When quizzed about what he’s learned in his life as a touring musician backing one of the biggest stars in country music today, bass player Travis Vance ’03 pauses. Then he offers a simple, yet sage piece of advice. “Always pack a towel,” he says.
“It’s hard to describe because every gig is so different,” he adds. “I’ve played small clubs and huge stadiums, and those [represent] very different days.” Since 2011, Vance has been the bass player for Thomas Rhett, a second-generation country superstar. But it almost didn’t turn out that way. Vance had been playing for a country trio that ultimately did not work out, even though the group had a record deal. As Vance was preparing to pack up his bass and search for the next opportunity, a member of the trio’s management team asked whether he’d be interested in playing for a new artist they had just signed. His name? Thomas Rhett.
Before the days of tour buses and spotlights, however, there was Fort Worth, TX, where Vance grew up. Originally groomed on piano, he decided to learn bass so he could play in the newly formed jazz band at his middle school. Now, 25 years later, he’s still reading the bass clef.
Like many budding musicians in Texas, following high school, Vance planned to attend the University of North Texas (UNT) and play in one of their famous lab bands. “But in my senior year, I had an older girlfriend who was already at UNT,” he explains. “She completely broke my heart, and at that point I just wanted to get out of Texas entirely.” Goodbye, Texas; hello, Berklee.
During his time at Berklee, he would occasionally make the long drive from Boston to Texas, stopping in Nashville on the way. On one of those visits the seed was planted. “I had always thought Tennessee was one of the prettiest states in the union,” he recalls. “I moved down in the fall of 2003 and told myself I’d give it two years and see what happened. Now I have a kid about to enter kindergarten on the 15th anniversary of my move.”
Vance has worked hard to establish connections, stay fresh, and diversify his musical portfolio—an increasing necessity for musicians to stay relevant in the changing Nashville music scene. When he’s not on the road, he occasionally plays in tribute bands and does a bit of session work. He’s even been known to send in bass parts he’s recorded in a dressing room or hotel room while out on the road. Most recently, he has begun producing jingles and sync placements for a company called Color Wheel Music.
Vance has seen enough in his 15 years in town to know that every opportunity brings challenges, and massive changes in Nashville over the past decade have brought both opportunities and challenges. The cost of living has risen steadily and the population is exploding. “There are thousands of cats here who can really play their instruments,” he explains, “but fewer who understand the business well enough to keep their egos in check and just be a professional.”
This summer, Vance will hit the road once more with Thomas Rhett as part of Kenny Chesney’s Trip Around the Sun tour, which will put him on stage at 21 NFL stadiums through August. Multiple television appearances and arena dates on Rhett’s Life Changes tour will round out a very busy 2018. There’s no such thing as a sure thing in the music business. But Vance’s demeanor and dedication to his craft have set him up for success no matter where it takes him—as long as he remembers to pack a towel.