When Players Go M.I.A: How Stars Deal With Personnel Issues On The Road

By Ted Drozdowski

© 2011 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

The night had the makings of a potential disaster. Just a few hours before Patty Loveless was set to open for Vince Gill in Memphis, Tenn., her guitarist found out his wife was going into premature labor 200 miles away in Nashville. And he was out.

“We found a pretty unusual solution,” recalled tour manager Dan Waters. “Patty walked back to the headliner’s dressing room and asked Vince if he’d fill in. He learned the show in 45 minutes and took the stage with the rest of Patty’s band. We never told the audience and it took a while before they even noticed.”

Turning that potential nightmare into a dream show was pure luck — and another example of why Gill is an MVP in every sense of the word. But replacing musicians and crew members when emergencies take them off the road is seldom that simple. So road managers and music directors on top of their game will have a list of hedges they can use to make sure the show goes on. The methods vary, but in general they boil down to six strategic points.

Have a Deep Contact List

“I have at least two or three players from Nashville in the back of my mind for every instrument in Keith Urban’s touring band,” said Chris McHugh, a veteran session drummer and Urban’s music director. “There’s such a huge pool of talent here that it’s easy to fly somebody out on short notice and have them fit in seamlessly.”

���I would never pick up somebody local, or any other unproven player, on the road,” said producer/keyboardist Mark Oliverius, music director for Lorrie Morgan. “Everybody I need is already in my iPhone or in the iPhone or BlackBerry of somebody else in the band.”

“Because there’s such a strong studio scene and so many artists touring out of Nashville, there’s a high concentration of extremely good, responsible musicians who are capable of picking things up without missing a beat,” noted Waters. “And this is such a Country town that most of them are on the same wavelength. Only once in 20 years have I flown a guy out from L.A., for Olivia Newton-John’s band. It’s always Nashville. I know the town and I know the players.”

And it’s not just the players that make Music City the best talent pool. “Once I had to replace a lighting tech for Vince on a day’s notice, so I flew one in from Nashville,” Waters continued. “Was it the best lighted show we’ve ever done? No. But it was still really, really good.”

Use Utility Players

“The three other guys in Keith’s band all play multiple instruments, so if somebody couldn’t play at the last minute I’d only need to shift roles around,” said McHugh, whose credits also include touring and studio recording with Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus, Rascal Flatts and Carrie Underwood. “I chose the two newest members, Brian Nutter and Danny Rader, specifically because they play multiple instruments, from electric and acoustic guitars to the banjo and the bouzouki. Honestly, Keith welcomes the challenge when things need to be switched up on rare occasions.”

Know the Score

“I travel with copies of all of Keith’s charts,” McHugh said. “I can send Keith’s music to any player anywhere in a minute, so when they hit the stage, they’re ready to go.”

Waters, who also manages Gill’s roadwork, carries reams of written music for Newton-John’s tours, since she often employs local orchestras and string sections at concert stops. “I’ve also seen Patty’s band members write songs out in the Nashville studio number system for subs and new members,” he added, “like a family taking care of its own.”

Delegate

“A bandleader is like a CEO or manager, which means you have to surround yourself with a good team,” said Oliverius. “I like to use self-motivated musicians who can cover their own chairs. Using the best players possible means they’re going to want to take more lucrative offers on occasion and that they’re going to get calls for master sessions. Letting them play on those sessions and take other offers keeps them happy and is good for their careers. When that happens, it’s their responsibility to get a sub for you who is rehearsed and can fill in for them without missing a note.”

Be Proactive

“If you see a potential issue developing with one of your players, like a health issue or family issue, have two or three musicians in the wings who can take their place if necessary,” said McHugh. “Be aware of everything involving your band. There’s a lot to manage on these big tours, but look ahead and think ahead.”

Ask a Ringer

While producer/musicians and first-call session players are usually tied down to projects back home in Nashville, they’ll sometimes come out on the road to pinch-hit for an artist they’ve worked with when a last-minute problem with personnel develops. “In 2006, Chris Rodriguez, who played guitar with Keith for five years, had a serious issue,” said McHugh. “His father was dying and Chris had to be available for his family. It was very sudden. So we asked Dann Huff, who produced Keith’s albums, to come out and play three shows with us. He did and it sounded great.”

No matter what the crisis is, good communications skills are at the core of keeping a tour on track. “You’ve got to lead by example, by keeping yourself together even if there’s an emergency,” McHugh asserted. “That requires a certain level of maturity and experience. You need to be great at administration but also a great networker and listener, with sensitivity and flexibility — someone who your band feels they can talk to. If you’ve got all that happening, you know your people, and any personnel issue that develops is going to be easier to solve.”

Source: Country Music Association