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!
By Eric Normand
I recently read an article on Huffington Post, “Art and Music Are Professions Worth Fighting for, and while I agree with some points of this article I think the author does a major disservice in presenting the pursuit of music as a profession in a kind of “all or nothing” approach. He talks about a presentation he made at a high school career day where he suggests music as a possible career choice for young people. He says that those interested should “go for it, with abandon and furious joy, and that you do so without a plan B”. This is where I disagree. I also disagree with the distinction this makes between “career musicians” and nonprofessional musicians. Just because you don’t play professionally doesn’t mean your music isn’t valid. I agree, if you love music and want to pursue it, why not pursue it wholeheartedly, but what’s the matter with pursuing music while earning a living from something else? What’s the matter with pursuing music for the mere enjoyment of it? I believe you can pursue music as a career and for fun, but you need to keep your eyes open and realize that you will need a steady income stream along the way. To decide how music or a music career might fit into your life, perhaps the questions you really need to ask yourself are; why are you pursuing music, what do you want to get out of it, and what will it take to be successful? What is your definition of success?
When I was a senior in high school, if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I would have said, “a professional musician”. Immediately after high school I got a job as an apprentice drywall carpenter before enrolling in the Berklee College of Music two years later. After Berklee I played professionally in nightclub bands for the next 14 years, eventually also becoming a guitar teacher. In 2002 I relocated to Nashville Tennessee where I’ve had the good fortune to work as a hired gun on several major tours. My first gig was as a guitar tech for Toby Keith, and I went on to play lead guitar with several country artists – Daryle Singletary, Vern Gosdin, Rhett Akins, and the hit songwriting team known as “The Peach Pickers”, among others. I also wrote a book about how to navigate the Nashville music industry, “The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide”.
Looking back, if you had told that starry-eyed high school kid that one day he would be a musician, painter, drywall carpenter, teacher, author, and website designer, he would’ve said “Naw, I’m not interested in any of that other stuff”. But as they say “life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans”, and one of the things I’ve learned along the way is that you have to wear a lot of hats to survive in this world. The truth is, my original goal of being a professional musician was based on the glamorization of the musical era that I fell in love with, and I had no idea about the reality of any of it.
We starve! Just kidding (well, not entirely). The options for musicians trying to earn a living from their craft are somewhat limited. The way I see it you can pursue one or more of the following avenues; nightclub musician, music teacher, touring musician, or session musician. Sure, there are other gigs (orchestra musicians, jingle writing, etc.) but these four are the most practical, and out of these, the first two are the only ones that ever become reality for most. If you want to be a touring or session musician, you will need to live in a music metropolis such as Nashville, New York, or LA, and these are extremely hard (but not impossible) gigs to land.
Regarding paying gigs, I’m talking about work you can get on a regular basis that pays real money for your services. Therefore, I’m leaving out songwriters and aspiring artists because these do not pay any real money unless you become extremely successful. TV shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice” have propelled the myth that anybody that learns how to sing a good cover song can become a national recording artist and superstar. Out of the tens of thousands who audition for these shows and the hundreds that perform on them annually, how many are ever heard from again?
While I cherish many of my experiences as a professional musician, I’ve learned the hard way that it doesn’t always pay the bills. Night club gigs still pay what they paid 25 years ago when I first got into this ($100 a night is still considered good pay) and most club gigs in Nashville don’t even pay that. As far as touring musicians, most tours only pay during the part of the year that the tour is active and, unless you are on a very high profile tour, you’ll have to find another income stream during the winter.
Two years ago, I went back to full-time construction work, and put my music career on part-time status. I began approaching music as simply one component of my life, and for first time since I’ve been in Nashville I’m actually earning a steady living year-round. I still play music, sometimes for pay, always for fun, and I get just as much reward, if not more, out of a local club gig playing for tips as I do when I perform with The Peach Pickers on the Luke Bryan farm tour in front of 15,000 people.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to talk people out of their dreams; after all, I did write a book about surviving the Nashville music industry. But if this is your dream, you need to arm yourself with knowledge and know what you’re up against. If you’re thinking about pursuing music or arts as a profession you must first “define your success”. What is your definition of success in music? Then ask yourself why you want to do this. If it’s because you think it’s an easy and fun way to make a living you might want to do a little more research. It can be fun, but it’s definitely not easy. If it’s because you absolutely can’t see yourself doing anything else, then go for it, but have a plan B, and have a way of earning a living while you pursue it.
