By Eric Normand
Sunny days, dusty hayfields, huge crowds, great music, great people, light beer, diesel fumes, gator balls – these were the sights, sounds and aromas of the 2014 Luke Bryan Farm Tour. I can’t believe it’s over, it seems like I just hopped on the bus yesterday. The 8 shows spanning two weeks whirled across the Deep South with the speed of a jet plane and the intensity of a freight train.
My role in this mega-tour as lead guitarist and bandleader for Nashville’s most successful songwriting team of all time, The Peach Pickers, began with our pre-tour warm-up show at a sold out Third and Linsley in downtown Nashville on September 26. The show, which benefited The Wounded Warrior Project was a huge success, and a couple of days after this electric night we hopped aboard a bus bound for Knoxville, TN.
Even though it was October 1, it still felt like summer when I hopped off the bus around 8 AM, the temperature already approaching 80°. This day began for me like every day that would follow on this tour, a trip to catering! After some eggs, home fries and coffee I got ready for my daily trip to the gym with members of Luke’s band and one of the other opening bands, Cole Swindell. While I was doing my thing at the gym, other members of our entourage walked the hayfields, while others took advantage of another luxury provided to the touring musician, sleeping late.
By mid-afternoon it was time for our load-in and sound check. The level of production on this tour was top notch, sporting state-of-the-art lighting, some really cool video walls, and a PA system that would rival that of any mega-rock tour. They even had a remote-controlled flying camera that captured video footage of the audience and performances, otherwise referred to as “the drone”.
Luke’s crew, along with the other crews (which included the world-class sound company, Claire Brothers) not only knew how to make us sound and look great, they were a pleasure to work with. After sound check it was time for a little rest, a quick shower and some dinner before taking the stage at 6:40 PM. Our 40 minute set began just a few minutes after the tour’s first opener, Louisiana native and singer-songwriter, Chancie Neal. The sun was just beginning to set as the DJ introduced our show with something like:
“These three guys are the most successful songwriting team in the history of Nashville. They have 60 number one hits…230 million downloads… please welcome to the stage – Rhett Akins, Ben Hayslip, Dallas Davidson…The Peach Pickers!”
The crowd went wild and we began our onslaught of 13 number one songs with “The Only Way I Know”, a Peach Pickers cut by Jason Aldean. In rapid-fire succession we played down our list, each song greeted with, and followed by the sound of 15,000 people going absolutely berserk! After a few rockers we slowed things down with the heartfelt ballad “I Don’t Dance”. A few of the songs towards the end of our set really seemed to hit home with themes that everybody in this crowd could relate to – “Small Town Throwdown”, “Parking Lot Party”, “All about Tonight”, and the epic hip-shaker, “Boys Round Here”. The set went by like a blur, seeming to end as quickly as it began, and the three stars of our show left the stage to a deafening applause. The crew and stagehands helped us tear down and pack up our gear with lightning speed, and by quarter of eight it was all loaded on the bus and we were done working for the night. Only six more hours until bedtime!
Our show was followed by the fast rising, Cole Swindell, another Georgia native currently enjoying his second number one song, and his four-piece band kept the party going full force. By 9 PM it was time for the Tour-D-Force of this event, Luke and gang to take the stage, his show beginning with the modern day phenomenon of thousands of cell phones being raised into the air to capture an endless barrage of digital photos.
Luke’s show is an exciting ball of kinetic energy, his top notch band providing an AC/DC like “foot stompability” that kept the audience pulsating for his 90 minute set. The phrase “sing along” doesn’t even begin to paint the sonic picture of the sound of 15,000 people singing at the top of their lungs at a Luke Bryan concert. After Luke’s show ended, the crowd quickly dispersed the field, only to be trapped in a massive traffic jam as thousands of cars began their slow motion journeys down the one lane road that led out of this little piece of rural America.
This first day and night of the tour was a huge success, and with each following show, the tour seemed to gain momentum. The only snag of this first week was some torrential rain during Friday afternoon in Tallahassee Florida, and despite what seemed like an impending disaster, the rain subsided right before showtime and the night went off without a hitch. The following night we ended the first leg of this tour to a crowd of 17,000 in Gainesville Florida, and this was, in my opinion, The Peach Pickers strongest performance yet.
