I'm With The Band - Part I

Michael Perry spent June 16-28, 1997 on the road with Marty Stuart and the Rock & Roll Cowboys. His journey was chronicled on the World Wide Web on Discovery.com. Read what "life on the road" is all about and experience what it's like to be "With The Band."

The bus is warming up. So take a few minutes to see where we've been and what the rest of the trip will be like.

Nashville, TN: Meet the man with the pointiest boots in America
Nashville, TN: It's Fan Fair and the fans come in droves, bearing love and other gifts
Las Vegas, NV: On to Las Vegas and our first taste of the road
Del Mar, CA: We gear up for the California country fair circuit
Petaluma, CA: Onstage with Marty and the Rock and Roll Cowboys

Part II of the trip includes Nashville, Atlanta, Chicago and Eau Claire, WI plus the Band's Road Lingo
Click Here

Ready for the Road

Nashville -- During the next two weeks, I will be going to a casino, three state fairs, a national sheriffs' convention and a party in a cow pasture. I will sleep on a bus. I may learn to yodel. I will be spending most of my time with a man who throws something called "Marty Parties."

I know what you're thinking: Am I on the wrong website?

In a word, nope. By now you've come to expect Discovery Online writers to explore the exotic and unearth the unusual, right? Well, I'm going to a place with plenty of both. You might say it's a parallel dimension to reality. I'm going on The Road.

I look at The Road like this: If freedom is a religion, then the purest form of worship is movement. America is one vast altar, heaven lies beyond the horizon and the sacraments are served in Styrofoam. Bow your head, drop the hammer and listen to the choir sing, "On the Road Again."

Marty does it all: a little hillbilly rock,
a little black leather ...

I haven't had a chance to run my theory by Marty Stuart yet. I've never met the man. But glory be, he knows The Road. Been bouncin' around like some multi-colored, 48-state pinball game for 25 years. Marty began his road trip at age 13, his ticket to ride a precocious ability to play the mandolin. This landed him work with Lester Flatt of the legendary duo Flatt and Scruggs. They were big bluegrass stars, although you might be more familiar with their most famous work, the theme from The Beverly Hillbillies. Anyway, Marty went from there to a stint with fiddle player Vassar Clements and guitar virtuoso Doc Watson. Then came a six-year gig playing mandolin and guitar with Johnny Cash. For a while there, he was married to one of Johnny's daughters.

By the eighties, Marty had his own band and since then he's had hit singles, gold albums and even won a pair of Grammys. He's a big name here in Nashville, a member of the Grand Old Opry. Heck, he's the city's official "Ambassador of Tourism." But outside Nashville, Marty isn't what you'd call a country superstar; he's certainly not part of the current crop of white-hatted boys singing to suburbanites about gol'darned hay rides none of them ever took.

Another night, another set of spotlights

So Marty, now 38, keeps taking to the road, preaching his own gospel through music he calls "Hillbilly Rock." He plays nonstop geographical hopscotch: a show at the Opry House one night, two sets in Vegas the next, a gig at a California county fair the night after that. That's just the first three nights. It gets crazier. But I'll be along for the ride, along with Marty's band and the roadies and the bus drivers and whoever else flashes through our cross-country orbit. I'll go to the shows, but I'll also be taking a look at the Open Road, where a vagabond congregation exercises the religion of freedom in a million different ways.

But first I'll meet the fans. Tuesday night I'll go to a private party of Marty's fan club. And Wednesday, I'll be at the mother of all lovefests -- Fan Fair, where Marty and hundreds of other country artists will sit in booths and do the "meet'n'greet" with long lines of fans. It's like a trade show, only with swooning.

Till then I'm going to get some rest in a real bed.

A Man and His Boots

Nashville -- This has to be said: Marty Stuart has the pointiest cowboy boots in the cosmos. I mean, you could start an IV with the toes of those boots. When I get a chance I'll ask him where he has them sharpened. But if yesterday was any indication, it'll be a while before we sit down for a heart-to-heart on the issue of country music footwear.

