The Dirtiest Kid

I’d like to talk about one aspect of working the road and that is enduring inclement weather conditions. If somebody catches a cold or the flu before the road trip is over with, it goes through everybody on the bus because it goes through the heating and air-conditioning system.

I still to this day take mega-doses of vitamin C because there’s nothing more miserable than working with a 104 degree fever for three or four days in a row. It isn’t quite like being home and having mama fix you chicken soup.

I remember a time in the mid-seventies, we were working up in Canada in January. It was way below zero. In the middle of the night, one of the guys got up out of his bunk and smelled smoke. Had he not gotten up, all of us in the bunk area could have suffocated.

As it turned out, some electric wires underneath the bottom bunk had come together and caught fire and the bunk area was full of smoke. He immediately woke everyone up. We went up front and the bus driver pulled the bus over. We got the fire put out. It was just smoldering and hadn’t got up to a flame, but the wiring in the bus was shot.

It’s 3 AM in the morning at minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately, Conway Twitty’s bus was behind us. They pulled in behind us, we got out with just our necessities. Loretta and all of us piled on Conway’s bus. That was a bus load of people.

Our bus driver had to stay with our bus and wait until it got daylight out to take it to a shop to be repaired. The wiring was totally gone so he had no lights. We went ahead and worked the next two or three days with all of us piled on the one bus. Finally, our bus got repaired and our driver drove and met us.

I’ll never forget standing outside the bus in the middle of the night in that terrible cold weather until Conway’s bus caught up with us.

One thing that happens all the time is that shows get cancelled for pouring rain. Water and electricity don’t mix and fans just don’t understand that. The get upset because we can’t do the show.

One time, we played an outdoor show in Florida and it was in December. A cold front came in and it was 26 degrees. My fingers absolutely did not want to move when I tried to play.

I always hated to see hot summer weather to come because it would be two or three months of working in miserably hot weather playing dusty race tracks at county fairs. We also had to play the outdoor country music parks back then. Places like Ponderosa Park in Ohio, Bucklake Ranch in Indiana and Sunset Park in Pennsylvania.

There were so many of those outdoor parks back then. In fact, I think that is kind of a piece of country music history. I think most of them are pretty much a thing of the past.

At many of them, we had to do three shows a day. We had to wear band uniforms with rhinestones that were made out of gabardine. That stuff doesn’t breathe at all. We had patent leather western boots that would be so hot your feet would just burn like fire.

Everybody including myself would be out of tune because of the heat and wind messing with the instruments and you just had to grin and bear it. Obviously, there were no electronic tuners back then. Many stages were built facing the hot sun so the audience wouldn’t have to look at it, but we did. It was right in our faces.

We had our own PA system that we carried on the bus. It was a Shure Vocal-Master. We had four of these long columns we had to set up every day along with the PA head, microphones and cables. None of the amplifiers were miked. The vocal microphones were all run directly into a mixing board which we ran from the stage.

Since none of the amplifiers were miked, when you played outside you had to crank it up and play loud and watch and listen to what else was going on onstage. We didn’t have in ear monitors and custom mixes like the groups today have.

Many of the people in the audience would bring their children with them. If it had rained earlier that day, there would be kids running and sliding in the mud and playing. One particular time at Sunset Park in West Grove, Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia, it had rained earlier that day. The bus got stuck in the mud and we had to have a wrecker come pull the bus out of the mud.

We decided to have a dirtiest kid contest. The guys in the band pooled our money. It ended up coming to about $25 which was a lot of money back in those days. Don Ballinger, my dear friend whom we lost back in ’86 was fronting our band and playing rhythm guitar. He also sang some duets with Loretta.

Don announced to the crowd at the beginning of the show that at the end of the day we would hold a dirtiest kid contest and the kid that won would win $25. As the day progressed and we played all three shows, in the time between the shows, there were scores of kids sliding in the mud deliberately trying to get dirty.

Finally at the end of the day, we judged the contest and picked out the dirtiest kid and gave him the $25. It’s strange how people can really create their own amusement which we were forced to do much of the time.

Being on the road can be miserable, can be happy, can be trying, is inconvenient and is unforgettable. These young kids on the road with stars today don’t know how good they have it!

