Tour Bus Confessions
A Road Musician’s Inside Story of Life, Love and Betrayal
By Ric Ward
The heavy, metal, industrial-looking door to the large, but crowded, dressing room cracks open and Ronnie, the six-foot-three bearded, cowboy-hatted road manager sticks his head inside.
"Five minutes!!!" he barks, looking around at the musicians, the hangers on, the well-meaning local dignitaries and celebrities.
"Five minutes, guys!" he repeats, louder.
The clock beside the massive lighted mirror hits 8:55pm. Five minutes until show time.
From the cinder-block dressing room in the hollows of the cavernous arena we hear the drone of the crowd. Eight-thousand fans are out there, eager to see and hear one of the nation's favorite country singers - Jace Grace.
A trim, good-looking, mid-thirties man with a slight beard, Jace has had his share of hits. And misses. He's been around.
So have I.
I'm Ric. I play drums in Jace's band. It's not my first rodeo either, as they say. I've played with my share of stars. Rising stars. Shooting stars. Falling stars. Burned out stars.
And I've seen them from a spot few others have: from behind. Usually about ten or twenty feet behind. As the spotlight shines on them, I'm usually in the flood-lit shadows but close enough to feel the glare and the glory that comes with show business.
There are five other musicians in the band and, as usual in this traveling gypsy kind of life, we have a bond almost like family. We know each other’s secrets and shortcomings. High points and heartaches.
Ronnie opens the door wide this time.
"Let's go, guys!!" he shouts. He means it. He knows the crowd is getting restless.
As I quickly eat another cube of pineapple from the buffet and wash it down with a fresh can of Diet Coke, I can hear the roar of the crowd. The house lights are dimming. First the outer lights. Then, as we reach the massive door opening behind the stage, the rest of the house lights go dark. The roar erupts into a frenzy of applause and screams.
Right on cue, some of the stage crew turn on flashlights and point out the path to the stairs that lead to the back of the stage.
A quick, informal headcount by Billy, the band leader and bass player -- yeah, we're all here. Then we carefully jaunt up the stairs and onto the still darkened stage.
"Yeah, man!!!!" yell some already rowdy fans looking down from the seats behind us.
"Go get ''em!!!"
The adrenaline pumps. The nerves jump. And my chest swells as I try to keep it all in check.
I find my seat behind the drums as the other guys plug their instruments in and get ready. The crowd is already jumping.
A few quiet taps on the drums. Everything's in order. The guitarists check their tuning and settings.
I begin a quiet, but deliberate riff with brushes on the snare, then bring in the hi-hat cymbals and kick drum. The guitars join in... "chunking" as we say. It sounds like a train in the distance,
The fiddle lets loose a high moan like a far off train whistle. And what began as pickers checking out their instruments melds into the intro to the famous bluegrass standard "Orange Blossom Special." The crowd starts clapping in rhythm. Louder... And louder... And louder...
Then Billy, in jeans, western shirt and oversized black felt cowboy hat, steps up to the microphone and his deep voice bellows out through the arena..... "Ladies.... and.... Gentlemen...... JACE...... GRACE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
The spotlight at the back of the stage focuses stage right. A silhouette of a thin, guitar-wielding man wearing a snappy cowboy hat with drooping edges standing atop a five-foot riser appears. He launches into a mournful guitar riff that would make Hank Williams proud. Arching his back as if in excruciating, heart-breaking pain. Again. And again. And again. Then he thrashes his left hand up and down the neck of the Les Paul guitar like a mad man... and as he hits those patent-pending supersonic power-chords the spotlights in the front shine white hot on him and the crowd stands and screams and wraps itself into a frenzy. And we tear into Jace's latest hit - which just hit the top ten.
For ninety minutes, we take the crowd on a journey of life through music. Fast songs. Slow songs. Love songs. Sad songs. Funny songs. Songs about heartbreak. Songs about laughter. Songs about the woman down the road. Songs about girls we knew back when. Songs about what we wanted to be when we were kids. Songs about what we want to be when we're old. Songs about you. Songs about me. Songs about everyone. After all, this is what country music is all about. And sprinkled through the songs -- the banter from a sex symbol, as Jace smiles his pearly whites, throws guitar picks into the crowd, and jokes about a sign in the third row made with dollar store adhesive letters: "I love you Jace!!!!"
More songs… faster and faster... louder and louder...
Then... the climax... and it's over.
The last chord rings out and the spotlights come up full on the entire stage. As the sound echoes through the hall, we line up on the front of the stage, join arms around each other and take a bow -- thanking the crowd for another great night. The applause rings for what seems like an eternity as we carefully make our way back to those stairs at the back of the stage and, again guided by the road crew-guided flashlights appearing on cue, walk briskly back to the dressing room.
I find a towel to wipe the sweat from my head. Billy digs into the ice-filled cooler and finds a Sprite. Tom, the keyboard player, takes off his captain's hat and falls on a sofa, playfully holding his hand over is chest feigning an impression of having a heart attack. Others walk around like an athlete cooling down after a marathon.
Jace walks into the dressing room, surrounded by the mayor and three girls the mayor would, on any other day, not dare to be seen with. Mayors usually try to steer away from associating with tattooed, tight-skirted, barroom girls -- at least in public.
"Yeah!!!! Nice show, guys!!!!" Jace yells as he takes off his hat. "Nice show."
A few other folks wander into the dressing room. The promoter. The promoter's friends. The fire chief and his wife. A couple of local DJs and their friends. All of them shaking our hands and taking pictures.
Finally, after about thirty minutes, it's just us, the band and Jace, taking a collective breath.
