Drivers Back Behind The Wheels After COVID Shutdown

Learn To Ride
Mick Hutson / Redferns
– Learn To Ride
Foo Fighters – Chris Shiflett, Taylor Hawkins, Nate Mendel, Dave Grohl (from left) – pose on their tour bus in 2002. Coach drivers provide a critical role in getting buses from show to show.

For four decades, Ron “Bear” Jones drove entertainer coaches for Nashville-based company Hemphill Brothers, transporting scores of revered musicians from stop to stop on tour.

“He was our No. 1 driver,” recalls Joel “Joey” Hemphill, who runs the company with his brother, Trent. “Bear was one of those guys that could show up at a venue and everybody would just come around, because he was the star. Everybody loved Bear.”

In early December, Jones died of COVID, and his death reverberated through the industry, inspiring some of his prominent passengers to publicly honor their fallen friend.

“Ron Jones was one of the sweetest, most loving humans that I’ve had the privilege to know,” Gloria Estefan wrote on Instagram, explaining that Jones rode with her in an ambulance following a 1990 accident “even though he was severely injured himself.”

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“He was our favorite driver, too,” wrote Peter Frampton when sharing Estefan’s tribute. “A very special, warm & caring person. He will be missed by so many.”

As the touring industry comes back online, coach companies have been working tirelessly to bring experienced drivers like Jones back into the fold. Like much else with the live industry’s return, the process has been challenging. With concerts offline, drivers were forced to find work where they could, and some have been reticent to return to entertainer driving.

“We have several drivers that, when they parked their bus, they went over to trucking – and trucking’s been slammed,” Trent says. “We’re having a real hard time getting them back to entertaining. These are great entertainer drivers.”

“Trent and I have been calling drivers personally, saying, ‘We need you back,’” says Joey, recalling a conversation he had with a former employee who took a job as a wrecker driver during the pandemic. “I called a guy the other day. He said, ‘I’m a Hemphill driver. I will always be a Hemphill driver.’ But he told me how much money he lost in 2020 and the first half of ‘21, and he said, ‘I am going to come back to Hemphill Brothers. But I’m watching to make sure that it doesn’t shut down again.’”

With the concert industry’s speedy resumption, coach companies have had to scramble to lure back drivers who went elsewhere for more reliable paychecks, and in some instances, decided they didn’t miss the unique demands of entertainer driving, which include long spells away from home, night shifts, regulatory hurdles, vehicle maintenance and the interpersonal complexities of transporting major stars and their entourages.

Vaccinations have also factored in, albeit to a small extent. Trent estimates Hemphill’s driver vaccination rate currently sits around 90% – they aspire to 100%, he adds – and the company has prioritized vaccinated drivers when hiring, because most tours are requesting fully vaccinated crews.

“I can think of maybe one driver, maybe two, that said, ‘You know, I don’t want to get vaccinated, I’ll just go drive a truck because there’s less stress,’” says Doug Oliver, general manager of another Nashville-based company, Pioneer Coach, which is currently servicing tours including Dave Matthews Band and James Taylor. “Far and away, the drivers have come back.”

The situation might ultimately come down to pay. Coach driving was becoming more complicated even before the pandemic, and the Hemphills say they’ve boosted compensation to remain competitive with freight and trucking companies.

“You can’t just pick up a driver from UPS or FedEx,” says Marty Hom, who has managed tours for artists from Beyoncé to Fleetwood Mac. “The musicians and crew and whoever else rides on these buses, you’re entrusting these drivers with their lives. I’m all for trying to get the very best drivers back to work. If that means that you have to pay them more money than what they were making before? Absolutely.”

Coach companies have also had to contend with the complications COVID can present even for fully vaccinated touring parties. Take Invasion Group’s Steve Dalmer, who manages artists including Ani DiFranco. Earlier this summer, DiFranco embarked on a tour – and when her vaccinated driver showed up, he tested positive. DiFranco’s coach company was able to provide a replacement driver on short notice, allowing the tour to proceed.

“As of yet, we have not had to say we can’t cover a run because we don’t have a driver to cover,” Joey says. “Now, it’s been tight … but as of yet, we have not had to turn anything down because we weren’t able to cover it.”

Hemphill Brothers and Pioneer both continue to hire aggressively to meet strong consumer demand, while maintaining the high standard of expertise their clients expect. And, in a sense, 2021 is just the calm before the storm.

“Everything’s booked out now, and next year is booking up quickly,” says Oliver, noting that Pioneer has actually expanded its number of drivers in recent months. “We’re still hiring, because we’re adding to our fleet.”

Hemphill’s entire 110-bus fleet is currently on the road supporting a bevy of artists from Doobie Brothers to Blake Shelton and, like Pioneer, its 2022 calendar is already filling up. After a year and half off the road, managers like Hom are excited to see drivers back on the job.

“A bus driver is just as integral and instrumental a part of your tour as anybody else is,” he says.

Click here for Pollstar 2021 Transportation Special Index