Emerson Drive

As some big-name country artists search for new record labels, and as country music sees another “readjustment” of its stock, there is proof that Emerson Drive is going to be around for a long time: They have permanent transportation.

“It’s funny,” singer Brad Mates told POLLSTAR. “Out of anything that’s really happened in the last couple years, with the songs, the videos, the one thing that’s going to stay dear to our hearts is that we were able, with this job, to buy a bus. That’s a very, very cool thing for us. It probably doesn’t make much sense to many people, but it does to a band.”

By the way, Emerson Drive is the American Country Music award winner for new vocal duo or group. The band already had a festival tour booked when their name was called at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay three months ago; since then, the dates in between seemed to get booked pretty quickly. The band was in the midst of a 30-hour drive at the time of the interview, motoring from Rapid City, S.D., to Pennsylvania, stopping for their usual lunch at Subway along the way.

“More and more, people are looking at us now as the next group to do big things,” Mates said. “It’s a good thing, and it’s also a demanding thing because whatever we do now, people are expecting the best. I think we’re doing 25 shows in August. It’s kind of a grueling schedule but at each show we do what we need to, making sure we give it 100 percent because that’s what people are expecting of us now.”

Emerson Drive grew out of a high school talent contest in Grand Prairie, Alberta, where Mates played onstage with ED keyboardist Chris Hartman and fiddler Pat Allingham. (Allingham left the group about a month after the ACM award and was replaced by David Pichette.)

A band called 12-Gauge was formed and managed by Allingham’s father. Then a guitar player from the band Farmer’s Daughter joined in. Soon, that band’s manager, Gerry Leiske, jumped on board and the renamed Emerson Drive got to use Farmer’s Daughter’s bus

a funky 1976 beast painted like a black and white zebra.

The band, named after western Alberta’s Emerson Trail, began playing 300 nights a year throughout Canada (with drummer Mike Melancon, a French-Canadian who didn’t know a word of English). The members made it a priority to take the drive down to Nashville every year to showcase.

“Two-and-a-half years ago, we had the right people come out,” Mates said. “Creative Artists (Agency) was actually the first one to see our showcase. We had no bites from labels or anything, but there were a couple people from CAA that had come down. After the showcase, they were interested in doing a signing with us.”

It’s not unusual in Nashville for an artist to sign with an agent before a record company, and it was CAA that got the labels out to future showcases, with DreamWorks eventually signing ED to its roster.

Emerson Drive

“[CAA] still booked us in the bars four or five nights a week because, sure, we had a record deal, but nobody had heard of us before. Coming from Canada down to the States, we basically had to start all over again in the club scene, get paid low dollar and make a name for ourselves. It was kind of interesting for a little while, but they were very helpful, making sure we had enough gigs week-to-week to survive and getting us to this point right now.”

But buying a bus? Leasing is a luxury for bands that do 10 shows a month; Emerson Drive averages double that number and has dates through December. The zebra had to go.

“We went up to Calgary with Emerson Drive one time,” Leiske told POLLSTAR. “I noticed that the steering was a little bit haywire so we took it into Greyhound and found out there was practically no front end left, and it was condemned. It’s still sitting there, actually.”

So Leiske and the young men went to a Nashville bank, and the manager signed for the loan.

“We decided bus companies must be making some money leasing out,” he said. “We bought a good one and, if we take real good care of it, we might as well put that money in our own pocket.”

The band is also investing in its own sound equipment, gear and its own trailer, along with landing endorsements from Fender, Gibson and Sabian. A 401(k) package might be in the works next year.

“Careers can be lost, careers can change instantly, but we believe we have something here that’s going to last,” Leiske said. “We believe the dollars we have are going back into the investment of Emerson Drive. These boys here are taking very little for themselves and putting everything they’re doing into the business.

“You lease a bus, you’re working for the moment, you’re working for this time, for this day,” he said. “You hope you’re going to make a real successful career out of yourself, but you’re guarding your backside. With Emerson Drive, I suppose we play it a little more risky.”

Leiske said he understands that although DreamWorks supports the band incredibly, the end-all, be-all is writing good songs and the band needs to keep its focus on the show while Leiske and his Surrey, B.C., office focuses on the business.

“If it doesn’t work, we’ve given it our best shot,” he said. “But we’ve operated knowing and believing that we’re going to be here down the road, so we want our investments and organization to be strong and secure.”