The sounds now are a lot different. No drone of the crowd. No anticipatory applause. Just the echoes of chairs being folded and stacked and instrument and equipment cases being closed and rolled down the ramps toward the trucks and the buses.
It's kind of a lonely sound, really.
“The hour on stage is great. It's the 23 other hours that'll kill you,” I once told a reporter. And it’s true.
We gather our things, grab a few drinks for the road and walk out of the dressing room heading for the bus idling outside.
The Silver Eagle bus is the workhorse of musicians on the road. Our home away from home -- with as many comforts as can be crammed into a 40-foot long, 8-foot wide motorized tube.
The front of the bus, behind the driver's seat, has a long bench seat along one side, the upholstered foam cushion easily removable to reveal storage for small bags or magazines or whatever. On the other side a small table -- like a small restaurant booth for playing cards or enjoying fine dining, usually fast food burgers or county fair barbeque sandwiches.
But there's one chair that's different. It's almost like a gold recliner. When you first walk in, to the left, in front of the TV. And it's reserved for Jace. Sometimes when Jace travels by plane we'll take turns sitting in the throne. Don't tell Jace.
Besides the built-in TV, there's a sink, microwave, a small refrigerator. Along the top above the tinted windows are storage cabinets and stereo components.
We've got magazines, plenty of cassette tapes and a few video tapes. And, of course a guitar or two and a small electronic keyboard.
Beyond the lounge area are the bunks. A set of three bunks on the left side. One on top of the other. Two sets of three on the right.
They're not huge, but they get the job done. There's enough room for someone to sleep, read a book and even turn over. But that's about it. I'm lucky because I have a middle bunk -- one with a window. Often late at night as we roll down the highway, I'll pull the curtains back a bit and just watch the countryside or the city lights or the cars and trucks pass by. The windows are tinted so it's really hard for someone to see in. But I can see out -- and see them. Families on vacation. Weary and bleary-eyed folks on their way to work or home after work. Truckers on another long haul. Even a few lovers who think no one is watching.
The bus can be hypnotizing. The sounds of the tires against the blacktop. The whir of the engine. I've done it so long now that it's not the sound that wakes me, it's the quiet. Even when I'm home I need the sound of a fan so I can sleep.
Beyond the bunks is a cramped restroom and in the back -- a large (by bus standards) room for the star. There's a full-sized bed in there, another TV, another set of stereo equipment and another small fridge.
We slowly pile on the bus and find a seat. Or a bunk. And we hold on as the bus pulls out of the now almost-empty arena parking lot and find the interstate.
It's about a ten-hour drive tonight. Tomorrow night's show is in Michigan. Ann Arbor, I believe. And tomorrow night is special -- we'll be opening for Tammy Wynette.
It's almost noon when we pull into the Best Western parking lot in Ann Arbor, or is it a Holiday Inn?
Ronnie, the road manager runs his right hand through his now scraggly beard, puts on his cowboy hat and goes into the office and comes out with keys for four rooms. One for Jace and three for the rest of us.
"Here ya go, guys," he says, curtly. "We leave at 3:30 sharp."
Since we won't be staying overnight here, we get enough rooms so everyone can shower and maybe kick back a bit. It's too cool to take a dip in the pool as winter takes what I hope are its last gasps, but I may relax by the pool anyway if there's time.
Turns out there's not. But that's ok.
Tonight's show is in a really neat small, old theatre. The smaller venues -- this one seats about thirty-five-hundred -- allow you to get closer to the audience. True, you don't have the massive roar of the crowd like in the arenas, but the shows have a special, more intimate feel.
We only do about 50 minutes tonight since we're the opening act, but I'm really looking forward to seeing Tammy. It's been a while. Plus, she hasn't performed in months because of her pesky, lingering illnesses and hospitalizations. It will be great seeing her back on stage.
After our set is done and our equipment is struck from the stage, I wander around in the wings and talk with some of the members of Tammy's band as their equipment gets set. That's the great thing about doing shows with other artists: It's like a reunion, seeing old friends and meeting new ones. Even though we all seem to live in Nashville, we usually see more of each other in far-flung places around the country and the world than we do at home.
Tammy's band starts to get ready. I open a Diet Coke and become a spectator.
In the corner of my right eye, I sense someone standing beside me. I turn and see Tammy Wynette right next to me. Now, I've seen Tammy before, but I'm still a fan.
She nods and says "how ya doin'?"
"I'm great," I answer. "But the real question is how are you? How you feeling now?"
She kinda shakes her head and then surprises me.
"I'm scared," she says -- flooring me. "I'm really scared."
"What?" I respond. "How come??"
"It's been a while since… since I've been out there. You know... on stage."
"Oh... it's like riding a bicycle. And it's normal to have a few butterflies," I say. “You’ll do great!” Then it hits me. Here I am, giving advice to Tammy Wynette. Imagine.
She takes a deep breath, gives me a hug and rests her head on my shoulder. She doesn't let go.
I put my arm around her, comforting her, her dress quietly sparkling in the dim lights, her sweet perfume gently dancing on the breeze.
"You've been through a heck of a lot lately," I tell her. "And these people out there love you. They're with you every step of the way."
"You're right," she says, squeezing my arm. "You're right," as she takes another deep breath and exhales like she's slowly blowing out a candle.
She stares ahead silently for a minute, still holding my arm.
Then, the voice comes through the speakers... "Ladies and Gentlemen, the First Lady of Country Music... Tammy... Wynette!!!"
She takes another deep breath, looks me in the eye, squeezes my hand and walks into the spotlight -- her long white dress flowing, the understated sequins now sparkling like stars in the spotlight.
She tears into her first song and it's like a comforting rush of familiar sweet fresh air.
Tammy is back.