I'm With The Band - Part II

Nashville: There's life and there's the bus
Atlanta, GA: A "run-and-gun" trip to Atlanta where we meet up with a whole lot of sheriffs
Nashville, TN: We check out Emmylou Harris' boots and Elvis' sweater
Nashville, TN: We learn bad things about loud noise and coffee
Chicago, IL: Back on the bus. Next stop: Grant Park Petrillo Music Shell in Chicago
Eau Claire, WI: It's Woodstock in Wisconsin. Marty plays the Chippewa Valley County Fest, which is a giant concert in a giant cow pasture...do I smell deep-fried cheese curds?

A band on the road has its own language. To learn some of the key words, check out the ROAD LINGO

Part I of the trip includes Nashville, Las Vegas, Del Mar and Petaluma, CA
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You're Somebody, Aren't You?

Nashville: After seven shows in four days Marty Stuart, his Rock & Roll Cowboys and crew, and one tagalong writer are back in Nashville. Yesterday was a day off. Or at least on the schedule it was. Our buses left the Pleasanton Hilton at 5 in the morning for the short run to Oakland, where we caught a flight that arrived in Nashville in early afternoon. But once we got there, Marty was due at rehearsal for a televised special to be recorded later this week, the crew had to load the equipment on a truck and stow it in a warehouse -- we're all due in a parking lot on the east side of Nashville at 10 this morning to leave for a show in Atlanta. In the meantime, the two bus drivers we left behind at the airport in Oakland are out on the road somewhere, dead-heading back to Nashville to catch up with us in time for today's trip.

But me, I actually had some time yesterday to look back on the past week, especially what it's like to live most of your life on the road. When you're constantly moving you have to make an effort to hold on to those things that matter to you. Like Sunday morning in Petaluma, when Marty called my hotel room and invited me to join him at church. A Baptist, he frequently worships with other denominations as a simple matter of logistics but, when we met in the hotel lobby the desk clerk had located a Baptist church nearby. Our cab driver overshot the address, explaining that he was preoccupied with buying a boat. He refused to accept fare, insisting instead that Marty put five dollars in the collection plate. An elderly man handing out programs at the door looked at Marty -- in his black and his very pointy cowboy boots -- and said, "You ... you're somebody, aren't you?" As we chose a pew in the rear of the church, a flustered teenaged girl leaned in and asked if she might have an autograph. "I'd be glad to -- after the service," said Marty softly. The service opened with a baptism in a large Plexiglas pool at the front of the church. When the girl being baptized returned to her seat her tearful grandmother rose and embraced her, then sat with her head resting on the girl's shoulder. Marty leaned toward me and whispered, "That's why I'm here."

He wasn't always like this. Years ago, when he was playing in Johnny Cash's band, Marty wanted to be like Johnny Cash. He drank and lived a little too hard. Now he makes a point of working church into his road schedule. Like many performers, some of Stuart's earliest musical influences came about through the church. Two days earlier in a trailer backstage at Del Mar, he had told me, "There really wasn't much difference between the music I heard in church and the roots of rock, bluegrass, blues, and rockabilly. The cottonfields and the church were the platform for country music." This morning, however, he was resting his voice, so I sang for both of us. I rarely sing hymns anymore and I had to drop an octave for the high notes, but no one seemed to mind. In the end, the visiting preacher went a little long and we were late for the bus. Marty tithed the cab fare and we tip-toed out the back. Twenty minutes later we were on the bus and out of town.

For Marty, it's either onstage
or on the bus.

Another thing I've become very aware of are the different levels of recognition Stuart encounters. When we piled out of the buses at a diner in a strip mall outside Pleasanton, the customers studied us closely as we filed in, but said nothing. Five minutes later a waitress approached us. "Everyone wants me to ask who you guys are," she said. "We're here to play for the fair," said one of the crew. "Oh, is one of you Marty Stuart?" asked the waitress. "Yep," said Marty, pointing at me. "Oh, welcome!" said the waitress. Then another one of the crew spoke up. "Naw, we're Air Supply."