There’s nothing wrong with pursuing music as a career, and there’s also nothing wrong with being a musician or artist that never becomes “professional”. Music is one of the oldest forms of communication, music has the power to heal and unite people, and playing music makes you smarter. So go ahead and work at becoming a great musician, it’s a noble thing to do and the world always needs good music and art. Approach your music with abandon and joy, but don’t be afraid to have a plan B.
It’s the first week of this brand-new year of 2013 and, not that I believe in New Year’s resolutions, one of the things I’m going to try to do differently in this new year is to get back to blogging more regularly. In that spirit, I also want to learn how to write shorter blogs. Let’s see how I do at my first attempt.
2012 was an interesting year, a lot happened in our world. A long-winded, and divisive election season came and went, it was one of the most extreme years of extreme weather since record-keeping began; our military is still in the midst of several conflicts around the globe; the tragic Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut terrified us all, gun control is now a national conversation, and Facebook is still here after a disastrous stock market ploy.
I also had a few big moments. I played a handful of shows with The Peach Pickers (Rhett Akins and Dallas Davidson) on the sold-out Luke Bryan Farm Tour (you can read more about that adventure here), I hosted a monthly Berklee Alumni Jam, got to play music with Jack Pearson (read “Jack Pearson at the Nashville Berklee Jam) and Reese Wynans (read “Stevie Ray Vaughan keyboardist, Reese Wynans talks at Nashville Berklee Jam”), I ran in my first-ever 5K road race, met a lot of cool people, listened to a lot of great records, and cooked and ate a lot of good food!
I’m not sure what lies ahead in 2013, I’ve got a lot of big ideas and plans – we’ll see what happens. One thing that’s on my 2013 to-do list is to get out on the town little more often. After 23 years of being a professional musician I found that it’s still easy to get myself off the couch for a gig, but much harder to just go out and hang. I’m going to try to change that. I plan to still host the Berklee Alumni Jam (we are now going to be doing it quarterly). Thanks to my wife, Kelly, I’ve learned to enjoy running, and we are both training for our first half marathon in April. I’m trying to reassert myself into my musical craft, to take another step, and therefore practicing the guitar and vocals daily and learning new material is a top priority. Basically, I’m trying to stay healthy, inspired, and viable, while trying to help a few folks along the way.
So that’s about it for now. Let me know what you’ve got going on and don’t be afraid to drop me a line. I hope this New Year brings much happiness and success to you and your family. Thanks for reading!
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!
Guitarist, singer, songwriter, producer and session-musician, Jack Pearson shared some unique perspective about his musical journey with a room full of Berklee alumni and others from the Nashville music community last Tuesday. The Nashville Berklee Jam, held monthly at the Fillin’ Station in Kingston Springs, saw some new faces and old friends on this special night, and Jack’s decades of experience as a world-class musician provided a rare peek behind the curtain for all those in attendance.
Jack’s musical career began in the mid 1970’s, when he played in multiple bands and logged his first recording session at age 16. In 1993 the Nashville native began his relationship with The Allman Brothers Band as a sub for Dickey Betts, eventually becoming a member of the ABB from 1997-1999 and also touring with Gregg Allman & Friends. Over the years he’s also worked with Vince Gill, Delbert McClinton, Jimmy Buffett, Earl Scruggs, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Amy Grant, Faith Hill, Gov’t Mule, Buddy DeFranco, and countless others.
Jack began his part of this night by playing some beautiful sketches of “I Can’t Get Started”, and for those who have never heard him play, his ability to transport an audience through time and space with nothing other than an unaccompanied electric guitar became quickly apparent. Following the spontaneous applause, Jack cut straight to some Q & A. One of the first questions asked was about his guitar, and I found it interesting that the deep, rich tone coming out of our backline Fender Deluxe originated from a Fender “Squire” Stratocaster, which he had recently bought for $100 at a pawn shop. Plugged into nothing other than a lone tube screamer, this drove home the point that great tone comes from within.
