TRAVELOGUE: THE GEORGE STRAIT TIP
TRAVELOGUE: THE GEORGE STRAIT TRIP
We signed a 24/7 George Strait Channel. Here’s a strange adventure and how that how that came down.
XM's Eric Logan, a Country music devotee and the guy who admittedly wears the suits around XM (and likes it), comes back from Nashville with stars in his eyes. He spent time with Erv Woolsey, George Strait’s manager and they talked about things we might do with George on XM. That evolves into us going to Cleveland to meet with Erv and George while they are playing an arena up there. OK..no problem. I’ll fly, you make the arrangements. We then recruited Sandy Girard. She’s the go-to person here that went with us to Cooperstown and did NOT have a good time babysitting two baseball fanatics who had better hotel rooms. Thought it would only be right to make amends. Gary Hahn from our marketing department was also going to come, but his wife won’t let him fly with me. So, Rob Johnston from XM Research joined the party. This was one hell of a trip.
Early in the morning, it looked bad. Snowstorm in Cleveland and ice all along the route. Every hour I emailed updates with a noon go/no go. At noon, the sky in Cleveland became scattered at 3000 feet. Still a lot of snow between us and Cleveland, but using every weather tool I could call up, it looked flyable. Ice would be an issue but the cloud tops were 8000, so we went at 10000. Upon arrival in Cleveland we’d have to descend through the icy clouds, but the plane has de-icing equipment and up there the clouds didn’t look too thick so it would be pretty easy. Hell, if everything went to shit, I could climb back to 10000 and come back to DC.
We met up at 2:30. Of course Sandy was late…but that’s OK as I calculated the departure time for that. Logan arrives with his cowboy boots. Uh Oh…it’s going to be THAT kind of trip. Departed at 3:15. Nasty turbulence up through 7000 feet. Sandy yipped every time we hit a bump. Lots of yips. Then it smoothed out and a nice uneventful flight with the snow and ice as advertised—well below us. Easy arrival into Cleveland’s Lakefront airport with a waiting Hertz car. Cleveland was polar cold.
Upon checking the tickets. Problem. There were tickets, passes and everything else….for Lexington Kentucky. Wrong date. Logan goes into his road manager routine, starts working the phones and gets things straightened out. I think/know one of the reasons he wanted me to come is to show me the Country world as I am known to be a rocker. He was at his best, working two cellphones and “organizing”. Arrived at the venue way before showtime. The Universal rep met us at the door with passes in hand and we met up with Erv. Erv’s a veteran. Met him ages ago. Has one client. George Strait. Since George has more #1 records than anyone on earth and sells out everywhere, you might say it’s a good gig. Then off to the catering room for dinner. Ran into some people I haven’t seen in years. Food was actually good. I was increasingly impressed with the low key organization backstage. Different from the intense near-panic you see at so many rock shows.
Then it was off to George’s bus. Nice ride. George looking cool and casual in pajamas meets us and is the nicest guy you’d meet. ZERO “I’m a star and you aren’t”….loves XM. Has it in his boat too. Eric did most of the talking as for Eric hanging with George is for anyone else like a private session with (put God-like figure here) . He did his best musical rap and stayed away from corporate speak (He’s a CEO in training). We had a great session though wanted to give him his space so we left him alone after a nice meeting. Then the danger started. We went back to Erv’s “quiet room”, a transportable bar and ultra VIP hang room. Being pilot I stuck with the greenish sludge Diet Mountain Dew. The others did not. An well stocked free bar opened the gates to an intensely alcoholic evening. Lots of hugging and hi fives, but then….a bunch of guys from WGAR showed up and it was like a flashback to a 1985 Radio & Records Convention. I had no clue who they were, but I guess Eric worked with them and it was “Hey Logan dude…whats up dude….” Hug hug chat chat. Logan probably loved it…he was a star to these guys. I thought it was hilarious. A caricature of FM in 2008. Finally they left and the room was simply abuzz with small talk, big plans and good times. Eric’s red cowboy boots attracted the attention of a member of the opening act. They traded boots. The sober me was thinking it was going downhill fast. We then went out to catch LITTLE BIG TOWN. Decent Fleetwood Mac type band. Nice. Caught a few tunes from the soundboard.
Through all of this, an increasingly buzzed Rob Johnston was a deer in the headlights. He’d never been backstage before and we were getting the VIP treatment. It was refreshing to see a research guy letting loose. “Hey whats that!?” (mixing board)…then “What’s in his ear”?! (Monitors)…”Is this food free”?! (yes)and “How do they do this”?! “Is that a REAL roadie”?! He was getting a taste of ‘the life’.
Then…the time comes and George takes the stage. It was electric. Erv was saying that there’s no-way they’d sell out the 20,000 seat venue. Times were tough. Huh? I saw two open seats in the place. The crowd was incredibly well behaved, and the usual concert aroma of reefer was nowhere to be found. No Frisbees, no barfing. The organization and politeness experienced backstage extended to the audience. Between songs, there was elated mayhem, but once George and his remarkable smile hit the notes, it was all reverence. The large band was tight as a drum and after a few rough spots sound wise they twiddled the knobs for a perfectly clear evening. Though I’m not a big Country guy(at least post 1970), it was an education. Total respect for what they do. I’ve been humming “Amarillo by Morning” for the past five days. Good thing George sold the show out as there must of been 20 well paid and beyond competent musicians on the stage.
As this was Eric’s night, he said we’d leave after three songs. We stayed about 10 songs. Bering a rock guy I forgot that 10 songs is only about an hour since there are no 20 minute epic or drum solos…just hit single after hit single that the crowd cherished.
We said thank you’s and goodbyes and then made a huge mistake. Rob drove the Hertz to the venue so out of habit, he drove us back to the airport. Big mistake. He and Eric were doing their best Beavis and Butthead after getting too drunk at a Slayer show. Driving 80 mph through Cleveland downtown…making wrong turns…cursing at each other “You pussy—go Left!”. Both the Cleveland police and Cleveland Memorial Hospital were racing through my head. How odd—I was actually the adult! Actually, Sandy was sort of an adult too, but Rob and Eric were 15 again…drunk, driving home from a Crue show where they struck out with chicks and expressing their manhood with dangerous road technique. And Gary Hahn’s wife is afraid of FLYING with me?
Finally found the airport. Rob overshoots it by 1/8 of a mile, then backs up at 80mph. There’s a buzzer and intercom to enter since it’s around midnight. I worked the buzzer. If any of those three did, the TSA would be there in about 30 seconds. Checked weather and filed a flight plan. Paid the fuel bill and the guy saw my all access pass, and asked if we wanted to see George’s plane, as he was hangared there too. I didn’t want to suffer plane inferiority, but Logan went nuts and kept reminding me how George could make it to Texas in the time it took us to go back to DC. Thanks.
Took off into a frozen black night. As the lights of Akron faded into the distance, we reached altitude and the compounded altitude induced effects of the alcohol of my passengers generated discussions that were beyond whacked. Primarily focused on the sexual orientation of every XM employee. Listening (and OK...contributing) to these bizarre and hilarious discussions---while simultaneously talking to the controllers at the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center was…different. Then they had to pee. I wont say who, but the emergency pee bags were brought out and the cabin turned into a giant bathroom. We were doing close to 300mph so the trip wasn’t very long, but I’m still REAL glad I bought those bags.
Upon landing, there was additional peeing by the taxiway…and we all walked away thinking: We successfully organized a big deal with the biggest name in Country music...and survived Rob Johnston at the wheel....This is what it’s all about!
Gotta wonder if I'll be making these flight at Tribune. Yeah....probably!