“The life I love is making music with my friends
And I can’t wait to get on the road again”
– Willie Nelson
For many bluegrass musicians, the road can be a disappointing and wearing experience, and it often leads to early retirement from the business.
As glamorous as living in a moving vehicle, sharing cramped quarters with three to twelve other pickers, and occasionally changing clothes in a port-a-john might sound, some people simply aren’t cut out for that high-rolling lifestyle (maybe I should have just said “rolling lifestyle”). And by the way, after the first 600 miles, any quarters are cramped quarters.
For some, though, the problem of the road is one of expectations: they expect it to be something it isn’t, and the disillusionment eventually leads them to seek out non-musical employment, whether it be uranium mining, pet grooming, or both, in order to get off the highways.
Perhaps if these musicians had a more realistic view of what they were in for up front, they might have lasted longer. The fact is that no one tends to discuss publicly what it’s really like, because the professionals who are out there “living the dream” would prefer that people maintain a romantic view of what their lives are like, so they tend to save their horror stories and commiserating for those times when outsiders aren’t around.
Here are a few things that a hopelessly optimistic new road musician might be expecting from the road experience, and below, I’ll try to present a more reality-based view:
Sleep is important to me, so I plan to be getting at least eight hours a night.
This person will last exactly seven days on the road before making an alternate life plan.
I like to eat a healthy diet, rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, with a minimum of fats and empty carbs.
Good luck with that. Even if you bring your own giant cooler with you full of kale, quinoa, and probiotic goat’s milk, you may have to occasionally settle for a meal whose healthiest component is bacon.
I don’t ever plan to do laundry on the road. If you’re out long enough to have to do that, it’s time to go home.
Sounds like a noble standard, but not every tour can be that short. Sometimes, unless you plan to just throw clothes away and buy new ones, you’ll either have to find a laundromat, a generous fan, or a motel sink, using a tiny bottle of shampoo.
I’ll be looking forward to drinking in the diversity of our nation, sampling regional cuisine, and forging meaningful relationships with local people.
This can happen, though if it does, it will be in between long stretches of four-lane sameness, chain restaurants, and having no idea where you are when you wake up.
I’ll be working with like-minded individuals in a creatively stimulating, supportive, and mature environment.
People who play bluegrass music are more wholesome than other kinds of musicians, so while I’m on the road, I won’t be exposed to any of the tawdry excesses the music business is known for.
The less said here, the better.
I look forward to staying in good quality hotels; the kind with nicely maintained pools, comfortable beds, and a hot breakfast with food that looks real.
It could happen. In between those times, you’ll have to suffer through some places with fruit loops and stale donuts as your breakfast option, faucets coming off in your hand, and gunplay in the parking lot.
From green room catering to sound, people will always be looking after my needs, so that I feel musically inspired before every show.
When we fly to gigs, things will generally go smoothly, as we enjoy the fastest mode of transportation available to us.
Double no. Flying brings with it a unique kind of road stress and unpredictability. You’ll come to appreciate the boredom of a long layover as being the best this method of travel is going to get.
Spending long hours on a bus with the people I work with will bring us closer together so that we become like an inseparable family.
You don’t even want this to happen.
In conclusion, it’s not that you should approach the road with pessimism and negativity, just try to be realistic about it. It’s a necessary means to an end. If you don’t expect great fulfillment from it up front, you’re more likely to take the monotony, the stress, the questionable food, and occasional life-threatening incidents in stride, and maybe with a little humor.
We sometimes forget that while we are blessed to be doing something we love to make a living, it’s also work, and no matter what you do for income, work always comes with a certain amount of drudgery.
This is why, aside from the separation from family that often goes along with it, I like the road. It may be because I never expected to love it.