Marty meets his fans.

By the time I hit town just after 11, Marty had done two interviews, appeared at a brunch for record label executives, picked up his mom and headed 30 miles out of town to a private party with 850 members of his fan club. I was running behind. And so Bonnie Garner, Marty's personal manager, loaded me up in her Cowboy Custom king-cab pickup truck and we hit the road in hot pursuit. Garner described her job as "mother, baby sitter, shrink, friend," then, "some refer to me as a 'hillbilly wrangler.' " As the truck rumbles along, we are interrupted by Garner's cellular phone. It's a publicist from L.A. A telephone interview with a Chicago newspaper needs to be rescheduled. Garner pulls out a schedule, wonders aloud about time zone differentials, sets a new time and we roll on.

The fan club party feels like a family reunion. Everyone sits at long wooden tables, eating barbecue while the cousin they've come to see plays the songs they've come to hear. "Shake it, Marty!" screams a woman. "You shake it," he yells back. When he finishes playing, Stuart takes up position by a bright blue buggy and, for the next four hours, shakes hands, hugs and poses for pictures with every single member of the family. The family, for their part, file through in an orderly line, getting autographs and occasionally presenting Stuart with gifts or unusual compliments. "You're the reason I got skinny!" says one woman.

Six hours after he arrived, Marty signs the last T-shirt, smiles for the final picture, rounds up his mom and drives himself home. In the near silence that remains, a woman says to her friend, "Well, now we can go to the mall."

A day of shaking hands and seeing
yourself in other people's T-shirts

Back at her office an hour later, Bonnie Garner is on the phone again. I'm in the next room sitting at a table next to a pair of Patsy Cline's boots -- Stuart is a big collector of country memorabilia. I hear Garner say, "You're on in one hour." She hangs up, having just reminded Marty that he's due at the Nashville Speedway to perform as part of a showcase for execs from MCA, his record label. He will drive himself and us to the show. Twenty minutes later he's at the door.

Marty drives a 1987 Cadillac. Bought it used and it shows a little wear around the spoked rims, but inside it's a clean, smooth ride. As we roll up 17th Avenue, one street over from the legendary Music Row, Marty reflects on the fan club party, which included hay rides, swings and scads of antique farm equipment. "I saw a lot of dirty little kids so that meant they were havin' fun." His voice has a faint charcoal rasp; the words unroll with an easy Mississippi drawl.

At the Speedway, we are stopped at a series of security checks, then quickly waved through when the startled gatekeepers realize who's driving. Marty parks his car and walks to the dressing room -- a portable trailer. Just inside the door, a sign reads, "Congratulations! You are leasing a mobile office from the largest and most prestigious company in the field of mobile and modular facilities." The decor consists of three folding tables and a handful of plastic chairs. A tinfoil pan of dried bread slices (white or wheat, you choose) rests on one table beside a stack of paper plates.

When it's time, I follow Marty, Bonnie and two sheriff's deputies through a crush of fans to the stage. The showcase is running two stages simultaneously; as one artist finishes, the other begins. Just offstage we watch the helter-skelter changeover, with roadies and musicians scurrying about in the half-light. As he is being introduced Marty grins at me. "It's chaos, then a little channel opens through it all, and that's where you go." And away he went into the spotlight, into full view of a thundering grandstand of fans.

For this fan, Marty adulation
ran more than skin deep.

After finishing his set Marty did a newspaper interview, then sat for another with a German television crew. When that was finished he was whisked away by golf cart to his final assignment of the day: a reception for MCA executives and VIPs. As someone puts it, "These aren't bigwigs. They're megawigs!"

