I've met a few famous people over the years. Met President Bill Clinton in 1996 when I was a plebe at West Point's graduation ceremony. Met the Chief of Staff of the Army the next year, while he visited the cadets and participated in a 20 kilometer ruck march, motivating us all the way. I then met the Sergeant Major of the Army a few years later, when I was enlisted in the Regular Army. Met quite a few celebrities and touring musicians when I lived in Nashville and fortunate to share a stage with some of them. I've even met three of the four members of the country band, Alabama, all on separate occasions! Luckily, I also got to play in a band and travel on the road with Mark Herndon, Alabama's drummer, for a few years.
When I met Mark, it was at my first rehearsal for country singer Leah Seawright, who was trying to get her music career to that next level. I'd met with the guitar player and bass player of the band the week prior, who I vaguely knew through other bands, in an interview to be the new keyboard player. At this point in my life, I'd played in a lot of different bands performing many different genres, so I wasn't too worried about playing with a new band. However, Leah was pushing hard to play bigger stages than I was accustomed and she had quite a few originals, which was outside the norm for me, as well. Between those things and being in a band with the drummer from the biggest country band ever, that won nearly 70 music awards and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, well, I was a bit intimidated.
Myself and the guitar player car pooled from Huntsville to Fort Payne the next week for the meet and greet and a jam session. I was still a little nervous, but mostly excited to meet both Mark and Leah. Leah's original songs were catchy and pretty damn good, in my opinion, so I was eager to see what I could add to the mix. We arrived at Leah's farm a little after lunch, drove past her house, and parked near a large metal building--pretty much a barn--that she used for rehearsal. Leah is every bit the country gal, born and raised in Fort Payne, so I knew we'd get along easily, having grown up on a cattle farm myself. We got out of the car and stretched our legs after the long ride as a small pickup truck drove toward us from the house. A skinny, wiry man in his mid-50s, wearing a camo bandana as a do-rag and a sleeveless t-shirt, jumped out of the driver's seat and shook hands with the guitar player, then turned to me with his hand out and eyes locked on mine. "You must be SteveO, the keyboard player."
In that moment, I knew Mark and I were going to get along just fine. My father was a combat veteran in the Marine Corps, awarded a Purple Heart from an injury in Vietnam. He taught me that when you meet someone, look them in the eye and give a firm handshake. I found out later that Mark's father was also a combat veteran in the Marines, in multiple wars. His father and my father were no doubt cast from the same mold and they raised us in similar ways. I extended my hand and tightened my grip, which was met with a firm shake. "Nice to meet you, Mark! Big fan and my mom's always been a huge Alabama fan!"
"Well that's great, remind me later and I can autograph something for her, if you think she'd like that." And then conversation turned to small talk, until the bass player drove up a few minutes later. In front of me stood a man who'd played in front of hundreds of thousands of people and lived a "rock star" life for nearly three decades. And he was as down to earth as anyone I've ever met.
I ended up playing for Leah off and on the next three years, when I wasn't playing my solo gigs. I did about forty shows with them, one where we opened for the Charlie Daniels Band, which was pretty awesome! We did a few runs on Leah's tour bus to Florida and the Gulf, playing during bike week and at big events. I'd been on buses before with bands, but it was always to go play a single venue and come straight home. I actually got to experience "the road" like bigger touring acts, as we stayed away for several days at a time. It's not as glamorous as you might think, but it was an amazing way for a band to bond. Mark always drove the bus, which I thought was a testament to how tough the guy was, even though he was a bit older than the rest of us. We'd finish a show, tear down and load the bus, and then he'd drive all night to get us to the next gig. He'd catch a couple hours of sleep when we got there and somehow be fired up to get on stage, beat the hell out of his drums, and rock the crowd like we did in the last town. I'm over 20 years younger than Mark and I didn't see how he did it. I asked him one day and he replied he loved being on the road and it was the only life he'd known for a long time. How very rock star...
Some of you may be wondering; why is someone who played with one of the biggest country bands playing smaller venues now?! Unfortunately, as in some bands, there was bad blood and Mark was treated like a hired hand from the start. The other three members were cousins who grew up together; so he was the outsider. He's admitted he was young and shouldn't have signed the deal they gave him, but it's still sad he received such treatment through their career. As all the guys have gotten older, they've mellowed and those old tensions have abated, but it doesn't change the fact Mark made significantly less money over the years than the cousins. And what amazes me is that he never seemed jaded or expressed hatred toward the rest of the band. I honestly don't know that I'd be that big of a person if I was in his shoes.
I'm fortunate to call Mark a friend now. We had long chats on some of those jaunts between cities, as he piloted the bus like he used to co-pilot the planes when Alabama flew, touring the country. I goaded Mark into telling me some of those rock star stories and, man, did he have some! I wish I could share, but out of respect for him, I'll simply point you toward the ones he told the world in his book. He starts off with a harrowing tale of Alabama's tour plane nearly exploding in mid-air, with Mark helping to make an emergency landing to save everyone. Hell, he should've gotten a raise for that alone! Do yourself a favor and grab his book here. And if you like country music, check out Leah's music and videos, she's amazing! Of course, you'll see Mark in the background on most of those vids, doing what he does, bringing that rock drum sound to country that helped put Alabama on the map. I hope for great success for my friends Leah and Mark and I hope we get to jam again soon. Mark said in the acceptance video for Artist of the Decade below, that he only wanted to make a name in this business. Mark, you made a name not only in country music, but with the people who've met and known you after the fame. Proud to know you.
(The drummer from the biggest country band ever signed his book for me and said I rock. Whoa, dude...)