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How Country Stars Build Their Road Crews

CMA Close Up/CMA/ Nashville, TN -- By Mark Crawford
Country Music wouldn’t be where it is today without great artists. But those stars couldn’t grow their audiences without virtuoso road crews. In many ways, the road crew is just as important a part of the tour as the performer. As Chris Cagle put it, “Everyone is pretty much part of the band. We’re all in it together. If the front-house guy has a bad day, no matter how well the band plays, we suck. If the monitor engineer is off, we can’t hear ourselves play and we’re off. Everybody is vital. We’re all part of the team.

“My most important guy is my road manager, Mike Nash,” he continued. “He knows how to handle me. He takes care of the band and all the logistics. He deals with people in a kind fashion. What you leave in your wake is just as important as what you accomplish. If the guy who represents you treats people with kindness yet sometimes has to be firm, but that firmness is still polite, that goes a long, long way and is one reason promoters have you back.”

Road managers for smaller acts handle everything, while larger tours include both a road manager and a production manager, whose purviews are stage lighting and sound. “Rascal Flatts is a tour with lots of moving parts,” said Mike McGrath, the band’s former Tour Manager. “We have elevators, a video screen and complex lighting. We have departments that handle audio, lighting, sound, video and rigging. The crew has to be able to fix things and fix them quickly.”

“Every crew member knows their job and nobody needs to be told what to do,” added Mark Hively, Tour Manager for Martina McBride. “We have three buses, two semis, five drivers and 13 crew members. We pull in and everyone piles out and gets to work. I’d put my crew up against any crew on the road. They make a great show happen every night.”

Assembling the Crew

“It’s sort of like fielding a baseball team,” said Cagle. “For me, the most important thing is what we call ‘the hang.’ Will this guy be the kind of person you’ll want to spend a lot of time with on tour? We’re driving up and down the road in a tour bus, 500 to 600 miles a night, three or four days a week. The people you hire have to be people you’ll want to be around.”

Hively values work ethic. “I don’t want to be a babysitter,” he insisted. “Our people must be intelligent and know their gig. You often hire people you don’t know, so you call around to check them out. Nashville is actually a pretty small community, so people know each other.”

“We have guys who have never had a Nashville touring position,” said Cagle. “I actually kind of like that because we can train them in our system. You can find people anywhere. I put the word out and will audition anybody. Also, when you have a management system in place, they can recommend people who will fit in. That’s why we’ve had some guys stay with us for five or six years. When we find that fit, we want to do our best to keep them.”

That’s not always easy. Crew members sometimes move up and join artists who pay more money. Experienced roadies can make more than $100,000 when they sign on with big-name acts that travel extensively. “It’s understood that you’ll lose crew members,” McGrath said. “Also, if we find guys from vendors who fit, we will hire them. For example, our front-house guy and monitor guy we hired from Sound Image. They understand. Sometimes they hire people away from us. That’s the way careers are built.”

Rest and Recreation

“Our crew hangs tight with the band,” said Hively, who observed that some members have been onboard with McBride for 15 years. “We’re like a family on the road. Many of us have to be away from our families and our kids, so it makes it even more important to work with people you like being around. Martina is like one of us. On days off, the crew and band go bowling together or golf and fish.”

And when the unexpected happens, an ace crew will be ready to move swiftly and decisively to put on the best possible show. When Rascal Flatts played a private show in Dallas last year, a big storm blew in, heavy with lightning.

“We got everyone inside the building,” said McGrath. “They didn’t expect the band to stay, but the guys said, ‘C’mon, let’s do it.’ We got the sound crew together and within half an hour we were set up for a 45-minute acoustic show. The crew went into emergency mode. The success of that show is a testament to how important these guys really are.”

Cagle summed it up. “I’m very proud to be associated with these guys who are very talented at what they do but who most of all are superior at being people.”

© 2012 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

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