The Life of the Traveling Band
Sometime in the last century, it seems, the notion of the tour bus full of rock stars alcohol and pilling their way into too young to die legend faded away.
Million dollar record deals and instant success, for real musicians anyway, is becoming a thing of the past. There are few “big” rockers out there who aren’t from a bygone era, Jack White and Pearl Jam perhaps the last true classic rockers. Perhaps the Internet killed them. Perhaps it was, like the housing market crash, purely an inevitable turn of events in a record industry too big to ever possibly sustain itself. I personally blame Van Halen. Or maybe we’re just waiting for the next Rolling Stones, Sex Pistols or Nirvana to come blow everything wide open and get bands back into trashing hotel rooms and being arrested for possession again.
Today however, if you want to make a living as a musician, you’ve got to work for it, and that means traveling. Getting your music out to as many people as you can, and not just waiting for MySpace to do it for you. We caught up with two of our favorites—Hymn for Her and Shovels and Rope—to hear their tales from the stages across America.
“We have done a bunch of impromptu campfire jams,” says Lucy Tight, one half of Hymn for Her. “But we wanted to do a whole tour where we hook up at campgrounds and rock out.”
Along with band mate and partner Wayne Waxing, and their baby and dog to round out the organization, Hymn for Her live and record in a 1961 Airstream Bambi, full-time for the past two years, touring the world and playing their brand of twangy rock and roll which could be a little hard to pin down in terms of “sound”.
“We describe our sound in many different ways at any given time,” she says. “This week, we’ve been calling it ‘devil-billy’.” A conversation with Lucy is kind of like reading the News of the Weird while watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind at a Jefferson Airplane concert. She’s got a lot to say and in no particular order. She plays a cigar box guitar with a footfull of pedals to switch up the sound throughout their songs, and as she puts it, “Wayne just makes funny faces.” In addition to singing, percussion, guitar and the banjo, of course, he also “juggles chainsaws. All at once.” I can’t tell if she’s serious or not.
Here and there a glockenspiel or a ukulele might make it into the mix.
She speaks of their silver streamlined home on the highway as one of the family. “We’ve always had a sparkle in our eyes for a classic airstream. They’re nostalgic, beautiful and well made.” The couple isn’t married, but as she puts it, “a step further…living in the van, raising a dog and baby, recreating our music with every mile.” I asked her if she’d mind sharing their ages.
“Wayne is stone and I’m industrial.”
They’ve recorded two records in their Airstream, family and all on board. “Our baby is a road dog and our dog is a road baby…found at a gas station. Junior was born into this world of music and travel. There are definitely sounds of her on both recordings, and she sings on a track here and there. They both hang out when we record…listen closely with headphones.”
“We played a show a while back where Jim,” referring to Jim Diamond, the Detroit music producer who worked on the first two White Stripes records, “was working the sound and he liked what we were doing. Mentioned recording with him when we were ready and that’s how we met.” Jim later mixed their The AmAIRican STREAM album, the first that they’d recorded in their Airstream. He signed on for a second time with the latest “Bambi Studios” recording, the final result of which they describe as “tight and crispy and the sound is illuminous.”
Though they may not be your typical family, their tale is familiar to full-time RVers everywhere. “Sometimes it’s hard to find a spot or electric and plumbing hookups. Backing up took some getting used to and the fuel prices really kill us, plus most tolls are doubled. But it’s nice not to have to worry about bed bugs or gross hotel rooms.”
Unlike the rest of us full-timers though, their touring schedule largely dictates where they’ll be headed next, rather than the whim of whoever’s driving.
“We are from Philly, so we have lotsa homes we can stay when we’re there, we spend time in Maine every year and imagine that will be home one day, and we spend winters touring all over Florida.” Then she clarifies my earlier statement, “Tour dates often dictate our travel, but sometimes the other way round.”
Feel like visiting Montana? There’s bound to be a festival or bar up there somewhere to plugin and play a tune or two. They don’t limit themselves to traveling the fifty states, though.