A few days off and we were back at it for round two. The week started out smoothly, but late Thursday afternoon in Columbia, South Carolina it began to sprinkle, with the sounds of thunder and the view of lightning in the distance. Oh no, it was happening again! We pushed back the start of the performances by 20 minutes, and midway through Chancie’s set a downpour began. With a handheld wireless microphone, this brave girl stood out in the pouring rain on the middle of the runway and kept everybody’s spirits high. By the end of her show she was soaked head to toe, as was her acoustic guitar player and percussionist, Austin Marshall (who also just happens to be the Peach Pickers tour manager). The rain stopped as she exited the stage, which was now soaked, and a dozen stagehands began to dry the stage using push brooms, towels, and high-powered electric fans. We began our show with a strange hue lurking behind us in the form of some ominous storm clouds and lightning in the distance.
By the second to last show in Columbia, South Carolina our band was really beginning to hit its stride, and by the final night of the tour, Saturday in Macon Georgia, we were on fire. On the bus shortly before our set, we all talked about our agenda for the night, which basically consisted of kicking some serious ass. And that’s exactly what we did! At one point of the show, me and Dallas even did a couple of moves that might have almost seemed choreographed. The show ended with our usual closer “Boys Round Here” during which Dallas, Rhett, and Ben walked the runway with their wireless microphones, slapping hands with the audience in a climactic sing along.
There’s a really unique aspect to a Peach Pickers show. We play songs that are the most successful chart-toppers of modern-day country radio, songs written by these three guys, yet made famous by others. So the crowd knows our tunes, yet most have never heard them performed by the original writers. A Peach Pickers performance is very organic, powerful, sometimes rough around the edges, and performed by what many in Nashville would consider a “stripped down band”. Most of the radio versions of our songs feature multi-tracked guitars, layers of fiddle, steel, keyboards, background vocals, etc, and most touring bands that play behind country artists consist of this instrumentation. Our group is basically like a traditional rock band – drums, bass, and two electric guitars. Nothing against modern day radio production, but I find that this stripped down approach allows us to rock a little harder while allowing the essence of the song to shine through without obstruction.
While Rhett has had success and experience on the big stage, Ben and Dallas are newer to this forum, yet they rise to the occasion every time, perhaps with an excitement and enthusiasm that would be impossible to have in any other scenario. Together, the three of them make a formidable team. It probably doesn’t hurt that the rest of our band is made up of some extremely talented folks – Nick Forchione on drums and former G-men, Mike Chapman on bass and Chris Leuzinger on electric guitar. I’m extremely proud of this band, were all friends, we love playing music together, and we make it happen every time.
The farm tour might be over, but the memories are forever. Luke’s entire crew, band, and management treated us with great care and respect, which speaks volumes of the man himself. We all made some new friends and strengthened the bonds between old ones, and I sure hope we get to do it again next year! In the meantime, The Peach Pickers might just have a few more surprises for you, stay tuned!
Peach Pickers’ Rhett Akins and Dallas Davidson take some “Back Roads” on the Luke Bryan Farm Tour 2012
By Eric Normand
What an amazing run of shows we had with Rhett Akins and Dallas Davidson on the forth installment of the Luke Bryan Farm Tour! The sold out tour embarked on eight shows across the Deep South, with Rhett and Dallas performing acoustically on the first four, and me and the boys joining in for full band performances on the second leg. The weather for these events was picture perfect, the crowds were huge, and the shows an amazing encapsulation of kinetic energy!
Me and the rest of the band (Nick Forchione on drums and Tom Good on bass) converged at a bus yard in Nashville on Tuesday night and hopped on Luke’s band bus. You never know what to expect in these situations, (as the two bands began this run as total strangers) and we were pleased to learn that Luke’s band and crew are some of the nicest people you could ever hope to work with. Gracious hosts, they made us feel instantly at home.
After a good night of sleep on a smooth riding Prevost I awoke in Villa Rica, Georgia. This first show was on a football field, and by the time I wandered over to catering around 10 AM the mobile stage was already up, the field buzzing with activity. Luke went all out on the production for this tour, and there were no less than eight buses accompanying the five semi’s full of staging, audio, lighting, video, and pyro it took to put on these mega-shows.
