Grace Potter: Mother Of The Road

After more than two decades of constant touring, Grace Potter claims she’s lived more of her life on the road than off.

Along the way she developed a dedicated fan base, cultivated industry acclaim, assembled a like-minded group of gifted musicians and garnered the support of icons including The Rolling Stones, Kenny Chesney, Dave Matthews Band, Jackson Brown, Robert Plant and Chris Stapleton.

“It’s so funny because I think other people know things about you better than you do,” Potter surmised. “They see you better than you see yourself. I had no idea how good I was at what I did, and how long it would last, and if it would last at all. But I did know that I loved making an impression and having it matter. Not just making an impression to get attention, or be seen, but to actually walk the walk and talk the talk. Not just wag the dog.”

For Potter the road is more than a concrete ribbon to the next show. It provides inspiration, a playground and a vehicle for self-discovery. “It’s an access point for me, a spiritual stabilization,” she explained.

Potter, 40, turned to the road – specifically Route 66 – in the summer of 2021. She crisscrossed the country from her home in Topanga Canyon, California, to her birthplace in Waitsfield, Vermont, three times. She stayed in sketchy hotels writing her thoughts on postcards and hotel notepads. The solo excursions took the multiple Grammy nominee from crisis to catharsis and generated the cinematic soundtrack for Mother Road, which was released in August via Fantasy Records.

Pelting rain didn’t slow Grace Potter down at Pier 17 in New York City on Sept. 23.
The Mother Road singer is unfazed by Mother Nature during an appearance Sept. 23 at Pier 17 in New York City. Photo by Keeyatah Lewis

At the time, Potter and her husband/producer Eric Valentine had suffered a devastating miscarriage. The couple, who married in 2017, have one son, Sagan Potter Valentine, who was born in 2018. She felt isolated from her artistic community by the pandemic. Potter was clinically depressed.

She found herself in the characters she mined on Mother Road along Route 66, which “The Grapes of Wrath” author John Steinbeck called “the mother of all roads … the road of flight.”

“This record felt like the deepest real emotion I had ever dealt with,” Potter said. “The deepest real-life experiences I had ever faced at a time when I really couldn’t laugh about it … I had to go through a big journey to get to play again.”

The road provided the emotional map.

“I had to switch off for a while and that’s what the driving was,” she explained. “Mother Road was not about, ‘I’ve got to get back on the road and play in front of people.’ I didn’t want to be seen. I wanted to hide under a rock. It took three goddamn trips across the country to get to a place where I could present myself – even to my musician friends who understood me.

“A lot of it was a journey back to the joy,” she added. “At least picking up where that joy maybe left off or got really serious – ’cause shit can get serious.”

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During her recent tour, Grace Potter leans in at Riviera Theatre in Chicago Oct. 7. A multi-instrumentalist, Grace Potter thrills whether it’s with guitar, B-3 or even tambourine. Photo by Nick Langloi

Emerging on the other side of the street, Potter said the biggest accomplishment of the record, which was recorded at RCA’s Studio A in Nashville, was “that I was finally able to laugh again. The whole record feels like a huge, hilarious juggernaut of laughter – and probably a bit of a tantrum. I just had to shake it out of my system and it came out so natural, organic, but it was a long road to get there.”

Delight and renewed vigor were obvious during Potter’s recent appearance at Highlands Food & Wine Festival on Nov. 11 in the southern Appalachians of North Carolina. In the audience, fan Erika Burns was celebrating her 40th birthday with a glass of chardonnay.
“I was an undergrad in college at George Washington University and we happened to go to a weeknight show at the 9:30 Club in D.C. and it was Grace Potter. And we loved her,” gushed Burns. “And now I’m here celebrating my 40th birthday with my college friend in Highlands, North Carolina. And Grace is still a badass.”

The 9:30 Club performance was also where New York City Bowery Ballroom talent booker Maggie Cannon first discovered Potter when she started working at the club answering phones and doing the venue’s social media after college.

