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Road Stories Some of your favorite stars reveal the mishaps, near misses, spicy memories and hilarious stories from their lives on the road. Story by David Scarlett, Chris Neal and Bob Paxman After you’ve seen your favorite star in concert, it’s easy to assume they just magically appear at their next show the next night—400 miles away. But, as much as country stars might love that, the reality is the vast majority of them spend long hours burning up the road on buses getting from show to show. And they’ll usually tell you it’s the least favorite part of their job. But every now and then, something happens to break the monotony of life on the road and provide a priceless story at the same time. Here are a few of those stories. They’ll reveal a few things you didn’t now about your favorite stars and, just maybe, make you glad you’re not on the bus with them!
For more, check out the April 20 issue of Country Weekly.
Gettin’ stuck in a blizzard in Ruidoso, New Mexico, was one story that I remember pretty vividly from a few years ago [before Trace moved up to a nice bus]. We were pullin’ the trailer behind the van and had to go over the mountains. We were goin’ from Albuquerque to Clovis. We had to go over those mountains and got caught in a blizzard goin’ up and we finally just got to the point that we couldn’t go anymore. The van was just sittin’ there spinnin’ and there we sat—all six of us, in the middle of a blizzard in the middle of nowhere. Finally somebody came by and when they got to the next town they sent a wrecker truck back to us.
Once there was this fan who came up and said, “I just want you to know that I scheduled my C-section around your show.” She said, “It was a couple of months out. I was sitting with my doctor and I said, ‘Well, I’ve got to go see the Rascal Flatts show.’” So two weeks beforehand, she went and had her C-section done so she could come to the show.
[For an artist, one way to wile away the hours while traveling from place to place is to spend that time listening to song demos in search of a hit. George was riding his bus when he first listened to a song called “It Just Comes Natural.” The tune wound up becoming a No. 1 hit in 2007.] The first time I heard it, it was one of those I wanted to cut.
[Carrie’s constant road companion is her dog, Ace, a rat terrier she inherited from her former fiddle player.]
I don’t think he had ever had a dog before in his life, so I don’t really think he knew what he was getting into. I said I’d baby-sit him for a few days, and we were perfect together. Then he was like, “You’ll take him, right?” Even though it was the worst time for me to have a dog, it really has worked out. I think he was sent to me. He’s my little guardian angel . . . He’s black and brown and just nine pounds, so he’s very portable. He flies with me and travels with me on the bus.
I remember last year we drove from Phoenix to Pullman, Washington, outside Spokane. We slept on the bus, ridin’ all the next day, and slept on the bus that night. At 4:15 in the morning I heard the tires sliding and I could hear the burning rubber. So I got up to see what was going on, and we were stuck on an overpass in the middle of a blizzard! So I helped the bus driver put chains on the bus tires—which is a nightmare. No one sees this part of show business! I’m up sweeping snow from under the tires and putting chains on the tires. That didn’t work. We actually slipped back down and ran into a U-Haul. Then we took the jeep out of the trailer [we were pulling] to lighten the load a little and we waited a couple hours for the snow to melt. Eventually we got back going. It can be grueling out there.
Our bus hit a deer in Virginia. When I realized what was goin' on, one of the guys was already out there with his knife out. I had a brand-new Gerber [knife] that my brother had given me, and I thought, "Well, if he's gonna skin some of those hams and shoulders out and try to quarter that deer up, I'm gonna help him.” So I went on out there and helped. A state trooper came along and asked what was goin' on. We told him we'd hit this buck and just hated to waste him, so we were gonna take the meat with us. He said, "Let me turn my spotlight over here so you can see." He told us about their new law that said you could take any road kill you wanted to. So we got the meat and took it with us in a big garbage bag filled with ice.
[Emerson Drive earned their stripes by touring across Canada nonstop during the early part of their career, which put a lot of strain on the tired old bus that was all they could afford at the time. At the very end of their first major tour, the bus finally broke down for good.] We left it in Calgary and sold it at auction four months later for $300. But it cost us $200 for storage, and we’d just put on $800 worth of new tires!
[Few artists can claim a more memorable road experience than Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town. A very pregnant Kimberly was on tour with the group in July 2007, and expected to deliver well after they had returned home to Nashville. Kimberly’s daughter, Daisy, had other ideas—she decided to make her arrival in Phoenix.] We finished the show in Phoenix, and I felt fine. I was very tired, so I went and lay down in my bunk. A couple of hours later, I was in labor—much to everyone’s surprise, especially mine. We had no idea that was going to happen. But we made it, and it turned out just fine.