I was thrilled to find out that there were some other health-conscious folks in Luke’s entourage, and me and Nick joined several of Luke’s band-mates on a trip to the fitness facilities at the University of West Georgia. By 4 PM the stage crew was ready for our sound check, quickly dialing in our in-ear monitor mixes and a bigger than life sound through the mains of the million-dollar Claire Brothers sound system. As a guitar player, I’ve always struggled with in-ear mixes, lack of warmth and ambience being my main gripes, but on this lucky day I learned a new trick. Upon the suggestion of the Claire Brothers monitor engineer, we put a little reverb on my guitar in my ear mix, and this created some extra depth.
Later that night and after the first two openers, Chancie Neal, and Cole Swindell, we took the stage for the first full-band show with Rhett and Dallas. As members of the red-hot songwriting team known as “The Peach Pickers”, Rhett and Dallas have 13 number one songs and countless top 20 hits between them, including a few of Luke’s recent hits “Rain Is a Good Thing”, “Country Girl Shake It for Me”, and “I Don’t Want This Night to End”. This fact makes it pretty easy to create a blockbuster 45 minute set which included Blake Shelton’s “All about Tonight“ and “Honeybee”, Rodney Atkins’ “Farmer’s Daughter” and “Take a Back Road”, and the Trace Adkins chart topper “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”, among others. At times the crowd was singing along at a volume that was as loud, if not louder than the band! The action-packed set went by at warp speed, and it seemed like no sooner than we had started we were walking off the stage.
The stagehands helped us get our gear off the stage and by 9 PM our workday was done. A short workday is characteristic for an opening act on a major tour – you’re the last to sound check and the first to play. Now it was Miller time, or in this case “Coors time”, or for a few of us “Crown Royal time”! After a quick cocktail and a little chill time on the bus we went out to check out Luke’s show. The level of musicianship in Luke’s band is nothing short of exceptional, and their 90 minute set was a rocking good time with some stunning visual aspects as this night was a dress rehearsal for the following show which was being taped for a television special.
The following day I awoke and looked out the bus window to the view of an open, grassy field in Athens Georgia – this concert was actually taking place on a real farm! After a little morning chow I decided to take a jog down some of the surrounding roads of this picturesque farming community, Rhett’s song, “Take a Back Road” having some real relevance on this warm autumn day. The day evolved similarly to the previous and the ultra-professional crew did an outstanding job erecting this mega-production in less than ideal circumstances. I later learned that the stagehands on this particular tour traveled from show to show (unlike many touring situations where stagehands are local to each venue) and this creates a continuity that helps the production run smoothly. The performances on this night went off without a hitch, with all of the bands delivering outstanding performances. Luke’s show was filled with special visual effects for the filming of the television production – including a laser show, pyro, and a massive finale of fireworks to end the night.
The next day would find us in Tallahassee, Florida and I joined up with some of the guys to go work out at the fitness facilities of Florida State University. After a great workout at a great facility we were ready to get back for some lunch, but not before winding up in a “runner altercation”. The runner informed us that he needed to stop at Lowe’s to get some stage pins for the production crew. Of course they didn’t have what he was looking for and sent us to another store that didn’t have it either. An hour and a half later we caught a lucky break at a John Deere tractor store and were finally heading back to the venue with the necessary part, and some growling stomachs. Another sold out show, another night of great performances and we were off to the tour’s grand finale in Macon, Georgia.
As Luke’s buses were returning to Nashville after this final show and we were going on to play one more show with Dallas and Rhett at the Georgia Throwdown in Dallas’ hometown of Albany, Georgia (a festival that Dallas helped organize), we had another bus arriving in Macon late morning. After the bus arrived we loaded our stuff onto it and continued about our day. As Macon is home of the final resting place of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, a couple of us took the mile and a half walk to the Rose Hill Cemetery, a place from another world where a young Allman Brothers Band once played guitars, wrote songs, and partied into the hot Georgia nights.
Later on we took the stage in front of 16,000 fans for a final, climactic performance on this epic tour. I’ve played countless big shows over my decade in Nashville, but on this particular night a special energy was present. The songs just seemed to play themselves and the crowd was singing every chorus (and many verses) at a near deafening volume. At one point I pulled out one of my in-ear monitors to really internalize the feeling of the moment. As a musician it’s almost otherworldly to hear and feel your guitar coming out of 100,000 watts or so of PA speakers, and to feel the interaction between artists, band and audience on a show at this level is truly amazing! Our band was really on and Rhett and Dallas were at the top of their game, putting on a dazzling show for what looked like a sea of humanity that stretched to the horizon.
