On The Road With Mike Aiken

‘On the Road’ articles can be metaphorical or plain old reality. Let’s talk about the reality of being on the road, getting from gig to gig to gig and home again. Sam Bush said at a concert, “I get paid to travel. I play for free.” True words Sam, very true words. We all got into this business to feed our passion for playing, all the rest around the playing is just ‘work’.

There are many ways to go at it. My good friend, Rich Eckhardt, has been lead guitarist for Toby Keith for 18 years and has been on big, beautiful Provost buses most of that time. He has 18 years worth of bus stories about fires, breakdowns, accidents etc. We swap stories with one little difference, he is on someone else’s bus and on their dime. For the rest of us… it’s something less glamorous. I’ve had big buses, small buses, cars, trains, planes, boats and my thumb carry me to shows. For the last 10 years we’ve had a funky little bus that carries a five-piece band and road manager. If we are out as a duo or trio there is plenty of room to stretch out. It rolls down the highway happily at 73 mph. We affectionately call it the ‘Rum Bus’ (don’t ask), or the ‘Band Schooner’. It’s a 1997 pride of Detroit steel and Goshen, Indiana fiberglass has been through snow, deserts, floods and fields. It’s tough and likes to run. I remember at one small festival I had to run half of the PA from its generator.

Keeping It Running
A lot is riding on my bus running well. Band members and promoters are counting on it. I feel a big responsibility to get my band members there and back again in safety. They have families who depend on them, as do I. So I don’t take safety lightly. I’m also under contract to get to the shows on time, and I take that seriously too. My method is to be pro-active on maintenance. By doing what you can ahead of time you have peace of mind and a better chance nothing will go wrong. Then you go out and what happens happens.

“I remember rolling around Atlanta at 2am in the pouring rain and blowing out two tires trying to make an early morning radio interview.”

I didn’t make that one in time. But the station program director and morning DJ, Steve Ferguson in Thomson, GA, came and got us on the air, a little late. Thanks Steve! The truth is I was pushing tread life on the tires. My fault and I learned from it. It was a dumb mistake trying to save pennies. Procrastinating on vehicle maintenance never pays.

ontheroadIt’s A Lot Of Work
There was another time when I was having starter problems and didn’t have time between shows to replace it. I was at CMA Fest in Nashville and schmoozing with European DJs. I brought the bus to their hotel for an interview. After we finished, they followed me out to the bus to chat, take pictures etc. All was going well, everyone was having a good time building relationships. We said our goodbyes, they got off the bus and stood back to watch us pull out – the starter wouldn’t engage. Trying to act cool and keep up the role of the successful musician, not the grease monkey, I slid out the door away from their view, crawled under the bus with a big hammer and beat the starter while Amy smiled, waved and turned the ignition switch. VAROOM! The bus roared to life, I crawled out and slipped back inside, dusted off, took my seat, waved and drove off. They never knew. In reality it was dumb to push the starter beyond its useful life. I changed it the next day.

Now, after all sorts of these types of situations and never missing or being late for a show, I’m getting ready to start a six-week run from VA to TN, NJ, MO, TX and back. I heeded my own advice and had my mechanic look over everything. I mean everything.
we change all the fluids, rotate and balance the tires. I was feeling good that I had done all I could to be road ready. Off I go to a show in Maryland over Labor Day weekend. We play the show and are heading home the next day when IT happens. We were doing 50 mph down an incline heading for a major intersection when the light changes and I hit the brakes. Nothing. The pedal goes to the floor. We zigged and zagged and swerved as did the other drivers. We ran the light. Nobody hit anything! I put the truck in neutral and used the emergency brake to ease to a stop, then my heart started pumping. What can you do? I did what I could to prevent something like that from happening. I tried to put the odds in my favor, beyond that you deal with it. Such is life on the road. Anyone who has never had a breakdown truly hasn’t gone anywhere.

Brakes are fixed and we are road ready once more. If you see our little bus out on the highway, beep and say ‘hello.’ Until next time…Happy Trails!

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