After 15 years behind the wheel of a big rig, criss-crossing the country on long trips to move auto parts, Mark Pedigo was looking for a change of career — or maybe just a change of cargo.
Last week, the Indianapolis-based Pedigo, 39, headed to Nashville, where he completed a three-day course aimed at retooling professional long-haul drivers into tour bus drivers able to master the tricky details of catering to music celebrities on the road.
No more hauling pistons or spark plugs. Instead, Pedigo and others hope to join the ranks of well-paid, commercially licensed roadies who squire bands and artists on tour, sometimes for weeks or months on end.
“I’m ready for that kind of excitement and camaraderie again,” Pedigo said. “And I’m ready for a bigger paycheck.”
While music sales have slumped over the past decade, artists have increasingly taken to the road to boost their income via more concert ticket sales.
Big tours — the Carrie Underwoods or Lady Gagas — can require a half-dozen or more luxuriously outfitted buses with kitchens and bedrooms for artists and crew members, all traveling for months at a time.
A proliferation of concert tours among lesser-known artists is also serving to keep more buses on the road, and that means more demand for drivers.
But the unique skills set required of a good celebrity bus driver goes beyond a commercial license and a clean driving record, said Chip Huffman, the man who helped launch the first-of-its-kind Celebrity Bus Drivers Academy in Nashville last year to recruit new drivers.
“They’re not just drivers,” said Huffman, a former driver and bus company
owner who was on the road for more than 20 years with acts like the Smothers Brothers and the band Alabama.
“You have to be captain of that ship. You have to know everything, from how to drive that bus, get along with the crew, take charge if anything goes wrong and how to understand the music business personality.”
Huffman and a partner, Tandy Rice, launched the academy last year. Nashville was the obvious location, Huffman said, because it is the little-known capital of the bus touring business, with 80 percent of all tour operations based here.
More than a dozen of the nation’s major celebrity bus rental companies, which employ the drivers, are represented in Middle Tennessee.
Thus far, 28 people have graduated in the first three drivers’ classes, which are deliberately kept small and very much hands on.
In addition to Pedigo, last week’s class consisted of a 51-year-old limo and party bus driver from Minneapolis, a 20-something tractor-trailer driver based in Houston, a truck
driver from Nashville and a Greyhound driver from Atlanta.
The five men alternated between taking notes in a conference room and learning the mechanics of how a full-size bus works. Their training ground was the parking lot of a coach leasing company.
Lessons covered what’s under the hood of a tour bus, plus a rundown on the amenities inside the vehicle. That’s everything from a home theater on wheels to gaming systems, kitchen appliances and bedrooms fit for a star.
“You need to know everything about your bus, from right there in your seat because they’re going to ask you: ‘How do you turn the TV on? What channel? How does the stove work?’ You need to be the answer man,” said Olan Witt, president of Goodlettsville-based Coach Quarters Entertainment Transportation, whose clients include performers Gwen Stefani, Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige.
Pros offer advice
On the last day of the three-day class, other local entertainment bus company owners offered drivers a few tips, including the directive not to drink on the road.
Other good advice: File your expenses neatly before turning them in. Don’t ask for autographs or make the mistake of thinking you’re part of the band. You’re not.
The job requires the tact of a butler, the mechanical savvy to figure out how to solve any problem and enough leadership qualities to inspire
confidence among high-strung personalities away from home.
Pedigo said he’s up for the challenge, and he wants a change of pace. Before he got married 10 years ago and became a father with three small children, Pedigo did lighting chores for Broadway shows.
Starting salaries for celebrity drivers typically range from $40,000 to $60,000, driving during the busy summer season for weeks or months at a time, often with the rest of the year off.
With more experience, nice tips from bigger artists and work during the off-season, annual pay can go above $100,000, Huffman said. The driver for Larry the Cable Guy’s tour earned $135,000 for six months of driving, one bus company owner told the class last week.
Huffman said he helps get graduates placed on tours, usually starting out as a backup driver. About three-quarters of his students are driving, but some wash out. The most common reason for failing is bumpy driving.
“You don’t want to spill Shania Twain’s coffee in her lap, because she’s not going to like that,” Huffman said.g