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It's an unseasonably warm fall day as Joe Diffie, Mark Chesnutt and Tracy Lawrence pull up to the Wild Adventures theme park in Valdosta, Ga. - the latest stop on their blockbuster Rockin' Roadhouse Tour. Showtime at the park amphitheater is still hours away, and there's rare free time on their hands.
So why not spend it like tourists?
In jeans and sport shirts, the trio wanders around the park, taking in all the sights and snapping photos. "Check this out!" Mark suddenly calls to the group. "You won't believe it."
The unbelievable sight is a herd of giraffes loping across a protected area. "Wonder if we can feed 'em?" asks Tracy. No sooner said than done, as a park attendant hands the group a bag of carrots. Next question - who's going first?
"Come on, Joe, you're the big guy," reasons Tracy.
"Yeah, but your arms are longer," Joe shoots back.
Finally, Joe gives in. He stretches his frame to its full limit, reaches out and hands one very tall giraffe a carrot. The animal nearly swallows Joe's hand along with the morsel of food - leaving his buddies doubled over with laughter.
The Rockin' Roadhouse Tour has been a male-bonding laughfest for the three stars since they hit the road in early June. It's also a knockout success, playing to packed houses all over the country.
"I always thought it would work out," says Joe, "because the three of us have the same backgrounds and our styles are about the same. But it's been so good that we're talking about doing it again in 2003."
That's not just because of their musical bond. After four months together on the road, Joe, Mark and Tracy have formed a group friendship that seems destined to last a lifetime.
"That's been the best part," says Tracy. "We all knew each other, but since this tour, our relationship has really gotten closer. We've met each other's families, cooked out together - it's been great!"
So have the little side trips. "We've gone all kinds of places," says Joe. "Tracy and I toured the wine country in California, we all went to a Yankees baseball game in New York. Our favorite thing has been scouting restaurants in the different cities. And after all these months, we still get along!"
Mark agrees. "We never argue, never fuss. I don't think we've ever disagreed about anything," he says.
Perhaps that's because everyone has his own space. They skirt about the country in separate buses - and try to bring part of home with them.
For Tracy, the tour is truly a family affair, with wife Becca and 15-month-old daughter Skylar as constant companions. "Becca has been with me on almost all the dates," says Tracy. "We also had a nursery put in the back with a baby bed so that Skylar can travel with us. I think it's important for her to be with us as much as possible. Otherwise, I'd miss so much."
Joe hits the road with wife Theresa and their two Chihuahua, Tinker and Lobo. Mark, on the other hand, travels solo, except for occasional visits from wife Tracie.
"She came out on my birthday for about three days," says Mark, "and she'd had enough. She doesn't like traveling that much. Besides, Tracie wanted to get back home to Texas to our three boys."
These veteran road dogs have learned secrets to on-tour survival: Find a routine and stay with it.
"I find that I function better if I have certain routines," says Tracy. "So every morning, I make a pot of coffee and turn on CNN. If there's a gym available, Becca and I will go work out."
Joe and Theresa usually head for the nearest golf course, and work in a round before the afternoon sound check. "If the weather's bad," says Joe, "I grab the remote, turn on the satellite TV in the bus and watch all the football games I can!"
Laid-back Mark, on the other hand, shuns any sort of physical activity. "Basically, I don't do a whole lot," he says, in his Texas drawl.
"I usually stay on the bus and watch movies or listen to music. I'm kind of hooked on this satellite TV - you get all these great channels!"
When they hit the stage, they come alive - like a band of brothers. "We cut up a lot and toss water balloons at each other - or at the crowd!" says Tracy. "And we join in on each other's songs, which is always a lot of fun to do."
"There's not a 'star' of the show," chimes in Mark. "One night, I might do the first set, and another night I might close the show. Everyone's checked his ego at the door, as they say."
For tonight's show, Tracy gets the antics rolling when he dons an oversized cowboy hat on "The Devil Went Down To Georgia." As Mark rocks through his hit, "Bubba Shot The Jukebox," Joe and Tracy fire up the Super Soakers and shoot streams of water through Mark's legs.
Their close bond comes into focus during the encore, as they team up on Tracy's "Sticks And Stones," Joe's 1990 debut single, "Home," and Mark's "Brother Jukebox." As Mark closes with "Almost Goodbye," the trio links arms, waving a touching farewell to the sold-out crowd.
"We had a blast!" raves Joe, relaxing in his bus afterward. "It looked like the people were on their feet the whole time."
Joe pauses and lets go a wide smile. The tour is about to wind down, with only a few dates left, and he'll carry a multitude of memories with him.
"On most tours, you never get to know the other acts," Joe admits. "But this was different. We all became really great friends. I got to know Mark a little bit better, and I can tell you that he is one of the funniest human beings around."
Joe continues, "I found Tracy to be more approachable than I might have imagined. He's also very organized and has a lot of great ideas. He would come to production meetings and take notes, trying to make each show better than the last."
Joe's certain about one thing. "I would only do this again with Mark and Tracy," he says.
Mark agrees, "We're a perfect blend."
-- Bob Paxman