“We have a tour manager overseas with a tourbus that we can also sleep in when we’re over there.” They talk about favorite places across the Atlantic, “Berlin, Barcelona, Cinque Terra…who knows.”
Airstream owners in general have a sort of community built up around the vintage silver bullets, it’s a beautiful thing, and they’ve tried to become a part of that when they can. “We played 2 Airstream rallies this summer and hope to play more. We are all about community in every way. Community of music, Airstreamers, kids, homeschoolers, animal lovers, peace activists, yogis, swimmers, humans… You name it, we’ll community it.”
When asked if they’d ever settle down, she says that they’ve got a list for someday. “We’ve been loving Colorado lately, but Maine is at the top of our list in the US… The list is long cause the world is beautiful.”
My Lady and I had the good fortune to meet up with a different duo of significant others—this time Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, a husband and wife southern battered, country rawked couple who call themselves Shovels & Rope—at one of their two sold out shows in Asheville, North Carolina. We’d slacked on getting tickets until the last moment, but the band was ever so generous enough to get us in, even with some difficulties involving a fire marshal and a sold out venue.
Shovels & Rope has made the best record so far this year, in my opinion. Like their past efforts, sometimes together, sometimes as solo projects, Cary Ann and Michael manage to tell stories that make you want to know more about the people involved, tales at times too fantastic for real life but so believable that you feel like they’re singing your own story.
“We are both wanderlusty folks,” she tells me, Southern drawl and all. When she speaks she does so deliberately, there’s a smile in her eyes but a seriousness to her that nods to an older soul than her years would convey. “We met on the road. Michael has been traveling around all his adult life. Me, I was always dreaming of going someplace. People are generally kinetic and it can be a double edge sword. We have the advantage of being together, which for most folks is the greatest challenge, being away from their loved ones.”
Cary Ann was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and she talks about the Mississippi Delta like it’s the “old country.” Her mom moved her to Nashville, Tennessee where she was heavily engulfed in music by her step-father, a former traveling musician himself. She talks about these days on their website, recanting the back story of the song Birmingham, which seems to serve as her and Michael’s abridged biography.
I asked her about how the two of them got together.
“It’s a mystery!”
Michael is a bit of a scruffy looking guy, disheveled hair, skinny, eating some dinner off a paper plate in a camping chair out front of their 2008 Winnebago View, which serves as their home and tour bus.
“I just woke up one day married to a really handsome and useful man,” she continues. “I don’t remember much before that, except for a blurry and shaky time when we were living in separate cities. There were some plane tickets, some teary eyed subway rides, some amazing recordings drunkenly made in hotel rooms, and then my dad told my grandmother who told my mother who told me by accident that we were maybe getting married. There was a ﬁery engagement, a beautiful wedding and a lengthy thunderstorm that cooled everything off and washed it clean.”
Their story has all the makings of a fairy tale romance, but the original Old World style myths, where things sometimes come to harsh words, fists get clenched, and then it all works out in the end. Their songs are full of beautifully engaging tales of distances between, the heartache of goodbye. Cary Ann goes on to talk a bit about her ticket to the wandering lifestyle.
“My old man introduced me to ramblin’ as a kid. He worked as a land surveyor and on off shore seismographic boats and oil rigs. He was gone a lot, his motto being ‘Have tool box, will travel’. Now we joke that I am a chip off the old block, rambling all over.”
She’s a natural nomad, the kind that doesn’t even necessarily know she is one, it just seems to come naturally.
“I never really noticed how prevalent these themes are in our work, but it’s true. There’s a lot of geography, and there is a lot of running away and returning… I guess that’s a signiﬁcant part of human life… Leaving and returning home, ﬁnding and losing love, to ﬁnd it again, looking for a place in the
Cary Ann shows us around the inside of her Winnebago, a shiny, new looking rig that feels a little like a luxury hotel trying to stuff itself into a two sizes too small shoe. Their dog, black and brown and a little bit bashful, pokes his nose against the screen door leading outside. It’s a pretty sweet setup for a couple that was only months ago touring in an old van.