Back at the Quality Inn in Petaluma, there is now an autographed picture of Marty behind the desk. It joins a group of four or five other country stars and one musical troupe. Of course, truth be told, Marty did not sleep in the hotel. He stayed on his bus. He did, however, use the pool and the pay phone. I know, because I was there. In room #255, should the management wish to post some sort of commemorative plaque.

Inside the "Hillbilly Royale,"
it's one big leatherfest.

In fact, I'm grateful for my anonymity. The price of public recognition is exacted in strange ways: We're on Marty's bus, crossing San Pablo Bay in heavy traffic, when the bus driver's pager goes off. It's an emergency message for Marty. He doesn't recognize the number but the name on the message is the same as a close relative. Mike Copelin hands Marty the cell phone and he dials. A woman answers. Somehow she was able to obtain his private number and knew which name to use. Stuart deals with the call calmly, but it has to be unsettling to have someone reach into this most private space -- as it rolled down the road, no less.

Then there was the woman in Petaluma with the enlarged photo of a white parrot stuck inside a fishbowl. She waves it at Marty and tells him the parrot is named after him. This reminds Marty of something and back on the bus he starts rummaging around until he pulls out a copy of a Nevada birth certificate. He hands it to me. Taped to the paper is a snapshot of a grinning baby and a note that reads in part, "Meet my son, who I named after yourself."

By day Rock and Roll Cowboys;
by night, bunkmates

By the time this is posted, we'll be back on the road. I've discovered that all this movement keeps you isolated, even if hundreds or thousands of people show up to meet you whenever you stop running. On the other hand people reach out and touch you both because of and in spite of the movement. The perspective is both enlightening and confusing, but as the diesel drummed us down the highway the other night, and I watched the dark buildings loom and fade, I felt like I was in on a secret with wheels.

Tomorrow: A guitar master meets some deputy sheriffs.

Marty Meets the Law

Atlanta: We've got road under us again; this time it's I-75 north out of Atlanta. The band and crew are arranged around the lounge of the bus, discussing the equipment they'll need for the upcoming leg of the tour, which will take them north to the very doorstep of Canada. They're also re-enacting Monty Python skits. The show they've just finished was a "run-and-gun." We left Nashville at 10 yesterday morning, did the show and bolted; allowing for a fuel stop, we're on target to be back in Nashville at 2 in the morning. We leave behind us a passel of sheriffs with their bellies full of grilled steak and their heads full of good karma.

Last night's show was a corporate engagement. The band was hired by a major telephone company to entertain the National Sheriffs Association. A booth in the hallway had a sign: "Golf/Pistol Registration." I wasn't packin' either a pistol or a putter so I walked on by. Out beside our bus, a team of chefs grilled 1,550 steaks for the pre-show feed. Before sound check one of the officials mentioned to Marty that the audience would contain sheriffs from all 50 states. Marty grinned. "I've probably been arrested by somebody here."

Smells like sheriff spirit.

As it turns out, tonight's crowd of well-fed law enforcement officers enjoys the show, but they're quite reserved compared to some audiences I've seen. They applaud enthusiastically between numbers but remain seated in neat rows of padded chairs. Like any seasoned performer, Marty is able to read the crowd and tailor his show accordingly. About six songs into the set, he picks up an acoustic guitar and offers to play a request. "I'll play anything you want, as long as I know it!" he says. The deviation from the playlist works the way Marty's experience told him it would -- by involving them he has drawn the fans into the performance. At one point, after allowing the crowd to sing a chorus of "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'," he draws back from the microphone, shaking his head. Then he leans back in and says, "It's a good thing y'all can sheriff, cause y'all sure can't sing!"

The band prepares to make its entrance.

So far each show on the tour has ended with a full-bore rendition of "Get Back to the Country," an exuberant Neil Young rocker that leaves the venue thundering. Tonight, as usual, Marty performs the song as an encore. But then, instead of leaving the stage, he addresses the crowd. "Each day we're out there ridin' around, doin' what we do, and we see the 10 o'clock news, and we know what you're dealin' with. We're just on the fringe of it. We want you to know we're prayin' for you." And then, gently finger-picking on an acoustic guitar, he closes with a yearning gospel number. It's a conscious decision, made on the fly, based on a gut feeling. When he finishes, the cheers are strong and sustained; a goodly chunk of the audience rushes to the foot of the stage. I realize I've just observed an important lesson of performance -- in the proper circumstance a gentle, heartfelt denouement will resonate long beyond the most thunderous of finales.

