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Folk Alliance Newsletter

Performers Column

by Joel Mabus

written October 1997


Road Ready

As performers we are travelers. Some of us may have a circuit of gigs within a stone's throw of our homes. But most of us travel far afield for our jobs. Sometimes we fly. Fun and games with the airlines is a topic we can deal with another day. What I'd like to address now is that most familiar folk process: putting rubber on the road.

Here's a few thoughts and tips concerning the folk road that have come to me from either my own hard knocks or as sound advice from my "fellow travelers." I could fill a book, but here are a few of the best tips:

Change your timing belt every 60,000 miles. That's advice I got from stellar picker Orrin Star. I wish I had followed his advice. It seems without the timing belt the vehicle just won't go. And it won't give you a warning until it just fails one day, leaving you stranded, possibly with an engine full of gnarled and broken metal parts where your pistons used to be. I once broke a timing belt in my Ford Escort in the mountains of Pennsylvania on a Friday afternoon. The only garage on the interstate for 60 miles said they could get to it first thing Monday. I had a gig that night in New Jersey! Luckily, some shade tree mechanics bailed me out, and I hadn't fried my engine for good. But I learned the hard truth that if you rely on your car for transportation, you need to keep on top of that preventive maintenance. After all -- as we all should know -- we perform for free. It's the traveling that they pay us for. So think of yourself as a professional driver. Your vehicle is your best friend out on the highway. Keep it in good repair, with tires, brakes, belts and fluids in top shape. Think about joining an auto club if you don't belong already. Arrive safely.

Arriving safely also means being rested and alert when you are at the wheel. It is also important to show up at your gig rested and ready to do your best. One bluegrass band I know stops the bus every now and then at a mall or a Walmart and lets everybody split up and walk around and window shop. Do stretch and get a little space from your travel mates every now and then. Sightsee. It makes the road seem like less of a chore and a bit more like a holiday. Get out of the car and take a hike once in a while. Or like that bluegrass band does, do some indoor walking if the weather is bad. 

Take good care of yourself when you travel. It's something the late Steve Goodman told me years ago. "Treat yourself well on the road. Otherwise you'll grow to hate it." Try to avoid the really long haul marathons, with only naps in truck stops and only fast food for days. Spring for the nicer motel sometimes. Get a good night's sleep in a real bed -- take a swim in the pool. Eat a healthy meal (even if that means a stop at the grocery store instead of a restaurant.) Your body will thank you, and you will have more energy on-stage.

Some years ago, when I was a very young man, I saw an interview on TV with George Burns, who even then was a very old man. He was asked if he had any advice for young people starting out in show business. He dryly said, "Yes. Never leave your wallet backstage."

I laughed, as did the audience. But in actuality it is indeed very sound advice, as I have learned in "the show biz" these past 25 years. The hour you are on-stage is when your valuables are the most vulnerable. Anybody could be backstage, or what passes for backstage, while you are occupied entertaining the room. And of course 99% of the room is watching YOU, not your possessions. Don't be paranoid, but do be cautious. If you are on tour, and your passport, traveler's checks, cash, credit cards, contracts and vital medications are in your purse or knapsack, think about bringing that bag on-stage, or at least entrusting it to your most loyal friend. Locking it in your vehicle is as safe as that vehicle itself -- which can vary from town to town. Trust your gut on security issues.

And speaking of guts, be prepared for health emergencies. I have a small knapsack that acts as a portable medicine chest for when I'm away from home. I keep it stocked with small quantities of the basics: baking soda, Q-tips, Band-Aids, cold remedies, antihistamines, Vaseline, Pepto-Bismol, Tylenol, scissors, emery boards, antiseptic salve, etc., etc. I'm no hypochondriac -- it's just that I've been caught without necessities too many times. You know what things you need; be a smart traveler. You may find yourself far from a 24 hour drug store some night, when you are in dire need of remedy. And before you need to use it, know how your health insurance works when you are away from home and out of state -- if you have health insurance (and I hope you do!).

Call home. A lot. You really need to maintain the ties with your loved ones. Stay a part of the real world. A road trip takes on its own weird twilight zone reality after so many days. You need to touch base with everyday life as we know it. It's important to keep a strong two-way pipeline with your family. If you have kids this goes double. Make that triple.

If you are a family of one, make sure there is some way to keep the utilities paid and the sidewalk shoveled and the mail tended while you are away. Its just too easy to let things slide while you are off in the bigger world, being a star. It's a real ego-deflater to come home to frozen pipes and a pile of overdue bills. 

Most folk singers who have been at it a while have a network of friends in far places who play host to them. It is important to cultivate these friendships. It strengthens the folk music community, helps on the costs of travel, and best of all, keeps you connected with humanity. The flip side, of course, is to offer similar hospitality yourself to other travelers when you can. 

However, there are times when it may be wise to opt for a hotel room instead of staying with hosts. After some days or weeks into a tour, there sometimes comes a feeling of being "on" all the time. Staying with folks you don't know well -- or even staying with friends -- no matter how wonderful or gracious the host, can wear thin. (I recall a well-known performing couple on the folk scene a few years ago relating to me how a host said, "Just make yourself at home!" The couple said "Does that mean we can get naked on the couch and watch TV?") Sometimes you need to charge the batteries by being alone. Sometimes you need a little downtime. Give yourself permission to "veg out" when you need it. Don't feel guilty about it. Solo time is important -- especially if you want to stay creative and sane.

Of course, too much down time can be an even bigger problem. When you are a stranger in a strange land with three or four days to kill until your next gig, you will learn why some people say they hate the road. It is easy to understand the allure of drugs and alcohol when time hangs heavy -- you've seen the sights, you know all the movies that are showing by heart, you've read the paper front to back. What's left but to get numb? Don't succumb. Don't let the "layovers" get to you. I once gave some guitar lessons in my hometown to a traveling jazz guitarist who had a three week stint at a local hotel. He was a far superior player to me, but it was his habit when he got into a new town to head to the local music store and buy some lessons. He said if he didn't do that, he would be sitting in his room drinking beer and eating pizza every day. He always learned a little something new, and it kept him fit, sober and sane. 

And sanity is an important element to consider when you or your agent books a tour. How long can you stand to be out? How will you handle those inevitable midweek down times? Can you write or learn new material when you are on the road? Can you book new gigs from a hotel room? Are you better suited to more frequent shorter road trips? Or do you work better with one long "world tour" every nine months? One size does not fit all. Devise your own best strategy. Talk this over with your agent -- or have a heart-to-heart with yourself. 

Whatever your style of touring -- be careful out there and drive safely! 

And I'm serious about that timing belt.

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