Learning from his oldest brother, Jack was exposed to rockabilly and blues as a teenager and explored the music of Chuck Berry, The Ventures, and Carl Perkins at a young age before eventually discovering jazz greats like, Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhardt, and Charlie Christian. Learning from friends, other musicians, and records, he slowly pieced together his musical vocabulary. He shared some thoughts on how to approach a II-V turnaround, demonstrating some different voicings and melodic approaches, underscoring the importance of putting song and melody above the technical understanding of modes and scales.
“It takes a lot of experimenting… a lot of guys come to me that get out of school and they say, “when I hear this chord I’m supposed to play this mode and scale”, and it locks them up. They can’t make any melodies because they’re told to play a mode or a scale.”
This simple, but prophetic thought resonated, and I had flashes to a time in my life when I over analyzed the music I played. Jack drove this point home with “…it comes down to the chord and the melody and where it’s going to…”
He went on to talk about the blending of styles and how he went through different periods of his life where he would be deeply immersed in a singular style for a few years – Delta blues, jazz, etc., and that after a while, all these different styles started coming together. Not afraid to take some chances musically, he demonstrated how he might go from a Howlin’ Wolf lick to a Charlie Parker lick within the same phrase, and that while some players will say this is wrong, he believes that “the main thing is to get the music out, and play with feeling.”
In response to a question about some of his best and worst gigs, Jack said that some of the worst gigs are when people don’t listen, and the music that you play with somebody is more important than the venue, or how famous somebody is.
He explained how learning all of the Allman Brothers songs as a kid helped put him in the position to sub for Dickey Betts on an early 90s Allman Brothers tour, which led to some recording with Gregg Allman and eventually to a phone call from Greg in which he was asked if he wanted to join the Allman Brothers band.
He candidly shared how this landmark gig damaged his hearing, causing an already existing case of Tinnitus to worsen, ultimately forcing him to leave the gig, perhaps sooner than he otherwise would have.
“There’s really no way to describe how loud it was on stage…Dickey Betts wasn’t in the PA…he was 135 dB side stage…”
As a fellow tinnitus sufferer I completely related to this portion of his talk and gained some new perspective as he explained that, despite wearing earplugs, extreme SPL’s (sound pressure levels) can still do damage, as the sound can affect your inner ear by entering your nose, mouth, and through your bones.
In response to a question about life lessons learned through music he answered, “Try not to take music for granted, it’s so special, and you can reach so many people…lyrics can encourage you, relate to your pain, but you can also do it with notes.” He demonstrated this by showing how the same group of notes can sound happy, or sad depending on where the emphasis is placed. He talked about the endless possibilities of how you can play even a single note, demonstrating this concept by playing a huge range of variances on a high “G” note.
After Jack’s talk concluded he played a short set with our Alumni House Band, the air becoming filled with the sounds of spontaneous applause after each inspired performance. Jack left shortly after his set, and the other alums in attendance continued jamming into the night. I, and everyone else in attendance would like to extend our appreciation and gratitude to Jack for sharing his music and journey on this special night!
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 email@example.com.
Even though the majority of the people who come to Nashville for CMA week are country music fans, you didn’t have to be one to enjoy the BMI songwriter showcase-tailgate party yesterday at LP Field. This unique event was as much a foot stompin’ rock concert as it was country music show, and the crowd of 3000 plus concertgoers received a rare treat on this warm, sunny afternoon. 2011 EMI songwriter of the year, Rhett Akins, and 2011 BMI songwriter of the year, Dallas Davidson, also known as the Peach Pickers, have written some of the biggest chart-toppers in recent country music history, and collectively have more hits songs currently on the radio than any of the major artists they write for.
As professional songwriters, they sit in a room with their acoustic guitars daily, writing hundreds of songs a year to come up with a handful of radio-bound gems. These songwriting sessions, and the demo recording process that follows, are quite often the first and last times they get to perform this music. So this rare occasion to play the hits they wrote in front of a large audience was as much, if not even more of a treat to the Peach Pickers as it was to anybody in attendance.
The hour-long show was off and running with the number one hit cut by Blake Shelton, “All About Tonight”, a fitting start for this musical adventure. Rhett and Dallas took turns singing verses and choruses as we moved through what was essentially a “greatest hits” of modern country radio music, including the six number ones they’ve written in recent years. The crowd sang along throughout the show as we put our own twist on songs like Honeybee, Take a Back Road, Gimme That Girl, Put a Girl in It, Honky-Tonk Badonkadonk, This Ole’ Boy, and several others.