The long, high-ceilinged hall the band played in presented special challenges for sound man Spike Spicher. As the person in charge of "room sound," he must use his giant mixing board to fill the hall with music while still maintaining a level of clarity. There is no secret formula, and he can't always please everyone. He once mixed a show for bluegrass artist Ricky Skaggs, and after the show an elderly woman berated him for what she felt was excessive volume. "I have all of Ricky Skaggs' albums," she said, "and none of them are that loud!"

Light show for an empty hotel ballroom

Because this was a run-and-gun, and because the other buses are still working their way back from California, the crew and band all ride on one bus. For most of the trip home everyone crowds into the dimly-lit front lounge area. While we're still idling behind the hall, guitarist Brad Davis fires up his laptop to work on a column he writes for a guitar magazine. Steel guitar player Gary Hogue and Marty compare notes on a lick that was giving them trouble, saying things like, "It should go beeyowp, bump, bebump, but I always want to go bebump, bump, beeyowp." Once we get rolling, the performance post-mortem switches over to storytelling, and the rest of the ride home is the equivalent of nine little boys holding a liar's convention in a secret rolling clubhouse. Spike Spicher tells about the time road manager Mike Copelin initiated a new band member by dumping a garbage can of water over him as he slept in his hotel bed, and Marty talks about how as a young'n he once derailed a bluegrass festival by sneaking backstage and switching all the fiddle bows to the wrong cases. The words flow, the wheels roll, and before we could tell 'em all, we're back in Nashville.

A new jacket for Brad Davis
takes shape on a laptop.

A postcript: I'd never been to Atlanta. Now I have. I was asleep in a bunk when we arrived. It was dark when we left. Based on what I saw in between, Atlanta consists of a loading dock, a parking ramp and a sign for the Galleria Mall. Now I know what the bus driver meant when he told me, "I've been all across America and never seen it."

Because You Asked: Usually the band and crew stop to eat at truck stops or diners. Marty has a weakness for Cracker Barrel restaurants; bass player Steve Arnold is more likely to heat up a Tupperware container of low-fat rice and beans in the on-board microwave. At the shows food is usually catered. Based on my experience it ranges from sublime to subhuman.

Tomorrow: Marty plays the historic Ryman Auditorium. And why is he telling everyone about his Fruit of the Looms?

Oh those country lyrics! A special thanks to "Meg and Dad" who sent the following touching verse:

They called us Double Trouble,
We did honky-tonkin' best,
But my brother just got married,
Now listen to the rest.
This one's gonna hurt me,
Cause the whiskey ain't workin' no more,
His bus is now decorated,
With curtain by Dior.

And more of the same to David Thurman, who contributed this poignant, yet pithy line: You'll be returnin' to kill me someday.

I Meet Elvis' Sweater and Other Magic

Nashville: Yesterday I saw a black suit once owned by Johnny Cash, a jack knife and fishing lures Hank Williams Sr. used to carry around, a makeup case of Patsy Cline's and yes, one of Elvis' favorite sweaters. All of them belong to Marty Stuart. At the moment these items, a bevy of vintage guitars and lots of other things, are arranged in three semi trailers here as part of what will become the 1997 Fruit of the Loom Country Comfort Tour and Experience, a.k.a. "Bubbapalooza."

Back when he was still a teenager on the bluegrass circuit, Marty would get his pay from Lester Flatt, cover the debts incurred since the last payday and send some money home to his mother. With what was left he would buy one bit of country memorabilia every week, from old records to old guitars. By his own admission, "It just got out of control." Now he owns one of the most comprehensive collections of country music artifacts in the world, the display in the trailers, titled "Tennessee Treasures," is just part of it.

A jacket of Hank Snow's, of whom
the designer said, "He's a brave man."

