International Man of Bluegrass

I’m writing this from an airplane heading west back to North America after a short European tour. Since the flight is 9 hours long, I finished watching a mediocre movie over an hour ago, the seatbelt sign has been on for quite a while, and I’m not sure I could actually pry my legs loose from the seat ahead of me to get up anyway, I’ve had quite a bit of time to reflect on international tours in the past. I may have some worthwhile advice for professional musicians considering this kind of work for the first time.

I’ll preface this discussion with the disclaimer that while I’ve toured overseas countless times, my experience with it is limited strictly to eastern and western Europe, so what I say here may not accurately apply to a 6-week tour of Syria or Myanmar (I just turned down lucrative offers to tour in both those places this coming November).

The rewards of touring and playing music in foreign countries are many, but there are some pitfalls worth keeping in mind before you go, the kind of pitfalls that can  leave you lost, penniless, without a passport, and possibly without the band you started the tour with.

On the rewards side of the equation, you’ll play music for a very appreciative audience, one that hasn’t yet become jaded by watching 18 consecutive bluegrass bands in an outdoor setting at temperatures of 98 degrees or higher. The crowds in many of these countries are more likely to forgive your minor musical faults, and it may be the first time they’ve ever heard Old Home Place (so feel free to go ahead and claim that you wrote it).

You’ll also get to see countries in ways that tourists never do: you’ll hang out with local people who don’t find you annoying (yet), eat local cuisine that wasn’t in the tourist guide, and, in the case of European countries at least, eat way better bread and drink way better coffee and/or beer than we ever get at home. Better still, if you open yourself up to your hosts and people who have come to hear your music, you will find yourself building lasting international friendships.

On the other hand, quite a lot can go wrong: I personally have had vehicles broken into, been hospitalized in places where I couldn’t understand the nurses, had band member passports and instruments stolen, witnessed ugly fights among musicians, and that was all just on a Friday night in downtown Nashville. When these things happen overseas, it can get really complicated.

In most cases, though, major problems on tours are ones we bring on ourselves, and so most are avoidable. I’ll save a lot of the specific recommendations for getting the most out of your tour and avoiding trouble for next week’s column, but for now, I’ll outline some general principles to consider before you add this kind of touring to your music career resume.

Probably the first thing to consider, before any others, is whether you actually want to tour in foreign countries. I know this sounds like a given, but I’ve seen a remarkable number of bluegrass musicians go on international tours who acted like someone sent them there against their will. After I heard a long string of complaints from one musician about everything related to his tour and Europe in general, from the food to the shape of the clouds, I asked him why he went, and after hesitating, he said, in so many words, that he just wanted to be able to say he’d done it. This just isn’t a good reason to go. Playing music in other countries is not something you do for bragging rights, like swimming in Lake Michigan in January, or eating 67 hotdogs in under an hour.

In order to want to go, you also have to want to experience something that’s different. If you’re expecting that things will be more or less the same as they are at home, possibly with better ice cream, you’re going to be very disappointed. Other countries have different food, different drinks, different traditions, and customs, and it’s highly likely that they speak a different language, hence the term “foreign.” If that’s going to bother you, you’re in for the longest tour of your life, and you may make the tour seem long to everyone else in the process.

On the other hand, if you embrace the differences, you’ll have a very rewarding experience. You may get lost from time to time, sometimes you won’t understand what people are saying, you may be confused about the relative cost of things, and you may at some point be handed something to eat that resembles raw pork on a cracker (probably because that’s what it is), but realize that you’re experiencing something unique and special, and all will be well.

If you’re a side musician who is going because you have to, i.e., someone actually is sending you there against your will, that’s a slightly different situation. You might consider reading up on the places you’re going ahead of time, or talking to other musicians who have been there. This is especially helpful if you’re fearful about the experience. You might find yourself actually getting excited about it and even enjoying it in the end. In a worst case scenario, though, you could ask to be replaced for the tour, but this should really be a last resort. And, if you’re a band leader, you might consider letting a musician like this opt out, with a minimum of guilt (though it’s okay to mutter “sissy” under your breath), rather than listen to this same musician whine for two weeks straight and then fall into stony silence for the third week.

A note to side musicians, especially those based in Nashville: if you’re hoping to be replaced for a European tour, you might consider lining up a sub who’s not quite as good as you are. If you’re replaced by someone who’s better than you are, well, I don’t even have the heart to finish this sentence.

Next week we’ll go through a list of international touring do’s and don’ts, but for now, a quick word about something that I’ll be enjoying tomorrow: jet lag.

Jet lag is something you’re likely to face on your overseas tour. It’s the result of your sleep patterns being completely jumbled up, due to the fact that you’ve crossed several time zones and may have started this process on an overnight flight that will likely include very little sleep.

Rather than give you specific advice for it, I’d like to urge you to be cautious about taking advice from me or anybody else on the subject: jet lag advice is a little like advice on how to cure hiccups, or how to invest in real estate during a recession. In most cases, it’s best to smile politely and just ignore it.

Before my first European tour with a bluegrass band, my mother insisted I read a book on jet lag that had just been published, and to humor her I obliged. The author touted his supposedly foolproof system which involved weeks of diet and lifestyle preparation prior to the trip. Right before getting on the plane, the procedure was to drink a few cups of strong coffee, then get on the plane, drink lots of liquid, swear off all alcohol, then try to sleep as much as possible (!). What could go wrong there?

After this attempt at sleeping on the night flight (do I even need to say how that went?), the instructions were to avoid napping after your arrival, but power through until normal bed time in your new location (if you’re in Europe, this would still be afternoon in the U.S.), then go to bed, and you would magically sleep the whole night, wake refreshed and completely adjusted to the local time.

What this system did for me was keep me awake for over 30 straight hours. The day we arrived, I nearly fainted while walking across a bridge in Bern, Switzerland. When I actually went to bed that night, in spite of my advanced state of exhaustion, I woke up three hours later, my body convinced it had just taken an afternoon nap. Four weeks later, I was in a hospital in Sweden.

On the other hand I have a great cure for hiccups that never fails.