The road that we travel is unusual in some ways and very similar in others to everyone else in the world. A musician’s life is like a traveling salesman’s in that we “go to the customer” we’re away from home and hotels/motels and restaurants are the major lifelines to our existence. We’re like doctors on call, our hours are screwy and usually the opposite of our families. Same thing with truck drivers and the aspect of many, many miles on the road. As a musician, you are bound to “go where the work is”. This means that you travel thousands of miles to play shows, you go North in the winter or South in the summer, you play in Minneapolis MN on a Friday night and then you play Jonesboro AR on Saturday. You play till 2:00 am and then load out and still make a 7:00 am lobby call to hit the road again. Your loved ones are cell phone calls and emails rather than flesh and blood too much of the time. We just played for two weeks in Northwestern Canada and were continually asked, “why did you come up here this time of year!?!” The answer is simple; “because that’s when and where we were hired to work.” After the 50th time of being asked that question I can’t promise that one of us isn’t mumbling “F.O.” under our breath :) but from that person’s perspective it must seem like we just decided to come at the most unfavorable time of year and maybe they think that “No” is something that we actually have the ability to say. By ability, I mean the fiscal ability more that the Physical ability. The reality is that we are constantly working to get that next job. It’s rare that a musician has the time or opportunity to sit back and truly enjoy where he is because the foot has to stay firmly on the gas and tomorrow’s gotta be made for. All musicians deal with this regardless of where the decimal point lands in the discussion. Eric Clapton knows where and when his next gig is!
Having described this, I have to say I love my job. I would do it for no money (I have actually!!) and it’s something that is in my blood. Hard wired into my psyche. I tell young prospective musicians every day; “Don’t do this unless you have to.” Actually what I tell them is; “Don’t do this. Just don’t do it. If you can live with that answer then you have nothing to worry about, but if it’s impossible for you to accept, maybe you might can try it. Maybe.”It’s not something that you can learn to love or teach yourself to deal with, it’s something that you do because there simply is nothing else. You don’t do it for wealth. The ones that do always end up unfulfilled. There’s just not enough money in the world to make this life bearable if it’s not in you. As far as financial “rock star” success the odds aren’t just ‘not in your favor’, they are stacked against you.
The point of this ramble is we recently lost a great musician, Lil’ Dave Thompson. Dave was killed driving home, overnight, from a gig in South Carolina. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re in SC right now, having driven here overnight (actually 17 hours, all day and night) and the fact that the gig he had just played is one we’ve played as well, or maybe it’s the wreck that we had two weeks ago in Alberta at 3:00 am that left us stranded on the side of a slick and busy interstate for 3 hours, but the truth is everyone in the band reacted the same way upon hearing the news; “That could have easily been us.” That’s not a selfish thought by any means, our prayers go to Dave, his family, loved ones and band members. The point of this is more about the conditions that all musicians work under on the road. For every episode of Behind The Music that you watch with private jets, limo’s, even tour buses, there are tons of guys out there doing what Dave did; get in the van and hammer the miles out. Just as a small example, our current van was purchased about 18 months ago with 100,000 miles on it, today it has 276,678. That’s just gig miles. When I joined Buddy Guy in 1989, that’s what we were doing. The miles are there and you just get after it. I’m determined not to infer any blame in this blog so I won’t speculate on the details of why they were rolling overnight and in the end it’s a tragedy that blame could never undo. I only met Dave once at a gig that we were playing together, but he was a classy guy, great musician and I remember hoping that we’d cross paths again. The point is the risks are real and they’re always there. Yes they’re there for airline pilots, bus drivers, lion tamers, soldiers, etc., but I’m a musician, I’ve seen my contracts with hotels crossed out to save $100.00, I’ve had agents tell me that “you’ll just have to run it over night, but it’s an important gig.” I’ve also been so ready to get home to my girls that I’ve left perfectly good, paid for beds empty to get back to Nashville, so as I said, I don’t know the details so I’m not casting any blame. If you’re in the music business and reading this, remember Dave. If your a promoter or a club owner, try and remember Dave before you cancel the rooms on a contract to squeeze an extra $80 - $100 bucks out of the gig. If you’re an agent think about Dave and remember that the artist is supposed to be your first responsibility and fight for the safest conditions possible, even if it makes you $100.00 instead of $150.00. Finally and most important if you are a musician/band leader making the deals think of Dave remember that no gig is ever going to pay you enough money to make it worth risking your life. EVER.