When I arrived Marty was already there, answering reporters' questions and his mother and father were just beginning the tour. I wandered around and found myself fascinated by how petite Emmylou Harris' boots were and how tall Johnny Cash's suit was, even without him in it. But my favorite item was a framed letter, typed on the pale tan letterhead of the Graycroft Manor Apartments. Here is an excerpt:

Dear Mr. Stuart:
It has been brought to my attention that you have on occasion (sic) played your stereo during the late night and early morning hours. The last occasion (sic) being on June 30, 1982 at approximately 4:00 a.m. Should we receive any complaints concerning this matter in the future we will have no alternative but to terminate your lease.

It's easy, when Marty Stuart struts his way through songs like "Kiss Me, I'm Gone," or, "Burn Me Down," to think it all stops there, with a Saturday night band that rolls into town, tears things up, and moves on. It's easy to think he's still the guy playing loud music. But Marty Stuart has an inquisitive spirit; a spirit that has led him to look beyond the confines of the spotlight. He is a respected black-and-white portrait photographer. He designs the sets for his television specials. He is actively involved in the design of stage outfits. He is called upon to write album liner notes for other artists. He has written the preface to a children's book and furnished the plot for "Marty Party in Space," a bizarre special edition Marvel comic book featuring Marty as the intergalactic hillbilly of peace. Currently he is composing the music for a stage musical and scoring a movie and has begun to write short stories. After we attended Baptist services together Sunday, we stood in the middle of a hotel parking lot discussing religion and he revealed that his most powerful moments of spiritual clarity have occurred during a Native American sweat lodge ceremony.

Nothin' like a well-rounded hillbilly.

Little Marty about to hit the road with Lester Flatt.

A few hours later, Marty and I met up again, this time at the historic Ryman Auditorium. Marty was one of 90 artists performing in a tribute to Chet Atkins. He performed twice, once with the Nashville String Machine and once as part of a quartet consisting of legends Vassar Clements on fiddle and Earl Scruggs on banjo, and contemporary Travis Tritt on acoustic guitar.

Marty does a little rehearsal time
with the Nashville String Machine ...

When Marty finished rehearsing the first number onstage, we repaired to an upstairs dressing room. Clements and Scruggs, the elder statesmen, sat in high-backed chairs. Travis Tritt was picking his guitar on a couch. Tritt and Stuart toured together last year and have won a Grammy for their work as duet partners. They greeted each other with a flurry of affectionate insults. And then, at the behest of Mr. Scruggs, the four men began to play.

... and a little jammin' time with (from left)
Vassar Clements, Earl Scruggs and Travis Tritt.

And this is where I fail you. How can I describe what happened in that tiny room? How can I recreate even a scrap of what I felt as I watched those two old men drawing spirits from the strings as easy as breathing; how can I describe the way my heart quickened when the four men rose and gathered in a circle, spinning out music that sent my soul down roads I thought I'd left behind for good?

Okay, so I'm rhapsodizing. But there was magic in that room and I wasn't the only one who felt it. Travis Tritt has turned himself into a bona fide superstar by playing a brand of country heavily influenced by electrified Southern rock and his star has risen to the point where he is unable to walk about freely without playing the part. But here in this room, he was completely unguarded, grinning from ear to ear and picking out unplugged bluegrass, playing with, and not to someone. And it was good to see Marty outside the context of the road. At one point he leaned toward Travis in mid-song and, with a big grin, said, "Man, it's just like bein' back home."

I've seen that grin before, in a picture of a 13-year-old boy. He had just hit the road with his mandolin.

Tomorrow: A private tour of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Then it's on the road to Chicago.

Hank Williams and Too Much Coffee

Nashville: My hotel room looks like the reject bin at a recycling center: Notes and papers all over the carpet, backpack flopped open on the couch, spare change strung along the floor. I've been living on Goo Goo Clusters and coffee, and the empty cups and wrappers remind me that I need to seek out a salad before the day is through. I scan the mess and feel myself looking forward to the road again, hungering for motion and its cleansing power, where every day you leave your mess behind and go someplace new.

Marty took time at noon to guide me through the Country Music Hall of Fame. It's a relatively small place, but the walls enclose a mountain of history. "This is my Cooperstown," says Marty. "Every show I do, everything I do, I'm hoping it leads me here." Among the thousands of items on display is Marty Stuart's first mandolin. He chuckles. "Cost me $150. I borrowed the money from my mom. She's a banker. I had a little payment book."