I skipped the megawigs. And so, here I am, all alone, on the infield of the Nashville Speedway, sitting in the back seat of Marty Stuart's black Cadillac. It's nearing midnight and fireworks are splitting the sky overhead. Now they fall silent, and the giant grandstand begins to empty. I muse on the full spectrum in which Stuart operated today: On one end, the fans who build an artist's career one album at a time; at the other, power brokers who can build a career in an afternoon. And in the middle, a performer, constantly tending to a shifting equation of business, art and worship.

COMING UP: Tomorrow we'll follow Marty and his pointy boots to his booth at Fan Fair. Expect to feel the love and see some strange T-shirts. And then get your twang in tune because after that we hit the road.

Point, Click, Move On

Nashville: I suppose it would have put a fairly major hiccup in our day if we had actually run over Merle Haggard yesterday morning.

Marty was at the wheel of "the funeral car," as he refers to his black Cadillac, and we had just swung in the artists' parking area at Tennessee State Fairgrounds when we were well-nigh sideswiped by a golf cart. Marty braked, the golf cart driver braked, and I looked out my window right into the wrap-around sunglasses of a musical legend. The years, the road, and hard livin' have put some lines below the shades, but that was Merle Haggard, sure enough. He and Marty told each other some lies and then we went our ways.

Sometimes a fan's love
knows no bounds.

Marty was due at the Fairgrounds to appear at Fan Fair, a huge annual event at which country music fans get a chance to line up and actually meet many of their favorite stars. Tom Roland, music editor of the Nashville Tennessean told me that Fan Fair organizers have had to cap ticket sales at 24,000. The show has been sold out for the past seven years; this year tickets were gone by March.

It's like a human trade show. Musicians have their own booths, many lavishly decorated. Crooner John Berry's booth is a replica of his home, complete with white picket fence. Another artist signs autographs from the seat of a Harley-Davidson. Marty takes a simpler approach, receiving his fans in front of several 10-foot tall likenesses of himself. The people queue up in lines that snake all through the fairground buildings, and may stand for hours waiting for a 10-second visit with the artist. Every few minutes a staff member yells, "Please folks, have your cameras turned on and ready to go!" Most artists follow this routine: Fan hands camera to crew member; fan poses with artist, crew member snaps picture, then hustles a fresh fan into position. If the camera doesn't fire, well too bad ... next please. The fans seem to understand the rules.

The fan/artist dynamic is an amazing thing to watch. Marty and I arrive at his booth in a golf cart and from the get-go we run a vociferous gauntlet. One father thrusts a cowboy hat and a marker at Marty, then jogs his four-year-old daughter beside our wheel until Marty signs the hat. "C'mon honey, keep up!" the father says. Several fans step directly in front of the moving cart in an attempt to get shirts signed or to get close for a picture. Once Marty hits the ground I lag one step behind him and am immediately shut out by a convergence of bodies. Over and over, from every direction, I hear "Marty! Marty! Marty!" Marty keeps smiling, moving, and nodding, signing whatever he can, but never stopping. Once at the booth, Marty settles in and most people act politely, with a quick compliment and a picture to be signed. A few press straight into Marty's "personal space," wondering if he remembers them from that time he did that show in Altoona, back in '87. Many bring gifts. By the time he leaves, Marty's cache includes two Austrian country music awards, a pair of chubby Nicarauguan cigars, a handcrafted license plate holder, a woman's portrait embossed with her phone number, several letters, a child's drawing, numerous tapes and CDs, and a jar of homemade jam and a box of Sharpies, the indelible marker that's the universal tool of celebrity.

Marty gets himself ready
to strike a pose.

Those who don't want to wait in line stand nearby, hollering out Marty's name, trying to get him to look their way so they can get a picture to take home. And every fifteen minutes or so Marty obliges, standing on a folding chair so everyone can get a clear shot. At one point three women in their 60s, apparently unable to get Marty's attention by calling his name begin -- and I swear this is true -- barking.

Being last in line can
humble a person.

