Life Is a Highway

by Sarah Wilfong '04

  Sarah Wilfong '04

Before I joined an all-girl country-rock band, I misguidedly believed that musicians in touring bands lead a glamorous existence eating gourmet (albeit fat free) food, sleeping in five-star hotels, zipping around the country in their private jets-or at least on ultracool tour buses with queen-sized beds on which to rest their weary bodies after performing for millions of adoring fans.

When I arrived in Nashville fresh out of Berklee, I was ready to sink my teeth into the hard work of being an artist. I expected to slave for hours over the interpretation of a phrase of music or agonize over the rhyme scheme of a lyric. But I hardly expected physical labor. The first time our drummer asked me to help her lift her trap case, I nearly dropped it on her feet. I had spent the previous three years in practice rooms, not weight rooms. I thought there would be people to take care of setting up equipment, loading and unloading the trailer, and so forth.

I was also unprepared for the randomness of tour itineraries. For us, a typical tour can last anywhere from two days to two weeks, with the band performing in a different city every night. The gigs rarely fall in a logical geographical order. We've had to drive from Tennessee to Louisiana, the next day, to Georgia, then back to Louisiana, then north to Minnesota.

Once we arrive at a venue, we have the pleasure of unloading our gear, doing a sound check, and possibly catching a quick nap before show time. After we finish the show, we break down our gear, load the trailer, and if we're lucky, head to a hotel to catch some sleep. If we're not so lucky, we drive through the night to the next show. I also help drive the tour bus, so I often walk around like a zombie.

The food situation surprised me as well. Did you know that macaroni and cheese is considered a vegetable in some states? During my first year on the road, I could have paved the highway between Nashville and Chicago if I laid end to end all the grilled cheese sandwiches I had eaten.

The shabby motels we've encountered deserve their own article. To be fair, though, we stay at a Hilton every now and then. Once, after staying in a bunch of one-star hotels, our drummer took her toothbrush out of its case to find a very large roach sitting on the bristles. She made funny squeaking noises as she threw brush, roach, and case into the trash. Luckily she always carries a spare. At the next pit stop, I bought a new toothbrush.

During my college days, I'd gotten a handle on playing through sickness and injury. The unwritten rule of the road states that the show must go on no matter the personal cost. I've seen our lead singer perform with strep throat and a broken foot, and the audience was none the wiser.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this life is miserable or that there aren't rewards. I love what I do passionately, and I couldn't imagine not performing music. (Wait, that's not exactly true. I do have this fantasy about a tropical island and a fruity drink with an umbrella.)

We've had the chance to open shows for great artists such as Big and Rich, Montgomery Gentry, and the Marshall Tucker Band, and to play for crowds of tens of thousands. We have gained many incredible fans as well as a few odd ones. Every time we play in Louisiana, we're greeted with baskets of homemade goodies and pet treats for our cats and dogs. In Georgia, there is a sweet old man who always brings us flashlights and crock pots. Not crock-pot meals, mind you, but the actual pots. Come on, who doesn't love a nice crock pot?

We've traveled around the world performing for the U.S. military and would be hard-pressed to find a more appreciative audience. One memorable crew made makeshift signs out of pizza boxes to show their love. I enjoyed the signs that read, "I love the fiddle player" and "You girls are hot!" But the sign that read "I'd blow up a third-world country for you" struck me as a wee bit overzealous.

We even have a large biker following. I've never been into the Harley scene, but despite all the stories about bikers, those I've met have been warm and enthusiastic fans. More than once, I've gotten a lift to the stage on the back of a Harley.

After traveling together some 250 days a year, our group has grown from being just a band to a family. We end up spending more time with each other than with our boyfriends or husbands. Traveling so much can be murder on relationships, and I've seen several crumble under the pressure of the road. But spending that much time with six other girls allows for lots of female bonding and some practical jokes. The lead singer and I once borrowed the key to the hotel room of the acoustic guitarist and the piano player and did a makeover. We hid their toilet paper, tissues, and underwear in the mini-fridge, coated the toilet seat with Vaseline, put a mattress in the bathtub and a potted tree from the lobby on a bed. Payback was hell!

We have the satisfaction of saying that we make our living exclusively from playing music-a rare thing. Every time I feel down because I'm about to leave my husband and cat yet again, I seem to bump into someone working as a waitress who reminds me that I'm leading a life many would like to live. Even with the downsides of this lifestyle, like missing my husband, I am grateful that I get to do what I love.

After three years, I've become a bona fide road warrior. I can drive a bus, lift a 60-pound amp by myself (a 90-pounder if I have help), and sleep soundly in a bunk no wider than a coffin.

Another rule of the road is maintaining that creative spark. We work hard for our dreams, and since we have the privilege of living them, it's our duty to create a haven for our audiences from the frustrations of daily life. I've learned to find the place inside myself where I keep my joy and tap into it every night before I step onstage.

All of you aspiring to a performing career probably understand that you need to take risks and have a passion to live your dream. If you achieve some degree of success, people will think you're living the fabulous life they dream about. But most likely you won't feel famous because you're probably tired of traveling and eating mac 'n' cheese.

There are certain signs that let musicians know that they've arrived as world-renowned artists: number-one singles, Grammy Awards, earning that first million dollars. I'm doing what I do now simply because it's rewarding just to play a song well. The road has given me a unique opportunity to test myself and gather life experience as well as a few funny stories along the way. I'll wager that if I ever do become famous (you know, with the private jet and all), the stories about zigzagging cross-country road trips and roaches on toothbrushes will be the ones I'll keep telling.

Violinist Sarah Wilfong '04 performs in the country band Mustang Sally with Rachel Solomon '04 (piano). Visit