Someone once asked Marty why he drives a Cadillac. His response came quickly: "Because Hank did, silly!" An entire wing of the hall has been given over to Hank Williams and most of what's here is from Marty's private collection. A jukebox contains every song Hank ever recorded. His pistol and tour car gleam under spotlights. The walls are covered with original song lyrics and letters home, all in Hank's meandering hand. The cover from an old Pathfinder news magazine shows the only color photograph of Williams ever published. A letter from a record executive encourages Hank to "sort himself out," abandon the "firewater," and to "remember that wemon (sic) are revengeful." As far as anyone knows, Hank has been captured singing only four songs on film, and those performances play in a continuous loop on the cathedral ceiling. Standing with his head tipped back, Marty watches them one more time. "Even now, even here, he still lights up a room."

We study the terse telegram Hank's sister received announcing his death. Then, as we leave, Marty leads me to a case displaying Hank Williams' white cowboy hat. It is illuminated from above and the light reveals pocks and pits left by grazing moths. "Whenever I need reminding about the fickleness of fame, I look at that hat and remember that no matter who you are the moths will eat you up in the end."

A bad day for country music

When I return to the hotel to write, I tune the television to one of the major music channels. I don't own a television and find myself easily hypnotized by them, so I turn the screen away and just listen to the music while I write. This particular channel sometimes flashes tidbits of information related to the video onscreen. When I go around the front of the television for a cup of coffee, the tidbit says, "One in 350,000 Americans are electrocuted each year." Then another message flashes. "One in five are musicians." Note to me: Share this with the band.

I had planned to visit the company that built Marty's tour bus this afternoon, but it's 4:30 p.m. before I get on the road and, when I reach the interstate, traffic is lying there like a big dead snake. I tune in the traffic report and learn that the road to the bus barns is blocked by an accident. Then a wall of rain comes slashing down. I go back to my hotel room and re-fire the computer.

No road trip, which means I have
a little too much free time.

On Tuesday, when we were on our way to Atlanta, Marty was adjusting an air conditioning vent on the bus when the handle snapped off, and his open palm raked across the lever. It opened a 2-inch cut over the heel of his right hand. The cut was fairly superficial and a Band-Aid was all the first aid necessary. And then earlier today while we were in the Hall of Fame, Marty was bending down to look at one of the displays when he smacked his forehead on the sharp corner of a box mounted on the wall. Perhaps in deference to the surrounding public, he uttered none of the words I think might have brought some relief, but I was right beside him and know from the resonance of the "thunk" that it hurt plenty. Squinting one eye and rubbing his head, he looked at the sign on the case. "Huh! Nearly killed by Jim Reeves shoes!"

A lot is on the line when it comes to a musician's health. If Marty can't perform, it affects a lot of people. So after retreating back to my room, I decide to talk to a few experts on the subject. My first call is to James W. Hall, Director of Audiology at the Department of Otolaryngology and the Division of Hearing and Speech Sciences at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He specializes in hearing-related problems. "Traditionally, hearing loss has been overlooked by musicians, but now it's becoming more of a priority," he tells me. "Through technologies like in-ear monitors, we can now protect the professional ear without compromising the quality of sound." (It's about time someone stood up for the professional ear.) Hall goes on to tell me that it's not just performers who are at risk. The road crew, security guards, everyone in the hall's asking for trouble. "We've even fit the children of Garth Brooks' crew with ear plugs," he fills me in.

It's not a job, it's an adventure.

Then Robert Ossoff, executive medical director of the Vanderbilt Voice Center, shares this information: "A recent study showed country artists have greater pressure in their larynx during singing than performers in other genres." "And," he goes on, "country performers have another unique set of stressors in that they do so many 'meet and greets' with fans and radio stations. We try to teach them the importance of warming up even if they are going into a radio station for an interview." The bottom line? "Most don't hydrate themselves enough. We recommend eight to 10 glasses of water per day -- and eight ounces of water per hour spent on a plane." Things to avoid? "Anything with caffeine which dries the vocal cords."

Coffee and Goo Goo Clusters are definitely out. Then again, I'm a writer.

