My TV news career took a brief hiatus in 1988, as I decided to become a roadie for a country band based in Tucson. They offered me more money than my minimum-wage job at KUAT-TV and more independence, too.
“Horsefeathers” was a very successful band. The band’s co-owners, Scotty Johnson and Paul Powell, had hit on a lucrative niche: In the late 1980s and early 90s, it was very popular for major corporations to hold national-level events in Tucson, with the participants staying at the high-ends resorts around town and partying at the Old Tucson Studios, home to many classic westerns, but by then primarily a tourist attraction.
The corporations paid very well for their dinner entertainment. I made $250 a show (I think; it might have been more) and often did two or more a week. My job consisted of hauling the band’s equipment to show locations using a trailer I’d built myself, setting it all up, running the audio board during the performances, and then tearing down the gear and hauling it back home.
For most shows, I’d arrive, then either pull up to the outdoor stage (we played outdoors to showcase the Tucson evening weather) or the door to the venue (we also played a few indoor venues) at about 3 p.m. for a 6 p.m. start time, unload the gear, and begin setting it up. We couldn’t do sound checks but I knew the sound system and I knew the venues, so I could estimate.
Then, at about 10 p.m., we’d wrap and I’d tear down, which took another two hours. I rarely rushed, enjoying the cool night atmosphere.
We ate very well, generally serving ourselves whatever the banquet of the night was–steak, chicken, hamburgers. Free food is always welcome.
I was in the best physical condition of my life. The equipment easily weighed a thousand pounds when added up, and I lifted all of it myself, twice a night.
The band was unique. There were four members for most gigs, Scotty, the frontman; Paul, the quiet keyboard, guitar, and banjo player; Roger, the bassist who happened to be an egg inspector, working for my mom’s state government agency as his day job; and Adrian, the drummer who always, always had a joke for any occasion.
They played covers of country songs from the classics to current hits, always keeping their audience in mind, and frequently stopping to tell corny stories and jokes.
If the client wanted to spend more, the band could add players: a fiddler, another guitarist, for an extra fee.
But the best part was that most of the gigs came with a four-girl Can-Can dance show. The girls would wear elaborate matching dresses, big, puffy wigs and lots of stage makeup. The danced, sang, clowned around with the band, and flirted with the men in the crowd.
They all treated me like a big brother, which was fine. I was engaged to Carrie, and couldn’t get involved with them.
The girls were true theatre types: One night, I needed to talk to the one in charge, Margie, about a change in the show, and I knocked on the dressing-room door.
“Who is it?” one asked in a sweet tone of voice.
“It’s Scott. I need to talk to Margie.”
“Come in,” she said, and I did, to find all four in various states of undress. I blushed and stammered, but they found it funny, and proceeded to continue dressing and doing their make-up. I delivered the message and got out, my face burning from embarrassment.
During performances, my main job was to get the house audio mix right, just loud enough—but never too loud—and avoid squealing feedback at all costs. I did not always succeed at either of these, but the sound was much improved over the band trying to mix for themselves on stage.
I also set up the monitor mixes that the band heard on stage, which was harder. They were more demanding about what they wanted to hear.
Soon, we added some lights, because we played a lot of outdoor night shows. Those were my responsibility, too.
Horsefeathers was a solid, professional band, but as with any musicians working together, they bumped heads a lot.
Scotty reveled in the role of the frontman, and sometimes would change song lyrics or extend parts if he felt the audience was not ready to stop dancing.
Those changes frustrated Paul, who was a very technical musician – he was an
early adopter of computerized keyboards using samples of real instruments – because they required him to make changes in what he was playing, and annoyed Adrian, who felt that Scotty was really just trying to show who was in charge.
Roger never much worried about that kind of thing. He just kept supplying a steady bass rhythm, no matter how confrontational the other guys got.
Because truly major corporations, like IBM or Ford Motor booked us, they also sometimes hired big acts and used us at the dinner or as the opening act. That’s how I got to help run the audio board for the Charlie Daniels Band and Janie Fricke, who was burning up the charts at the time.
I had the opportunity to travel with the band to Vail, Colorado, for a convention performance as well. The band members flew, of course. I drove my pickup with the equipment trailer.
I took my father along for company, although he was sorry he’d come when he saw the high mountain passes with steep drop-offs that we would have to cover. At one point, he put his jacket over his face so he wouldn’t have to see any more.
I just chuckled.
The band played my wedding to Carrie, which we held at Old Tucson. It was a western-themed wedding.
A piece of advice: if, at your wedding reception, the band you work for offers to let you play drums despite the fact that it’s been five years since you’ve played, do NOT choose to play “Workin’ for a Livin'” by Huey Lewis and the News. You won’t make it to the end anywhere near the tempo you started.
It wasn’t long after the wedding that I took a full-time job at KVOA-TV in Tucson, a morning editor slot that came with benefits.
The band was sorry to see me go. Adrian summed up their feelings: “Yeah, as soon as they get married, they always take straight jobs.”
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