I was in Montreal for my annual get-together trip with my son Robb. We were in a quiet gallery at the Marc Chagall exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts when the loud call of a hunting horn emanated from my shirt pocket and shattered the silence. I had just received a message on my cell phone from Chad Staehly, keyboard player for the rock band Hard Working Americans. Hard Working Americans is a collaborative side project between singer/songwriter Todd Snider, and Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools and Duane Trucks.
“Doc, hope all is well. I have an idea you might be interested in. HWA is going to start recording a new album. The gang is thinking that we’d like to have a chef prepare lunch and dinner. We’re recording out at Johnny Cash’s cabin outside of Nashville. Let me know if you are free and interested.”
Johnny Cash’s Cabin Studio? Cooking for a well-known rock band! Interested? Hell yes! What an opportunity! Though I am a dentist and not technically a chef, my school bus has a full kitchen and I’ve cooked for musicians before at festivals, but never professionally. Unfortunately, because I am a dentist with a full schedule of patients, I had to regretfully decline cooking during the 10 day recording session. I did tell Chad that I could drive down and cook for the weekend.
I flew back from Montreal on Sunday and the following Tuesday I heard from Chad again. “Hey Doc… it seems it could make sense to have you come for the days you could possibly make it. Let us know if that’s still doable on your end.” YES!!! I could have the experience without missing work. However this only gave me minimal lead time to get together supplies, cooking equipment, round up a crew and load the bus.
Johnny Cash built his cabin in 1978 as a place to find solace and make music. It was patterned after the cabin that his wife, June Carter Cash, grew up in. He converted it into a state of the art recording studio in 1993. The cabin’s secluded setting on a 40 acre wooded estate outside of Nashville and the natural reverb made the cabin an ideal place to record. The list of artists who have recorded over the years reads like a compendium of country music.
I always like to travel with one or 2 “sherpas” to share the driving and chores. Sherpa Chuck drove down from the Wisconsin border to join up with me and my longtime friend and office manager Sherpa Ann. We reached Hendersonville early on Friday afternoon.
The GPS turned us into a very exclusive subdivision. “Are you sure you have the correct address?” Chuck asked. “This doesn’t look like the road to a cabin in the woods. This looks more like a country club!” “Look for a place to turn around and I’ll try to get a hold of Chad and figure out where we should be” I responded. We slowly drove down the street of the subdivision, carefully avoiding the BMWs and Porsches, looking for a wide open driveway to turn around a 35 foot hippie bus. At the end of the street was an unmarked wide metal gate with an intercom. “OMG! We have arrived!” I spoke into the little box. “Bertha Bus is here for the Hard Working Americans.” The gate opened to the 40 acre Cash estate. The road to our right led to a majestic mansion and the road to the left, tucked into the woods, led to the legendary Cash Cabin.
We parked Bertha Bus and approached the Cabin. Dave School’s bass could be heard pulsating from within. We waited until the music stopped and waved through the window. We were invited inside. The drums were set up in the kitchen. The guitars were in the living room. The keyboards and vocal mikes were in yet another room. The recording booth had a large window facing the vocal mics. The fireplace mantle was covered with autographs of all the people who have recorded there. I spotted Allison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Roy Orbison, John Prine and Elvis Costello. I asked if I could take pictures and was granted permission. Ann started videorecording with my GoPro and was met with a frown and was told to turn it off. We quickly realized that we were here to work and not fool around.
The band wanted lunch at 4 and dinner at 9 so we headed to the bus and got to work. We were informed that one musician didn’t eat eggs, dairy, or gluten and one was a lacto vegetarian and that everyone wanted “lots of protein and nutrient dense stuff.” Each meal had to have options that covered all bases. The diet of touring musicians tends to be heavily dependent on calorie-laden, sugary fast food, so I accepted it as my moral imperative to serve only “wellness-promoting” food.
For the restricted diets we prepared all-vegetable ratatouille, gluten-free sesame peanut noodles (my wife’s recipe at this link: illinoistimes.com/article-5174-oodles-of-chinese-noodles.html), vegetable paella, Asian slaw, sushi rice salad, and chana masala (Indian chickpea stew). For the omnivores we supplemented with smoked deviled eggs, grilled Italian sausages with peppers, marinated chicken thighs, and grilled flank steak.
We were not allowed to camp at the Cash estate overnight so we camped in the driveway of Todd Snider’s beautiful lakefront home. Despite my friendship with Chad, we were there not as guests but as hired help, and were expected to quietly serve the meals maintain minimal contact with the musicians.
Between lunch and dinner on the second day, we were graced by an extended visit to Bertha Bus by drummer Duane Trucks. Duane is the nephew of the recently deceased Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks and younger brother of slide guitar master Derek Trucks. He talked about growing up in the Allman Brothers family and described how his brother Derek and sister-in-law Susan Tedeschi try to achieve balance between parenting and touring. Todd Snider stuck his head in the bus and said “You don’t know it yet, but you’re going on tour with us.” I thought “Nice offer, but it will never happen.” Duane laughed and said “Todd once told me that he was going to book a gig at a hockey rink in Vegas, perform without a bass player, and wing it without a set list. And a few months later, it happened. So be careful what you wish for!”
After we got home, we received this review from Todd Snider: “Doc’s Bertha Bus catering is more than delicious, it’s home cooking anywhere you want. Our band, Hard Working Americans, consider Doc and his crew/family as part of ours.”