The bus is leaving in an hour. This time we're off for a street fair in Chicago. I'm gonna go get some motion. Talk to you down the road.

Tomorrow: The things bus drivers say.

Fan Quote of the Day:
A small group of people approached Marty in the Hall of Fame and asked for pictures and an autograph. He obliged. One woman snapped her picture, then her eyes widened and she spun on her heel and jogged from the room. Over her shoulder she said, "You made me forget my baby!"

More country lyrics, this one from FoxyMs: "I found another man's whiskers in my razor ..." and this one from Del: "You never liked my Fender/But you can have the car.

They Shoot Buses, Don't They?

Chicago: If you're ever tempted to sneak onto Marty Stuart's bus, don't. Before you hit the top step, you'll run into Ken "Ponch" Lyons, and he will be exceedingly stern about the whole deal. Ponch stands 6-foot-plus. Has arms like hydraulic rams. You can measure his body fat in a thimble. His hobby -- I am not making this up -- is lifting cars. Band members tell of the time they came out of the show and found a car blocking the exit. Ponch debarked, and proceeded to shift the car, end-for-end, until the bus could pass.

This morning, Ponch was a lumberjack. An irate lumberjack, to be precise. After driving all night, delivering us safely from a restaurant parking lot in Nashville to the Taste of Chicago street festival, he found himself asked by organizers to hop the curb and back the bus down about 200 yards of narrow tree-lined sidewalk. The backing was no problem -- both Ponch and Ty, the crew bus driver, could back through a square dance without disturbing the do-si-do. But those trees, they were a problem.

Ponch clears a path.

It was bad enough when the branches began scraping the paint, but when a particularly hefty limb whacked the satellite dish folded atop Marty's bus, Ponch popped the air brake, bailed out, snapped open one of the stowage bays beneath the bus, reached in, and drew out a long, collapsible pole attached to a saw. Shortly thereafter, the City of Chicago street crew had some greenery to clean up, and the buses were back where they belonged.

The trip is almost over for me, and I feel as if I've only shared a sliver of what I've seen. So for the rest of this dispatch, I'm just going to sling a mismatched mish-mash of tidbits at you -- little things that are worth sharing. Graze at will.

The crew hears this every day. The answer? Karma, good luck, connections, and more years of hard work than most people can tolerate. First, you must be good. Mess-ups on the road frequently result in instantaneous firings. Sometimes these are reversed the morning after, but many times they are not. Second, connections are a reality, but they rarely fall from the sky. They are earned through years spent hanging around the business, taking work here and there, and doing it well. Five years ago, Marty Stuart's guitar tech had a nervous breakdown on the road. Randy Childers is Marty's guitar tech today because he was home that night when the phone rang, and he was able to get on a Greyhound at midnight and be in Charlotte, N.C., for the gig at 1 p.m. the next day.

I haven't mentioned Randy much, and that's a mistake. As both a crew member and Marty's guitar tech, he plays a key role in each performance, hustling Marty's platoon of guitars on and off stage, tuning them between songs at his rolling workstation just at the edge of the spotlight. When Marty juggles the set list, Randy must be ready to switch instruments immediately.

Randy (in white T-shirt) at work.

The 11 guitars and one mandolin on this tour are his babies, and at the end of the night, he lugs each and every one out to the bus, up the steps, and stows them in the back. And every night when the work is done, he pops the top on a long-neck beer, sits at the front of the bus, stares out at the road, and rouses only to say something hilariously grumpy.

"I owe Muddy Waters a debt of gratitude every time I strap on a guitar," says Marty, who has attempted to have Waters inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Indeed, much of the character of country music can be traced directly to African-American influences, and country music has a rich heritage of black artists. But without a little digging, you'd never know it. Last week in Nashville, a number of artists gathered for the second Black Country Music Showcase, and the movement is beginning to attract some attention. Marty is pleased about this: "Anybody that really lives in this world and says race relations have improved is a fool.....But one of the calming factors in race relations is music -- it's always been a place where you can tamp the fire a bit."

When Marty's previous bus broke down for the last time, he got rid of it -- after shooting it twice in the floor with his .44.

