It is safe to say that hundreds of wannabe singer/songwriters arrive in Nashville weekly; after all, we don’t call it Music City for nothing. Many of these country crusaders will wander in and out of Broadway barrooms seeking a coveted spot of honor on a windowed stage, hoping a passerby will peek through the “pain” and recognize their musical genius, or a beer drinking patron will know someone who knows someone who can hook them up with a second cousin who delivers the mail to Scott Borchetta’s sister.
It just might be the “in” they need to make their dreams come true—the dreams that brought them to this music mecca in the first place—the dreams of becoming bonafide country stars.
Often they enter the city limits fresh faced and dancing with excitement, the perfect specimens for an episode of “Hillbilly Glee”; but weeks, months and even years into the journey, they strike a remarkable resemblance to the cast of “The Walking Dead”—hopeful hearts become haggard (and we’re not talking Merle). This is do or die time, and those wannabes who do? They have come to understand that the bottom of their country ladder to success is slathered in slippery lard, probably from Robert’s Western World’s taters and fried bologna sandwiches. If the hopefuls are to garner entrance to the “country” club elite, they’re going to need a little help from their friends to hoist their country butts past those first few rungs.
You cannot be a country superstar by yourself in Nashville, no matter how good you are! And as long as you’re on your way UP, you’ll never be alone again. It takes an entire community to make this hamster wheel turn: singers, songwriters, song pluggers, publicists, musicians, managers, makeup artists, publicists, studio engineers, stage hands, club owners, publicists, bus drivers, wardrobe consultants, record execs, publicists, accountants, attorneys, agents and publicists.
If you’re on this wheel at all, congratulations! This means you’ve graduated from “wannabe” status, and in true fairytale fashion your dreams are coming true.
You’re a five-year-in-the-making, overnight success. Look at the people who are on the wheel with you; look at the people on surrounding wheels, now look at the people watching you through the glass. This is your new family, because for the next few years, you’ll see these people more than you see your “blood” family. This is country music camaraderie, baby, and all tongue-n-cheek aside, the relationships you form during these glory days will result in some of the best friendships of your life.
Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan are million dollar good ol’ boys and besties who entertain themselves as much as they do their fans with their onstage banter. During a sideline interview at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas right before they co-hosted the ACM Awards, Blake quipped, “In order to fill a stadium this big, you have to use something big…so we’re bringing in my ego…and Luke’s ego!”
Camaraderie on the road equals fun! Since they’re gone days, weeks and even months at a time, artists learn to laugh at themselves and with each other in order to shake off the stress of the tour.
Maybe that’s why so many of today’s top country acts feel the need for onstage pranks and paybacks. It unites them; it builds bonds in the form of accomplices and allies, and it builds the kinds of histories that allow them to turn to a fellow artist or musician and say, “Remember when….”
Some of the more interesting pranks in recent years include the time Florida Georgia Line and Love and Theft surprised Jake Owen on stage wearing only diapers in honor of the birth of Jake’s new daughter….the time Kellie Pickler wearing a pair of overalls and fake hillbilly teeth casually walked out on stage while Brad Paisley was singing “Dixieland Delight” and casually placed live chickens one by one all over Brad’s stage….and don’t forget the time that Kip Moore pranked Dierks Bentley by spray painting Dierks’ truck and loading it down, complete with hay bales and a goat in an ongoing prank war between the two buddies.
But more than fun, camaraderie and the right pairings of entertainers equals a serious shot in the arm for up-and-coming “freshman” artists. The pairing of a lesser known artist with more established acts gives the lesser known artist more exposure to fans who may or may not have seen the lesser known artist without his or her connection to the artist of note. Sounds complicated? It’s really not. In other words, it pays to hang with the cool kids.
