If Band A leaves Nashville traveling at 70 mph…

Chris JonesYou may recall that last week we started a discussion of band travel options, which are numerous, ranging from private jet (should I wait for the laughter to subside before continuing?) to private, near-dead burro.

This week I thought we’d examine a few of the most common choices available to the typical bluegrass band, and take a look at the pros and cons of each choice.

The “artist coach,” typically known as “the bus,” is an option frequently chosen by bands with the means to do so, but it’s a choice that’s not without its risks and economic down sides. In fact, some artists and bands choose the bus, even if they don’t have the means to travel that way, and for some of the same reasons that farmers drive new and expensive tractors they can never really justify financially. They feel it gives them needed prestige. This elevated image, in the case of the artist or musician, may translate to greater respect from the audience and from concert promoters, and eventually to more money. In the case of a farmer, the added prestige of the high-dollar tractor is believed to lead to greater crop yields and higher prices, and it may make hogs more respectful.

The question remains, though: does anyone (or any hog) really care that much? If the issue is band image, couldn’t you just use the phrase “the bus” even if you don’t have one? After all, the Merriam/Webster dictionary definition of “bus” reads as follows: “A large motor vehicle designed to carry passengers, usually along a fixed route, according to a schedule” (festival promoters may take issue with the “according to a schedule” part of this definition, where band buses are concerned). Wouldn’t a 1993 Dodge Neon qualify as a relatively large motor vehicle, since it’s larger than a Smart Car or Volkswagen Beetle? And it’s certainly designed to carry passengers (it’s not good for carrying much else). Therefore, it’s technically accurate to call this “the bus,” and the fact that people will conjure up an image of a sumptuously appointed, late model Prevost, is their own fault.

If you opt for more inexpensive transportation, you may be able to put the money toward better stage clothes, which could enhance your band image in a different way. Then just casually throw the phrase “our bus” around, without getting too specific or letting anyone actually see your band vehicle.

The bus has distinct advantages of course, aside from its ability to make an impression on the people who handle the parking at bluegrass festivals. A bus is a very comfortable way to get around. You can actually stretch out in a bunk and sleep, without needing physiotherapy or chiropractic care in the morning, as you often do after sleeping in a van (or a ’93 Dodge Neon). If you’re an insomniac, you can get up and watch a movie, play cards or talk to (i.e., wake up) the driver.

Maybe best of all, when playing an outdoor festival, you have somewhere to go for the seven hours between your shows. You can always tell the musicians who arrived there by van: they’re the ones wandering around aimlessly, shiny with sweat, holding a funnel cake. Some are just sitting by themselves in the middle of a field, crying.

The other side of that story, though, is that when those musicians in the van get home, they probably have a lot more money in their pocket than the ones in the bus. Buses can suck up money faster than a first round draft choice. This is one of the reasons bands that don’t have bottomless pockets should have at least one good diesel mechanic in the band. You’ll quickly discover this is more important than having a good banjo player. In the absence of a diesel mechanic, you’re going to run into some major costs, and spend lots of time on those same western roadsides that Hot Rize did.

If a van breaks down, your bill will usually run somewhere between $150 and $500, plus there’s usually someone nearby who can do the job. When a bus breaks down, your bill is more likely to run between $1000 and $2,000,000, plus you may have to search far and wide for someone to do the work (at 3:00 a.m. on a Sunday).

Then there’s the diesel or gas mileage: a van will get somewhere between 12 and 20 mpg, whereas a typical bus will get, in a best-case scenario, as much as 8 mpg, down to, in some older models, 40 feet/pg.

You do, however, save on hotel bills, if you choose to only stay in the bus. On the other hand, the cost of some major bus repairs would buy enough hotel rooms for the entire Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 5 years.

What about the choice between driving a bus and flying to the gig? At first, it would seem that flying is faster and easier, but anyone who flies knows this isn’t always the case.

Imagine the scenario in which two bands travel from Nashville to the Twin Cities, Band A traveling by bus, and Band B traveling by plane:

Band A leaves earlier, opting to take off at midnight from a supermarket parking lot (the typical glamorous meeting place for Nashville musicians about to hit the road).

Band B has a 7:00 a.m. flight, with a plane change in Cincinnati, and a scheduled arrival time of 2:47 p.m. (give or take) into Minneapolis/St. Paul. This leaves tons of time to make a 5:00 p.m. load-in and sound check.

To make this flight comfortably, though, what with check-in and security headaches, they plan to arrive at the airport at 5:30, which means that most band members are up at 4:00 a.m., so in the end, they’ve only left four hours later than Band A.

14 hours later, Band A has arrived in the Twin Cities, a little road weary, but with three hours to spare before the sound check.

Band B was affected by bad weather in Atlanta, which delayed the arrival of their plane into Nashville, which in turn made their flight 90 minutes late. They ran for their connection in Cincinnati, but didn’t make it. They were eventually routed through Detroit, where they all reside to this day. They were replaced on the show that night by a local band, and a magician/ventriloquist named Sparky.

On the other hand, this could easily be turned right around: Band B could make all connections, arrive early to the gig, feeling refreshed, while Band A’s bus is sitting on the side of the road in southern Illinois. The band leader says: “Any of you boys know anything about diesel engines? No? I was afraid of that.”

Sparky the magician/ventriloquist was actually pretty good.

Incidentally, I love one of Merriam/Webster’s other definitions for “bus”: “A space craft or missile that carries one or more detachable devices (as warheads).”

Now if that doesn’t command respect upon arrival at a bluegrass festival, I don’t know what will.

The above column was written from “the bus.”