People often ask how I got this job of playing full-time in a successful rock band. Is there an application? Is there a college or university? Who do you have to know? Well, everyone gets here by a different path but looking back on my own career I would say I got here from a combination of love, luck, hard work and then some more love, more luck and even more hard work.
I have played music since I was a child but never thought of it as a career option. It was first and foremost my love and my passion. I played in high school bands and even worked my way through university playing in country rock bands. Yes, I did play for the money but without the money I still would have played those gigs because I loved it.
After my studies I cut back on playing live because of the constraints of my corporate job but I channelled my musical energy into composing and recording at home. This too was done for the pure love of music as never in my wildest dreams did I believe I would end up here.
Around 1994 I was playing steel with some Chicago musicians that played only songs by the holy trinity of Hank, Buck and George. The bassist, Dave Gay, mentioned that his band Freakwater was going to tour Europe but that their guitarist couldn't make it. For some strange reason I wanted that gig so bad I could taste it. I hadn’t even heard Freakwater’s music but I knew that this was the right gig for me. I called Catherine [Irwin] in Kentucky, I went to lunch with Janet [Beveridge-Bean] in Chicago and I lobbied very hard for the position. And during all these talks I never once mentioned money. The money was very far down my list of priorities.
Well, I got the Freakwater gig and spent three years with them. We toured Europe and America and recorded a record together (Old Paint). Along the way we opened for Wilco and I became friends with them. I loved the band because they rocked and were really great guys. They asked me to record with them on some solo projects and even some Nashville sessions. One day Jeff Tweedy asked me to play a solo show with him in Chicago. I remember hanging up the phone and thinking that this was the greatest musical honour of my life, that I could die a satisfied man because it did not get any better than this. Well, things did get better because they soon asked me to join the band.
That was one of the toughest decisions in my life because it meant leaving the business world behind. I owned my own successful company and had five employees that depended upon me for their living. It was a great business that was fun to run and it was my stability. I was unprepared to leave it to join a country-rock band. I did however agree to play one show - New York City with Johnny Cash. That show changed my mind and my life.
I spent two years with Wilco and they were some of the most cherished years of my life - playing the Letterman and Conan O’Brien shows; playing Much Music’s Snow Job; touring with Los Lobos and Sheryl Crow; meeting Emmylou Harris, Peter Buck and Jackson Browne; playing the Greek Theater in Berkley, the Troubadour in LA, the Fillmore in San Francisco… glorious times for a wide-eyed, small town boy.
We played the legendary Horseshoe in Toronto in 1996 and the promoter stuck a young, new artist on the bill to open for us. She had recently moved to Toronto and her name was Oh Susanna. We became friends that night and in a few years she would play a very big part in my life.
After recording the Mermaid Avenue record in Dublin with Billy Bragg and Wilco, my gig with them was over. They were pulling away from country-rock material and would no longer be requiring steel guitar. It was a very amicable split. With no gigs on the immediate horizon I decided to move to Oxford, MS, to write and record my first solo album.
The result was two years of hard work and poverty. I was broke and struggling, but the creative thing was really happening. I dedicated those two years to learning the craft of songwriting and the business of how to sell an indie record. Once the record was complete I was in a terrible bind because I could not afford to manufacture it and without an actual CD to sell, I had nothing. Things were quite bleak until out of the blue Oh Susanna called and invited me to Toronto to play guitar on her Johnstown record. My fee was having 1,000 CDs manufactured.
Entering the studio with Suzy, I met Bazil Donovan. We formed a fast and lasting friendship, especially after two weeks in Norway for a solo tour of mine. After making Johnstown I toured with Oh Susanna often, opening for the Jim Cuddy Band. Jim, was a fan of Wilco and we too soon became friends.
Meanwhile my career in the States was at an all-time low. I couldn’t make enough to live on and was strongly considering re-entering the business world. Reluctantly I agreed to play a few last solo shows opening up for the Jim Cuddy Band in Canada. To do this required driving my ’86 Honda Civic (no radio, no air conditioner, no muffler, leaking oil!) 18 hours straight without stopping from Mississippi to Toronto. That night I played a solo show in Toronto to eight fans and had to pay my Canadian band from my own pocket with IOUs. The next day I set out broke and thoroughly disillusioned for a show in Ottawa with Cuddy. I knew on the way there that this was my last tour.
Arriving in Ottawa I knocked on the tour bus door and was greeted by Jim who invited me into the back lounge for a little chat. It went like this: "Bob, our steel player is leaving the band, we aren’t holding auditions and yours is the only name that came up. So...you’ll probably want to move to Toronto because we have a pretty busy year ahead of us."
In those 30 seconds my life changed from being a broke, Mississippi solo artist to becoming a member of a successful, legendary Canadian institution. How did I get here? Love, Luck and Hard Work! Oh, and a little more luck, eh?