Somewhere deep in my file of road stories, I have an unpleasant recollection of spreading out a sleeping bag on the ground behind a truckstop in the former Yugoslavia (because there was no room at the inn), surrounded by empty bottle crates and a few stray animals (or were they other band members?). It was a road low point, which I was able to recognize even at the age of 18. I consoled myself by saying, “Oh well, it will make a good road story years from now.” I didn’t know then how important it was to have a few decent stories to pull out during a late night jam session, when no one could think of another tune and everyone had lost the energy to play one anyway.
Musicians love to tell tales of the road: stories of gunfights during gigs, awkward personnel changes, drunk fans, crooked promoters, border hassles, food poisonings, banjo players on fire, and yes, even lonesome accommodations in the back of Serbian truckstops.
Though sharing these stories is fun and a little therapeutic, it may be even more rewarding to hear good road stories. That’s because you’re not only entertained by the story, but you also can smile with the knowledge that you personally weren’t there to have to actually experience it.
Still, as with boring news stories (covered here in a previous column), there are plenty of tales of the road that fall completely flat. Some people just can’t tell a good story. Others, for whatever reason, have never had anything interesting happen to them while playing music professionally. A long time ago, I decided to file some of these away as I heard them, creating a sort of road story anti-list. Below are a few that topped my list, categorized appropriately:
The story that seems to go nowhere, in the end revealing itself to be a non-story. Often this is just a “story” told by someone with a lack of focus:
“We were playing a show in Ohio, opening up for Ralph Stanley. We were told to arrive at 6:00 p.m., and Ralph and the boys were already there. I saw Curly Ray Cline coming off the bus, and I said ‘Hey Curly Ray, do you have any of your key chains with you, and he said ‘I sure do.’ I had bought one of those key chains in 1975 and I had lost mine, so I was glad I’d have a chance to get another one. I think they came in red and blue. Am I right about that? Anyway, we took our instruments out of the van we were driving. It was a Dodge Ram, and normally I don’t buy Dodges, but this one was a winner. I bought it off of a mechanic buddy of mine. All it needed was a new alternator and she was good to go. I think it went 350,000 miles on the original engine. Funny thing, though, when we got to the backstage door, it was locked, or we thought it was locked. Turned out it just opened in instead of out. That really throws you, doesn’t it? I had a bathroom door in the house we used to have before we move to the place we have now. I guess I never could get used to . . .”
And on and on it goes from there. Fifteen minutes later, you realize this story was about nothing but unloading at a nondescript venue, doing a sound check, and opening for Ralph Stanley.
The boring story whose only purpose is to drop names:
“I was playing a show with Sam, and this was right after Newgrass had split up, and I said, ‘Did you bring Bela with you?’ Sam said, ‘No, he’s formed a band called The Flecktones.’ ‘Well, you know Bela,” I said, and Sam just chuckled. Bela told me once that he loved this tune I had written, you know, the Lester’s Pajamas one in D. I played it once for Big Mon (that’s what I always called Bill . . . Monroe), but I think it was a little out there for him, or he didn’t like the title. Anyway, Sam asked me if I would look after his mandolin while he ran back to the sound board for a minute. You know, for some reason, people just trust me with their mandolins. Frank (Wakefield) used to do the same thing.”
The story of something that all of us have been through a thousand times and would prefer not to hear about again, ever:
“We were driving down I-65 in Indiana, stuck behind a truck that was going 60 miles an hour, but as soon as we pulled out to pass, doing about 65 or 70, we saw the flashing lights behind us. We knew he was after us, so we pulled over. The state trooper was all business, and when I said “I don’t think I could have been going over 65,” he just said “You were doing 70 in a 60 zone. May I see your license and registration?” He gave us a $140 ticket. Can you believe it?”
The stories that contain a big buildup to nothing:
“Listen to this! (this opening to a story is never a good sign). We were flying to L.A. In the morning, and the five of us were meeting at the airport two hours before the flight. There wasn’t much of a line at the ticket counter, so we thought we were in luck. We got all our baggage checked, then we noticed our flight was delayed by 30 minutes. This made us really nervous because we only had an hour layover in Denver. So here’s what happened (a blatant attempt to keep you interested): we had a lot of time to kill by the gate so I called the promoter to let him know about the delay, because we were playing that night. When we finally boarded the plane and took off, we were still 30 minutes behind schedule. I started to go through the different scenarios in my mind if we missed the plane: ‘Would we make it in time for the gig? Would we miss it entirely.’ We landed in Denver, and I told the rest of the band, we’d better check the flight monitor right away to see where we need to go, then we’ll run as fast as we can! When we found the flight on the monitor, it looked like we had a pretty long walk, but get this! (still trying). Our connecting flight was delayed too, so we made it easily. We even had time to eat something before our next flight.”
Good stuff, right?
Last and probably least, are the road stories from musicians, who through being born under some lucky star, have only played nicely catered house concerts and shows put on by arts consortiums, i.e. musicians who have never changed for the show in a well-aged port-a-john.
Here’s one I heard about the backstage conditions at the “Valley Arts Concert Series” held in a quaint town in a quaint state:
“That’s nothing (You have to appreciate the opening that attempts to make the last person feel like their story was worthless). We played at a place last year we’ll never go back to as long as we live! We arrived for the sound check, and when they directed us to the dressing rooms, we discovered that they were on the complete other end of the building from the stage! I asked how we were going to get from there to the stage, and they gave us directions that involved going up and down a flight of stairs and walking through a side passageway all around the theatre. As if that weren’t enough, there were only three dressing rooms and we have a four-piece band! The bread for the sandwiches in the green room was stale, and when I asked if the decaf coffee backstage was “Swiss Water Process,” the stage manager just gave me a blank stare. Those are times you just have to stay focused on the music and not let it get you down.”
I’m sorry, what were you saying?