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(615) 822-5555
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The Philosophy of Backing Up a Singer

This is Bob Hempker. I’d like to talk about my approach to backing a singer. Everyone has their own style and thoughts on the subject of course and I’m only going to talk about how I handle it.

Let’s face. Most of us live for the solos. We can’t wait for our spot in the light. We sit there doing our best to be patient while whishing the singer would hurry up and finish their part over with so we can get on to the good part. Our part.

Bottom line, singers don’t hire us to be the show, they hire us to help make their show better. Backing the singer is our place in the grand scheme of things. We need to be as proficient as we can be at this or someone else might be doing it the next time the singer works.

Different players or styles can really fit with certain singers. For instance, Ralph Mooney really fit the early Buck Owens sound, whereas Tom Brumley was perfect for Buck’s later sound.

When I think of Ray Price music, Jimmy Day and Buddy Emmons come to mind. Buddy Charlton comes to mind when I think of Ernest Tubb. This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been some other fine players who have worked with certain artists. Certain styles of playing can really fit different singers.

When I think of the steel players that really influenced me when I was young, they were not just steel players but stylists as well each having a very distinctive way of playing so you knew who it was without asking. We lost one of my heroes at the end of last week. Sonny Burnette worked with Webb Pierce, The Wilburn Brothers, worked the Opry Staff Band for many years, worked the Ralph Emory Morning Show. The steel guitar world has suffered a great loss. My condolences go out to Sonny’s family.

The best and most successful studio players would usually develop and adapt a different style to each singer that they worked with. That’s a tough act to follow but if you can do it, you’ll distinguish yourself as a player.

One of the main things to always bear in mind when you’re playing behind a singer is to not overplay. What I mean by overplaying is playing lines on top of the singers lines. Sort of visualize the singer’s melody in music notation and when you see rests, that is where you need to play. This is sometimes called filling the holes.

It’s also good if we have the time, to somewhat get to know the singer that we’re playing behind and find out what they like and dislike musically. We don’t want to play something that is over their head of the singer or something they don’t understand. The K.I.S.S. keep it simple stupid saying really applies here.

It’s also a good idea for the other people in the band to look at this in the same way we do because we’re all out there on that stage trying to help the singer sell a product to the audience. The singer can somewhat be a quarterback and we’re other players on the team. When we’re handed the ball, we need to run with it. But the rest of the time, we block.

Most of us that have been playing any length of time have played our way out of jobs at one time or another in our career. That is a very easy thing to do. I’ve been on jobs where everything just magically fell into place and I’ve also been on jobs where there would be personality conflicts between me and the singer or maybe me and another member of the band.

When this is the case it’s inevitable that sooner or later something will give, that one of us will end up leaving and there have been times that it’s been me. Every gig we get hired on is not going to fit us perfectly. If you find yourself in such a situation, then grin, bear it, put your money in your pocket and go home.

I chose music as a career when I was young because I love music and love making music. It was fun and I enjoyed it. Anytime any particular gig became a “job”, it was not fun anymore. This comes out in our playing. Life is too short and we can make better money doing other things than playing music. So if we’re unhappy we need to move on.

Bear in mind that we all have an ego. The singer is no exception. Usually a singer who can really entertain an audience has a huge ego. I guess that’s just part of it. In many cases we have to humor the singer offstage and just plain put up with them because so many of them have huge, overblown egos. It really took me a lot of practice to learn to tolerate them.

I must admit, it is more tolerable when a singer has some hit recordings and some other things to back up their ego. When I have to work with someone who’s got a huge ego and has no talent and not one thing to back it up, it gets old quickly. They get out of their little home town and nobody knows who they are, and they still have this overblown ego. Then, I have to bail out.

I stayed with Loretta so long because she was a total class act onstage and off. If she screwed up onstage, she would admit it and wouldn’t blame it on somebody in the band. People like this are few and far between and I was very, very fortunate to have someone like her to work for.

I took what Hal Rugg did in the studio and adapted it to our live arrangements and made it work. I sort of put my own little touch or little twist to what he had done on the recordings and happily played it onstage. I was totally spoiled working for Loretta.

Again, the bottom line to all of this is to play with as much soul and feeling as we can and do our best to make that person out in front look and sound good.

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123 Mid Town Court
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(615) 822-5555
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Closed Saturday and Sunday

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What It’s Like On The Road

This is Bob Hempker. People often ask me what it was like being on the road all those years. The reality of it is, believe it or not, thirty plus years flew by me so fast that it’s tough to describe. There were good times, bad times, wonderful times, terrible times, fun times, exciting times and boring times.

