13 Years a Spectator, One Year a Player

The Road to Roo:  How an Unsigned, Unmanaged and Representative-Free Band Got to Bonnaroo

by Christina Horn of Hudson K

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Nate Barrett (Back) and Christina Horn • photo by Bill Foster

Back in 2002, when massive-scale music festivals were relatively unbeknownst to Tennesseans, I made a series of non-traditional decisions that led me on a journey that landed me in the best possible place 14 years later.

Today.

Today is the most awesome day of my life.

Some of those decisions included driving a 1980’s-something Chevy Tahoe full of underage girls into a field in the middle of June with no protection from the sun, no food beyond the chocolate chip cookies my then co-workers donated, and a single gallon of water. We were so excited to crest what appeared to be the end of the 16-hour standstill traffic that we ate all the cookies before arriving at the festival. Parents of teenage and college-age children settle yourselves: the moral of this story is I turned out okay. In fact, I turned out better than okay.

The other decision I made was that I would then meet someone I had MET ONLINE at the festival. I would then pack all my worldly belongings into his truck, leaving the Tahoe behind, and we would travel the country attending other concerts and selling t-shirts and grill cheese sandwiches to survive.

Back in real life, I was a college music student trying to figure out what to do with a “Pedagogy” and “Literature” degree. I had just finished college a few years earlier and had been offered a scholarship to earn a master’s degree in music. I went along with it because I had no idea what else to do. It never occurred to me that maybe I should follow my instincts and start a band. In retrospect, I’m glad that fear was there. I was afraid of waiting on tables the rest of my life or worse: being exposed as a fraud as a musician.

In 2002 the Bonnaroo lineup was mostly jam bands. Back then, I just didn’t know anything about music outside of academia. I was still trading tapes in the mail and practicing Beethoven Sonatas. What I witnessed instead was a ton of highly skilled musicians tearing it up on stage. It was at that first Bonnaroo that I decided what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

So I set about doing it.

Fast forward 14 years and I’m standing on a stage looking out into a crowd.

I’ve never felt comfortable in crowds. The flip side of that is stick me on a stage in front of a thousand people and I’m fine. Put me on a grand piano and make me play solo in front of 10 people and I will wet my pants.

There is no manual on how to succeed as a musician. Nobody told me how hard it was going to be. From the very first bar I walked into with a CD in hand all the way down the line to Bonnaroo I’ve been walking without a map. I had no idea I would have to fight for every scrap.

It’s a friggin’ fight.

When we announced we were playing Bonnaroo the texts, emails and facebook messages came flooding in.
“Hey congrats on Bonnaroo! That’s awesome.”
“Hey…just curious…how’d you get the Bonnaroo gig?”
“Wow! Saw your name on the Roo lineup. How’d you swing that?”

Again the fear came rushing in. Thoughts swirl.
(Are we good enough?)
(Do we deserve this?)
(Does it even matter?)

I did not answer any of these questions directly .
I simply stated that we have played close to 500 shows as a band, made 3 records, have toured the eastern United State extensively, have received substantial radio play, and collectively busted our asses 7 days a week for 7 years as Hudson K. We still have not taken on a manager, a booking agent or any kind of help other than from friends. I still book and manage every tour while continuing to write and produce our material. I still drive the van and I still sleep on floors. The dream itself took 14 years to manifest.

I never mentioned we were on a small stage. My mom thinks we played the What stage. We actually played the Who stage. But What does That matter?  Which is more important?

The only thing that truly matters is the work we put in.
We haven’t stopped.
I don’t know what “taking a day off” means.

In some regards, I could retire today and feel satisfied. Not because we played Bonnaroo but because I know I have given it my ever-loving all for a long time.  No worries, this is not a retirement essay. There is actually no chance of quitting anytime soon. When that day comes it will be because my desire to compose symphonies outweighs my desire to rock.