For example, last year Luke Bryan played to 1.7 million fans, and his sellout tour included four stadium concerts. Luke has included seven stadium dates as part of his Kick The Dust Up Tour, and he’s bringing along Randy Houser, Dustin Lynch, Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett for parts of that ride. These acts are cool by themselves, but in association with Bryan, it is quite safe to say that they should expect their coolness factor to rise exponentially. The more people who see them perform, the more fans they earn. The more fans they earn, the more merchandise they sell; the more merch they sell, the more likely their record labels will deem them “the cool kids.” Cha-ching!
Jeannie Seely knows all about being “the cool kid.” This Grammy winner has been the coolest for the past 47 years as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. “I absolutely love the fact that I can spend time with my heroes and still call it work. I was taught early on to surround myself with those who are as good if not better than you are…so I get inspiration from my peers.”
Tracy Lawrence’s peers and the friendships he forged with them back in his early days in Nashville helped deliver him his 18th No. 1 hit. “Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney and I ran around together when we first hit town. We chased a lot of waitresses together, knew a lot of bartenders and had some great times.”
While Tim and Kenny were still burning up the charts back in 2006, Tracy’s career began to simmer. It had been 11 years since a Tracy Lawrence hit conquered a No. 1 spot. That’s when a promise made and kept by the three friends once again earned Tracy a pinnacle view.
“I actually recorded ‘Find Out Who Your Friends Are’ for an album I was working on. As I was listening to the playback, I thought this could possibly be the song we’ve been looking to record together. So I sent Tim and Kenny a copy. They both fell in love with it, and by the time the labels were aware of it, it was too late. We did something just because we wanted to, and it turned out to be a big hit.”
He added “Did the fact that Tim and Kenny decided to lend their voices to the song help propel it to to No. 1? Absolutely. Without a doubt. It was a big catalyst for it. And you know, it’s sad to say this publicly, but this will probably be my last No. 1. There’s just a few people from my era that are still having any radio traction. But if it is my last No. 1, I’m glad it was with old friends.”
Perhaps no other country troubadour appreciates the “old friends are golden” concept any more than Country Music Hall of Famer Kenny Rogers. For years, Kenny’s faithfuls have delighted in the easygoing camaraderie they’ve witnessed between Kenny and his sometimes duet partner Dolly Parton. In November 2013, this iconic pair released the single “You Can’t Make Old Friends.” The song begins with the lyrics, “You can’t make old friends. What will I do when you are gone? Who’s gonna tell me the truth?” Well, the truth according Debbie Cross, Kenny’s tour assistant for 29 years, is that Kenny makes a great old friend.
“I wish everyone knew just how kind and loyal Kenny is,” Debbie quietly confides. “A while back I had some serious heart problems. Over a three-year period, I was absent from work on and off for a full twelve months. Every time I saw Kenny I’d tell him, ‘You have to let me go. You need to fire me. Replace me. Don’t pay me. My job isn’t getting done. You can’t go on like this.’
He said, ‘I’m going to continue to pay you because I know you’re coming back, and I want to take care of you.’ You know he didn’t have to do that! That’s just the kind of man he is. I know he’s my boss, but he’s a dear friend first. After all these years, I couldn’t ask for a better person to work for.” That appears to be a sentiment shared by the majority of Kenny’s road warriors.
Keith Bugos began to work for Kenny back in 1971 when Kenny was with the First Edition. Two of his band members, Steve Glassmeyer and Chuck Jacobs, have been with Kenny 39 years, while guitarist Randy Doorman has begun his 38th year with Kenny.
Job longevity is country camaraderie at its finest – the seasoned kind of camaraderie, the kind that has weathered the storms, the kind that has seen the days of career highs and lows and settled into a kind of country utopia where outlandish pranks are replaced by good-natured ribbing. While the thrill of the show is still there, some of the excitement has been replaced with an easiness and comfort from knowing the person standing next to you on that stage not only has your back but also the backs of your family. This truly is making music with your friends, and you realize that the hamster wheel is no longer spinning you. You’re spinning the wheel—your pace, your time, your friends on board. You could jump off any time you want to, but you don’t want to. You’re home.