April 19, 2012

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More than 30 years ago, Bobby Edwards was working at Memorial Auditorium in Chattanooga unloading gear for touring bands visiting town. One of those bands, Southern rock titans 38 Special—a particular favorite of Edwards’, who is also a musician—came to perform at the peak of their fame. He was a big fan of the band and remembers his first encounter with lead singer Donnie Van Zant.

“Like any teenager, I was in awe of rock stars,” Edwards says, “so I was very excited about seeing 38 Special and getting the chance to meet them.”

It would not be his last encounter with the “Wild-Eyed Southern Boys.” For almost a decade now, Edwards, a 1981 graduate of Hixson High School, has been the group’s tour bus driver, delivering the band—still “Rocking into the Night” after almost 40 years together—to clubs, fairgrounds and arenas across North America.

“I’ve told that story to Donnie. Of course, he doesn’t remember me from then, but he still gets a laugh out of it,” Edwards says during a brief break during a Chattanooga stop-over from the band’s current tour. “Who would have thought a 17-year-old kid who first met a band in his hometown would be driving their tour bus 30 years later.”

Edwards has been  38 Special’s tour bus driver for eight years, but he’s also driven buses for almost every chart-topping music act in a driving career that spans 26 years and almost 4 million miles. Indeed, Edwards’ driving career-span rivals—sometimes exceeds—the longevity of the bands he has driven.

For Edwards, it’s more lifestyle than business. He is on the road most of the year, crisscrossing the country in one of several custom tour buses, an exhausting but satisfying job he says, that has given him front-row access to some of music biggest stars. With a sterling reputation (not one accident), a massive mile count and an easy-going personality, it’s no wonder the soft-spoken Edwards is an in-demand—and perhaps the most trusted—tour bus driver in the country.

And while he’s one of the many unsung heroes behind the scenes of the music-touring industry, Edwards is also an invaluable asset and even “family” to such bands as 38 Special, who count on his endurance and skills to deliver them safely—and on time—to venues all over the country.

Edwards’ journey behind the wheel of touring music caravans began in the mid 1980s. The son of a musical family, he moved to Nashville after graduating from UTC in 1986 to chase his own dream of a music career. Solid and talented as a bass player, Edwards’ professionalism and reliability (a factor not unnoticed in a world of egos and debauchery) set him apart. Because of his background as a stage hand, he also had enormous respect for the crews who did the heavy lifting. So when the gigs dried up, Edwards was immediately drawn to the less glamorous but better-paying world of tour-bus-driving.

“When I started, there were only half a dozen or so companies with these kind of custom tour buses,” Edwards recalls. “It was a very small pool and you earned a reputation quickly.”

Edwards, a gearhead and custom car fan, took the road and driving like a fish to water and hasn’t turned back. While he doesn’t regret giving up his own music dreams, he still plays and will occasionally sit-in with the bands he drives. “They know I’m a musician, and that makes our relationship much more personal,” he says.

“I love the travel and the people I get to meet,” Edwards says during a brief stop to visit his parents in Red Bank, where I speak to him aboard the 38 Special tour bus parked in the lot of small church whose empty lot easily accommodates the massive bus and trailer he drives. “There’s a freedom to it that’s unrivaled.”


April 19, 2012

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