“I don’t know that I had any expectations,” Cannon said. “Then Grace struts on stage and opens her mouth and your jaw is on the floor. She encapsulates every rock star you can think of. The quintessential idea of a rock star folded into this tiny woman who is just a complete force of nature the minute she steps on a stage. She’s barefoot. She’s dancing.

She’s throwing her head around. She’s not missing a note. A once in a lifetime talent.”
Cannon grew up on “heavy riffs and big attitudes” with Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Cream on her dad’s playlist. “Seeing Grace, there is this familiar quality that feels like coming home because of those influences. But then there’s this modern feminist element to her and how she performs. Her carefree attitude. Her sensuality. All of it is so in her control and so empowered and that connects with me.”

Leaning on the chain link fence in Highlands, area resident Elizabeth Swift Bennett, 42, discovered Potter via her collaboration with Chesney on “You and Tequila.” Bennett has followed Potter across multiple states including shows in Colorado, Maryland and Georgia.

“We love Grace Potter,” she said. “She has so much charisma and she is such a rocker. I consider her our generation’s Joan Jett.”

“This has been the best introduction,” said Lean Grace Craig, 23, of Atlanta, who was seeing Potter for the first time. “The energy. The way she connects with a crowd. There is no separation. She seems to want everyone to come in and experience and be a part of what’s happening on stage, and having fun, and being with her. And that’s what I love. She is feminine power incarnate.”

Cannon adds: “She creates community. I thought that was special to us but I’ve seen her in other rooms, at festivals and spoken to other people; and that’s what’s special about a Grace Potter show. She makes it feel like this is the night. You are seeing the show. It’s hard to fathom anyone having that much energy to do that night after night, but obviously that’s the case because I don’t know any other person who is a fan and has seen her live that doesn’t feel the same way.”

Grace Potter’s shows span decades and musical styles. She’s pictured performing at KEMBA Live! in Columbus, Ohio on Nov. 7. Photo by Ted Mille

Potter explained the bond: “There’s something about strangers that I find compelling and motivating; connecting with people who aren’t from the same walk of life as me.… I’m a curious person and I know I don’t know everything. And I think there is a wisdom that comes with that. Early on that wasn’t a swagger, it was a genuine curiosity. I came to understand people really do love feeling like they are being seen.”
During the set in Highlands, Potter interacted with the audience throughout the show, taking requests and making toasts to the imbibing audience, who were dressed in a mix of L.L. Bean and Anthropologie.

The set list was an impressive mix of songs from her early days with Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, which disbanded in 2015, to Mother Road including the delicate “Little Hitchhiker,” the hands-free hellraiser “Good Time” and the road warrior anthem “Lady Vagabond.”

“People have real shit that they need to get out and I think concerts are an amazing place to do that,” Potter said. “Even if they didn’t know that’s what they were coming for. You can tap into the resources better and faster when music is the template you are building it around.”

Brendan O’Connell of Ten Atoms started managing Potter in January. He and founder and president Ryan Matteson had a plan. “We knew immediately we wanted to get her in front of everyone. That connection for her has been one of the driving forces of her career,”

O’Connell said. “She is such an incredible artist because she can play every market in America. She’s a 50-state person. An artist who can play to 1,000 people in Des Moines and then sell 10,000 tickets in Vermont.”

O’Connell, who first heard Potter when he was a member of the band The Right Now, said she has such a strong touring history that she belongs in large music rooms, but has such a deep fanbase that she can play secondary and tertiary markets and do equally well.
Agent Hank Sacks of Partisan Arts has been helping Potter tap into that boundless resource for nearly two decades.

Sacks was introduced to Potter from Alex Crothers, president of Higher Ground Presents, an independent concert promoter in Burlington, Vermont, and saw Potter for the first time at an 11 a.m. showcase on the wrong end of Sixth Street during SXSW in Austin, Texas.