Near the end of the show, Rhett unexpectedly pulled out a couple of surprises, performing his own hits “That Ain’t My Truck”, and the showstopper, “Kiss My Country Ass”. At a few different points throughout the show, Rhett gave credit to the band which was comprised of Nick Forchione on drums, Mike Chapman on bass, Scott Tweten on guitar, and me on guitar and harmony vocals, the excited crowd responding with cheers of approval every time. We concluded this blockbuster set with the fitting “I Don’t Want This Night to End” a number one song which was cut by Luke Bryan and had just won video of the year the night before.
The truth is that none of us wanted this night to end, it was a special moment and the unique nature of this show will make it one of the more memorable things I have been a part of in my 10+ years working in the Nashville music industry. But the good news is that we will be taking this show on the road a little later on in the summer, performing at Michael Waddell’s annual Bone Collector fan club party on August 17 in Montgomery, Alabama. I want to send out a special thank you to all the fans that came out for this show, and everybody who put in a lot of hard work behind the scenes to make this event the huge success it was. Till next time, “it’s all about tonight”!
Click here to view some photos from the show (courtesy Kelly Normand)
For more in-depth perspective on the behind the scenes of the Nashville music industry, please check out my book “The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide”, which features an in-depth interview with Rhett as well as many others Nashville insiders.
The latest Nashville Berklee Jam last Tuesday was a great success, thanks to all who attended! The weather was beautiful, so we had a very laid back talk outside on the patio at The Fillin’ Station, our usual location for this event. Rich Redmond, the guest speaker on this night, has worn a lot of hats during his 15 years in Nashville – session/touring drummer, producer, clinician, public speaker, and his hour-long talk gave all in attendance some great perspective into different ways to navigate the Nashville music industry.
Rich spoke of the need to aggressively market yourself to find work in Nashville and how in his earliest days he obtained work by handing out demo cds of his drumming abilities to almost everyone he would meet around town. He candidly talked about those ‘lean years’, and that long before he was recording on hit records, touring the world with Jason Aldean, and producing acts like ‘Thompson Square’, he was hustling gigs on Broadway, playing in corporate party bands – whatever was necessary to insure survival.
For those who are just starting out in Nashville, he recommended that musicians “take every gig that’s offered”, as every new gig can potentially lead to new relationships and different career opportunities and that “If you give more to people then they expect, if you consistently exceed expectations, people are going to want to work with you.”
He spoke of the need to be ultra-professional by “always returning phone calls in a timely manner, always returning e-mails in a timely manner, being professional, being flexible, having the right gear to do the job and never mailing in a performance…”
Regarding the importance of reputation he said “You can have a great website, you can Tweet 1000 times a day, you can have a fantastic business card that’s got the really good paper, you know the really firm stuff that you have to pay extra for, and it’s still going to come down to word-of-mouth. In this [digital] age it’s so easy to be talked about in a positive or negative way, globally.”
During one part of the talk he mentioned a concept he refers to as “CRASH” a phrase he coined that stands for Commitment, Relationships, Attitude, Skill and Hunger – the five key ingredients he believes are necessary to succeed. He also spoke of the importance of defining your own success, a concept I talk about in my book “The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide” (coincidentally, Rich contributed to the writing of this book).
After fielding several questions, he finished his talk and we all headed inside to make some music. Everyone who wanted to jam got a chance to sit in, and several great performances took place – ranging from classic rock covers to blues jams to originals. Rich stayed till the end making himself accessible to anyone who wanted to hang and chat, and during the middle of the jam he got behind the drum kit and played a few songs with me and several other alums. Here’s an MP3 of us playing a spirited version of the Jimi Hendrix classic, ‘Little Wing’ Little Wing Berklee Jam w Rich Redmond low. The night ended and we all headed home, but not until gathering for a group photo.
I want to thank everybody who came out and participated to make this another great event, see you at the next one! The next Nashville Berklee Jam will be held on Tuesday, July 10 – check back in a few days for info on the guest speaker for that night.
