Archive Story – On The Road With Zack Walther Band

Feature story I did on Zack’s band many years ago……

Being on the road with a rock and roll band has a great mystical sound to it. Willie Nelson summed it up best with his hit song, ‘On the Road Again’ with that famous line ‘Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway.’ Rolling into a new town, playing a new venue and meeting new fans, I thought it would make a good story, one that fans would enjoy reading. I wanted to see what it was really like to be on the road with a band, traveling from town to town in a van, pulling all their gear in a small trailer. What better band to profile than our own Zack Walther Band from right here in New Braunfels.

I’ve known Zack for many years and followed his career closely. Starting out in Rodger Wilco, then Zack Walther & the Cronkites and finally the Zack Walther Band, he has built a strong local fan base and I felt they would be the perfect band to profile. We planned the trip around the holidays and the band had just returned from a successful trip to the Steamboat Music Fest. Zack had performed at the Rodney Crowell tribute concert and the man himself was so impressed with his performance that he invited Zack back to Nashville to record some songs. They were recovering from a 20 hour van ride back to Texas when I joined them for a weekend run to Dallas and on to Oklahoma.

We pulled out at 10am and after a quick stop for breakfast tacos, we pick up Thumper Childers (keyboards) and Dave Pettit (bass) at a local apartment complex then head north to Austin to pick up Donnie Delaney (drums) and Robert Cherry (guitar). We make our first stop for fuel and the $3 a gallon price gets the conversation started about how costly a road trip can be. “We spent over $1000 for gas on the trip to Steamboat,” explained Zack. “That really takes a bite out of our profits.” With everyone on board I grab the passenger seat up front while the band settles into the bench seats in the back. Zack keeps the van at his house and does the bulk of the driving but the others pitch in as needed. Our first stop is at Checkstop north of Austin for kolaches. Evidently it is a popular stop for bands looking for a tasty treat at a reasonable price. I notice that each band member pays for their own food, a practice that would continue for the remainder of the trip.

Once we get back on the road, we don’t stop until we reach the Glass Cactus in Grapevine, a nice little town that got swallowed up by the rapid expansion of Dallas. The Glass Cactus is a large nightclub located next door to the massive Gaylord Hotel, patterned after the famous OpryLand Hotel in Nashville. The weather is cold, making the equipment load-in tough. Everyone pitches in to make the unpleasant task go quicker. Once inside I’m impressed to learn the venue has a professional sound and lighting crew. The band and crew work quickly and within minutes they are ready for their sound check. It’s obvious they have done this many times before.

Zack’s band is headlining the show so they get to do their sound check first. After many mic tests and snippets played on various instruments, they roar through a complete song. Zack picks a new tune, ‘Ease Your Mind,’ and they blast through it like seasoned pros. Just as they finish, members of the opening act, William Clark Green, begin to unload their gear into the venue. Once Zack’s soundcheck is complete, one of the crew asks what he needs in the dressing room. They agree on water, beer and a bottle of Tito’s vodka. We leave the van and trailer in the parking lot and take the shuttle van over to the Gaylord Hotel. With no budget for a road manager, Zack assumes the task of checking the band into the hotel and getting the room keys among numerous other duties. The Glass Cactus treats the band very well; tonight we eat free in the restaurant and get three rooms for six guys. Zack and I room together and we head upstairs to chill for a few hours before show time. It’s the down time that’s the toughest, the twenty-two hours you have to kill waiting on those two hours on-stage. Zack spends the time making some calls and working on a new song about a recent experience with a shady record label. He’s thinking of recording a version of Springsteen’s song ‘State Trooper’ so I ask him to play it for me and he does. After hearing the song, I hope he records it for the new album.

Soon it’s time to grab the shuttle and get back to the club, show time is about an hour away. We arrive just as the opening act finishes their set. The cold weather has kept many fans away but Zack and the band take the stage and play like it’s a packed house. We notice there’s no Tito’s in the dressing room, but a bottle of Jim Beam instead. The guys take it in stride. It will be about 2am before we get the trailer loaded and get back to our rooms. We are back in the van by 11am the next day and heading north toward our 5pm sound check at the Wormy Dog in Oklahoma City. Olive Garden gets the vote for lunch but Zack overrules that choice and we stop at a Crackle Barrel since it’s nearby and we have a tight schedule to keep. Another fuel stop follows lunch and Donnie takes his turn behind the wheel as we say goodbye to Dallas and cross the Red River. I’ve been documenting the trip on my video camera but miss a great shot crossing into Oklahoma because I didn’t realize where the border was. It’s my first trip across the border in this direction and Donnie and I talking about music so I make a mental note to catch the shot when we cross the border on the way home.

We make it to the Wormy Dog on time. It’s located in the Bricktown district and I notice there is a police station right across the street as we park and start unloading equipment. The venue is much smaller so the band is set up and ready in record time. The house sound guy lets them run through a song just once then turns his attention to the opening act, the Cody Riley Band. They have just arrived and watch Zack’s soundcheck intently. There’s no hotel in tonight’s budget so we head out of town to crash at the home of Matt and Melonie Hites. They met Zack a few years ago while in town visiting Melonie’s sister and invited the band to stay with them if they ever played in Oklahoma City so tonight we take them up on their offer. Cold beer and hot tortilla soup is waiting for us when we arrive. After a hearty meal and lots of fun conversation, we relax in the den to watch the Chevy Chase movie ‘Fletch’ on the big screen TV. Soon it’s time to head back to the Wormy Dog and do another show. Once we arrive, Robert Cherry realizes he’s left his guitar back at the house and there’s no time to retrieve it. Luckily, the guitarist for Cody Riley also plays a Fender Telecaster and offers to loan his axe to Robert. I mention this incident to show that even though there’s competition between bands, they all still pitch in if another band needs anything. They are all brothers of the road.