Unidentified driver (not one of Marty's drivers) on his regard for speed limits: "Lemme put it this way: I drove 550 miles last night. We left at 1:15 a.m. and I was here at 10 a.m., and I stopped twice. You do the math."

Regarding life on the road: "We've seen it all ... and most of it twice."

Marty Stuart's favorite bus driver quotes: "This is where it was last year. ... They must have moved it." And, "They were supposed to have fixed that."

Marty gets escorted to the
Taste of Chicago stage.

A driver on how he trained for the job. "I hauled cattle all my life ... I figured, y'git with these, it's just the same thing, just two-legged livestock."

A driver, ruefully, on what driving has done for his personal life: "My God."

A driver on dealing with the police: "I've only been stopped four or five times. And two of the times were to see if Garth Brooks was on the bus."

During sound check back in Pleasanton, Calif., a ruby-throated songbird appeared in the lights above the stage. The whole band stopped to watch it, and Gary Hogue mimicked its song with his steel guitar. Marty suggested that sound man Spike mike the birds and put them in the mix. All the makings of a precious moment were in place, until a local stagehand said, "Had one up there last night, too. Lights came on and fried it."

Each of the crew carries radios. As I write in the bus, I can tell how the day is progressing by what I hear. Just now I hear Mike Copelin: "Has anybody seen Marty? I need to find Marty." Silence. Apparently nobody has.

Taste of Chicago

Today's was an early show. We were at the hotel by 8 p.m. Through some personal connection, Mike Copelin got the band and crew into an opera box at the House of Blues. I was invited along. The headlining act was Dread Zeppelin, a band known for performing reggae versions of Led Zeppelin songs. The lead singer is an Elvis impersonator. As I sat in the balcony watching this man singing "Black Dog" in a purple velvet suit and a sneer on his lips, I thought back over the past two weeks, about the man who lights himself on fire and jumps into a tub of water; I thought about roadies, bus drivers, and T-shirt vendors; I thought about Marty, and finally, about me, and I came to the following conclusion: There are some strange ways to make a living in this world.

And now, I'm going to sit down and attack my e-mail, which has been stacking up like Marge Simpson's blue beehive.

Monday: The end of the road ...

I've Been Crewed

Eau Claire, Wisconsin: When I awoke in my bunk Saturday morning, I could feel the bus starting and stopping, which meant we were off the interstate and working our way through another city to another hotel. Today, the Holiday Inn in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. I went to college in this town, then lived here another seven years. I still return frequently and wanted to watch as we drove the familiar streets so I drew open the curtain. It met resistance. I tugged harder and it slid open a foot. I tugged again and as it opened further I found myself fenced in by a crisscross web of gaffers tape. The haphazard latticework ran the length of the bunk. In order to get out I had to tug and tear an opening through the sticky strips. I realized immediately that I'd been had and that this was my going-away present.

But it was only the first of several surprises. Thinking I should take a picture of the pranksters' macrame, I discovered that the Discovery-issued digital camera was nowhere to be found. Neither was the Discovery-issued laptop, my briefcase, or my boots. I looked fore and aft, trying not to wake anyone. Nothing.

I'll jump ahead now and say that eventually, after a few folks woke and offered a hint or two, I found my possessions squirreled away here and there. But the fun wasn't over. My boots had been completely unlaced, then re-laced backward and snugly knotted at the base of the tongue. By the time I got my footwear restrung I had an audience of grinning fools. Their grins turned gleeful when I discovered their coup de grace: Each boot had been filled with cheese slices from Friday night's deli tray.

The whole thing reminds me of an Agatha Christie mystery I read in which a man is murdered on a plane in mid-air. I know that the person(s) who perpetrated this malfeasance is(are) somewhere on this bus. I believe I have the suspects narrowed down to one road manager and one sound man -- both were still awake when I turned in. Come to think of it, our driver Ty is definitely culpable as an accessory after the fact since he was awake at the wheel when the dark deeds transpired and did nothing to intervene. And he's certainly guilty of obstruction of justice, as he refuses to sing.

When I saw Marty later in the day he said, "I understand you got crewed!"

Yes, I surely did. Made me grin all afternoon.

