Nashville

The Hardway

by J Raleigh Jones

Wally Parks, Billy Alcorn and Phil Vasser

ONE THING LEADS TO ANOTHER

Wally  Parks, one of our new Nashville Country Television Network producers said to me "Hey J.R. I would like to make a TV show on how road cases are  made". He continued,  "A friend of mine has a manufacturing facility making touring road cases for the stars."  That is the conversation that started a real adventure. Initially, Wally took me to Alcorn Manufacturing and introduced me to Billy Alcorn. I toured his production area and found out that Billy had been a bus driver and entertainer. I asked him "Billy, do you have any road stories"? "Oh yes" he said, "20 years of them". Well, I ended up asking Billy to consider hosting a show for Wally and our network.

Stan, my partner and brother in NCTVN, Wally, Billy, and I met to begin planning this adventure. This is Billy's story. 

  

Sometime in the blur of the 80’s I secured a publishing deal in Nashville. My future was set…. or so I thought.

In 1996, my wife Tara, 5 months pregnant with Nash, our 5 year old son Cody and I loaded up a U-Haul and moved to Music City USA.   Money was immediately tight and like many aspiring transplants I was forced to take a job on the road. First I was a road manager and later an entertainer coach driver. Over the next 18 years I drove for Hemphill Coach Company. I was touring with a wide array of artists including Lorrie Morgan, Jackyl, Damon Wayans, Brian Wilson, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, George Benson, Lenny Kravitz, Korn, Mute Math, Keli Pickler and many, many, more.

 

In 2002 I was fortunate to secure a driving position with singer songwriter extraordinaire Phil Vassar. The first week I worked on the road with Vassar he owned the #1 & #2 spots on the charts...not exactly an empty shirt!

This blossomed into a multifaceted relationship that spanned 10 years on the road together and a friendship that has lasted to this day. Life on the road with Phil and his band became truly a family-like experience. His career was banging! We started collaborating on songs for his up and coming Arista record “Shaken Not Stirred” which coincidentally was a line out of one of the songs on the record that Phil, Jeff, and I had written. These were exciting times!

 

I remember one night driving the bus across Nebraska and hearing our song “Here To Forget” on a scratchy local radio station. Everyone was asleep in their bunks so I just turned it up and sang along all by myself. The “wheelhouse” is what we dubbed the drivers area of the bus. Per Phil and my design it consisted of a jump seat, a sliding door to isolate the front lounge, and an absolutely kicking sound system. Many demos, rough, and final mixes were listened to and critiqued in the wheelhouse while rolling down the road headed for the next show. It  was also the perfect iso chamber for me to formulate  song ideas while driving silently into the night while the rest of the passengers slept.

 

A typical morning on the road began with Jeff Smith (guitar player, band leader and Phil's childhood friend)  generally getting up first, usually followed by Phil. I would often be dog dead tired from the nights drive but became quite demonstrative once they gave me a second wind via jibs, insults, and good natured disrespect.

 

One particular morning after ruminating all night over a song idea, Jeff pokes his bald head into the wheelhouse... I said “go get your guitar.” I started to explain a chord and rhythm pattern but he was just waking up and not quite ready to deal with my exuberance. I stood up while driving, holding the wheel and had him slide into the drivers seat while I grabbed the guitar and started playing the song progression at 70 mph and never missing  a beat. Later on Phil stuck his head in to find his guitar player driving the bus and his bus driver playing guitar in the jump seat.... he says “what the hells going on?”….we played him the idea and he quickly replied “I'm in!”

Although that song (Baby Rocks) was never a single, it made it's way on Phil s fourth LP “Prayer Of A Common Man” and became the opening number for the live show from that point forward.  Switching gears and hats, which was the norm rather than the exception back then, Phil asked me if I could build a road case for his recently purchased Hammond B3 organ.

Following in the footstep on my father, I was always a builder and woodworker. I told him I'd give it a shot. My sons David and Cody and I rolled up our sleves and proceeded to build it in my backyard shop. My neighbor, who played for a famous Country singer at the time spied us at work and asked if we would build him one as well. The phone started to ring, and soon I was saddled with a business that I never even intended to start. Alcorn Custom Case was born.

 

Phil was known for his grand piano, which was actually a “shell” with a digital keyboard insert. This eliminated a lot of weight and the need for daly tuning, symptoms of touring with an actual grand piano. He asked sheepishly if I could build him a 7' diamond plate piano shell for the up coming tour. I immediately say yes with absolutely no idea of where to even begin. During that time (2006) we were in the process of getting a new bus built so I enlisted the craftsmanship of the lead bus builder Jerry White and with some old school ideas from Jerry we were able to execute the bends and classic curves of a grand piano. Jerry sadly passed away but his original designs are still alive and reflected in piano shells we have since built for many clients including Michael McDonald, Peter Frampton, Panic At The Disco, SIR, GoLive Productions, and Clair Backline just to name a few.

 

ACC road cases have come a long way since the backyard shade tree days. The alcorncustomcase.com client list reads like a veritable who's who in the Pop, Rock, and Country world of touring acts. They include the likes of  Eric Church, Metallica, Alison Krauss, Dierks Bentley, Justin Timberlake, Maren Morris, Lauren Dagel, Alan Jackson, Slipknot, The Dobbie Brothers, Blackberry Smoke, Brothers Osborne and of course Brother Phil Vassar.

 

Our company took seed in 2008 amidst one of the worst recessions our country had ever seen. The phrase “too big to fail” was a controversial national concern back then....”too small to fail” became the mantra for Alcorn Custom Case from that day forward. We have comfortably morphed into a small but nimble, employee owned outfit with no delusions of grandeur. Simply an attitude predicated on quality, service, and creativity.

 

At the time of writing this piece, I would be remiss not to mention the devastation the pandemic has wrought upon the entire live entertainment industry in 2020. Overall business is down over 90% at our little shop alone but we're hanging on! Hopefully we truly are “too small to fail”.....

 

Nashville is a destination for creativity. The best and brightest from all over the world move here to express their unique creative abilities. My advise to anyone trying to gain a foothold in this town is simple, write a few songs, go on the road, and build a few road cases. It has worked for me...so far.

 

Billy Alcorn

alcorncustomcase.com

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