“We knew our dear old van had as many miles on her as we were willing to travel on with any security and we knew what we were spending on hotels. When we were not in hotels, we opted to sleep in the van, which was comfortably appointed, in various Walmart parking lots around the country. We got the rest that we needed but we ﬁgured we could have a more domestic experience in an RV. Knowing that we were gonna be hitting it pretty hard for the next coupla years, the numbers just added up for us. The Winnie won out!”
Like Hymn for Her had stated, the life of a traveling family band isn’t exactly the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll we remember from Guns N’ Roses videos.
“We lead a very structured life. We are so structured that we have a sheet everyday that tells us what time to leave the parking lot, where we estimate stops, when is load in, sound check, set time, departure and estimated drive after the show…most days everything is planned to the hour. It can get a little nutty. So there are rarely impromptu shows.”
“Every now and then we will get a wild hair just to stay up all night with people after the show and drink and sing till the sun comes up, although those nights are mighty rare these day. In the not too distant past, however, when things were not as stream lined, if a gig fell through, we would ﬁnd work… Pick up a gig, busk on the street, or jump on a friends bill. These days, we conserve our energy and take a knee on surprise nights off. We ain’t as young as we used to be!”
Rising into great success, it seems, comes with greater responsibility.
When asked where they’ve loved in particular over their travels, and about growing up in the South, she’s lackadaisically sentimental. “I loved growing up in Mississippi as little kid. It’s was all biscuits and four wheelers. Deer hunters and gun safety, mosquito bites, funerals, race relations, multi-racial relatives, grand fathers sign shop, divorces, and the stark contrast between Southern Baptist Revivalism and grace based Episcopalianism. Tennessee was stability, green green grass of home, the Opry and The Ryman, square dancing in PE class, playing music on the porch, Hot Chicken, Centennial Park, high hopes, fresh cold springs in the smokies on family vacation, autumn in Monteagle and education.” Her sentences come off like lyrics.
“I am always astonished at the beauty of the American Landscape. It’s way big. Bigger than it ought to be maybe. It’s stunning from coast to coast. Even when it’s nothing but corn for 200 miles, or 300 miles of desert in Oregon when I didn’t expect to see any desert at all! It’s all good and it’s all about there. A good rule of thumb is to go to where ever is the opposite of what you know… Northern urbanites and Rust Belt finalists should come down south or to the beach, or to Texas. Texans should go to Oregon and meet
the cowboys up there! The lumberjacks should all go to Cleveland! Everybody wins!”
Shovels & Rope are one of those bands that you hear of one day, and think “Cool, I’ve found an obscure little band that I can kind of make my own,” and then the next they’re selling out shows across the country. While we’re all standing around shooting the traveling shit Cary Ann mentions something about trying to maintain a plateau, not get too big for their britches, too fast, perhaps. Michael casually mentions taking some time next year for the couple to have a baby.
“I have been a little obsessive about my own mortality of a while,” she says. “I have been so lucky in life, that at this point I catch myself waiting to for the bottom to fall out. It’s not that I’m negative, it’s just that I like to be as prepared as possible for reality’s cold hard fist. I know how short life can be, and I know what death looks like. I’m am trying to live in the moment, live free and not worry too much. I was raised by folks who were drenched in personal tragedy. They all learned to live for today, and to find daily small joys. Singing is my favorite joy, so I have been literally living the dream for a long time.”
The crowd surrounding their RV begins to swell, people in Asheville are excited for this show to start.
“The dream is the reality,” she continues, “but it could all change tomorrow. It could all disappear, but I had to learn not to be afraid of it disappearing all the time. It’s like knowing the world is gonna end, and
learning to not let it bother you.”
So with a summer tour just wrapped up even as they continue on through the fall and perhaps indefinitely, I wonder if there’s anyone in particular they’ve met on the way, any one or place we might here about on their next album.
“Aint no telling. Better watch out if you do or say anything juicy or clever around us. we will write a song about you so fast it will make your head spin. Everybody’s business is fair game for Shovels and Rope.”