Every type of performer has its own fan culture, but country fans have a reputation for devotion that exceeds all others. It's not easy to explain, and it's difficult to understand what a person can take from such an ephemeral exchange. At times I found myself unsettled by the way some fans look at the artists -- a mixture of worship and ownership and you have to wonder why just listening to the music isn't enough. But the majority of fans are quite simply thrilled for the chance to thank someone who sings songs for them. "I remember when I used to go around town putting up my own posters, and there weren't 50 people who wanted to see me," Marty tells me. "I'm like the preacher after church -- I want to stand at the door and thank everybody for listening to what I had to say."

But even preachers lose their voices. Early in the afternoon Marty beckons to road manager Mike Copelin. They huddle for a moment, then Copelin pulls out his cell phone. When he finishes the call he tells me that Marty's appearance at the Superstar Spectacular later tonight has been canceled. The nonstop appearances, singing and talking of the past few days have begun to wear on Marty's voice. "We've got seven shows in the next four days," says Copelin, "and the first two are 'dry dates' in Vegas, so we've got to rest his voice."

And so I get back to the hotel early. At about 10 p.m., I flip on The Nashville Network and there was Merle Haggard performing live. He had taken his sunglasses off and when he got to the break he played a nice relaxed groove for a guy who had nearly been run over by some hillbilly in a Cadillac.

Next stop: We're off for the casinos of Vegas.

Onward to Vegas

Las Vegas: As I write this, I'm sitting on a Boeing 737 behind three of Marty's Rock and Roll Cowboys. Nashville is somewhere behind the tail of our jet, Las Vegas is somewhere off the nose and the guitars are in the luggage bay. For the past few days, the fans have been coming to Marty, now he must go to them. And today it's not just anywhere. Today it's Las Vegas.

Marty's buses are already in Vegas and, after he does his two shows, we'll jump on them for the fairs of California. As songwriter Steve Earle once lamented, "When you get to that horizon/There's always someplace else to be." Or in my case, " When I get done writing on my laptop/There's not always someplace to send it from." Which means for the next few days I'm be serving up scenes as they happen and transmitting them from wherever I can.

I don't know the members of the band and crew by name yet, but I do know the three sitting in front of me are the guitarist, bassist, and steel guitar player. Perhaps reflective of some innate musician's herding instinct, they are seated in the exact same order in which they arrange themselves onstage. The drummer, as drummers often are, is off by himself.

The woman beside me is reading a thick paperback. The words "forbidden passion" and "love flames" figure prominently on the cover, as well as a painting of a swooning belle in possession of what can only be classified as a heaving bosom. Every now and then the woman reading beside me laughs out loud. This catches me off guard -- I never knew forbidden passion could make you giggle. Later she says she is on her way to Las Vegas to meet her husband; this evening the couple will celebrate their 29th anniversary at an Engelbert Humperdinck show. She's happy, and I'm happy for her.

It's 106 degrees as we descend into Vegas, and the rising heat kicks the jet around enough to send nervous laughter around the cabin. Once on the ground we troop out into the heat and to the bus which driver Ken Lyon has shining like a chunk of polished granite. The lead guitarist waves me aboard, saying, "Welcome home!" and the rest of the band laughs. Road manager Mike Copelin discusses room assignments, hands out meal tickets and reviews the day's schedule, which is posted on a wipe-off marker board. Then we roll out of the airport, headed for the Sunset Station casino.

The wheels have stopped turning,
the casino beckons.

I'm essentially a farm boy who's been some places, but I've never been to a casino. When I step through the doors and wade into a sea of flashing slot machines, I 'm struck by their incessant musical beeping. There is something oddly familiar about the sound. Then I realize it reminds me of the mass choruses of peeper frogs that chime away all summer from the swamps around my parent's farm. I don't think this is the effect they're going for.