George Jones used to make me close the shows when I was touring with him my first few years out. It was Tracy Lawrence, me and George Jones. I figured we’d go on in that order. But, no, I found out George wanted to go on second. I remember beggin’ him one time, “George, please . . . don’t make me close. Why don’t you close the show tonight?” He just said, ”Nope. You’re gonna close.” Then I found out the real reason—he wanted to get back on the bus to watch Matlock! (laughs)
There was the time that my husband, Rodney, and I got a little frisky in the bunk of the bus. The next morning when I went out to the front lounge, one of my guys had my underwear on his head and all eight members of the band were cracking up and applauding us! I can tell you firsthand, it's quite a feat to get your groove on in one of those bunks!
[Formerly half of the hit duo The Wreckers, both Jessica and fellow Wrecker Michelle Branch have solo projects.]
I remember when I got a bus with a shower. It was great to not have to worry about how I was going to clean up in the middle of nowhere. But bus showering became an art. I remember a few shows when we were running late, and I’d have to shower in a moving bus. To balance standing up shaving your legs while traveling 70 miles per hour down the highway is not easy. But now I’m a pro!
One of the latest adventures was last winter when we got caught in a snowstorm and the wipers quit working. We rigged up a chord out the driver-side window and tied it to the wiper so Gary could pull it back and forth to keep the windshield clear while he was driving.
We were playin’ the Houston Livestock Rodeo, the afternoon show at 3 o’clock. When we got there that mornin’ we’d gotten a call that an artist (I think it was LeAnn Rimes) was supposed to be playin’ the San Antonio Rodeo that night. She had gotten sick, so they replaced her with Patty Loveless, I believe. And then, for whatever reason, Patty couldn’t make it. So they wanted to know if we could play the San Antonio Rodeo that night around 9 o’clock, after the Houston Rodeo. We said we’d try to make it. Just out of Houston one of our two buses broke down. So we had to get everything—clothes, equipment, merchandise—off of that bus and trailer and put it on the other bus. We got there after the rodeo had started. We unloaded our stuff, put it on the trailer and, as soon as the rodeo was over, they drove us out and we started playing—and just slayed ‘em. The people bookin’ the rodeo said we’ll have you back every year. They appreciated not only us getting’ there and bailin’ ‘em out, but the show we did, too.
We were working with Mel Tillis in Independence, Kansas. He told us he needed to go on first because he had a long trip ahead. That was fine with us. So, back then, we these smoke machines that would just cover a building with blinding smoke. It was on Halloween, so we got out sheets off our beds, stripped all of our clothes off and went to the edge of the stage. When Mel started singing “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” we had our people fill the stage with smoke. Then we went out in front of Mel and his band, between them and the audience. We faced Mel and the Statesiders, opened our sheets and showed Mel and the band our bare naked frontals. He couldn’t talk for an hour!
In 1990, my friend, Travis Tritt, invited me to his performance with Barbara Mandrell. Travis had just had his hit, “Country Club” and he was opening up for Barbara at Bally’s in Los Vegas. My wife, Brenda and I as well as another couple snuck in and saw his great show. We tried to keep a low profile. During his set, I laughed and told my wife that I almost tucked the white table cloth into my pants thinking that my matching white shirt tail was out.
Half- way through Barbara’s performance, she surprised me by introducing me from the stage. Spots lights immediately shined on our table from everywhere. She asked me to stand. When I did, the table cloth went with me as well as everything on the table. I had indeed mistakenly tucked the table cloth into my pants. The entire fiasco was on exhibit. We have laughed about that night so many times. Since then, I wear my shirt tails out.
[Chris has fond memories of his first tour-bus ride back home to Nashville after playing a show in Shreveport, La.] Man, I was like a kid in a candy store. I flipped every switch on that thing, and turned every knob and found every cubbyhole. It was awesome. I told the guys, “Man, we had a great show.” They played their butts off, and I went and got two cases of beer and a deck of cards and we sat around and played spades and had a ball.
After a week of touring Texas with my band in our Safari motor home, we were headed back home to Oklahoma. At 3:30 in the morning, just outside of Gainesville, Texas [only a few miles from crossing the Red River] we began to hear strange ‘whining, screeching, whirring’ noises coming from the engine compartment, which was under the bed the drummer was sleeping on. After a few minutes, the noises progressed to ‘clunking, clattering and hissing.’ At about the time we began to lose power and come to an abrupt stop, a clap of thunder announced the beginning of a huge thunderstorm, with sideways blowing rain, hail, and big lighting.
