When Randy Steele first saw the email inviting his bluegrass band, Slim Pickins, to Belgium for a concert tour, he dismissed it as a scam. To him, it was pretty much the same thing as getting an email from a Nigerian prince who is ready to put millions of dollars into your bank account.
“I didn’t believe it,” Steele says, “but Brad [Clark] and his wife were pretty insistent that we should look into it.”
The offer turned out to be legit, and the band recently returned from a tour of Belgium and the Netherlands where it played 27 shows in 25 days, performing at street fairs, festivals and in cafes all over the countries. They even played in a prison, which was notable on its own but made more so because one of the inmates drew up a poster advertising the event.
“We thought, ‘Oh, that’s kind of cool,’ but found out he had these tattoos and was missing an arm and part of one leg below the thigh and below the knee on the other, and he was missing some fingers. He was into amputee porn. I didn’t even know there was such a thing,” says Steele, who plays banjo.
With that unusual exception, however, the tour was a positive one filled with fans eager to hear good bluegrass music, good food, good beer and good experiences.
“Oh yeah, the beer was good,” says Clark, the group’s guitar player. “Everywhere we went we had food and every bar was excited for us to try their beer. They have their own chalice, and they were proud to show off their beer.”
“There were some tough mornings,” Steele adds.
The cafe staffs also were proud to tell the guys that they knew all about a particular Tennessee product, according to Clark.
“Once they found out we were from Tennessee, the only thing they knew was Jack Daniel’s, so we’d get a little taste of home and then a little taste of Belgium,” he says.
“We didn’t fight it off too much,” says Justin Hupp, the group’s bass player
The tour was organized and managed by a Belgian company called Surfing Airlines, a booking agency that schedules bands and events throughout Europe. It had primarily booked West Coast acts before booking Slim Pickins, which it found because of the band’s ReverbNation and Soundcloud activity.
Steele says that he has learned that because their tour was so well received, Surfing Airlines has since booked two other roots-music bands from Kentucky and Georgia.
For Slim Pickins, the agency handled travel, food, lodging and scheduling, although the guys paid for their flight over and back. Revenues earned were split 75-25, with the band getting the smaller cut.
Steele figures they broke even on the whole adventure, in part because regular mandolin player Deron Stevens chose to stay stateside after the bombing in Brussels in March. The decision, which the band supported, forced them to reach out to Tyler Martelli as a temporary replacement and his plane ticket was an unexpected cost.
The band had considered going to Belgium last November but couldn’t make that happen because of work schedules. Clark is an athletic trainer at Covenant College, for example, so getting away for a month during the school year is tough. Steele is a fireman, Hupp works at Tremont Tavern and fiddle player John Boulware is a full-time musician.
They rescheduled and made the trip from May 11 to June 7; Clark actually went over a week later than the other four.
They were put up in a house in Brussels and driven to the various gigs each day by a man who also set up the sound equipment and booked the shows. Surfing Airlines normally books bands from America who play rockabilly music, and Hupp says most of the people they met in Belgium said they liked bluegrass but only knew of it from The Avett Brothers or “Dueling Banjos” from the movie “Deliverance.”
“They knew ‘Dueling Banjos’ or ‘Man of Constant Sorrow,’ ” he says. “They knew nothing about traditional bluegrass, and most had never seen a banjo. They kept asking where the drums were and the amps.”
Steele says no one they talked to had heard of Lester Flatt or Earl Scruggs.
“Bluegrass is such an unknown form, it doesn’t matter if they hire Slim Pickins or Del McCoury because no one there knows the difference,” he says. “They don’t understand the art form.”
For a couple of days, the band members managed to convince a couple of fans that Steele was in fact the “Dueling Banjos”-playing kid in the movie. When it was pointed out that the kid in the film had some pretty intense inbred facial features, Hupp said, “Have you looked at Randy?”
Spending 25 days in a van or a house with four other guys leads to that kind of needling, which either makes you closer or mortal enemies. The guys in Slim Pickins all say there were moments when nerves were raw, but overall the trip was a lot of fun and made them tighter as a band. Because they were playing the same songs over and over, they started experimenting, adding free-form or jam-like aspect to the sets.
“Here in the States,” Boulware says, “we get together when we can and we try to balance practice and adding new songs for fans, so there isn’t a lot of time for experimenting, but over there we were playing the same songs every day and you do get really tight. It forced us to take risks out of boredom, really. Like, let’s try this song.”
“It was cool to do some onstage experimenting,” Clark says.
The audience, of course, had no idea if the guys were altering a song or playing it straight, but they were knowledgeable enough to appreciate talented musicians.
“At first, we were a novelty for them, like ‘What are these Americans doing here?” Steele says. “Then it would be like, ‘Oh my God, that guy can play that fiddle.’ Then they’d listen to the song and get into the lyrics or the story.”
Steele says they entered Belgium as complete unknowns but, after playing a festival at Cafe Merlo in Brussels almost two weeks into the visit, they got a story written about them in the local paper and a blogger started following and writing about them. After that, the crowds were bigger at subsequent shows.
The band hopes to go back to Belgium next year, “but not for that many days,” Steele says. “It’s hard to leave your family and work for that long. I think 18 days would be about right.