The road is definitely a unique experience all on its own and many ways, each day is the same as any other before and yet any day can be totally different than any day you’ve ever lived in your life. Surprises were innumerable.

One thing that’s really rewarding is getting respect from your audiences when working for a big star as opposed to playing some honky-tonk full of nothing but loud, obnoxious drunks. One of the things that does wear on you on the road is playing the same 60 to 90 minute show every day with the same songs and never getting to play anything else.

You wind up being really great at playing those few songs, but forget a lot of other things which you could play before and you can stagnate and get lazy and fail to learn new things. That’s something you have to fight within yourself.

The road can be a big continuous party for some from the moment they leave home until the moment they get back. But if you’re really serious about being a quality musician you’ve got to get a handle on this and remember it’s a profession that we have to hold standards for ourselves higher sometimes than a lot of the other people around us have for us.

I’ll be honest and say that I’ve done my share of partying like any other musician has and maybe even a little more than my share. However, if you don’t keep yourself grounded, you’re career could be over quickly. You don’t have to be a professional road musician for this to happen, it can also happen to weekend warriors.

I’ve had the opportunity to travel the world but often times the schedule has been so tight that I didn’t get the chance to see where I was. For instance, we were within about seven miles of the Valley of the Kings in Egypt and we didn’t get a chance to go the seven miles to see the pyramids. So close but so far away.

Sometimes you get stuck with no transportation and even though you’ve got the day off, you can’t get to see something that’s within driving distance. Sometimes, you do. One time I was on the road and we had a day off in Virginia and I found out that we were thirty or forty miles from Appomattox Courthouse.

So I rented a car and drove to it and saw where Lee had surrendered to Grant thus ending the Civil War. Had we not had the day off and had I not gone and rented a car, I would never have got to see that historic site. I got myself an education that day in a piece of American history.

Another time, five of us rented a car together and we drove to the Grand Canyon. That’s the most breath-taking thing I’ve ever laid my eyes on. This is something I likely would never have been able to see if not for being a musician on the road.

Many times we’ve driven within thirty miles of Mount Rushmore and never have had the chance to see it. That can be really disappointing when things like that happen due to always rushing from one show to another.

A few times, we talked the boss into taking the bus to see something. I remember us all piling on the bus and driving to Yellowstone National Park. I got to see Old Faithful and see some truly spectacular countryside. It’s memories like these that made much of the road worthwhile.

I’ve been to London probably a dozen times. I had never got to see Buckingham Palace or the London Tower until I was over there for about the fifth or sixth time. A British musician friend of mine told me to jump in his car and he gave me a quick tour of all the London sights. I’m extremely thankful for things like this.

I always used to love to go to New York City and hopefully get a couple days off. I would not go to bed during those few days. I would head directly to Greenwich Village. Usually myself and a couple other musicians in the band would stay down in there and soak up all the great jazz we could soak up.

Many of the Julliard students would hang out in the jazz clubs and just jam some of the best music I’ve ever heard in my life would come from people who I didn’t even know the name of. Then on the other hand, sometimes we would go to the Village Vanguard Club and there would be name jazz artists headlining there.

I remember seeing jazz greats like Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers, Maynard Ferguson, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and other great jazz legends there. We were like kids in a candy store.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am a country musician, always have, always was and always will be. But I still maintain to this day that it’s important to listen to all genres of music that are performed well. I try not to be closed-minded and have found that there are several ideas in all kinds of music than can be incorporated into other styles.

A “C” note is a “C” note no matter what kind of music it’s being played in. Where, when, how and why we play that “C” note helps to define your musical “ideas” you’re trying to convey to your listeners. I’ve stressed this before and I’ll say it again, the main basic two elements of music are the performer and the listener and the music is the communication.

I hope some of this information is helpful, entertaining, insightful. I’m blessed with this opportunity to share these wonderful memories with you. Thank you for listening.

Listen To Steel Guitar Music Streaming 24 Hours A Day!

Steel Guitar Nashville
123 Mid Town Court
Hendersonville, TN. 37075
(615) 822-5555
Open 9AM – 4PM Monday – Friday
Closed Saturday and Sunday

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