“There was a small crowd,” Sacks recalled. “One of the things I’ll say about Grace that is true to this day, is that if there are 20 people at SXSW at 10 a.m. or 10,000 people at a festival, she plays the show like she is playing to a sold-out arena every single time. It doesn’t matter the situation, she gives it her all.”

Sacks focused on routing Potter in the northeast and booking festivals. Her first major touring break came in 2005 when she and the Nocturnals joined the Dave Matthews Band on tour playing the walk-in stage at Live Nation amphitheaters across the country. Later, the group would open for Kenny Chesney on his NFL stadium tour in 2012.
Following the band’s breakout year and national tour, Sacks and Crothers put together the “Bring It All Back Home” tour in October 2005 with performances in seven small towns throughout the Green Mountain State.

“It was designed to take her to the people rather than having the people come to Burlington to see her,” explained Crothers, who has produced more than 100 Potter shows. “The tour was a big success and looking back, that tour really helped establish Grace Potter as a Vermont artist whose aspirations were global, but whose heart was local.”

Grace Potter embodies the blues side of rock during a performance at KEMBA Live! in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 7. Photo by Ted Miller

There was no record label. There was no publicist. It was grassroots touring and word of mouth that spread the gospel of Grace.

“It was a really awesome time in Grace’s career,” offered Sacks. “She had traveled the country. She had done all these big things and then we came back and sold-out theaters in Vermont where she had been playing coffee shops.”

Today her “Mother Road” tour is playing 62 shows this year in 2,000-5,000-capacity rooms, with Sacks estimating the number of gigs may be “close to double that number” in 2024. According to Pollstar Boxoffice reports, she has sold more than 500,000 tickets, with a total gross of more than $16 million over the course of 419 reported shows dating back to the first reported show on Dec. 31, 2004, at Higher Ground Ballroom, a 950-cap sell out at $20 a ticket, booked by Crothers.

“She’s an incredibly charismatic performer,” offered Crothers. “The live show is really strong. They don’t play the same set night after night. That’s another part of the ethos of getting people to come back. She’s not playing the same 12 songs. She’s got a deep cannon of songs so there’s a lot of material that crosses between genres. It keeps the live show interesting and dynamic.”

For each show, Potter builds a setlist called the “pilot.” And because it’s the “Mother Road” tour, she refers to any variations from the pilot as “detours.”

“Usually, I’ve got those hard opening songs and then you dive in and start to get surgical about where this crowd feels like they want to go – or maybe where they’re ready to go, but they don’t know they’re ready. So, I never play the same setlist twice and I never follow the setlist. My poor band has to be ready for anything.”

Her nimble players include Jordan West on drums, Ricky Davis Jr. on guitar, Indya Bratton on guitar and Kurtis Keber on bass. They provide a sturdy guardrail for Potter, who bounces between tambourine, a Hammond B3 with Leslie cabinet, a Wurlitzer 200, two Gibson Flying V guitars, a Gibson 12-string acoustic and two Gibson J-45s.

“Having the five-band configuration offers me the chance to be out front doing my Tina Turner, Mick Jagger thing whenever I need it,” Potter said. “I’ve always felt glued to the piano. Now I’m free to dive into the lyrics and connect with the audience on that level, which is a new experience for me in the last three years. I can do whatever serves the song as long as I have bandmates that can cover me.”

“Fundamentally Grace is a fantastic human being and she really cares about the people around her, whether it’s her band or the crew,” said Sacks, adding that Potter routinely makes meals on the bus hot plate for the band, including mac and cheese from scratch. “It always blew me away the lengths she would go to make sure that everyone was well-fed and comfortable.”

Now, Potter is the one at ease as she heads into 2024.

“This is my time,” she said. “This is the horizon line that I’ve been chasing. It’s not like the venues aren’t the size I expected or the crowds are different than they ever were before but I’m at peace with it in a different way. And it’s because of the journey that I had to take into motherhood and life and love and then getting back to this thing I do that’s my job – that is also maybe my salvation.”