Have you ever played a gig that seemed to go on forever? I’m not talking about your typical three to four hour bar band performance that occasionally might drag a little in the middle, or some uninspired club gig full of “T n’ A” (tables and ashtrays). No, I’m talking about a gig that goes on for hours and hours, eight hours to be exact, by the end of which you felt like you aged 10 years. A few years back I did a few gigs like this, and lived to tell about it.
With thousands of singers and musicians trying to break into the Nashville nightclub scene and only so many potential gigs, the scene here can be quite competitive. And if you’ve been in Nashville for a while, you know all too well that these clubs are not known for their “great pay”. These two facts combined might cause some players to take on gigs that, in another part of the country, would be laughed out the door.
Don’t get me wrong; there are some club gigs around town that can be lucrative, a few even providing a guarantee of $100 or more per player. But most club gigs in Nashville are tips only, or provide a minimal base pay (usually $20-$50 per player), plus tips. So if you want to make some decent money, you really have to hustle.
Relying on tips causes many club bands to play a three to four hour shift without taking a break, and if a player needs to go to the bathroom the singer might do a few acoustic numbers to provide the band with at least one “pee break”. Relying so greatly on the tip jar for income also causes some singers and bands to exclusively cater to the tourists, choosing worn out dance floor classics like “Margaritaville”, “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Mustang Sally” to keep them happily bopping along.
Several years back I was working pretty steadily downtown, playing a lot of shifts at Tootsies, the Second Fiddle, and a few others on the strip. Around the same time there was another club just a few streets off of Broadway at which I also began performing (to save face, this club will remain anonymous, although its identity will be obvious to anyone who has ever worked this gig). For the purposes of this blog, I will refer to the club owner as “Harry” and the club as “Harry Houdini’s”.
I got to know Harry by hanging out at his club and sitting in on occasion. He liked my playing, and when the guitarist in his weekend house band quit, he offered me the spot. I was hungry for good paying work, and he offered to pay me $125 a night – straight pay with no tips. By Nashville standards, this was great pay for an in-town club gig. There was just one catch – the band was required to play from 7 PM to 3 AM. What?
“Don’t worry, I’ll give you plenty of breaks” Harry assured me. “You can even play sitting on a stool when you get tired”.
Like I said, good paying gigs are hard to find in Nashville, and at this point in time I really needed the dough. Besides, I had already experienced playing some “doubles” on Broadway (for those of you not in the know, this is two shifts back to back, with about a 30 minute break in between shows for change over). The doubles were hard work, but I had built up the necessary stamina, and the extra pay was helping. So what the hell, it can’t be much worse than a double, why not give it a shot?
The day of my first gig at this fine establishment I arrived about 20 minutes early, loaded in my gear, and anxiously awaited downbeat. The group consisted of drums, bass, me on guitar, and a singer who also played acoustic. The song list was typical of downtown cover music – classic and new country, pop and rock, and for the first couple of hours, it seemed like just another typical bar gig in Nashville. I even got to take a short break around nine.
Then the dynamic of the night began to change. Harry, the club owner, was also a musician, and he came up and sang a set with the band. Some of the songs we played were the previously mentioned classics of “Margaritaville”, “Sweet Home”, and “Mustang Sally”, but we also added to the mix other worn-out wonders like “Brown Eyed Girl”, “Family Tradition”, and the often dreaded “You Never Even Called Me by My Name”.
It was a warm Friday night and the crowd, which seemed to be mainly tourists, seemed happy with what we were doing, we even got a dance floor going. The singer/owner finished his set and went back to work behind the bar, and the other singer came back to take over for a while. Another 45 minutes or so and we got our next pee break while the singer sang a couple tunes solo with his acoustic.
It was now after 11 o’clock, about the average length of a typical bar gig, and Harry again returned to the stage. To my surprise, this next set contained several of the same songs that we played in his first set, most of them being the aforementioned “classics”, a couple of which had also been covered by the other singer.
On our next pee break, sometime around 12:30 AM, I mentioned to the drummer something like “Boy he really likes those oldies. Does he always repeat those songs so much?”
“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, we’re just getting started. Typically, he wants us to play Margaritaville, Sweet Home, Mustang Sally and Family Tradition about once an hour.” he said to my amazement. “His theory is that the tourists love these songs, and that with the high turnover, it doesn’t really matter how many times we play them.”
