internet research, extensive recorded interviews, photo taking excursions, etc. At some point along the way the book began writing itself. It was as if I was a mere conduit, the end result first being the story of the modern-day Nashville music industry magically appearing on my computer screen, and now in this wonderment of a book.

I couldn’t have done it alone either. Dozens and dozens of people have contributed their time and resources to this project and for this I am eternally thankful, their contributions have made this a far greater book than I could have produced alone. While the entirety of this project has been a massive undertaking (there were many times that I felt as if I would be writing this book for the rest of my life), this has truly been a labor of love – my way of paying forward all that I have learned in this strange place we call Music City, and I am absolutely thrilled with the end result.

So if you’ve been waiting for this book, it really is finally here. Thanks for your patience and I hope you enjoy reading “The Nashville Musicians Survival Guide!”

P.S. If you live in middle Tennessee, I would like to invite you to our official book release party at The Fillin’ Station in Kingston Springs on Saturday, April 30 from 7 to 11. Many of the contributors to the project will be in attendance on this night, there will be music performed by my band (Mike Chapman will be on bass and Fran Breen on drums), and the first three people to ask will receive a free copy of the book.

Auditioning for the Big Shots: What Have Been Your Experiences Auditioning in Front of Music Reps or Performing in Showcases?

This is another question I was asked in an interview by Wendy Willis for her upcoming book ‘Making It In Nashville‘. The question made me think of a few different scenarios regarding how auditions are conducted in the Nashville music industry. The following exemplifies two of the most common types of auditions.

The Gretchen Wilson Cattle Call

By 2004 I had already been in Nashville for a couple of years when Gretchen Wilson’s ‘Redneck Woman’ hit the airwaves, launching her into immediate super stardom. A few weeks after this song debuted on the radio, I heard through the grapevine that she was holding auditions to find an acoustic guitar player for her touring band. By the time I heard about these auditions, the rest of this band had already been assembled. By making a few phone calls I was able to track down a contact within her camp. During a very brief phone conversation he gave me the names of two songs to learn, ‘Redneck Woman’ and ‘When I Think about Cheatin’, and a timeslot to audition at the Sound Check rehearsal facility. I learned the songs and showed up to Sound Check about a half hour early on the day of my audition. As the auditions were running late, I picked a spot in the hallway outside of the rehearsal room amidst a sea of other hungry guitarists, all with their acoustics in hand, many wearing what was obviously their best stage clothes.

The high point of this day for me was not actually my audition, but listening to the band Journey rehearsing in one of the other rooms down the hall. They sounded magnificent and were truly inspiring! I even got to meet Neal Schon when they took a break. Standing outside their practice room door and listening to them play helped me to take my mind off of the nerve-racking moment that still awaited me. But this brief detour into my rock ‘n roll dreams of yesteryear ended when my name was finally called. I entered the cavernous room, which I believe was the biggest room at the facility, and the intimidating scene quickly came into focus. A large stage filled with gear and musicians and fronted by a substantial PA system was staring me in the face from the opposite end of the room. I was greeted near the doorway by Gretchen’s manager who chatted with me briefly, asking a few questions about my experience. I headed to the stage where the musicians that comprised her nearly complete touring band, none of whom I knew, patiently waited. After plugging in and getting a quick monitor level, Gretchen entered the room and sat on a stool about 30 feet in front of the stage.

So there I was, standing on the stage surrounded by strangers, and performing for an audience of country music’s newest superstar and her management. The band counted off ‘Redneck Woman’ and I began strummin’ away. While sitting on the stool, she belted out the song as if she were an arena filled to capacity, watching my every move. The song ended to a stone cold silence which was quickly interrupted by somebody yelling out ‘When I Think about Cheatin’, which was immediately counted off. That song ended, seemingly as soon as it started, and my audition was over. A couple of the players said “Good job” and her manager said “Thanks , we’ll let you know something by the end of the week.”

Fearing that I didn’t make the grade, I left the rehearsal hall and drove home not having a clue about how I was perceived. They did call me a few days later to notify me that I was not chosen. I remember hearing later that the player they chose for the spot had already been chosen before that day of auditions. Perhaps they were trying to see if there were any other options, looking for a backup, or appeasing the management. All in all, it was a fairly miserable and stressful experience, but it was educational. This was my first cattle call style audition, and while it did not land me the gig, it did help prepare me for future auditions. Since that day, I’ve done several other cattle call style auditions, all of which were somewhat similar. Until you ever get to do one of these, the term ”cattle call” will only have a vague meaning to you. But after you stand in the middle of a long line of auditioning players, get quickly corralled in it out of the feeding lot, tagged, tested, and sent on your way, you will immediately understand.