A little while later Luke and his boys played their final show of the Farm Tour, and their epic performances received over-the-top responses after each song. When the show ended all of the artists, musicians, and crew members gathered on the stage for a group photo of the entire entourage. I was sad to see this run end, but we left for Albany with the knowledge that we made a lot of people happy over the course of this week, and we had also made some great new friends! See you next year, Farm Tour!
Berklee is alive and well in Nashville! On Monday, November 7 we had our first “New to Nashville” Berklee alumni reception at the NSAI studio on Music Row, and the event was a huge success. Upon the suggestion of Berklee Alumni Affairs Officer, Karen Bell, I put this event together to welcome alum’s who recently relocated to Nashville.
The reception was a three stage event. The meet and greet gave recent transplants a chance to reconnect with their fellow classmates while forming new relationships with some of the alumni who have already been here a while. From what I could tell, out of the 40 or so in attendance, at least half were new arrivals.
After about an hour, everybody took their seats and I gave a brief talk about my Nashville experiences. The talk evolved into a pretty good group discussion, with lots of questions about networking in Nashville. Most of my experience in Nashville has been in the areas of touring, gigging around town, and recording, and most of this discussion centered on these issues.
One alum asked about what clubs and situations would lend themselves for sitting-in with bands. Sitting-in is a great way to build your reputation while making connections that might lead to gigs, and I mentioned a few that are worth checking out – The Fiddle and Steel has a player-friendly jam every Tuesday night; Douglas Corner has “The Loud Jazz Players Jam” every other Monday night; and there are also a few blues jams around the city including one at Carol Ann’s Café on Sunday nights, and The Fillin’ Station on Thursday nights. I also suggested becoming a regular at some of the clubs on Broadway, as this is also a good place to meet players who are gigging regularly.
Rich Redmond, one of the contributors to my book “The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide”, has one piece of great advice he gives to players who are new to town, and I passed this advice on in response to a question about evolving a music career in Nashville – “Be patient, and take every gig that is offered”. Every gig will potentially lead to more gigs, and no matter how unimportant some gigs might seem, you never know where those roads might lead.
We paused briefly after my talk to give everyone a chance to stretch their legs and grab some more refreshments. Then everybody settled back down into their seats and I proudly introduced the night’s final speaker – country music artist, hit songwriter, BMI songwriter of the year, and my current boss, Rhett Akins. For those of you who aren’t in the know, Rhett is currently one of the hottest songwriters in Nashville, and he shared some great perspective, stories, and advice for all of the songwriters in the room (and judging by a show of hands a little earlier, at least half of those in attendance had come to Nashville to pursue careers in songwriting).
After Rhett’s brief talk about his evolution as a songwriter and artist he also engaged in a group discussion. He spoke candidly about different aspects of being a Nashville songwriter. The Nashville uniqueness of co-writing, the pros and cons of publishing deals, and his lifelong passion for music and songwriting were some major talking points.
Some of the perspective he shared that I found most interesting was the sheer number of songs that he writes, stating “I pretty much write at least one song everyday” and that to wind up with five hits songs, he’s probably written 500 songs. He also said that he and his co-writers try to finish a song during each writing appointment, but that he is also interested in experimenting with writing some songs over a longer period of time, noting that “it took Gregg Allman three years to write Melissa”. After his talk concluded he stuck around for a while, giving those who were interested a chance to speak with him one-on-one.
All in all, the event accomplished what we had set out to do. Some of the newest arrivals to Nashville got a chance to reconnect with former classmates that they didn’t even know had moved here, others made new friendships, and many, myself included, got new insights into the ever-changing world of the Nashville music biz’.
I would like to send out a special thanks to the following people for helping make this event a success: Rhett Akins, Karen Bell, Emily Dufresne, Dave Petrelli, Meg O’Brien, NSAI, Berklee, Heston Alley, and Kelly Normand.
Epilogue: I met with Alumni Programs Officer, Emily Dufresne the following afternoon for coffee, and we discussed an idea I had about organizing a monthly “Berklee Alumni Networking Jam”. More info on that will be coming soon!