TRI-LAKES AREA — Jerry Fitzpatrick of Benton freely admits he made some mistakes as a youth. “When I was young, it was not a happy home, and I got into trouble,” he said. “I went to jail, then was in youth homes, and finally, I went to prison.”
Looking for a new direction, Fitzpatrick said he took a different and surprising road to straighten out his life. He joined a rock ‘n’ roll band and took to the road.
“Musicians aren’t stealing and are not fighting. When they are together, they are making music,” he said. “Being a member of a band is being on a team, and you are working together to make it.”
The band didn’t work out, but the life on the road did for the native of Little Rock. After starting off driving truckloads of band equipment from performance to performance, Fitzpatrick became a bus driver, carrying band members.
“You start off driving as a member of the crew, but over time, an entertainer becomes interested in you, and you work directly for them,” he said.
Fitzpatrick has now written a book about his adventures on the road, driving the bus for some of the biggest names in rock, such as Sting, Aerosmith, Pearl Jam and many more. His book, Tales From the Trails of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Bus Driver, is not, he says, a tell-all book, but is an insider’s look at the rock tours of the past 25 years, their ups and downs and the fun he has had.
The musician, driver, roadie, parent and self-proclaimed “fun guy” also talks about how he straightened out his life, from his troublesome youth through the days of drugs, sex and rock, through a “journey of redemption and forgiveness.”
Fitzpatrick will be signing his book in Benton twice this week. On Thursday, he will be at Denton’s Trotline and Back Porch beginning at 6 p.m. He will also hold an autograph session at Hasting’s in Benton on Saturday from 4 p.m. until closing.
For some years, Fitzpatrick has been the personal driver for Dave Matthews of the Dave Matthews Band, a Grammy Award-winning band that is known for their annual summer-long tours across the country.
That’s why Fitzpatrick’s Saline County home needs a big driveway, because while the special customized tour coach belongs to the popular singing star, it stays with its driver.
“Dave takes a jet, and he meets me in some city. We’re taking a break now from the tour, and I left him in Florida,” Fitzpatrick said. “In a couple of weeks, I’ll pick him up in Seattle, and we will have a few more dates until the tour ends on Sept. 10.”
He drives the coach that carries just Matthews and his family - his wife, two daughters and a young son. Fitzpatrick said he also acts as an assistant for the band leader when they are on the road together.
Fitzpatrick said the routine of life on the road often has him driving through the night.
“After a concert, we leave and head for the next town, and after a while, everyone may be sleeping,” he said. “We get to the next town and check into a hotel.”
After some sleep, he and members of the band and crew might spend some time in the new city (he has probably been there many times). As time for the concert approaches, he will load up the family and go to the venue, then help get ready for the performance. When it is over, they load up, and it’s off to the next city.
In a short tour of the custom motor coach, which was built in Canada, Fitzpatrick said Matthews considers the bus his family’s home on the road, so it is not the glitzy transportation usually attributed to rock stars. The bus is constructed of warm woods with dark countertops and earth-tone colors.
The black bus is unmarked as a band bus, but it has the storage for equipment and even its own generator. It has the look and feel of a simple and comfortable home for Matthews and his family. Simple and convenient, the bus is also environmentally friendly with recycling bins in the cabin, and the vehicle runs on biofuels.
“At the end of the tour, we figure out what our carbon footprint was for the trip and then have enough trees planted to offset the emissions,” Fitzpatrick said.
Every big-name entertainer has fans always wanting attention, and Fitzpatrick said it sometimes happens when the coach is moving.
“We were going down the road one day at the start of the tour, and Dave was in the jump seat beside me at the front of the bus,” he said. “A car with three girls inside came up beside us and recognized Dave and started yelling and trying to get our attention.
“Soon they wrote a phone number on a piece of paper and held it up. I could read it, and I dialed it. They answered, and I just handed my phone to Dave, and he talked with them for a while.
“During Labor Day when I was home, the phone rang, and when I answered, a young woman said, ‘Hey Dave,’ and I said it was not Dave, but she insisted I was Dave Matthews. I told her Dave was in Washington, and this was an Arkansas number.
“She said, ‘You’re Dave. I saw you dial my number. Then I remembered the three girls in the car.
“I told her, ‘I dialed your number. I’m the bus driver, and this is my number.’ She yelled and began to cry. ‘But I tattooed the number on my arm. We all did,’ she said.”
Fitzpatrick said he enjoys working with Matthews, who has a “nice established routine” that better matches Fitzpatrick’s more settled life of “good hotels and hot breakfasts” than in his days of driving for hard-rock, partying music groups.
“As an older person, I could see into the false life of drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll and see that it didn’t help you much,” he said. “It is not bad touring with a band like this. It’s a big family, and while you are not a member of the band, you’re part of the team, working on the same goals.”
Fitzpatrick’s first full-time job for an entertainer was driving an equipment truck for country star Barbara Mandrell in the 1980s.
“I learned so much about the business from the Mandrell organization,” Fitzpatrick said. “During the days, especially on off days, we could go to city parks and relax or play ball. Barbara would cook us hamburgers, and it felt good, like family.”
However, tragedy struck both Mandrell and Fitzpatrick in 1984 when she was seriously injured in a traffic accident. The country star, at the peak of her career, did not perform for almost two years.During that time, Fitzpatrick could not make payments on his truck and equipment and, under the stress, turned to drugs, he said.
He lost the truck but may have regained his life by battling back with the help of family and others, according to his book.
As a truck driver, he had sneered at driving a bus, but when he received an offer to return to the road in 1986, he took it and was soon traveling with Eddie Murphy during his “Raw” comedy tour that played all over the country with the excitement of a rock show.
The life of a bus driver - long hours in the driver’s seat, unable to move much, road food and odd hours, mixed with the atmosphere of a traveling rock tour - can be damaging to his health. However, Fitzpatrick has stayed in shape and healthy because of his family, and even with the help of the Dave Matthews Band.
“My ex-wife was a wrestler and health conscious,” he said. “One of our daughters is also a picky healthy eater, so there was usually nothing but healthy food around.”
Dave Matthews and his family are also healthy eaters.
“The group has a caterer, and they bring in food every day that’s fresh and healthy,” Fitzpatrick said. “There is a gym in one of the 14 or 15 semi-trucks that accompany the band during the tour.”
Fitzpatrick is also a runner and cyclist.
“About 40 members of the band and crew ride around when we are on the road,” he said. “When I drive to Seattle next month, I’ll stop for a while and try some of the trails in Montana. There is also beauty in some urban areas. Pittsburgh is a great town to ride a bike. They have all these great bridges over the rivers.”
The band’s schedule allows Fitzpatrick to spend more time at home in Benton now.
“When I’m on the road, I give 100 percent to the tour, and when I was home, I tried to give my kids 100 percent to them,” he said.
His daughters are now out of college, but his son attends Bryant High School.
“Last year during a break, we went on tour ourselves, my son and I, studying Civil War history and going to the battle sites. We had a great time.”
Fitzpatrick said he always liked to travel, and he is proud that his children are well traveled.
“There was a lot of time when they were growing up, I would be gone 300 days of the year,” he said.
Now they can read his book and find out what Dad was doing.
Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or firstname.lastname@example.org.