Moments later I resumed my perch on the stage to continue my birds-eye view of this top 40 adventure, one that seemed to be entering some kind of classic-hit time warp. I remember looking up at the clock behind the bar a little while later and it reading something like 12:48. Except for the three or four 10 minute pee breaks, I had been playing this gig for about six hours, with two more hours to go, and it began to feel like I had been on the stage for days.
The crowd was now pretty thin, but we marched on. With Harry back on the mic, he asked the crowd “do we have any Lynyrds Skynyrd fans in the house?” With a couple of random cheers forthcoming, we launched into Sweet home Alabama again, now for the fifth time. The same thing happened with some of the other classics. I looked up at the clock a little while later and it was around 1:30. The more we kept repeating songs, the slower the clock seemed to move. At one point my mind flashed to the scene in the movie “Risky Business”, where the character played by Tom Cruise witnesses the clock going backwards right before the bell was supposed to ring.
By the end of the night, I was drenched in sweat and physically and mentally exhausted. My back was sore, my fingers shredded, and my mind numb. We had played Sweet Home Alabama, Mustang Sally, and Family Tradition seven times each throughout the night. Some of the other songs we played four to five times a piece. The funny thing was, the patrons never seemed to notice or care. Harry was right; there was a high turnover, and whatever crowd we had at any given moment seemed to enjoy the songs.
I collected my pay and went home, returning the next evening to do it all over again. As lucrative for an in-town gig as this was, I only lasted a few short weekends before moving onto something else. After a few years I was able to get over my “classic hits overdose”, but for the months following this episode, I suffered severe flashbacks every time somebody called out Sweet Home Alabama and Mustang Sally.
With my new book “The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide” finally being out into the world, I’m starting to get my life back again. And going out on the town to network and check out the scene a little more often has now become a little more practical.
Last Thursday I went to The Fillin’ Station, in Kingston Springs, for their weekly blues jam. There was a great turnout of talented players and some killer jams took place. For those of you who have never been, the jam is hosted by “The Mohawk Slim Blues Band” and runs every Thursday from 7 – 11 PM. A great place to meet new players, do a little jamming, or just hang that’s outside the in-town microscope – you owe it to yourself to check this place out!
This past Tuesday I went to The Fiddle and Steel Tuesday night jam. As some of you may have previously read, “The Steel” is a great in-town bar and a place that helped me get my start in Nashville. When I first moved to town, Tuesday nights at The Steel were THE place to be, as it was one of the best music industry hangs in the city for the longest time. In recent weeks the jam has been resurrected, and this was the first time I had a chance to check it out. The band started just after 10 PM and the place was packed by 11 PM, with a great turnout of players playing everything from Vince Gill to SRV and Merle Haggard to Jimi Hendrix. Toby Keith and some of his bandmates were hanging out for a bit and I saw several well-known Nashville songwriters there as well. It looks like Tuesday nights at The Steel are on again!
This coming Monday, August 29, I will be giving a talk about my book and my experiences in Nashville at Indie Connect. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this organization, Indie Connect is a community of independent musicians, singers, bands, songwriters, record labels, music professionals and service providers who come together to support each other by sharing ideas, expertise, contacts and resources.
Where: Indie Connect: 2720 Old Lebanon Rd. Ste.108, Nashville TN 37214
When: 12:00 PM – 2:00 PM
Last week I was invited by Bryan Cummings to appear on “The Jesse Goldberg Show” on Channel 19, our local community access station. I will be talking about my book and my experiences in Nashville. I’ll post the air time at a later date.
While I was at The Steel the other night I had the pleasure of meeting Darlas Rai, an on-air personality at Nashville’s 103WKDF. When she learned about my book, she offered to do some promotional giveaways on her radio show. During the next few weeks she will be giving away five free copies of my book during her nightly show which can be heard weeknights from 7:00 PM to 11:00 PM, and Saturdays 6:00 PM to 12:00 PM midnight. Listen to her show for details!
And lastly, the book just received its first official review. The French country music magazine “No Fences” caught wind of the project and asked me to send a promotional copy for review. I don’t speak French, but judging from some comments in an e-mail from the magazine, the review is a good one. The review is posted here, and while I’m sure there are computer programs that can translate this, if anyone out there can translate this, please let me know via e-mail.
That’s about it for now; I’ve got some other interesting things in the works and will keep you posted. Meanwhile, happy jamming and I’ll talk to you later!