Friends Forever!

Chris JonesWhat makes some bands stay together for years and others have perpetual personnel changes?

If you answered, “the one that stays together for years has never taken a current band photo or purchased an expensive vehicle together,” congratulations! You’re a regular reader, and I really appreciate it.

In reality, though, it may require a somewhat more complicated answer than that, one that’s as complicated, say, as musicians’ personalities can be.

First of all, without getting too deeply into specifics (i.e. without offending too many friends) let’s examine some of the bands you know that have been together a long time. What are the factors you imagine that have kept them together?

I think there may be a naive view in the public about this, to some extent. I think many people picture most of these bands being made up of good friends whose time together has made them that much closer. They’re bound together by brotherly or sisterly bonds, built on mutual respect and understanding.

Among professional musicians reading this right now, I’m picturing coffee being spewed across the room, permanently staining the opposite wall.

Yes, in an ideal world, one in which everyone is fully employed and earning a comfortable living wage, both houses of congress are working in cooperation with each other and the president for the long term good of our nation, and every child has a cute fuzzy puppy that never chews anything valuable, bands stay together for the reasons mentioned above.

I think we want to believe that too, so it helps perpetuate the myth. Didn’t we like to imagine the Beatles all doing fun things together and living in the same house like they did in Help? In the late 1930s, I’m sure many of their fans pictured Bill and Charlie Monroe happily fishing together in their spare time too, occasionally splashing each other with water in a good-natured way, but we all know better.

Bands tend to stay together primarily because of their artistic and financial success, and they’ve figured out how best to manage their personality differences.

The financial success part is key, and fortunately, we in bluegrass music have a fairly low standard compared to some in that regard. It just means that the band is actually earning a living so that members are not required to live in “a van down by the river,” to quote the late Chris Farley, or at least they’re living in a late model van. This is the minimum requirement for a band to stay together: they’ve got to be working.

After that, the more professionally successful the band, the more the individuals in the band will tolerate the difficult personalities of the other band members, or the difficult personality of the band leader, if it’s a leader/sideman type of situation. And, the fact is, what may not have seemed “difficult” a few years ago, mysteriously becomes that way after logging hundreds of thousands of miles together over time.

Bands figure out a way to work it out with each other regardless of personal animosity that may have built up between them like a bad case of tartar. The band’s professional success provides a strong incentive to do that.

I did a long tour at one time with a fairly well-known band from another genre made up of musicians who more-or-less couldn’t bear the sight of each other. They were quite successful, financially and otherwise, and they still loved to play music—even with each other—so they made it work. It involved not just separate hotel rooms, but hotel rooms as far apart from each other as possible, airplane seats in different sections of the plane, and other ways to avoid social contact of any kind.

This is not an unusual story among bands that have been together for a long time. Not everyone can be Willie Nelson and family (though there may be other factors in that band that keep everyone interacting in a pretty mellow way).

This is not to say that there can’t be a sense of family in bands that have built up some longevity together. But think for a second about your own family: remember last Thanksgiving when Uncle Jim got plastered and stormed out after a big fight with Grandma? And this is after getting together only once a year. Imagine if the whole crew was riding down the highways day after day in a moving vehicle.

Then of course there are family bands themselves, not to mention brother duets. We tend to idealize relations between these family members too. We may not like to think of it this way, but without brothers who couldn’t stand each other, bluegrass music wouldn’t even exist, or certainly wouldn’t have lasted long.

Fortunately for us, these brothers put their commitment to the music and their careers ahead of their personal feelings about each other, and since they knew each other very well and had been fighting many of these battles since childhood, they knew how to rise above it.

A key to this kind of professional endurance may lie ultimately in lowered expectations. If you don’t expect to be “one big happy family” after playing together for five or more years, you have a greater chance of survival.

With unrealistic expectations about band relations can also come the desire to do everything together, just like a family would (see Thanksgiving scene, above). This may look good in a music video, but in real-life practice, you and your bandmates need some space, a little more every year, in most cases. It’s amazing how, after a little time apart from each other, you suddenly feel like greeting each other civilly again, as opposed to the usual grunt or just the silent treatment. You may even decide to do something socially together like go out to eat, go to a ballgame, or get thrown in jail. Then it’s just natural interaction among associates who know they don’t have to see each other every day, and though they may have their quarrels with each other, they can actually appreciate each other’s company outside of their work.

I could elaborate more, but the Night Drivers and I are bowling together later today, so I’d better run.

Next week: ways that band leaders can hold on to side musicians or get rid of them quickly, depending on their goals.