When we opened the engine compartment, there was smoke, steam, antifreeze, diesel, and indistinguishable metal fragments everywhere. Just before the flames broke out, we all grabbed our guitars and fled into the downpour. We ducked under an abandoned gas station awning and called the police—who called a wrecker. Then, we made our way to an all-night diner and waited three hours for my husband to come and pick us up. I will never forget the image of us walking down the road with our guitars, in a rainstorm, while our motor home was on fire behind us! This event later inspired the opening scenes of my first video, “Should’ve Been Born With Wheels.”
We paid $500 for our van through some redneck wheeling and dealing. It’s not too bad now because we had it reconfigured to look like a limo on the inside. We have to get sleep sometime. Sooner or later the floorboard starts to look good. Our light guy, Sambo, is a bigger guy. He fell asleep down there one night. When he woke up he couldn’t figure out where he was. He was screaming in the floorboard. Stuck between the seats. He would have woken us all up then, if we weren’t already awake from his snoring.
I was playing a huge festival with ‘Ms. Awesome’ herself, Reba. A horrible storm came in, and all the buses were just a-shakin’ like crazy. Pretty soon we found out that a tornado was coming in. I was so scared. Not from all the tornado talk and freezing rain, but from the horrific idea of me not getting the chance to meet Reba! Long story short, no one died, and even more importantly, I finally got to meet my favorite gal in show business. Reba gracefully took pictures and met with everyone in line, looking gorgeous and as ready as ever to sing the ba-jangles out of “Fancy.” Being the pro she is, she did just that. I got rehearsal for what heaven might be like that day. Well . . . almost, without the rocking buses and rained-on party hair.
We were out on the road near Buffalo, NY visiting radio. Since we were so close to Niagara Falls we figured why miss it! My radio rep and I had never seen the falls and really wanted to check it off our “things to experience” list. We didn’t have much time so we decided to view the falls from state side. So we type in the attraction to our trusty GPS and let her guide us that way. The next thing we know we look up and see what looked like a toll booth under a sign reading “CANADA”. With no way to turn around we had nowhere to go but forward. As we pulled up to the border the officer seemed to be having a “bad day”. After yelling at us to back up when we pulled too close to the car in front of us, he reluctantly let us through after examining our drivers licenses and making sure we weren’t part of a firearm smuggling ring between the two countries.
From there the trip was great! We were in a different country. We got to see the falls (which were amazing). With little time left to get to our next station visit, we hurried back to the car. We pulled up to the border to get back in to the states. I clearly remember all our jaws dropping when the officer asked for our driver licenses and birth certificates. We explained to him that we only had our licenses with us. He seemed totally baffled as to how we got into Canada. Apparently to get into the country you must have two valid forms of government issued ID. After about 15 minutes of interrogation, the officer realized we were more naÃ¯ve tourists than plotting criminals and let us through. It was quite an experience! I was scheduled to perform on CBS’s The Early Show that week and all that was running through my mind was making the call to my manager to see if we they would let us satellite feed the performance from my new residence in Canada!
When I was in college at Delta State back in Cleveland Mississippi (home of the Fighting Okra), I remember our guitar player had just bought a new wireless pack and we decided it would be cool if we started our show with him at the top of the auditorium stairs. The room is dark, eyes have adjusted and the show begins. And just as he takes his first step, hits his first power chord and the spot light hits him, he goes blind, misses a step, tumbles all the way down the stairs, but never misses a note. It was pretty funny once we discovered he wasn’t badly injured.
One show in Council Bluffs, Iowa, at the Whiskey Roadhouse comes to mind. I was in there a few days after Billy Currington, and Billy had the Whiskey Roadhouse print up posters that read Bryan Luke in concert. Billy had these things posted everywhere when I got there. I asked Van Haze, one of my radio promotion guys with Capitol who was on the road with me at the time, what was that about? Little did I know he was in on the joke as well, and he said. “Man it is what it is. There is nothing I can do about it now!“All the while he was snickering at every turn in the venue when he saw a poster. The next thing I know the radio station shows up and is calling me Bryan Luke. I am really thrown for a loop at this point. I ask Van what is going on? The next thing I know Van is rolling on the floor laughing and I knew I had been had.
Ice and drifting snow caused a traffic jam of epic proportions—like 30 miles of traffic—and we sat in the same place on the interstate for eight hours straight. There was no off-ramp or gas station for miles. My road manager was constantly on the phone with the promoter as there was a chance we’d have to cancel the show. And this was the show where Jerry Springer and his wife, daughter and her fiancé were waiting at the venue in Indiana (just outside of Chicago). Jerry kept calling me saying, “I'll send my jet! Just tell me where!” While we were stuck the kids and I played in the snow and brought an older couple stuck between our buses hot cocoa and coffee. Finally traffic started to move and they sent a police escort. [We got there in time and] the crew set up in 20 minutes while the crowd watched. And Jerry performed with me that night.