Mike Copelin's job is worth a column of its own. A good road manager is like the captain of a ship full of holes. He runs around plugging leaks and yelling at the crew, all the while keeping the whole mess afloat and full steam ahead. Today, I've seen him gather all of our plane tickets, check all of our luggage (25 big pieces), hand out "P.D." (the per diem money allotted to each band member for food and miscellaneous expenses), check us all into the hotel, arrange a "meet 'n' greet" for radio station contest winners, set up the stage lighting, run the lights during the show, track down a casino employee to sell T-shirts after the regular merchandise hand called from Barstow, California, with the news that his water pump had "hatched," and, well..............you get the idea.

For road manager Mike Copelin, there is
rarely a light at the end of the tunnel.

As I walk with Marty from his bus to the show room door, we talk about how Las Vegas has transformed itself from an adults-only city into a family entertainment metropolis. Then, based on our informal survey of the advanced age of people playing the slot machines, we decide this is probably a wise move.

Backstage between shows, Marty pulls me aside. "I want you to meet a great man." He says the word "great" softly, deeply. Dennis Alley is a Native-American master dancer of the Otoe tribe and a longtime friend of Stuart's. He is diabetic and recently the disease has taken him for a few tough rounds. One of his toes has been amputated. Tonight however, he is thankful -- he is recovering and tomorrow he will dance in Arizona. Behind the closed dressing room door, he and Stuart have just prayed for continued health. Alley is very tall, a regal elder, but his disposition is anything but forbidding. At one point he grins at me, "I am the no-toe Otoe!"

Just another night's work on the
Underground Twang Tour

As I type this Marty and his Rock & Roll Cowboys are about to finish the second show of the night. Our two buses are scheduled to leave at 2 a.m. and I'll have a bunk on one of them. This morning we'll be somewhere in California. I'll drop you a line.

Tomorrow: Frankly, I have no idea.

I did want to thank those of you who have sent in country lyrics, like "I may not be a stranger/But I'm stranger than most" from Dave Armstrong and "I flushed my broken heart down the toilet/The day you left me for that bleach-bottle-blonde," submitted anonymously. And there's this whole verse from Karla Turbyfield:

"Blue lights and a wrecker,
Still thirsty, but I gotta pee.
Drank a beer in my pickup truck,
Now look at what's happened to me."

Welcome to My Coffin

Del Mar, California: Here's our chance for a quiet moment together. I'm sitting in what passes for the lounge area of the crew bus. I have no idea what time it is since I've just crawled from the rack. Everyone else is either gone or still curtained away in their bunks. When I squint out the window, I see a race track and a Ferris wheel so I assume we're at the Del Mar Fair. Then I see an empty grandstand and an assemblage of port-a-potties. Even if we're not in Del Mar, we've got everything we need to do a show.

Sleepytime's over. Let the unloading begin.

I had fallen asleep in Nevada. It was nearly 3 a.m. when we departed Sin City and, as we turned off the legendary Strip and hit the outskirts of town one of the sound engineers cued up Sheryl Crow's "Leaving Las Vegas" on the CD player and the crew unwound with Pringle's, homemade chocolate chip cookies, and a beer apiece. Road manager Mike Copelin, whom I essentially described yesterday as a busy man who yells, had stopped yelling. But he was still busy. While he joked with everyone else, he was also taking care of business, tallying up receipts, updating merchandise inventory, and filling out reports. When he finally snapped his brushed aluminum briefcase shut, everyone else had gone to bed and Las Vegas had faded to black.

Sleeping in a tour bus bunk is a little like crawling into the belly of a benevolent whale, only the whale would give you more room. Stacked two high on either side of the narrow hallway that runs down the center of the bus, each bunk is just over six feet long, about three feet wide, and about three feet deep. If you're thinking what I'm thinking, yes, that's pretty much the size of your standard coffin. This notion is greatly reinforced when you crawl in and pull shut the heavy accordioned curtain. Frankly, I was so tired I didn't care. Roll out the coffins, I'm ready for bed. I was asleep within minutes and never shifted until the bus backed up to the stage in Del Mar.

