Tour Bus Confidential: Behind Music's Bumpy Road Show

Members of OK Go head back to their tour bus / Photo by Nathaniel Wood
Members of OK Go head back to their tour bus / Photo by Nathaniel Wood

Once invited to party with their employers, today's long-haul bus drivers are taken for granted and under threat of extinction as the the music industry continues to slash costs. DAVID PEISNER meets the veteran wheel-men who drove Mariah, Creed, Wu-Tang Clan, Poison, 'N Sync, and everyone else to your town.

Dan Gillis has worked many jobs in his life. He's fronted cover bands, he taught at a high school in Maine, and he's driven a truck for a company run by an ex-con who later died, surrounded by hookers and cocaine, in a Nashville hotel room. Between 1995 and 2006, Gillis was Steve Earle's manager. These days, he drives tour buses.

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"When I was in college, my mother always told me, 'Dan, get your education to fall back on,'" he says. "Well, I always fall back on driving a bus because it's the thing I love to do more than anything."

Gillis, 55, is tall and friendly. When I meet him on a warm day in early May, he's on his bus, a gorgeous, fully-loaded, silver 2012 Prevost XLII that retails for about $1 million. It's parked in a spacious lot in the upscale Atlanta neighborhood of Buckhead. In a few hours, he'll ferry Counting Crows from the nearby Ritz-Carlton to their gig tonight at a downtown club. After most shows, Gillis drives a band to the next stop on the tour while the bandmembers sleep, but the Crows next show is in Nashville, just a four-hour jaunt from here that they won't undertake until tomorrow morning. That means today is almost like a day off for Gillis, a rare occasion for a guy who worked 330 days last year.

Gillis first began driving tour buses in the mid-1980s. He'd gotten restless working as a schoolteacher, so he quit, moved to Tennessee, and started driving trucks. Then his wife saw a coach for sale at an auction. Gillis put in what he calls a "ridiculously low bid," and just like that, he owned a green 1963 Golden Eagle tour bus. He printed up flyers and mailed them around to managers, which quickly led to jobs driving for the '80s country duo Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Steve Earle, and John Hiatt, who dubbed Gillis' bus, "The Green Monster."

"It was a horrible bus," he says. "No air conditioning, no power steering, and it was a four-speed, so you had to stand up, rock the clutch and pull the steering wheel to get turned. The first tour I did with Earle, two weeks out of that month, I didn't even have 'Reverse.' It was broken. They didn't notice."

I came across a big-ass machine gun. And this was a nice rapper, nobody who had to worry about all this. —Ron Ward

Gillis built up his business, eventually buying two more buses, but in 1991, he sold all three and took a job as a tour manager for the powerful Q Prime management company. He went on the road with Tesla ("The Five Man Acoustical Jam record? I recorded that with them in Philly"), Poison ("Remember the ill-fated Richie Kotzen tour, when they fired C.C. Deville? Well, I fired Richie."), Don Dokken ("very Spinal Tap-ish"), and Slayer ("I never actually saw a Slayer show"), among others. Eventually, he reconnected with Earle, became his tour manager and then his manager. But in 2006, Gillis shuttered his management company and got a job driving for Senators, one of the leading entertainer coach companies.

"I always kept my license up and kept my fingers in the driving thing," he says. "I always knew I could come back."

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