Bobby Edwards - Tour Bus DriverBobby Edwards - Tour Bus Driver
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.”
On this long road, Edwards has shuttled a “Who’s Who” of rock royalty, country superstars, at least one jazz legend and more bands than he can remember. At his home on the outskirts of Nashville, the walls of his office are filled with gold and platinum albums from the stars he has served. In the bus on this day are a few he has borrowed from his parents’ home—Alan Jackson’s smash 1991 album “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” among them—but his clients go well beyond the country genre and include Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Ray Vaughn and revered jazz icon Miles Davis. There have also been touring Broadway shows, as well as gigs with NASCAR teams and the occasional run shuttling soldiers from base to base.
And of course there are stories. Many, many stories. In the intimate confines of a bus, Edwards is privy to the most intimate moments of the stars he transports. His observations and encounters are sometimes amusing, sometimes hilarious, often mundane, but a few remain standout favorites.
“I was awestruck in the beginning, but as you get used to being around these people, you begin to recognize they are human,” Edwards says.
Driving skills, endurance and longevity are valued in Edwards’ profession, but perhaps just as valued is the ability to not speak out of school. Edwards does not, but he has plenty of tales he’s ready and willing to share.
One favorite involves notoriously gruff bandleader and jazz legend Miles Davis, who Edwards drove on tour just before his death in 1991. Davis, quite explicitly and not without reason, had a low opinion of white people. He had been subject to such brutal racism for so long, Edwards says, that he quite frankly despised 99.5 percent of the white population. “There were times when he would blow his nose on the first row,” Edwards recalls.
Ever the Southern gentleman—and knowing his place—Edwards completed his assigned role as Davis’ driver with the utmost respect. Davis rarely spoke to the hired help, but apparently took a liking to his young, competent driver.
“We had arrived at our hotel and his tour manager showed me the manifest,” Edwards explains. “Below Miles’ name was mine. After my name, it read: Bus Driver Deluxe. Everyone else, including the musicians, was below me. ‘That means he likes you,’ the manager said.”
Another poignant tale centers around the late Texas blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn, who Edwards knew at the peak of his fame and new sobriety.
“He put his arm around me once when we were walking back from an AA meeting,” Edwards recalls. “And he said, ‘I’m glad you know me now.’ I said, ‘Why?” He said, ‘You wouldn’t have liked me very much when I had an 8-ball in my pocket. I wasn’t a very nice person.’”
Edwards is fond of his moments with these greats and treasures the experiences, but he recognizes that like the careers of the classic rock stars he often drives, it’s a road that will eventually end. But he doesn’t see the horizon any time soon. “As long as it stays fun, I’ll keep driving,” Edwards says.
And with that—the bus never stops running; it’s cheaper that way—he climbs into his “executive office” and prepares for the long road ahead.