“On the road again
Just can’t wait to get on the road again
The life I love is making music with my friends
And I can’t wait to get on the road again”
Willie Nelson’s timeless paeon to the life of the touring musician, ‘On the Road Again’, is almost an unofficial anthem for the majority of Americana artists.
This will be the last article in our current series of Unsung Heroes of Americana. The series will be back, sometime in the future, but we thought we’d end the current run with what we consider to be a major Unsung Hero of the genre; touring and live performance.
It’s fair to say that touring and performing live is the lifeblood of any working musician but it seems that the road is a major attraction for Americana musicians, not only as a means of earning their livelihood but as a source of inspiration for many of their songs. Roger Miller was ‘King of the Road’, John Fogerty was in a ‘Travelling Band’ and Merle Haggard sang about ‘White Line Fever’ – “I wonder just what makes a man keep pushing on/ What makes me keep on hummin’ this old highway song/ I’ve been from coast to coast a hundred times before/ I ain’t found one single place where I ain’t been before./ White line fever, a sickness born down deep within my soul/ White line fever, the years keep flyin’ by like the highline poles”
Behind the romance of life on the road lie some fairly unpleasant facts that show just how difficult the life of a touring musician can be. Constant touring was cited as the main reason for Johnny Cash’s amphetamine addiction and Hank Williams quite literally died on the road, lying in the back of the car that was driving him between gigs. In fact, a number of musicians have died as a result of their tour schedules, often because of plane crashes and the need to take to the air to make that all-important next gig – Buddy Holly, Rick Nelson, Patsy Cline, Jim Croce and many more; it’s a depressingly long list. Similarly, the road itself has claimed more than its fair share of touring musicians, Martin Lamble, the original drummer for Fairport Convention, who died when their band van crashed returning from a gig, country singer Dottie West, who died when the car she was in heading to her gig at the Grand Ole Opry crashed on the Opry exit road, the great Duane Allman, lost at the age of 24 in a motorcycle accident, riding for fun on a rare day off from touring. The road is a harsh mistress for the touring musician.
On a less macabre note, for those that don’t fall victim to the rigours of the road, it can be a particularly lucrative means of earning a living. Ed Sheeran currently holds the top spot for the highest-grossing tour with his 2017-19 world tour that grossed a not unimpressive $776,200,000. U2 hold the second spot for their 2009-2011 360 Degrees Tour though, when adjusted for inflation they topple Sheeran from the top spot. Mind you – there are four of them! The Rolling Stones have probably taken the most money from touring, having toured in most decades from the 1960s on, and having constantly featured in the Top Ten earners from touring throughout their careers.
The Grateful Dead spent almost their entire career touring America! From the winter of 1965 to the summer of 1995, when Jerry Garcia went to the great tour bus in the sky, and with the exception of 1975, when the band were on hiatus, the Dead virtually never stopped touring and, with the exception of a few forays onto foreign soil, almost all of it was in the United States. Bob Dylan started his “Never Ending Tour” on the 7th June 1988; it ground to a halt on the 8th December 2019, derailed by the Covid Pandemic which prevented the 2020 schedule from going ahead. While Dylan didn’t tour continually during the period of the tour it still racked up some significant statistics, with his 2,000 show occurring in Dayton, Ohio on the 16th October 2007 and his 3,000 in Innsbruck, Austria just 12 years later. Dylan himself has been dismissive of the “Never Ending” tag, explaining it as a media construct and really just a succession of tours but it has been an impressive amount of time on the road and with a band that, although it has changed musicians as it evolved, still racked up a level of consistency as a performing unit not achieved by Dylan since his days with The Band. After Dylan himself, bassist Tony Garnier racked up the longest time on the tour, joining in ’89 (to replace original bass player Kenny Aaronson), George Receli logged an impressive 17 years on drums (2002 – 2019), with Stu Kimball posting 14 years on guitar (2004 – 2018) and Bucky Baxter an almost modest 7 years on pedal steel (1992 – 1999). Most players did their time and moved on but Charlie Sexton joined the band for not one but four different periods, originally joining in 1999 and leaving, for the fourth and final time, in 2013.
It’s not just the big names that make their living on the road. Touring is particularly important for smaller bands, as they’re building their reputations and honing their craft whilst on the road. This is why the pandemic has been particularly tough for many who rely on live performance to get their music across to a wider audience. On the plus side, it has seen a particularly creative period for many artists, with a combination of finding ways to still reach their audiences, via streaming services and online concerts, and having the time to sit down and put more of themselves into their writing and recording. Ironically, the pandemic, while initially quite devastating for live performances, has seen many emerge from the wreckage with a whole new range of skills and better able to communicate with fans and get their music out there. In the UK, the effects of the loss of touring outlets have suffered the double whammy of the pandemic and Brexit, which has all but cut British musicians off from the lucrative European festival and touring circuit. As it is, the pandemic has levelled the playing field, at least for the time being, and they have continued to be able to reach audiences outside the UK via online activity.
Over the last fifty-plus years, it’s fascinating to see how the world of touring has evolved. Originally many artists toured because that’s how they made their money, often quite literally singing for their suppers. Then the recording became dominant and artists toured to support and promote record releases. This ushered in an age of cheap tickets for the punters because the record companies would often give financial support for the tour and bums on seats were more important than box office receipts. This, of course, was great if you had a record out with a major company. It was not so good if you were with a minor label or didn’t have a record to promote. Now, we’ve returned to a time when live performance is important on its own merits and record sales are less important. Hopefully, this will be reflected in the growth of live performance venues but that doesn’t seem the case at this point in time. In America, it has always been possible for a good band to make a living from live performances – the country is big and there are live performance venues at every level, from local bars up to festivals and stadiums. The pandemic will certainly have taken its toll of the smaller venues, but it’s a resilient economy and the market for live performance is a strong one. The same is, largely, true throughout continental Europe and beyond but I do worry for entry-level artists in the UK. The domestic pool of small venues for up and coming bands to play has been shrinking for many years now, with pubs, one of the most enduring of small venues, disappearing at alarming rates. With the European circuit now an expensive option for small bands, following Brexit, it’s to be hoped that online concerts continue to be part of the live experience beyond the eventual end of the pandemic.
For our last article in this series, at least for the foreseeable future, we wanted to go out on a positive note and I do think that, for all the negatives contained in the article, the road and the touring musician continues to be the future of music in general and Americana in particular. Americana musicians draw heavily on the troubadour tradition, always taking their songs to the audience, not waiting for people to come to them. It’s an important aspect of the music and long may it continue. Touring may be disrupted at the moment and there may not be a clear light at the end of the tunnel just yet, but there will be an end to this pandemic and we will see many aspects of our lives go back to what we think of as normal. In the meantime, some good things always come out of adversity and we now have a lively online live music scene and many artists re-invigorated by finding new ways to be creative and to reach out to their audiences.
As Robert Earl Keen wryly observed, ‘The Road Goes On Forever’…