One thing I have learned quickly about life on the road with a band: When you see food, eat it. Wait, and you'll be on the road again, scouring the bus for stale fudge crumbs. And so when I get off the bus, go backstage, and stumble into a buffet table, I make two fat sandwiches and have 'em for breakfast at noon.

I find a phone line in a production trailer to resend yesterday's images (they had disappeared into the electronic ether after I sent them from Las Vegas Thursday night). Les Banks, Marty's production manager and monitor engineer, is on the phone beside me. Banks has a wide range of responsibilities; this morning, he's lining up equipment for our show in Chicago next Friday. Because this tour is traveling light -- only the guitars and monitors -- Banks must rent eveything else. Banks is from the Del Mar area and had hoped to sneak out surfing this morning. He rose early but it the winds were too high. "I just drove up and down the coast," he says, wistfully. Now at noon, he's back at work, directing the local crew assigned to help him set up the stage. Today he's lucky -- the Del Mar stage is expansive and manned by a veteran, capable crew. It is not always so. A few weeks ago, Banks arrived at a venue and found himself in charge of a troop of Boy Scouts, eager, but not what you'd call seasoned. "Crews range from what you see here to prison trustees," says Banks. "We set up some shows surrounded by guys in orange jumpsuits, and sheriff's deputies with shotguns on either side of the stage."

At the moment the setup is going smoothly, although working in the middle of a fairground does have its distractions. The Goodyear blimp just floated by, we can hear the screams of teenagers riding the Kamikaze, an airplane keeps buzzing us with a banner bragging, "BEST BBQ SAUCE AT HENRY'S AND STUMP'S," and work comes to a complete standstill when a flaming man in a gasoline-soaked cape leaps from a tower into a water tank just behind the stage.

Another day, another flaming man.

There are two different sound systems at a concert: one for the audience, and one for the band. The band listens to itself on monitors that face away from the crowd and it is critical that the "mix" coming through these monitors be painstakingly adjusted. If the mix is poor it can become impossible to keep time, harmonize, or hear the other instruments. To set the mix Les Banks rotates from microphone to microphone, giving instructions to an assistant behind a massive soundboard studded with an expansive thicket of buttons, knobs and faders. To give you an idea of the process, I typed everything Banks said as he stood at Marty's microphone: "Gimme some more gain, please -- ayy, one-tew, ayy -- one more click of gain -- sha-sha -- take some 500 out please -- check one two, uh-uh-uh -- sneak me some more gain -- ayy, one-tew, ayy -- cluck-cluck ... whatever that is, make it go away ... OK, feed this to the top rev ... roll off some lows and some honky mids ... OK, let's move on to Steve's vocal mix ... two-three ... bring the level back and hack the Eqs."

I hope that explains everything.

Sound engineer Spike Spicher
holds in his hands the marvel of
modern music: gaffer's tape.

The show is still four hours away and the setup continues. When Marty does take the stage tonight I'll go with him and take you with me. I won't be allowed to sing and there'll be no spotlights on me, but I'll pay attention, take notes and pictures and in my next dispatch on Monday I'll try to give you a taste of what it's like to be an honorary Rock & Roll Cowboy.

Monday: Showtime

Where Are We?

All over California: The first time Marty Stuart played the Grand Ol' Opry, he rode to town with Lester Flatt -- Marty was still too young to drive. Lester thought the youngster would be uptight and nervous. Marty fell asleep.

He says that he's always felt at home onstage. This may be true. But there's home and there's home. Every night, after reaching center stage Marty looks down at his feet. There, next to the list of songs to be played, is a little square of paper taped to the stage. On it is written the name of the town where he is at the moment. I mean it really wouldn't do to tell the people of Petaluma how much you like it here in Del Mar.

It's easy to get confused. One of the things that has surprised me about this trip is how quickly I've lost track of what day it is and what city we're in.

