With rare exceptions, very few bands or musicians start their careers on top, traveling from gig to gig on a private jet with a crew of people at their beck and call. Most have to put in their time traveling in a van, logging thousands of hours on the road, playing at college frat parties and small clubs along the way.
The often road-weary lifestyle is the lifeblood of a new band. COVID-19 shut that down for a lot of artists, but that is starting to change.
Acts, including several local groups, are again finding work outside of their hometowns, and for some, the van is once again a home away from home.
For The Afternooners, a local quintet, the van became more than just a transportation vehicle while they recorded their newest album in Boston at Plaid Dog Recording Studios back in the fall of 2020. It became the only place they could go when not recording.
"We recorded six songs in eight days and we drove our tour bus up there and they allowed one person in the studio at a time," says guitarist/vocalist Bryan Martin. "Because of the restrictions in Massachusetts, we had to fill out all this paperwork and follow these really strict guidelines. It was pretty tough."
Martin says the pandemic did give them time to hone the songs before going into the studio, and that made the recording time go quicker (and also cost less). The band got hooked with Plaid Dog through a successful online fundraising campaign, he says.
The timing of their van purchase was fortuitous, and not just because they purchased the 2008 Ford E-450 28-foot shuttle bus just after their E-250 gave up the ghost.
"We also had a trailer that had been giving us problems, and with the E-450, it has a living room and can sleep five of us and hold all of our equipment," says Martin.
In addition to releasing "Peace & Panic" in early May, the group has put about 10,000 miles on the bus traveling throughout the South and along the East Coast, doing mostly private events such as weddings and college parties.
"We didn't do a lot of clubs until a couple of weeks ago, but that is opening up," he says, listing a show in Chattanooga on Aug. 14 at Chattanooga Brewing Company.
They are hardly the only local group hitting the road or getting some love outside of the city.
Call Me Spinster was written up in Rolling Stone in December for their single, "Two Hearts," the iconic magazine's "Country Music Pick of the Week."
The review reads: "Three sisters sing about a pair of hearts in this winsome ballad. An upright bass line propels it forward as flashes of steel cry out here and there, but it's the tight, floating harmonies of the Chattanooga siblings that make 'Two Hearts' so enticing. There's an oldies quality to the song too — something you might hear in a late-fifties soda shop — but the siblings' message of better days to come makes it just right for 2020."
They also got a positive review in American Songwriter around the same time for their eponymous EP.
"We did a series of shows in Athens, Georgia, and a couple in Atlanta and one in Nashville in May and April," says Amelia Graber Jacobs, who is joined in the trio by her sisters, Rachel and Rosie Graber.
Jacobs has a new baby, but says the group is looking to hit the road more often in the coming weeks and will be going into the studio to record several cover songs to keep product rolling out, and then will "hop back in the studio for a new full-length record to be released in late spring or summer."
They have shows scheduled in Dalton as part of the Off the Rails summer series on Aug. 20 and then will play the Get Off the Grid Fest at Camp Jordan on Aug. 22. They are on the Valley Vibes Music and Arts Festival lineup on Sept. 3, as well.
Perhaps one of the busiest local bands out on the road is Strung Like a Horse, who closed out July playing in places like North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi. Lead singer Clay Maselle says the rest of the band's summer and fall is also going to be busy.
"Things are starting to book back up. We're all vaccinated and everybody's going for it, so we are going for it," he says.
Maselle is especially hopeful the smaller festivals can come back. "Their margins are really small anyway and to take one or maybe even two years off is tough, and the smaller ones are where it's at."
SLAH was set to play the Moon River Festival at Coolidge Park in 2020, but it was canceled and the band is not part of the sold-out 2021 event in September. But Maselle says the band, which is touring in support of its major-label debut "WHOA!" is adding new dates almost daily and will be at Americanafest in Nashville in late September.
Before that, they have several gigs in the area coming up, including Get Off the Grid Fest on Aug. 20 and Valley Vibes on Sept. 3.
Maselle, like Jacobs and Martin, is just glad to be back on the road.
"We are very excited," Jacobs says.