With guitar problem solved, the show goes off without a hitch. The crowd is small but enthusiastic and seems to be having a great time. I volunteer to sell merchandise and several CD’s and t-shirts are sold to new fans. We hang around after the show while the guys mingle with fans and have a few beers. It’s after midnight before we start loading gear and its way below freezing outside. The ice on the backstage ramp makes this a tricky task, especially with a few beers under our belt. It’s an art to load everything in the trailer so it fits perfectly and only Zack and Dave seem to have this task mastered. Each case must go in a certain order or it simply won’t fit. Zack announces it may be best if someone else drives and Robert Cherry volunteers. We’ve only traveled two blocks when Robert calmly announces we are being pulled over by two police cars. It seems we failed to yield right of way to an oncoming fire truck and this makes both officers very unhappy. One stays near the back of the van while the other comes to the driver side window. The typical questions arise, ‘Have you guys been drinking? Do you play in a band? Where are you heading? Is there anything in the van I need to know about?’ Robert stays calm and answers each question honestly and the officer goes back to his car to run his license. He returns with good news, no outstanding warrants and he believes Robert’s story that he’s OK to drive. We explain that we are slightly lost and need to find a southbound freeway. To our surprise he offers to give us a police escort out of town and get us headed in the right direction. We follow him through the downtown maze of roads and are soon heading south. He stays ahead of us until he feels sure we are OK and no longer lost, and then flashes his lights, bidding us a goodbye and takes the next exit. We are all ecstatic at our good fortune. The situation could have easily had a very different outcome.

We awake the next morning to the smell of breakfast cooking and I realize how lucky this band is to have such great friends that welcome them into their home and treat them like members of the family. By mid-morning we are packed up and heading south again. The show tonight is at Fat Daddy’s in Waxahachie and they are opening for No Justice, a popular band from Stillwater. I’m ready with the trusty video camera this time and capture the re-entry into Texas on film. We make another fuel stop and as usual, everyone heads to the restroom. You learn to take a bathroom break at every opportunity, not knowing when the next chance will come. The sunny weather in Oklahoma soon turns grey and rainy once we get to Dallas. Zack is driving and suddenly a SUV pulling a trailer begins to weave in front of us. Zack quickly changes lanes just as a wheel on the trailer falls off and barely misses the front of our van. This near miss gets everyone awake and talking about other near misses they have endured. “It only takes a split second,” says Zack, “and your entire trip can turn ugly.”

It’s cold and nasty by the time we pull behind Fat Daddy’s Club in Waxahachie. No Justice are already here and starting their soundcheck. When they finish, the sound guy and both bands meet to discuss the stage setup. It’s decided that to save time and work, Donnie will use their drum kit. This makes our load-in go much quicker which is a good thing. The back door is by the club kitchen so we must pack all the gear right by the cooks and wait staff. Zack’s soundcheck goes on without a hitch and since he’s opening the show, there’s no time to explore the area. Food coupons are handed out for $15 so we find a table and order our food, careful to check the price as opposed to what we might really want. Most of us settle on burgers and beer except Zack. He sticks with ice tea since he’s decided he will drive back home tonight rather than splurge for a hotel.

He shortens the set list since he will only be onstage for one hour and the show has a high energy ‘greatest hits’ feel. Once the show is done, the guys immediately start packing up the trailer and Zack joins me at the merchandise table to sign CD’s and t-shirts. Around midnight he decides it’s time to hit the road and we all pile in the van for the final leg of the trip. About an hour out of town the weather turns nasty, with rain and traffic making driving a stressful task. Zack is still behind the wheel and I’m amazed at his stamina. He’s driven all the way from Oklahoma City, played a one hour show, signed CD’s for another few hours and now he’s driving another three hours in adverse conditions. Donnie finds the movie ‘Tropic Thunder’ and we watch it in the portable DVD player. It’s a band favorite and though Zack can’t see the screen, he has it committed to memory. The humor of the movie adds a positive spin to the end of a tiring three day journey. About an hour north of Austin, I write these thoughts in my notebook.

First, this is a tough way to make a living and certainly few fans realize just how hard bands work to bring live music to their town. It’s certainly not a glamorous life, though it can be if you are lucky enough to make it to the top, yet you realize that only one in a million will. You definitely don’t do it for the money, after expenses, there’s little cash left to spread around. There is a lot of humor on the road; laughter and pranks help pass the down time while you wait for your time onstage. I learned that if someone yells out the word ‘window’ that it is in your best interest to quickly roll down the closest window to let in some fresh air. Each band member is very unique and brings their own gift to the band and they all agree that Zack has what it takes to make it in this business. All it takes is that one big break. Until that break comes, they intend to keep slugging it out in the trenches, playing every gig possible and making new fans one at a time. Keep an eye on Zack’s website, zackwaltherband.com. Soon he will be posting more info on this road trip plus lots of video footage I shot during the trip. It definitely gives you a behind the scenes look at life on the road with a working Texas band.

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