Rhett Akins Showcase for BNA Nashville

It was late summer, 2005, and right in the middle of touring season, when Rhett Akins, one of the artists I was working for at the time, told me we needed to prepare for a record label showcase. His management had helped him gain the attention of Joe Galante and some other executives from the record label, BNA. We had about two weeks to prepare for it, so a couple of rehearsals were scheduled for us to build and hone a short set of his strongest material that would hopefully land him a new deal.

His management made arrangements for the showcase to take place in a small comfortable nightclub located on Third Avenue in downtown Nashville. We arrived to the venue early in the afternoon on the day of the showcase, loaded in our stage gear and monitor rig, and began setting up. We did a sound check and rehearsed a few of the tunes. It was tough to get a good sound in this particular room as the acoustics were less than desirable, but after several adjustments, we arrived at an acceptable place. After sound check we chilled for a bit, ate some dinner, and waited for downbeat.

The showcase was scheduled for seven o’clock, and around six o’clock some patrons began to arrive. It had been encouraged for us to all invite and bring as many friends and family as possible to help create a warm and inviting atmosphere for the big wigs. The turnout was pretty good, and the club was near full just a few minutes before showtime when Galante and his entourage arrived to be seated at a reserved table, one that had been strategically chosen for sight and sound.

Just a couple minutes before we hit the stage we all gathered in a back room to have a quick pep rally, kind of like a football team going into one last huddle before game time. If Rhett was nervous, he wasn’t showing it, he was cool as a cucumber. I was probably more nervous than he was. Dressed in our best, we hit the stage hard and fast, and the first two songs, played back-to-back, were over before I knew it. The crowd roared with approval, and Rhett began to turn on the charm, addressing the room as a whole and putting everyone at ease. He had been working out hard all year and was in great shape, not only giving off the vibe of a superstar, but also showing off a youthful physique, similar to that of his college quarterback days of yesteryear. We stomped through the rest of our 50 minute set with Rhett talking occasionally between songs, even getting some laughs out of the table of executives. The set ended and we began to break down our gear while Rhett courted the table of potential business partners.

As far as these kinds of showcases go, this one went off without a hitch. Rhett performed brilliantly, the band played well, the crowd loved it, and, more importantly, the folks from BNA loved it. After a couple more weeks of negotiations, Rhett was signed to BNA Nashville. So I guess we passed the audition!

What have been your audition experiences been like?

Clarksdale, Mississippi – Intro and Verse One

The Drive

It was noon on Thursday, September 23 when we left our Pegram, TN home bound for Clarksdale, Mississippi. Our route took us west on Interstate 40 for about 200 miles to Memphis, and while this stretch of I-40 is typically a rather boring drive, on this hot summer day, whatever was lacking in visual stimulation was replaced with anticipation. Although we had done a fair amount of research, we still didn’t know exactly what to expect in Clarksdale, so our excited conversations ultimately kept us from noticing that the scenery out the car window hadn’t changed much for the first three hours of the trip.

At Memphis we turned south onto Interstate 55 and entered Mississippi, and while the first hour of I-55 wasn’t anything visually extraordinary, as soon as we turned west on to Highway 278 it felt like we entered a new world. The dense forest that had occupied both sides of the road only minutes before vanished to reveal a wide open view of the Delta plane. Cotton fields stretching to the horizon, cut in two by the road on which we traveled, a seemingly endless road, straight, flat, and disappearing as far into the distance as the eye could see. Aside from other vehicles on the highway, the occasional farmhouse, and farm equipment sparsely scattered throughout the fields, the vastness of this geography was otherworldly. Although this last 40 or so miles was the shortest leg of the drive, our virgin viewing of this fertile Delta plane was empowering and made us feel a bit the wiser, almost as if we were the first explorers to set foot upon a newly discovered continent.

The Shack Up Inn and The Robert Clay Shack

Upon entering Clarksdale, located in Coahoma County, Mississippi, we turned south onto Highway 49 for a couple of miles and found our way to the Hopson Plantation and the location of the place we would be staying, The Shack Up Inn. As we crossed over some  railroad tracks, several old ‘barn-like’ buildings covered with rusty corrugated tin came into view, and we passed a row of shacks as we began searching for the lobby. At first glance the main entrance appeared to be a cross between an antique store and a junkyard, and if it were not for a small red sign bearing the hand-painted word ‘lobby’, we might have driven right by. We were greeted warmly by Marc, the woman working at the front desk, and she checked us in while giving us a quick overview of the Inn and some other local attractions. The main lobby is housed within an enormous ‘cotton gin’, and on the other side of the lobby walls the large open space has been transformed into a music hall. After checking in we took a few moments to explore this magnificent room which featured a stage at one end, and church pews and other miscellaneous seating at the other. After a few minutes of soaking in some very unique rustic folk art, which seemed to cover every square inch of this huge room, we headed over to our shack to get settled.