Ladies and gentlemen:
Line up your lawn chairs!

Friday the band played to the high-rise Chicago skyline. Saturday it faced some 30,000 fans in a cow pasture. The music at Country Fest begins around noon and runs to midnight or so. But the crowds start showing up at the gates at 8 a.m. to stake a claim with their lawn chairs, then retreat to a virtual city of RVs, tents, and campers, where most of them tenderly nurse themselves back from the remnants of the previous evening's indiscretions. As the music begins the crowd swells.

Festival organizers were estimating an attendance of 40,000; while this number was almost certainly optimistic, by the time Marty and the Rock & Roll Cowboys took the stage, a sea of fans ranged to the farthest reaches of the long, broad hillside that serves as a natural grandstand. Dark clouds swept in almost immediately and, by the time the band began their third song, they were leaning into a relentless wind. The festival grounds are constructed around an old farmstead; a skeletal windmill tower stands at the top of the hill and when the third song was finished, concert organizers had hoisted a red flag atop the tower a signal advising fans to take cover. Very few did and the band played on. Finally, however, the rains hit.

I was standing nearly at the rear of the deep stage and raindrops were being blown into my face. At the front of the stage the band was being drenched. All that water and all those power cables are a dangerous mix; the band thundered to a close, Marty hollered, "See ya!" into the teeth of the wind and the show was over. Like multicolored corpuscles the flood of fans hemorrhaged out the gates to the beer tents, leaving their lawn chairs flat behind them.

In a way, the rainout was only appropriate. We've been talking about this assignment for nearly a year. The dates flucuated. In the end those we chose were selected more or less arbitrarily. And yet, as both Marty and road manager Mike Copelin pointed out, from the private fan club picnic to Fan Fair, from the Las Vegas casino to fairs to the Grand Ole Opry, we couldn't have chosen a wider range of events or venues. We went east, west and north. We rode the bus, but we also flew and we rode in Marty's Cadillac. And now, after a series of successful shows, we got to see one cut short. Serendipity.

Exotic cuisine of inner Wisconsin

I cannot leave without publicly thanking Marty Stuart's management, band, crew, and Marty himself. I was given unrestricted access throughout the trip; without it I would have been reduced to writing a series of concert reviews. Instead, we got to see The Road and everything it leads to.

Which reminds me. I just re-read the introductory installment of this adventure to see what I predicted as opposed to what really transpired. I cast the Open Road as a church with a vagabond congregation. After two weeks on the road I can say that we were largely isolated from that congregation by our very motion. And yet, I believe more than ever in the truth of what I wrote before I left home: If freedom is a religion, then the purest form of worship is movement. I got hooked on that movement. I began to look forward to my daily fix, when the last microphone stand was stowed beneath the floorboards, that giant steel machine grumbled to life, and we began to roll. The momentum, the kinetic energy, flows from the road, up through the wheels and into your veins as surely as junk through a needle. I only wanted more.

The guitars roared, the skies darkened,
the music stopped.

But of course it had to end. And that brings us back to serendipity. When we chose these dates my editor had no way of knowing the last show would be in a farm field less than 30 miles from my house. Nor did he or I know that the road to Marty's next gig on the Canadian border would pass within half a mile of my house. And so it was that at midnight in my sleeping village of 485 people, a gleaming 45-foot bus eased into town, around the block, and opened its door at the end of my sidewalk. The guys handed down my luggage, I gave a last wave, and the eight-wheeled ship slid from the dock, the red and amber lights disappearing across the railroad tracks.

Safe journeys, you road dogs.

Check out the Road Lingo

About the Author:
Michael Perry is from a small farm in northwestern Wisconsin. His writing has appeared in numerous publications ranging from Newsweek to The New York Times Magazine to Cowboy Magazine, and his essays and humor are frequently heard on both Wisconsin and Minnesota public radio.

Special Thanks:
We'd like to thank Marty Stuart, his road crew and Bonnie Garner Management for letting us come along for the ride.

Copyright © 1997 Discovery Communications, Inc. Photo credits: Ron Davis/Shooting Star, Ed Rode, Bill Thorup, Michael Perry, and Jim Ballard/All Stock/PNI

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