You've probably noticed that we're playing a wide range of venues, from the huge grandstand at Bing Crosby's famous Del Mar racetrack to the confines of a casino showroom. This is no accident, says Marty. "Last year I was on the stadium circuit with Travis Tritt. I enjoy that but that kind of show requires more 'over the top' thinking -- backdrops, full costumes, choreographing. And as much as I enjoy playing the huge crowds it really pays to play the back roads because you put things on what I call a 'living room level.' "

Marty arrives and fans divide.

When you're in the audience at a concert, the performance comes roaring out of giant banks of speakers, and is focused for you by spotlights. But for me the fascination of performance isn't in the big noise or the white heat of the spotlight. For me, the fascination is in the creation of the performance -- the click of the pick as it strikes the string, the finger on the fret, the scarcest motion of a fingertip that nuances the note. From these smallest of things comes the powerful sound that pulls you to your feet or knocks you to your seat. When you're backstage you're much more aware of this. Hiding behind an amplifier case six feet from Marty and his guitar as the band hammers its way through "Hillbilly Rock," I look at the cable tapped into the amp and am fascinated by the thought that the thunderous noise rolling out across the crowd is first passing through that cable in a series of tiny electrical impulses and those impulses are created by the nearly invisible vibration of a steel string set in motion by a precise stroke from the artist's fingers.

Maybe I've been on the road too long.

I've seen some other things onstage that were less delicately construed. Sitting on the back of drummer Gregg Stocki's drum riser during the Saturday night show in Petaluma, I was pondering the unusually precarious placement of a large monitor when it came crashing down, narrowly missing Stocki. Had it fallen another foot to the right, he would have been hurt. As it was, he literally never missed a beat and the audience was oblivious. Last night, in Stockton, I was behind his riser again when his snare drum broke. With the help of Les Banks, he replaced the drum, all the while keeping the beat.

So what if a drum breaks in mid-set?
The audience doesn't have to know.

Another unplanned moment came Friday in Del Mar when American folk icon Ramblin' Jack Elliott showed up backstage. Marty asked him if he would join the band onstage to sing Jimmie Rodgers' "Muleskinner Blues." "I'll play bass," said Marty. "I've always wanted to be in your band."

"I'm not sure what key to do it in," said Ramblin' Jack.

Marty grinned. "You just pick one and I'll blunder right along behind you."

Steel guitarist Gary Hogue's foot
goes largely unnoticed by the crowd.

Two of the most enjoyable shows I've seen weren't on the itinerary. The first was put on by the road crew in Del Mar before Marty's first show of the day. The band was still at the hotel so sound men Spike Spicher and Les Banks played guitar, Marty's guitar technician, Randy Childers played bass, and road manager Mike Copelin drummed. The show consisted of two songs: a chord-crunching heavy metal number and a meandering blues piece. I have taken the liberty of naming the band "The Hardcases," in honor of their general demeanor and the equipment they lug every day.

Guitarist Brad Davis lights up
the California night.

And then there's the performance I'm listening to right now. I'm on Marty's bus, riding in the jump seat right up front. The San Francisco Bay is sliding by to my right. The water sparkles off Alcatraz. In the lounge behind me Marty and guitarist Brad Davis are picking bluegrass -- Marty on his mandolin, Brad on guitar -- and it's turned into a double-dare-ya hoedown, each man trying to outpick the other. Despite his image as a flashy hillbilly rocker, Marty's roots are deep in bluegrass, and lately he's been circling back that way. I turn around to watch. The faster his fingers flash up and down the fretboard, the bigger he grins. The guitar and mandolin run at and away from each other, chasing and being chased, and just when the whole thing hits a crescendo, Marty Stuart dissolves into laughter, throws his head back, and in his best backwoods twang, hollers, "How y'all doin' out there in radioland!!!"

I turn back to the front, look at the white lines leading us to another show and think that maybe I haven't been on the road quite long enough.

Tomorrow: Back to Nashville.

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