We fell in love with ‘the Robert Clay shack’ almost as soon as we set foot within. Blues music, courtesy a small TV tuned to Sirus radio’s Bluesville (the only channel available) was playing softly as we took a look around and, like the lobby, this interior was a folk art spectacle as well. As I would later learn from Bill, one of the owners, this is their ‘flagship shack’, and it showed. A bedroom at one end, a small bathroom, and an open concept kitchen that expanded into a living room all felt warm and inviting. An old church pew made for a bench, a  slightly out of tune piano in the corner, and a screened in back porch only added to the charm. Much of the furnishings and decor looked like 1950’s era or earlier, and this is obviously part of the intended experience. Bill would later tell me a little history about this shack.

In another town in Mississippi, a sharecropper named Robert Clay lived his entire life in this humble abode, raising several sons by himself. When he was an old man, his sons, having moved out many years prior, tried to get him to leave this place and come live with them but he refused. He died an old man in the home in which he lived most of his life, and sometime after his death the shack was moved to it’s current location. After renovating the main body of the shack, the workers, upon exploring the attic to install duct work, discovered a whiskey still, making at least one reason apparent as to why Robert refused to leave. This kind of history just can’t be had at a Holiday Inn or Best Western and only added to the mystique.

One Amazing Sunset

After getting settled in and eating dinner we decided to walk around the grounds for a bit to take in some sites. While exploring the courtyard, the sun began to set on the distant horizon. We stood in wonderment as the sky transformed through a myriad of colors while the sun grew bigger and bigger before disappearing beneath the edge of the earth. In the last few moments before it became invisible beneath the horizon, the sky was on fire and time seemed to stand still. We took a few pictures to preserve the moment, and even though the photos are quite striking, it seems that some magical moments are intended for a single moment in time, coming and going like a breath of wind.

Blues Jam at Ground Zero

A little while later we headed out to the Ground Zero Blues Club, co-owned by Coahoma county resident Morgan Freeman, in downtown Clarksdale to attend the weekly Thursday night blues jam. This week it was being hosted by a local favorite, Big Anthony, and he was already on stage playing some fiery blues with his band when we walked in. Walking into a dark and unfamiliar night club with my guitar slung over my shoulder is something I’ve done many times before, but on this warm summer night in the deep South I must admit I was a little nervous, at least initially. The doorman was friendly enough, as was our waitress, and we gradually began to feel more comfortable after ordering a couple of beers and enjoying some of the show. Big Anthony, backed by a strong rhythm section of bass and drums, was playing some authentic Delta blues, his deep voice full of character, his guitar playing driving and relentless.

They took a break and then got up the first jammer, an older gentleman on vacation with his wife from Canada. After loaning this fellow his guitar for a couple of songs Anthony returned to the stage and called me up. Backed by the house drummer and bassist, I ripped through ‘Done Somebody Wrong’, ‘Goin’ Down’, and ‘Rock Me Baby’, and was quite pleased to receive a response that was somewhat over-the-top. Before leaving the stage, I announced that it was Kelly’s birthday and that we had come to Clarksdale to celebrate it, and several people applauded. As I exited the stage I got several compliments from other musicians who were waiting their turns in the wings. A few minutes later I walked over to the bar to get another beer and an older woman said to me “You were really good, but you don’t look like a blues musician.” “Blues musicians come in all shapes and sizes.” was the clarifying response I gave her before returning to my seat.

By this point we were starting to get kind of tired so we headed back to the shack. Our first day of this three-day trip drawing to a close, we sipped a beer on the back porch reminiscing our experiences. So far, this little town of Clarksdale had been a wonderful host, and we turned in for the night, excited for what Friday might bring.

What Would You like to Know about Nashville? Part Two: Your Questions and My Answers

In my blog yesterday I asked for your questions about Nashville, and received several good ones in the comments section and on my Facebook page. So I decided to put them all together with my answers in today’s blog. Here’s what I know about what y’all wanted to know.

Who do I need to meet and where to hang out to get exposure as a musician?

This is one of the biggest questions people ask. There is no short easy answer either. That question and the answers to it are essentially what my book project is all about. Here are the short answers:

“Who do I need to meet to gain exposure as a musician?”

Everyone in the music community that you possibly can! With each musician or music entrepreneur you meet comes a whole new set of possibilities. You never know where each new road might lead. Keep in mind that the identity of many musicians and industry professionals won’t always be obvious either. You could be standing in line at the supermarket next to a record producer and not even know it. Somebody that looks like a homeless person in a bar could be a hit songwriter. And of course, just meeting these people is only a first step. Most people that become successful in this business do so by slowly nurturing relationships over a long period of time.

“Where do you need to hang out to gain exposure as a musician?”

In Nashville, the face-to-face meeting of musicians in nightclubs and music venues around the city still works best. You can’t go wrong by making the rounds at the clubs on Broadway, Music Row, the Fiddle and Steel, the Bluebird Café and the Commodore Lounge for songwriters, etc.