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photo by Bill Foster

Here are some entries from my daily Roo blog:

Thursday.
Dang why did we have to pack so much? As long as we get the gear we need to play the set onto the farm we can manage the rest. Why did I make buckets of  kale salad with cabbage in it?  This is going to smell as bad as my feet by Monday morning. Organizing 8 people and all their crap is like herding cats. Thankfully, my friends are experienced. I think they expected me to be the problem. They were right. I am a mess.

It’s only 2pm in the afternoon and artist camping is full. I don’t know what we would have done if Tony and Carissa had not saved us this spot. I just realized I forgot the part of the stove that connects the propane to the actual stove. Dang again. How am I going to make coffee for all these people in the morning?

I’m glad we saw Rubblebucket. I was interested in scoping out our stage and the music drew me in. I’m a total fan. Sometimes the best shows at Bonnaroo are on the smaller stages. Heart swoon.

Friday morning.
oh crap im waking up in a tent and i have to pee but i don’t know where the port-a-potty is and where are my shoes and omg the poison ivy and omg today is show day and omg i hope my gear is still in the van and omg where are we going to find coffee and omg why is it so hot and how am i going to get my glitter suit and makeup on in this humidity and shit our meal tickets are for today and i can’t eat before i play but i’m so hungry but omg rumble rumble why do i do this to myself and maybe jeff will get us some coffee but he’s still passed out and how do i get my gear from camp to the stage across centeroo again and would it be acceptable if i just went ahead and had a drink at 7 am because how many hours until show time and i forgot to drop the merch off at artist check in but it probably doesn’t matter because nobody will buy anything at 2 am because the store will be closed so maybe i shouldn’t worry but worry is all i know how to do and maybe i should make sure my laptop isn’t overheating.

COFFEE. ahhh……everything. is. stable.

There is not enough time to see any shows. I insist we hear at least one song by Tears for Fears even if it’s “Everybody wants to Rule the World.”

insert interview, interview, interview, danny clinch photo shoot (“This is my favorite shoot so far”) he said. When we walked into the press area we were swarmed by cameras. I credit Claire for being gorgeous and her 12 foot wing span. This is probably what it feels like to be famous, except they all have to ask who we were;) A friend let us borrow her hotel room for 2 hours to shower and squish into our suits.

16 hours later….SHOWTIME.

I’m totally fine once I’m on stage. All the waiting drives me mad. I won’t lie-my self-awareness is at an all time high and all I could think about was ‘what the heck am i doing with my feet? that’s so LAME.” Then that thing took over and all was fine.

Sometimes its hard to remind yourself to enjoy every moment of the thing you’ve waited for years to experience. Sometimes you realize it’s not that big a deal. Sometimes you know it’s a personal glitch that makes you obsess over something until you suck all the fun out of it. Sometimes you just want it to be over so you can get on with your life. Sometimes you lie when people ask you how it was because you want them to experience joy vicariously through you. Sometimes you grow up and see what’s really important is camping right next to you.

Saturday morning around 7 am I learned that a friend and fellow musician had passed. Michael Capps played guitar for the Surrogates, a band which we have shared the stage and our homes with in Knoxville and Atlanta many times. Hudson K played his last birthday party. Mike was also a lawyer and a fierce fighter for for social justice. At just 27, it was impossible for me to wrap my head around him not being with us anymore. Sometimes that’s all it takes—the most poignant loss at the most poignant moment—to rearrange your thought patterns and put everything into perspective.

You are never as fully alive as when the most joyous occasion is juxtaposed with difficult loss.

In the immortal words of Prince: “ I would die for you.”

I spent the rest of my weekend focused on my friends. I went where they went. I ate what they ate. I peed when they peed. I’m terribly impatient. I waited. Ultimately none of any of anything matters without them. Not a single moment or thing or sound. Why does it take so much punch to knock me into my senses? That I will never know.

Today, I’m the happiest person in the world. I’ve learned that success is an illusion and sometimes the happiest-looking people are really, really sad on the inside. I’m learning to take nothing for granted and to kick that little shit-head who spouts doubt into my soul right in the face.

Today is the best day of my life.

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