In this day and age a lot can be accomplished via the Internet as well. I have made some amazing contacts for my book project just by sending e-mails to industry people I found on websites or Google searches. With this approach I have had correspondence with Derek Sivers (founder of CD baby), a music business professor at the University of Miami, etc. The Internet can enhance your visibility as a musician or performer but should not replace face-to-face encounters in public.

Where are the Nice Southern Gentlemen?

I’m not sure what you’re looking for exactly. But I would say that most men that live in the South are somewhat ‘gentlemanlike’ (you know that whole Southern hospitality thing). It even wears off on some of us northern transplants eventually!

I’m wondering if it would be a good place to put some of my uncle’s shows. They’re all cabaret style shows. Most music based.

Nashville might be a good place for that kind of show, but then again it might not be. It all depends on whether or not he has a draw here. There are many decent music venues in Nashville, so if he has built a big enough fan base, via touring and/or the Internet, he might do okay. But if he’s not known in this region he will have a hard time drawing a crowd, and the local Nashville venues won’t pay much to an unknown act.  He might want to consider trying Branson, Missouri, as that city is more known for these types of shows. Of course, they will expect him to draw as well.

Favorite Restaurant?

Generally speaking, I make it a point to never eat in restaurants, as restaurant food is generally unhealthy. But there are plenty of popular restaurants here for those who do enjoy them. This 2009 article from the Nashville scene ‘Best of Nashville 2009: Food and Drink’ outlines some of the city’s most popular places.

Personally, I would recommend buying some good healthy ingredients at Whole Foods (either at Green Hills, or in Franklin), and cooking a great meal at home. You can find some great recipes on a site called Do It the Hard Way.

What songs do you need to know if you want to jam at Fiddle and Steel?

To be prepared to sit in at the Fiddle and Steel, or any other similar bar in Nashville for that matter, knowing what I call ‘The Nashville 100’ is essential. The Nashville 100 is a list I have comprised of what I have found to be the most commonly covered standards played in Nashville. The list is posted on the Survival Guide site, follow this link to view it While these aren’t the only songs that might be played, knowing these songs will give you a lot of common ground with most players in town.

Best places to live? I hear a lot about east Nashville, so that must mean its over-crowded with wanna-be hipsters. Any other cool neighborhoods off the radar and reasonably priced?

The neighborhoods in east Nashville can vary greatly. There are some decent areas and some rough spots as well, but apartment rentals in that area are generally affordable. The same thing could be said about many parts of the city. Reasonably priced apartments ($600 – $750 for a single bedroom) can be found in Belmont, Bellevue, Donelson, Gallatin, and many other outlying communities.

The desirability of an area could also be determined by whether or not you will have children living with you (ie quality of school systems, crime rates, etc.), and if you will be commuting in and out of the city during daytime hours (East and North of the city generally have the worst traffic backups).

What kind of gear should a guitar player have for studio gigs vs touring gigs?

Many of the successful Nashville based session guitarists have rigs consisting of multiple guitars; Teles, Strats, Gibsons, PRS etc., multiple heads; Class A style head (Matchless, Dr. Z, etc.), Marshall style head, and maybe a Fender style head, and a refrigerator rack full of effects with some type of pedal board set up as well. This kind of setup would be more typical for a full time A list session player. There are plenty of players who work in the studio on much simpler rigs but still have the ability to deliver a wide range of tones. Of course there are some ‘niche’ studio players that only have one basic sound and get calls to do that one thing they do best.

As far as touring rigs go it depends on the gig. But for most country/pop/rock gigs, a Tele style guitar, Class A combo, and a pedal board with the essentials (a clean boost or compressor, overdrive, delay, and tuner) will suffice (amp and pedals in Anvil style cases). A backup guitar is always a good idea too.

How are you liking it? Bartlett St. to “oprayland”

I’m loving it! Bartlett Street in Kingston New Hampshire was a great place to grow up, but Nashville has definitely become the home of my second life. There was a bit of culture shock over the first couple of years, but I am now well adjusted. I still do miss a lot about New England – friends, family, having the ocean in my backyard, autumn foliage, summers where it’s not 100° every day for four months. But the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve met, the places I’ve been, the skills I’ve gained, I wouldn’t trade it for the world!

Thanks again everybody for your participation in my informal survey, it definitely gave me a lot of perspective. Many of these questions are answered in much greater detail in my book project which is still in the works, but some of them are bringing up points I wasn’t already thinking of. Ultimately, some of these new points will also be addressed in the book.

For those of you that haven’t yet fully explored this site, you will find that some of these questions are addressed in more detail within it. I’m thrilled with the response I got to my query and urge you to ask more questions if you have them, preferably in the comments section of these blogs. Thanks again and happy reading!

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…